The spirit of capitalism is not in good shape, if this advertisement for the iPad is anything to go by. Could our contemporary era be about to suffer a crisis of banality?
The reason for my alarm lies in the messages that are contained in these various tweets. These read:
The sun's out but it's raining! How is that even possible?
Just ate the best sandwich. Ever.
Can't wait to see my sister tomorrow!
Ran 10km this morning
I've long found the marketing strategies of telecom companies fascinating, though also deeply irritating, as these posts explore. What intrigues is that telecom networks are a product without any cultural quality or definition of their own, and must be sold purely as the possibility of social interaction. The product is other people. Hardt and Negri suggest that sheer sociability (speech, sympathy, affect etc) is now the source of value within post-industrial capitalism, and what must be inculcated in workplaces and beyond, to be drawn on by capital. What they do not add is the extent to which sheer sociability is also sold as a product, particularly by telecom and IT companies.
It follows from Hardt and Negri's analysis that individuals must be kept in a state of adequate sociability if immaterial labour (on which capitalism now depends) is to produce effectively. But it may also follow that individuals must be kept in a state of some loneliness if immaterial products (the promise of togetherness, love, sexual satisfaction) are to carry on being purchased. Hence, how telecom companies set about dangling that promise in front of people is actually quite significant.
There is a dilemma attached to this. The sociability in question has to be available to everyone, and yet has also to be special. It cannot be 'weird' or 'abnormal', but nor can it be dull. T-Mobile briefly experimented with some grizzly attempts to use amateur singers to represent what was special-yet-universal about their network, but these have thankfully disappeared of late. Family has long served to solve the problem, right back to those BT adverts depicting people ringing their parents and grandparents (including this monstrous attack on the queen of sciences). The fact that everyone has a family does not by any means detract from what makes it unique and special. But one problem that the telecom industry has, which other industries do not, is that it is hard pressed to employ the advertising industry's most reliable source of desire, namely sex. Where phoning one's mum is a nice marketing proxi for everything that is warm and special about family, phone sex or pornography are not (yet) acceptable means of channelling libido into retail. In a sense, the Orange 'don't let a mobile phone ruin your movie' ads are an honest appraisal of this dilemma.
Which brings us to twitter. What is a normal, yet special, thing to be communicated via twitter? What is twitter for? It is in many ways a credit to the power of twitter that it isn't for anything. No doubt it very occasionally offers a medium for essential information to be transmitted, maybe even averting emergencies, or catalysing them with political uprisings. But to say that twitter isn't for anything is also to say that it offers us far more technical communicative capacity than we could possibly need. We are only able to say that water 'isn't for anything', because we have more than we need; if we didn't, it would be for drinking, cleaning and farming.
Capitalism depends on frustrated yearning to persist, as both Marx and Keynes recognised. Its gravest danger is that people get enough of something, or even too much. Enough leads to a demand short-fall; too much, and you have a crisis of over-production. Many people pine for more intimacy with their loved ones; many people pine for greater sexual gratification. Harnessing these sources of dissatisfaction provides capitalism with a route to its own survival, as Boltanski and Chiapello put it. But digital communication now suffers a problem of over-abundance, leaving capital with no means of explaining what, specifically, it is for, or why, specifically, it is desirable.
Look again at those messages. "The sun's out but it's raining! How is that even possible?"; "Just ate the best sandwich. Ever."; "Can't wait to see my sister tomorrow!"; "Ran 10km this morning". To recognise quite how strange these are (in an advert), try to imagine an ISP using such tedious content to sell the internet just ten years ago. But someone has thought long and hard about these; this is what twitter and the iPad are deemed for. These were not thrown together, but probably analysed at some length. If anything they betray remarkable honesty regarding the networked age, that it has turned us into a society of communicative itch-scratchers. Yet if the desirability of an iPad lies in access to this carnival of banality, then Apple could have itself a serious problem in the long-run.
Then again, what else could this advertisement offer, when we quite manifestly have more than enough ways of communicating? Splitting the difference between Orwell and Huxley, maybe it is all ending with one long yawn.