Sunday, March 30, 2008

How Retailers Have Outsmarted Themselves

I just got back from a bowling alley bar, where much to my satisfaction, I placed 48th in the nation in the NTN Buzztime Sports Trivia Challenge. Although I would be happy to just play sports trivia without buying anything, the business wouldn't take kindly to that, so I ordered a Diet Pepsi (for myself) and a red slushi (for my wife). The total bill came to three dollars, and I left a fifty cent tip. I believe I got my money's worth, but just as importantly, it was exceedingly simple to conduct the transaction. I think that the American tavern is one of the last places where you can easily make cash payments, without the hassle figuring out what coins you have to pay, or worrying about getting a heavy load of coins in return. (Other places that come to mind are barber shops and concession stands).

It is ironic that as inflation makes the value of the penny and the nickel moot, we are increasingly likely to have to deal in pennies and nickels when making purchases. Twice a week I buy lunch at a college coffee shop. As far as I know, the shop is run by the school, and is not affiliated with a large chain. However, they price their items as if they were a big-time retailer; I usually get their lunch special for $3.99 and am often awkwardly handed a penny in change (or sometimes a dollar and a penny). When I was a kid, comic books were a dollar. Now they are priced at $2.99. Granted, sales tax makes it difficult for certain items to end up as a round dollar, but I would just as soon pay three bucks for a comic book, toss in a nickel for tax, and be done with it. Now, anytime I buy more than two comic books at a time, I just throw it on my credit card to avoid hassle (so not only would I be willing to toss in an extra couple cents if comics were jacked up by one cent each, I'd probably help the retailer save a few pennies on credit card transactions as well).

We have become so inured to the practice of items being priced at $5.99 instead of $6, or $119 instead of $120, that we overlook how utterly insulting it is. It is absolutely no secret that this practice is psychological manipulation, but nobody seems to mind.

But I think just as retailers gleefully exploit the irrationalities of their customer base, they might actually be harming themselves. I don't think I'm alone in using my credit card as an alternative to confusing cash transactions. And though I don't think there are a lot of people who consciously choose to use plastic because an item is irregularly priced, I do think that the inconvenience of making cash transactions contributes to a subtle unconscious desire to eschew paper and coins altogether and charge items.

But one may ask how this is necessarily bad for a retailer. After all, credit cards are beneficial to merchants, right? Well, obviously the existence of credit may allow consumers to spend more than they otherwise would, but the overall shift to a cashless society isn't necessarily good to brick and mortar sellers. Once someone is conditioned away from the somewhat primal practice of making a physical exchange for a good or service, the less likely they will feel the need to make purchases in person. Instead they will turn to e-commerce (and auction sites which ironically mostly deal in whole dollars).

But at least those failed business owners and unemployed market researchers will still be able to drown their sorrows at the bar.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

From Encyclopedia to E!

What if Donald J. Sobol had been born in 1824 instead of 1924? He quite possibly would have become a children's author. He possibly would have even written detective stories for children, as Poe is credited with inventing the genre about the time Sobol would have been entering adulthood. However, it is unlikely that Sobol would have attained the level of fame he attained by virtue of being born in the 20th Century, as he almost assuredly wouldn't have invented a character named "Encyclopedia Brown."

Not that encyclopedias didn't exist in the 19th Century. The concept of the encyclopedia dates back to ancient times, and the modern multi-volume encyclopedia can probably be traced to the 18th Century (according to Wikipedia anyway, that what passes for an encyclopedia nowadays). But it was the latter part of the 20th Century that saw the entry of the encyclopedia into the forefront of pop culture and public consciousness, with not only Sobol's creation of the aforementioned boy detective, but also the ubiquity of door-to-door salesmen hawking not just Britannica, but the likes of World Book, Grolier, and the unfortunately named Funk & Wagnalls.

I'm not sure it is entirely possible anymore, but I wish somebody would do a study in order to determine how much money was spent on encyclopedias in the 20th Century, along with an estimate of how much time was spent reading them, in order to determine a relative cost of utility. My guess is that for many households, the encyclopedia represented a rather poor utilitarian yield on investment. (As a side note, my mom once related a funny story about how she and my dad, as a young couple, were urged by an encyclopedia salesman to consider the cost of a set in light of the cost of a newspaper subscription. "And after all," the salesman argued, "you just throw the newspaper away." My dad was persuaded by this argument--not to buy the encyclopedia set, but to quit throwing away the newspaper, a practice he maintained for a couple of years.)

