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From the most-consumerist will come the post-consumerist! - click opera
February 2010
 
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Fri, Dec. 25th, 2009 11:17 am
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.

50CommentReply

microworlds
microworlds
Sparkachu Maelworth
Fri, Dec. 25th, 2009 03:14 am (UTC)

NICK JOHN PLEASE GO BACK TO THAT STORE AND BUY THAT CLOWN SWEATER FOR ME I WILL PAY YOU BACK I SWEAR


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Dec. 25th, 2009 03:35 am (UTC)

I was quite tempted myself, what with my recent clown chic and all.


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olamina
olamina
blackgirlgenius
Fri, Dec. 25th, 2009 03:36 am (UTC)

congratulations. i think you just described the traditional economy.
i think it goes something like that.
buy, sell, buy, sell.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Dec. 25th, 2009 03:52 am (UTC)

You mean traditional as in pre-industrial? Yes, there are parallels; cottage production, barter, amateurism. But I'm visualising a high-tech version of that; machines that give you free drinks if you feed in enough aluminum, a power grid composed of small consumer-producers linking their solar tiles. What's in decline is the modern-industrial model of huge, centralised, specialised production units around which zombie consumers mill. I want every shop to have input as well as output facilities, and the price ratio between them to approach 1:1. In other words, I could be heading to the bakery to spend two dollars on a loaf of bread, or to earn two dollars with a loaf of bread. Bread: we buy, we sell.

Edited at 2009-12-25 03:57 am (UTC)


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Fri, Dec. 25th, 2009 03:57 am (UTC)

surely a nice picture emerges when the top layer of the movement of things in japan gets displaced onto a base of european idealism and ethic-ism. The degree to which the whole thing is driven by gross (in both senses of the word) profit is ridiculous. (try selling your books at book off to start with) . The apparent value of the 'used' thing is rather some empty gesture trying to symbolically offset, the momumantality of the act of consumption itself -- which is so total that you're basically expected to pay for it twice: when you purchase and when you want the removed. don't think i phrased this very well, anyway point is it's really about as far from a true sharing , or p2p society as one can conceive. (unless you can somehow really convince that the big capital machine that alienates the 'worker' from herself and fellows and the all mercifull mother/matrix amaterasu/quan-yin are actually one and the same)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Dec. 25th, 2009 04:37 am (UTC)

I do think there's been a conscious and legislative effort in Japan to encourage and protect micro-scaled businesses. The Shiroto No Ran people campaigned against one piece of legislation pointing in the opposite direction -- the tighter certification around the selling of secondhand electronics -- and prevailed. That law is now dead.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Dec. 25th, 2009 04:26 am (UTC)
Oh, and merry Xmas from Tokyo!


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 25th, 2009 07:26 am (UTC)
Re: Oh, and merry Xmas from Tokyo!

And merry Christmas from London! Where I am missing the food/my dog/my friends but not this year's family meltdown. Hope you and Hisae are having fun (and it looks like you are). Sxx


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Dec. 25th, 2009 04:56 am (UTC)

Another way to put it: the shop as an output-only device has had its day. Shops will become input-output devices. Or, in computer terms, the read-only shop will give way to the writable shop.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 25th, 2009 07:10 am (UTC)
Very Groucho Marxist

""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.""

This is rather like saying, hey, isn't it great UPS uses mostly part-time labor!? (Which saves on having to provide benefits for your employees!)

In other words, it's known as farming out labor on the cheap...

wonder what Marx would have to say...


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Dec. 25th, 2009 08:30 am (UTC)
Re: Very Groucho Marxist

My intention wasn't to make a moral assessment of each example here, just say that there might be a trend taking shape. But I think that, just as we tend to overvalue individual opinions of capitalism, so we overvalue the intention behind social mechanism. You could call this "the intentional fallacy view of history". Microproduction may have perfectly cynical origins, but may have an entirely unforeseen social outcome, the same way the US military unintentionally pioneered LSD and the internet.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 25th, 2009 09:25 am (UTC)
ou-trek-tou

i am still intrigued by the use in japan of the name of "utrecht" for a bookshop and, so i was told in a comment here recently, the name of a band. (apart from it being difficult to pronounce i guess if you're japanese).


and then the city in holland where you performed as momus was....utrecht!


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 25th, 2009 09:59 am (UTC)

Completely off topic, but I was reading about Aum Shinrikyo and started to wonder, the gas attacks must have coincided with when you first moved to Tokyo, right?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Dec. 26th, 2009 12:22 am (UTC)

No, I moved to Tokyo in 2001. Aum attacks were mid-90s.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Dec. 25th, 2009 10:46 am (UTC)

Isn't it fundamental to any change the rejection of built-in obsolescence? Fashion doesn't help either - for this idea to take root people need to wean themselves from novelty and an obsession with the new.

And talking of fashion, I'm often amused by the comments left here which describe ideas (often yours) as having been superseded - as if intellectual debate works like science, with constant advances in the arts. It's naive, and owes more towards intellectual trends and campus fashions than it does to any great truths.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Dec. 26th, 2009 04:34 pm (UTC)

"Fashion doesn't help either"

Hmm, it actually sounds like Fashion is the very thing making Nick's proposed system possible. Everything would be fashion; Fashion would become the new Style.

