Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Buyer's Desires (Graded Blog Entry)

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Deckard obsesses over the animals he owns (or doesn't own). Throughout the novel, Deckard tries to acquire an animal to replace his dead sheep. Fittingly, the novel closes on the character settling with the fake toad he has found, seemingly content with (at least resigned to) it. In The Girl Who Was Plugged In, P. Burke is used by the GTX corporation to peddle preselected goods to the masses. This looks like the authors are trying to caution us against covetting material goods, but I believe this overlooks an important point- we control our desires, we control what is given to us. It is only through the will of the people that corporations do what they do, not vice versa.

First, analyze Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Rick Deckard loses his pet sheep to tetanus from a wire in the sheep's food. He buys a fake sheep to replace it but is thoroughly embarrassed and troubled by it. Throughout the novel, he tries to acquire an owl, rabbits, a goat, and finally a toad. The reason Deckard needs an animal is because society looks down on people that do not care for nearly extinct animals.

The ubiquitous Sidney's catalogue dictates the value of any given animal, even ones that have died out. This looks like a form of advertising. It appears as though the Sidney's company gets to tell the consumer how much his animal (and therefore he) is worth. But there's something more to that. Sidney's doesn't invent a number; it reports the last transaction price. This is no different than NASDAQ telling us what our stocks are worth. It's totally independent of the company's opinion. It is all determined by the buyers and sellers of that particular item. Those are the consumers, not the corporations, calling the shots. The population decides what it will pay, and Sidney's just reports it.

Also of note is that it is not the animal breeders or the builders that have made animals popular to own, it was society's own self-determined mores. The war killed animals, and people decided it was right and fitting to take care of those left. The corporations followed the population's lead here.

The same can be said of The Girl Who Was Plugged In. This story is about advertising. While Do Androids deals with "How much am I worth?", Girl deals with "What is more worthy than what?" In the futuristic world, advertising is banned, so people have very little to guide them through the selection of goods they choose to buy. The whole idea is subverted by the GTX corporation that makes what amounts to secret endorsement deals. The manufacture celebrities that advertise to us via usage of items.

The themes of "gods", "dead daddy" and "zombies" make it seem like the population just absorbs whatever is advertised to them by the god-like celebrities, but a closer inspection shows that it is just the opposite. GTX employees talk of "the pendulum swinging". The narrator speaks of the holocams having feedback. The quote is something like "dial into whatever ethic-sex-gender-age-class category you like. They like it. Give them more. Warmer, warmer, burning baby." (Okay, so you caught me. I lost my copy of it and can't give a direct quote. Close enough.) Interestingly enough, it's not the corporation deciding things after all! It's the people, en masse, deciding what they like. Those things the population likes are what the celebrities will wear and use. GTX doesn't decide where the pendulum swings, it just tries to ride with it.

So both works have something to say about the way goods and services are consumed. They both show consumers clamoring for the same set of goods produced by a powerful industry. However, neither work should be interpretted as saying that we buy what corporations want us to, but instead that corporations give us what we already want.


Adam Johns said...

This is a fun post. As you probably know, I'm going to have to argue with you some, but before I even do that, let me acknowledge that this is an excellent post: it's interesting, detailed, and closely engaged with both texts.

First off, I think you're entirely right in your analysis of DADES. Corporations may inflame or manipulate the desire for electric animals, but that desire is driven by the desire for real animals, which has deep psychological and cultural roots in the world of the novel. The market takes advantages of the desires, but hardly creates them.

It's worth noting, though, that PKD is not concerned _at all_ with the corporations that create the electric animals: his focus is on the Rossen Association, which makes androids.

One overly simple but not wholly wrong interpretation of this is: corporations manufacture us (PKD was deeply but strangely religious, and paranoid to boot. His critique of material culture and the corporations which help to shape it is essentially a spiritual critique.

Or, to put it another way: we can think of the corporation (which is figured as a group mind, that is, society's mind) and the broader culture as regulated by a feedback loop: yes, people's desires generate the corporation, but the corporation in turn generates people's desires. We actually _see_ the Rossen corporation trying to manipulate Deckard through his desire for an owl... The owl serves an advertising function, announcing their limitless (although also illusory) power.

Similarly, you're right in part about Tiptree/Sheldon, who hardly denies the functioning reality of the market, or that people's desires are real. But this whole story (as you recognize at one point) is driven by feedback. Yes, your desires are registered as feedback by the corporation, which in turn manufactures products to match your desires - but advertising is hardly impotent in this process: it regulates and generates desire. After all, what people really desire is the goddess, not the crap that she's carrying: they buy the stuff because that feels, through a complex feedback-regulated process, like owning a piece of her. It's not a coincidence that we know very little about the actual consumer goods being sold, because the real consumer good (as Tim points out) is Delphi (or Paris Hilton, in Tim's case), not the hamburger or whatever.

Your discussion of the pendulum is smart, but also one-sided. You're entirely right that the corporations of this story serve the desires of people as a whole (although there's an interesting slippage between "the people" and individual people in your argument), but they _do_ also create those desires.

I like your post because it's getting at the complexity of the structure of advertising and marketing (in the stories, but also in real life). We _are_ sold things which we want, and if a company can figure out what we want, they'll do their best to make it and market it to us -- but it's simplistic at best and naive at worst to think that the feedback doesn't go both ways: they want to know what we want, but they create desires even as they investigate them.

Perfect example: the pharmaceutical industry. Drug advertisements on TV, in all their truncated, mindless glory, are made to think that you'll feel better on their (new, purple, patented) pill, rather than on the other guy's (old, tan, unpatented but therapeutically identical) pill. I'm oversimplifying, but there's a _reason_ why the pharmaceutical industry spends more on marketing than on R&D...

Yomi said...

Since Adam referenced the pharmaceautical industry i've been given divine direction to comment on this blog. I just posted my blog #8 and Interestingly enough, i chose the same two books you chose to compare. I wish i had read your post prior to writing mine because it makes a lot of interesting points. On the flipside of your argument i would agree more along the lines of what adam is saying. It is true that people possess desires and are ultimately the ones who supply the capital for said items but i think nowadays we've sacrificed a lot of our individual desires for those planted in our heads through advertisements real similar to the pharmaceutical ones Adam mentions. Don't get me wrong, i dont need a commercial to tell me Twix are freaking delicious, but i didnt come up with the idea for chocolate caramel cookie bars if you get my drift.