So encyclopedias weren't even an entertainment option in a world where most households had four channels, no computer, and no video games. But then again, they weren't intended for entertainment. They were first published under the assumption that they could help create scholars. But I think the presence of encyclopedias had the opposite effect of inspiring scholarship. They were looked to as oracles, or as arbiters to settle ontological disputes. Instead of serving as a launching point for further study (the "see also" sections weren't quite as efficient as the hyperlinks we have today), the encyclopedia closed off discussion. And that, I think, is what made them so powerful as a consumer product. People could buy, not necessarily knowledge, but assurance of knowledge.

But why was assurance of knowledge suddenly such an important commodity? Perhaps it was a vague collective reaction to the awareness that we were entering what I termed in my last entry as the "Archival Era." A physical record of the sum total of human existence was a tonic to the anxiety inspired by the possibility that this total was more or less summed up.

So what then should we make of the decline of the encyclopedia? On one hand, the popularity of Wikipedia, and the sheer unlikeliness of its success as a social experiment, argues that although the previous medium of the encyclopedia is obsolete, the mechanism that drove its popularity is still very much alive (in the same way that the popularity of modern e-mail is a retroactive validation of the decision to launch the Pony Express). On the other hand, I think the death of the physical encyclopedia is also indicative of a society coming to terms with what it means to be in the Archival Era.

Now, rather than presume that any one entity can contain the vast wealth of human experience, we are more comfortable assuming that this wealth is diffused. And our comfort is allowing us to synthesize our knowledge in ways that were heretofore impossible. For example, the "Top Ten List" is a particular invention of the Archival Era. While this particular concept is synonymous with a certain late night talk show host, in fact it is now a commonplace in our culture. The countdown shows that seemingly comprise half the programming on cable television is another example of this phenomenon. Rather than construct behemothic books, we are now content to serve up trivial tidbits. This approach to disseminating information is mocked by some as ADD-pandering, and it might very well be. But despite that, could it be a fair and even desirable way to package information? I'm sure that the execs at E! aren't thinking of postmodern theories about the necessity of "deconstructing grand narratives" as they gleefully deconstruct the grand narratives constructed by the original authors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, but their ignorance might actually lend validity to such theories.

Donald J. Sobol should be glad he was born in 1924 instead of 2024.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Welcome to the Archival Era

It's a paradox of history that only in posterity does a clear picture emerge of what it meant to be alive at a given time. For example, Da Vinci had no idea that he was a Renaissance Man. Wordsworth had no clue that he was a Romantic poet. Cotten Mather would have been dumbfounded at being called an Enlightenment scholar.

On the other hand, Derrida wouldn't have batted an eyelash at being called a postmodern philosopher (at least I don't think he would have; until I learn to speak in French puns I guess I won't presume to speak for the man). Some might argue that it is a unique feature of the postmodern age that we are able to see into the "black box," or as they would way, to "deconstruct our reality" in a way that previous generations couldn't. I suppose this makes metaphorical sense: a teen-ager probably doesn't really understand what it means to be a teen-ager until they are older, whereas an elderly person is all too aware of what it means to be old. So the question becomes: are we in the old age of civilization and culture? Or, to put it another way, are we at the end of history?

Fukuyama argues that politics has reached its end; author David Gates recently wrote a brilliant essay arguing that art is done:

But is there any place left where a rebel can still jump the fence and start making trouble? What fence? What trouble? The last genuinely new artistic genres, the photograph and the moving picture, appeared in the 1820s and the 1890s respectively—or maybe in 1879, with Eadweard Muybridge's zoopraxiscope. Do you sense something else coming around the bend? Narratives of odors? Symphonies of tactile sensations? Why not? On the other hand, why?
Of course Gates allows for the possibility that technology undergoes change, but he argues that the roots of art, the "words, sounds, and images," have reached a point where room for further experimentation is closed off.

The mere fact that people are recognizing the paradigm they live strikes me as highly significant. I can't imagine that artists of previous eras concerned themselves with the questions that Gates does (and though political philosophers of the past might have posited a concept of teleology, they certainly didn't believe they were at a teleological end). Therefore, ironically, self-awareness is the one thing that our current age can claim as an innovation. But I don't think that this is a small thing. If the age of human innovation is largely past, it means we can consciously enter a new paradigm. So let me be the first to take advantage of our present vantage point and coin a historical designation for our life and time: the Archival Era. We have the luxury of being able to unpack the dense tapestry of previous innovation, to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Its time to go up to the attic and start going through boxes.