On an ever increasingly staler, greener note and one that might coincide with this proposed system is the idea of the end of shipping water-based drinks. Make water filtration systems available at all groceries, gas stations, conbinis, vending machines, etc. that then fill bottles to which you add a purchased flavor packet(powder/liquid/concentrate...we all know most are made from concentrates). Carbonation available, use your own reusable bottle, brand-specific bottles with flavor component already in it, add-ons like vitamins or even brands with the sweetener separated to control sugar intake, etc. It would be a way to make use of those old drink containers. Best part is massive amounts of trucking and air/sea fuel saved.

I do think it would be asking too much for a producer of a type of product to take on the responsibility of maintaining the products of others on top of what would already be their own full-time venture. Now bakeries/restaurants using recipes brought in by locals and arranging a floating menu based on their popularity might be a nice idea.

In what market sectors, aside from bread, could this "we buy what we sell" format work well? Farmer's markets? Clothing, sure. Furniture. Housewares. Sounds like a thrift store. Hand crafts? Where is this idea supposed to disseminate into again?
Vending machine technology won't really ever be made competent enough to evaluate/sort/crush/store cans esp. with increased complexity = higher maintenance costs. A stardard, across-the-board bottle could be used that is then washed/sanitized and then refilled. The continuous cycle of these bottled would go through the machine and be mated with the on-site water-filter component and keep garbage off streets, off recycling-pickup truck, and out of landfills.


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slime_slime_sly
slime_slime_sly
slime_slime_sly
Fri, Dec. 25th, 2009 09:41 pm (UTC)

you appeared in one of my dreams again.
It was just a short cameo, you went by on a bike while i was unlocking mine in the road to the harbor in the island im from. There was a crosslegged sitting chinese guy at the bus stop counting coins to pay the fare.
stop getting in my dreams momus!
Just kidding you are one of my favorite dream characters, second only to this busty and humid big girl thats always going after me.


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Sat, Dec. 26th, 2009 02:20 am (UTC)
merry christmas mr. momus


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Sat, Dec. 26th, 2009 04:00 am (UTC)
Re: merry christmas mr. momus


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milky_eyes
milky_eyes
milky_eyes
Sat, Dec. 26th, 2009 04:22 am (UTC)
0_0

I totally agree with you in the general sense... thats where culture is going for sure.
Will Japan be the first?
Perhaps. My off the cuff guess is that it will begin to happen in small patches here an there. Or pieces of the change will happen in differnet spots and slowly those spots will learn from each other... just as children learn and advance in company of other children. Does on child learn something all by its self and then go and teach the others... no, its a bits and pieces thing that is advanced by numbers.

I love the idea. My only question is... will we hit another dark age before or during this change.
The options are all on the table at this point in the game... super cool spacey and sexy future.... or dark grim slow and silent future...


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pay_option07
pay_option07
Sat, Dec. 26th, 2009 09:55 am (UTC)
heralding this sort of consumer

I think Frugality, Thrift, and Loyalty are sort of built into the kitchen or the spirit of every Japan household. I've found myself watching sumo at several sidewalk used appliance stores with the locals making me feel humbled by their acceptance. I think it's always been their way.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Dec. 26th, 2009 01:49 pm (UTC)
Re: heralding this sort of consumer

Your ideas about the big (m)other are really relevant to Mark Fisher's (k-punk) new book, capitalist realism. I know you have said you aren't a big fan of the posturing language of contemporary philosophy, but here is a good interview where he explores the themes of the book. Perhaps he might like your interpretations of Japanese society?

http://www.metamute.org/en/questioning_capitalist_realism

dekersaint.co.uk (won't let me use my openid...)


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Dec. 26th, 2009 02:21 pm (UTC)
are any economists heralding this sort of production system

economists tend to equate exchange culture with money. We have these little IOUs - called dollars, yen, etc - that we carry around and trade. It is premised on the idea of the absence of double coincidence of wants. Money is an amazing invention that separates us from other species.

I like the idea that shops allow more than one form of payment. It would be cool that a coffee shop accepts poetry readings in exchange for coffee etc. I think the trick is to think of exchanges that create things that cannot be imagined by a monetary culture.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Dec. 29th, 2009 05:11 am (UTC)
Re: are any economists heralding this sort of production system

I have to disagree here with your last point, that '....think the trick is to think of exchanges that create things that cannot be imagined by a monetary culture.' I too like what's being discussed about, and think what you said is a part of what's needed.

But until society as a whole changes, there are costs which are more-often-than-not unavoidable and large (rent, utilities, coffee for the coffee shop, money for the owners to pay their bills) and usually require money. Things like co-ops seem interesting (though I don't know much about them) because of how they share control, profits and resources. Also for how they can consolidate and increase branding power, which is important since sometimes the 'attention economy' thing is true.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Dec. 26th, 2009 10:05 pm (UTC)
21th century thief

As mentioned before, similar but also simplified ideas are taking place in ideological spheres as most anarchist communities (in general, and framed the free shops). where it is not only a trade but rather something you imagine, different shops (centers, points) an intake-output, that also produces itself.
print-on-demand seems also be related even so on the first glance it's almost on the other site.

I know from some small art related shops, who practise the idea your propose. Mostly boekiewoekie in Amsterdam, an art book shop who is run by a group of artists who take in any book brought by somebody calling themself an artist that can we reproduced. It is a awful amount of work, as I here. Since more than two decades...


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