December 25th, 2009


From the most-consumerist will come the post-consumerist!

Japan is a great place for a tourist to indulge in visions of alternative societies. Not only is Japan actually different in many ways from the society the tourist was brought up in, but his simple incompetence, incomprehension and sheer delirium, as he walks around Japan, will create all sorts of fertile semantic gaps which -- if no-one is on hand to explain them -- he'll fill using his imagination. His expectation of difference will make him create it.

Yesterday I was queuing for bread at a bakery on the busy plaza that leads up to Ebisu station. Perhaps the fact that it felt more like an airport than a bakery led to the vision that followed. Gazing at a sign showing the prices of different types of bread, I saw two prices. It was probably just two sizes of bread, but for a second I thought it said "WE SELL" for one price and "WE BUY" for another. I imagined, in other words, that this was a bread exchange.

From that simple "mistake" I suddenly extrapolated an alternative society, one which I find rather intriguing: a WE BUY / WE SELL, convenience/exchange, most-consumerist/post-consumerist society in which the ratio between those two prices approaches 1:1.

Clearly, elements of this society are already falling into place, and not just in Japan. Money exchanges at airports buy and sell currency. More and more cash machines will allow you to deposit as well as withdraw cash. People with solar panels on their roofs can increasingly feed excess power they generate back into the grid, and get paid for it by power companies. The technology will soon be cheap enough to make this "total power" profitable to generate at home. Who knows, people's roofs could one day displace power stations the way distributed computing and the web have displaced mainframes.

There are other examples of this eco-efficient "exchange society" taking shape. There are many secondhand clothes shops now (I think of Beacon's Closet in Brooklyn, for instance) where you have a check in counter that receives, appraises and buys clothes customers bring in, and a check out counter where customers buy clothes they didn't bring. And there's the revolution wrought by eBay, of course, and other online buying and selling mechanisms.

It gets particularly interesting when this exchange culture is blended with convenience culture, and we get a 24/7 exchange-convenience culture. For instance, say I wake up in the middle of the night thirsty. I have no cash, but I have some aluminium drinks cans I've been collecting in a bag. I take them to the can recycling machine, which gives me enough cash to buy a new drink from the drinks machine nearby. Obviously it's going to take ten or more empty cans to get the price of one full one, but it's nice to imagine ways to get that ratio lower (government subsidy to encourage the IN/OUT society, perhaps?). Achieving 1:1 would be a utopian goal, the eco-economic equivalent of building a perpetual motion machine.

Japan's convenience culture does make it a good place to entertain such visions; one of the premises of the Aftergold show I'm putting together is that the most advanced consumer society is where we're likely to see "the thing after consumerism" taking shape. The combini below my apartment here is open 24/7, 365 days a year. Most shops in Japan seem to be open at incredible times; as a European I don't at all take it for granted that I can get parts for a broken bike late on a Sunday evening, but that's exactly what we did last Sunday at about 8pm, heading to a blazing, crowded bike shop in Nishi-Shinjuku.

Japan is a country with limited natural resources, so it uses materials carefully and recycles conscientiously. Trash is graded and separated very strictly in the home. There's also a flourishing secondhand market. Shimokita has a strong Dorama-based secondhand culture, and the whole of Koenji seems to be selling used goods (including, of course, our good friends the Shiroto No Ran or "amateur revolution" crew). Bigger concerns like Book Off sell secondhand goods too. Even out in the slick Italianate shopping mall Venus Fort in Odaiba, Hisae and I found a huge and excellent secondhand clothes store (Furugi Hypermarket) selling immaculately clean clothes; the Japanese obsession with cleanliness makes secondhand here a much more pleasant -- and much less smelly -- experience than it can be in the West. And something of the same spirit infuses a place like Utrecht, which sells handmade books brought in by the artists themselves.

The unique structure of Japanese business also encourages this "amateur revolution" angle (and the exchange society I'm outlining is clearly one in which the distinction between amateur and professional gets dissolved). Even big companies like Toyota tend to employ hundreds of small household suppliers, who produce components to very high standards in little workshops on the ground floor, often, of family houses. So even companies that look vast and monolithic tend to be comprised, on closer inspection -- like a gigantic halftoned photograph -- of big numbers of small, almost amateur, suppliers.

Obviously, quality control would be a big issue in this convenience/exchange culture, especially when it comes to food (or, you know, piloting jet planes; could you get a cheaper ticket if you flew the plane for a while?). There are overlaps with my idea (most recently referenced in decade's-end music retrospectives in The Guardian by Simon Reynolds and Alexis Petridis) about everyone being famous, in the future, for fifteen people; this is very much a long-tail system of production, one which breaks down not just the distinction between amateur and professional, but also the distinctions between producer and consumer, between new and secondhand, between consuming and recycling, and between big and small-scale production.

Are any economists heralding this sort of production system at the moment? Are any political parties taking steps towards it, or putting it into their manifestos? They should be.