Next: David Letterman's contribution to the Archival Era.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

When the Music Really Died

Although Don McLean has been famously reticent about discussing his song "American Pie," it's quite obviously a historical exploration of rock music starting from the 1957 death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. But how could it properly be said that the starting point of the narrative is the death of music? Many commentators have assumed (and I think rightly) that McLean was making the Holly death a line of demarcation between what was known as "rock and roll" but subsequently became "rock." The theory goes that the fun was sucked out of music. When the "Sergeants," presumably a reference to the Beatles, "played a marching tune, we all got up to dance, but we never got the chance." In other words, the days of the sock hop were past, and music such as that found on "Sgt. Pepper's" was not something to dance to.

In a sense, I don't disagree with McLean that music died. But I think he didn't go back far enough to find its death. I think it can be argued that in one sense "the music" died when "rock and roll" started. Elvis, Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry, and the like were the ones who forever altered music from a shared, communal experience to the province of the individual. To some degree, the rise of television made this an inevitability. It probably wouldn't have mattered who it was that appeared on Ed Sullivan, the very fact that somebody was being set apart as a featured performer would have caused a shift in public perception, as millions of viewers would have had an Adam and Eve experience and realized that they were naked, that they lacked the musical aptitude of the star being featured, and that there was a gulf between performer and audience (some would argue that it wasn't for 20 years, until Johnny Rotten and the punks came along, that this chasm began to once again narrow).

However, this is not the whole or even the most important reason that the music died. To be sure, Elvis and company were not the first musical stars. Obviously, Sinatra was a pop culture icon, and even back to the Big Band era there was a consciousness that some people were singular in their musical talent. Yet this did not stop the masses from indulging in song. According to a recent New York Times article, in 1943, serviceman Pete Seeger conducted a competition among fellow G.I.s, in which they were asked to list all the songs that they knew the melody and words to. He could list 300, but he wasn't alone in having a large number to draw from. Even in an ipod saturated culture, I think it would be unlikely for any one person to be able to list more than a handful of songs that they could sing completely off the top of their heads, and even more unlikely that any two people have songs in common. As evidenced by the Fox show "Don't Forget the Lyrics," being able to recall words of even popular songs is now a skill rather than something commonplace.

I remember attending a family reunion as a kid, and finding it odd that singing was incorporated along with card playing into the day's entertainment. However, the demographic of this gathering tilted toward the WWII generation, people who came of age in a time when singing was something that people did when they got together. And it wasn't always sanitized family gatherings where they indulged their tendency to sing. For generations, the pub was a place to go to not only drown sorrows through the power of drink, but through the power of song. Today though, even if drunken louts in a bar wanted to limber their vocal cords, who could hear them over the jukebox? Other than church, where do people get together and sing anymore? And even in churches, where traditions keep root a little bit longer than in other places, I'm noticing a trend toward music being provided by "worship teams," while parishioners sit quietly in their pews and watch.

So what happened other than TV to hasten this trend? Although the cultural changes wrought by "rock and roll" are well documented, there is not a lot of attention paid to one way it changed the music milieu and hastened the demise of communal singing. According to music scholar Michael Gray:

...before rock'n'roll you had to enunciate. Every word had to be heard (even though the words so carefully delivered weren't generally worth any attention). With rock'n'roll the meaning of the words, as a general rule, mattered less than their sounds, and the voice became an instrument. The grown-ups who laughed at Presley's 'mumblin' didn't understand. It was actually exciting to have part of the record where you didn't know what you were singing when you sang along with it. (From the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia pg. 585).

While it might have been exciting, it also precluded you from singing the song without the record as accompaniment. And this means that people were less apt to sing together, and in a manner of speaking, the music died.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

A Day in the Life: An Analysis

In last week's essay I made only passing reference to the Beatles' cultural importance. Most of the critical attention to the band today seems to dwell on the concept that they were a symbol of the 1960s zeitgeist (it's just too hard not to notice how they went from black and white mop tops to psychedelic full color in three years). But to take an exclusively Historicist approach to analyzing their work is a disservice to everyone. Their best work deserves to be lauded for its timelessness, not it's connection to a specific time. The beauty of the song "A Day in the Life" is that it could serve as an exploration of a day in the life of anyone in 1928, 1968, or 2008.

In an album overflowing with irony, there is something oddly poignant in a closing track with a title that eschews all trace of irony. The song lyrics attempt something ambitious and modest at the same time (and the musical accompaniment will do the same). Rather than the cosmic soul-searching lifted from the Tibetan Book of the Dead that closes out Revolver, rather than the absurd irony of "Her Majesty" at the end of Abbey Road, the group sets out to capture both the mundane and the transcendent in holding for examination one day in the life of any given individual. Allow me the indulgence of a line-by-line analysis:

I read the news today oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade

The day begins, as it does for so many, with vicarious living. Perhaps the daily routine of starting with the morning paper has been supplanted in recent years with the computer homepage or the morning television news, but the modern experience is as much about plugging into others' experience as in seeking out personal experience. The "oh boy" is an interesting exclamation. On one hand, it would seem to denote a sudden shock, but due to the repetitive nature of the phrase's utterance, it actually doesn't carry all that much emotional potency. It would seem that the newspaper reader has run across an item that they know should inspire feeling, but all they can do is go through the motions.

