November 8, 2019

The communication experience

Marx famously claimed (in this afterword to an edition of Capital) that with Hegel, the dialectic “is standing on its head,” and it needed to “be turned right side up again if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”

Now, marketing consultant Anna Klingmann is not Hegel and Brandscapes: Architecture in the Experience Economy is not the Phenomenology of Spirit, but I think the dialectic (if you could call it that) in that book is similarly upside-down. It lays out a narrative of the history of consumerism that seems exactly backward, attributing its “progress” to the desires of consumers rather than the requirements of capital.

According to the marketers’ preferred version of the story (and it also animates many anti-elitist works of “poptimism” that want to stress the agency of “ordinary people”), consumers have always had a latent desire to “express themselves” with brands and objects but had to wait for manufacturing technology to catch up with their intrinsic materialistic individualism. Anytime consumers have a say in production processes, it’s a win for them, a proof of their agency and the realization of their natural longing for more unique social presence. Interactivity is something consumers win from producers, who’d prefer to force one-size-fits-all goods on the masses.

But all that should be reversed. People who don’t consume customized goods are not pre-individuals; they are sustaining their individuality outside consumer market structures. Belonging to a mass market leaves room for a private experience of relevance or desire. But procedures of mass personalization assure that people in a consumer society are constituted as individuals who only know themselves within the horizons of consumer capitalism and who have come to distrust experiences of self and identity that are not ratified by markets.

The desire to experience oneself as a self with a discrete identity has become bound up with the rewards and requirements of putting that energy into product promotion. So the increasing personalization of goods and services is not a sign of empowered consumers calling manufacturers to account, but a sign that people are more amenable to having more of their lives administered on consumerism’s terms, and more of their potentiality has been channeled to that end. Rather than companies working to discover and cater to consumers’ desires, consumers work for companies, investing the customization options they provide with social signification, producing value for brands and giving human substance to their marketing claims and representations. In other words, no one is born wanting to express themselves through brands and the accumulation of products and “experiences.” When companies move from selling goods to services and then to “experiences,” they are not working harder to gratify consumers’ wishes but to condition the possibilities of their lives. They are succeeding in subsuming more of life to the market.

“As we progress toward an economy that thrives on personal interaction,” Klingmann rightly points out, “the customer becomes the product.” Being catered to doesn’t make you the agent; neither does the opportunity for interaction. Customers are made in the image of what the economy demands, as someone who feels that consumerism and brands are prerequisites to self-expression, that other forms of expression are illegible or illegitimate.

In Klingmann’s discussion of “brandspaces” (not used as a pejorative), she cites a host of business strategists and ideologists to substantiate claims about what consumers really want, but these should be understood as prescriptive and not reflective. They are wishful thinking on the part of retailers. For instance, she quotes marketing consultant Bernd Schmitt, who offers this anodyne claim: “Consumers want products, communications, and marketing campaigns that they can relate to and incorporate into their lifestyles.” No they don’t. That is what brands want people to want: The brands want people to discern lifestyles and life according to their strictures; brands want people to think ads can be relatable. People mostly just want ads to leave them alone and disappear.

Likewise with all forms of top-down “personalization,” which purports to be for you but in fact happens to you. Personalization is about producing demands and dependencies in consumers, not meeting some supposedly pre-existing identity needs. It is about rationalizing commercial surveillance, making it seem like a gesture of care when companies try to dictate to you what things you must go buy to feel like yourself or to be recognized as a normal person in what is represented to you as your social world.

“For services to become a vital strategy for brand differentiation,” Klingmann writes, “they must be redefined from ‘answering needs’ to ‘building customer relationships.’” In other words, brands need to stop giving consumers what they want and force them to treat the brand as a quasi-equal, capable of and deserving of a “relationship.” Klingmann continues, “Only when services are coded and personified can they move beyond the answering of needs to build relationships where the customer feels that he or she is cared about as an individual.” Again, this practice is explicitly in the service of the brand and not the consumer, who is forcibly individuated and subjectivized by this intrusive form of attention. Branded “care” for the “individual” is imposed on customers as a kind of tax; they must pay for the product emotionally as well as financially. They are forced to recognize that they can only meet their own needs by meeting the brands’ needs first — no use value for you until you participate in the raising the brand’s value, until you let it define some component of your identity.

At that point, we become complicit in the process and begin to rationalize it, make ourselves believe these relationships were necessary and freely chosen. Klingmann’s hope is to bring the marketing attitude and its dubious ethics to the built environment; she wants architects to drop their “moralistic” commitment to functionality and make more buildings work like casinos, whose coercive nature is supposedly experienced by the people trapped in them as indulgence, being carried away by “subliminal” delight. “There is no such thing as an absolute reality,” Klingmann declares, so therefore architects should feel free to make spaces as manipulative as possible, under the assumption that making people feel things, willingly or not, is always an acceptable ambition.

This idea, that forcing people to have “feelings” can’t be wrong, was always intrinsic to the “experience economy,” which aspires to rewrite what consumers perceive to be “real” and what counts as an “experience” or “memorable.” The point of this is not to serve people’s needs but to colonize their minds. But marketers, by all appearances, believe that what they do is for the customer’s benefit; that they have their best interests in mind. Klingmann quotes marketing consultant Philip Kotler’s claim that “The aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous. The aim is to know the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself.” It is easy to see how this leads to invasive and secretive data collection, for the customers’ own good, as though it was beneath our dignity to be sold to and much more appropriate to try to manipulate us instead through surveillance and behavioristic techniques that do away with our rationality.

When you remember a brand, or purchase a “memorable experience,” that comes at the expense of what you otherwise might have felt or would have remembered, what might otherwise would have structured what stays with you and what doesn’t. In other words, capital demands our desire and tries to facilitate it in forms it controls and can exploit. Just because we experience a desire, it’s hardly good for us or necessarily what we want. When products claim to “exceed our expectations,” that means that it expects to succeed in making us change what we expect to suit its requirements.

The moral bankruptcy of the “experience economy” is perhaps most obvious in its application to the news, where the idea that everyone should be sold their own reality has more obvious political consequences. Klingmann devotes a few pages to an analysis of CNN as a purveyor not of information but experiences, with a focus on creating “relationships” with viewers. “CNN recognized that in order to convert information into a viable commodity, the message can no longer be transmitted on a purely rational basis but must engage the viewer on multiple sensory levels,” she writes. “This demands an ongoing obligation to build a relationship-oriented culture that encourages emotional receptiveness in the consumer.” This emphasis on emotional connection means that “the goal is no longer the transmission of an enlightened metanarrative based on rational consensus” — i.e. an agreed-upon reality — “but the creation of emotionally charged debates, which connect to viewers’ attitudes and invite them to partake in the discussion.” To generate the feeling of inclusion, “continuity is of crucial importance,” Klingmann notes. That means the nonstop provision of novelty rather than “objective information about current events.”

This same analysis obviously applies to Twitter, which shouldn’t be understood primarily as a communication platform but as a kind of tourist destination, a place for “experiences.” It feels as though this is what our training in consumerism has been building toward, subjectivizing us as individuals incapable of taking in information that is not somehow about us. The point of marketing after all is to preclude the need to evaluate one’s own needs, one’s own understanding of their place in the world. Rationality has been exposed as elitist. The experience economy overtakes the possibility of “facts,” which can no longer serve as the basis for social order or collective decisionmaking. Instead we’ll rely ever more heavily on the experience designers to feed realities to us.