Friday, May 27, 2005

The ethic of aesthetics

It's Got a Hold on You by Douglas Rushkoff

"We form emotional, almost spiritual attachments to the objects in our lives... Does the same thing happen between people and their cell phones? And if it does, is this level of object infatuation a good thing for the industry, or an obstacle to selling more phones? ...

On an anthropological level, we humans can't help but relate to the immense power [of cell phones] with a bit of fear, reverence and mystery... My guess is that users' desire to relate to their handheld wireless technology in spiritual and magical ways will only increase. But this may happen in different ways in different places. Cultures where this technology is new, such as those visited by Bell, relate to the phone object in a magical way, but are just beginning to develop a spiritual sensibility about the software and applications they use. Cultures where phones are already integrated into the fabric of life, however, already use a wide array of spiritual applications, but are just beginning to develop a sense of totemic connection to the cell phones, themselves. Of course, the more valuable people perceive their individual cell phones to be, the less likely they may be to trade up for new ones. Still, for savvy manufacturers and operators, there's still plenty of room to build on these growing trends...

Although I usually come down hard against such tactics as exploitative or degrading of people's beliefs, I'm finding it hard to feel too terrible about gods, goddesses and other mystical traditions being incorporated into phones as a form of brand differentiation. In a sense, integrating them all with each other only underscores what a central role traditions, technologies and target marketing now play in our lives, and forces us to make a more conscious choice about what we believe in, and why."

I read Rushkoff's articles because he's a tech commodity fetishist - in this case, somewhere between "Yay capitalism!" and "Yay occultism!" - and I don't think that way. But I keep returning to the last thing he says (above) about imbroglios of tradition, technology and target marketing. In The Time of the Tribes, Maffesoli argues that mass culture has broken into tribes, that groups form along shared aesthetics - consumer lifestyles & tastes - which generate their own situated ethics to challenge traditional universal morals. These forms of ethical aesthetics have weak powers of discipline (the ability to exclude) but strong powers of solidarity (the ability to include). Now before the hippies get excited about all this empowerment and coming together, let's not forget that, say, neo-nazis and anti-abortionists form tribes too.

If we go back to Rushkoff's article we can see descriptions of mobile phone tribes that rather obviously combine aesthetics and ethics. However, unlike the (rather archaic evolutionary) anthropological sense of tribes that come out in Rushkoff's accounts, Maffesoli's tribes can be distinguished in terms of multiplicity. In other words, people actually belong to many overlapping and even contradictory tribes. And because our social identities and ethics change across these contexts, social status becomes more ambiguous. Bringing it back to mobile phones, Maffesoli's work challenges us to re-evaluate the role of the object in these collective relations. What's the difference between a phone's brand identity and its use value? Would a discretely-branded phone somehow fix identity? Rushkoff seems to suggest that we can choose the phone that best matches our ethics, but if we follow Maffesoli we can ask what ethics will emerge from these collective aesthethic encounters?

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