And though the news was rather sad
Well I just had to laugh

A double consciousness emerges. The reader knows the emotional reactions that are expected of him, he knows how he is supposed to behave, but the redundancy and repetition of the experience has dulled him. Who can watch the TV news anymore and muster empathy for the world's 818 kazillionth victim of a house fire? Even worse, though, because we use the same media for news that we use for entertainment, we tend to conflate the two. The sad news becomes a source of amusement.

I saw the photograph.
He blew his mind out in a car
He didn't notice that the lights have changed

Here the tragicomedy of the previous lines is validated. The possibility of having one's mind literally blown out because of a momentary lapse in perception is so horrifying that it almost needs to be made into a joke. However, the fact that the photograph exists, and is published, is a constant reminder that it is real. One can imagine that the photo dominates the reading experiencing. The reader feels the need for some closure.

A crowd of people stood and stared
They'd seen his face before
Nobody was really sure
If he was from the House of Lords.

In the effort to find closure, the reader puts himself on the scene. It doesn’t seem likely that the news account would include details of the crowd’s perception, so we’ve gone from a literal reading of the account and the consequent emotions to some kind of nebulous fantasy. This will not be the last time in the song the narrator goes into a daydream. This is only fitting, for in any given individual’s “day in the life,” there is likely more imagined experience than actual experience.

I saw a film today oh boy
The English Army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book
I'd love to turn you on.

One can imagine the narrator reading the newspaper in bed, then absent mindedly turning on what he would refer to as the “telly,” and seeing some kind of war footage: it might be the British army in WWII, it might be some overseas campaign in Africa, or it might be in Iraq. Just as with the newspaper, the emotions that one would be expected to have upon seeing their national army victorious is blunted. In fact, the narrator feels a sense of isolation, as if he has the experience that so many of us do when watching TV: “I wonder if I’m the only one watching this.” His curiosity seems to be piqued because of recently reading a book about the subject. He thinks about how lovely it would be if there were no need for war, if everything were perfect, his thoughts start to get more irrational, and as symbolized by the orchestral break, he falls asleep. The alarm clock jolts him awake, and the shift in lead vocals from Lennon to McCartney tell us that the day is beginning in earnest.

Woke up, fell out of bed,
Dragged my comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,
And looking up I noticed I was late.

The abstraction of the previous section has been replaced by sheer pragmatic survival mode. We have elements of the comedic in the notion of falling out of bed and “dragging” instead of “combing” one’s hair, but the sheer urgency of the situation precludes much time for any subjectivity.

Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke,
Somebody spoke and I went into a dream.

Precious time is lost in searching for a coat that was probably cast aside without much thought the previous night. Fortune smiles on the narrator, and he gets his ride just in time (and though I won’t belabor the point I made last week, it is still remarkable to me that the biggest celebrities on the planet remember the stress of having to get to the bus on time). But as is typical of the modern life, there is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. After all the energy expended in getting to the workplace on time, the quality of the time spent there does not justify that expenditure. Rather than engage in something productive, the worker diverts himself with tobacco (which today would probably be coffee or a Krispy Kreme donut), and immediately lapses into daydream as the “somebody,” presumably a boss but maybe an annoying co-worker, drones on about something in the background. The shift back to Lennon again shows the shift in intensity of the narrative.

I read the news today oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.
I'd love to turn you on

The daydream turns the narrator’s thoughts back to the newspaper. Lost in the story about the tragic automobile crash was the story about the potholes discovered in Blackburn, Lancashire (an actual news story that Lennon used in writing the song). Although the newspaper would likely only mention the number of holes and the plans to fill them in, a reader would likely fixate on the implications inherent in the story, the probability that someone actually had to count the potholes, even the small ones. While the connection to the Albert Hall seems tenuous, our stream of consciousness is built upon tenuous and seemingly random associations. The last line is, as in its previous place in the song, jarring. This is appropriate given that our thoughts of the minuscule are often jarred by the realization that we are thinking about the minuscule. The narrator again grieves over the insignificance that permeates so much of his life, while wishing for something greater. The concluding music crescendo echoes this earnest desire, before ending on a final note that somehow seems to convey both permanence and fleetingness, finality and tentativeness.

Next Week: A final thought on the legacy of Sgt. Pepper’s, and why Don McLean got it wrong