The Decline and Fall of Independent Urban Brick-and-Mortar Consumption Sites

I recently blogged about the decline, at least in part because of the explosion in  digital consumption, of brick-and-mortar consumption sites such as shopping malls and various chain stores. However, a recent editorial in the New York Times (“No Shop Around the Corner”, November 20, 2017, p. A22) made it clear that I had failed to mention the decline of small, independent, urban, brick-and-mortar consumption sites. As a native New Yorker, I had noticed that decline several years ago when I stayed in midtown Manhattan. I went in search of the kind of local, “greasy spoon”, restaurants I had grown up with. I quickly discovered that they were nowhere to be found, at least in the midtown area in which I searched. Instead, what I did find were a number of outlets of various fast food chains.

The Times article focused on the “scourge” of store closings in New York City, mostly in Manhattan. While some those stores remain closed, others have been replaced by the outlets of national chains. Both alternatives adversely affect the distinctive nature and quality of life in New York and other large cities. Empty storefronts with large “For Rent” or “For Sale” signs cast a pall over the city (just as they do in shopping malls). Storefronts that become chain stores have a different kind of deleterious effect. Instead of a local shop, consumers are faced with a choice among the same kinds of chain stores found in many other parts of the United States, and increasingly elsewhere in the world. This has a homogenizing effect everywhere. The quite unique Manhattan of my youth is largely gone making it increasingly difficult to differentiate New York from other U.S. cities and even from the remaining shopping malls. The owners of the real estate on which Manhattan’s local shops are built are, at least in some cases, charging exorbitant rents that tend to force out small independent shop owners. The result is vacant shops. The landlords hope that a national chain (e.g. Sephora) that is able to afford the rent (or even to pay more), will open in those vacated locations.

Also worth mentioning in this context is the transformation the sleazy Times Square and 42nd Street of my youth, an era and area that is currently being fictionalized in HBO’s “The Deuce”. Forty-second street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue has been transformed into a squeaky clean, Disney-like theme park with, among other things, a Disney theatre, a large McDonald’s, an Applebees, AMC and Regal multiplex movie theaters, and one of the Hilton’s hotel chain, with a Westin hotel just north of 42nd street. In other words, 42nd street is no longer sleazy, but it is also no longer distinctive. It now encompasses a similar mix of businesses to those found in many other locales.

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Customer Service or Disservice?

Consumer Reports (September, 2014) offered a revealing analysis of the accelerating trend toward customer self-service, or one aspect of what, in my terms, is “prosumption as consumption”. Customers who engage in self-service are, by definition, producing as they consume. To its credit, Consumer Reports makes no bones about why self-service has been embraced so enthusiastically. The reason? “To save money”. For example, if customers themselves place an online order, the cost to the company is pennies, while ordering from a live agent could cost between $2 and $10. In most cases, the corporations involved do not pass the savings on to customers in the form of lower prices. When multiplied by thousands, if not millions, of transactions, such savings mean much greater corporate profits. While such cost savings and profits have long been possible, they have been greatly increased in recent years by new digital technologies and by consumers who are not only familiar with them, but greatly prefer using them to interacting with paid employees.
Why do consumers do this work without pay or economic gain of any kind? Among the reasons offered by Consumer Reports are consumers’ feelings of empowerment, the ability to handle transactions more quickly, and the possibility of avoiding contact with employees who are increasingly likely to be less than stellar in their work. In fact, because corporations much prefer self-service customers, they are likely to hire fewer workers of lesser ability, to offer little training, and to accept marginal performance of the job. While many customers are cognizant of the incapacities of service workers, they generally seem unaware of many of the costs of self-service such as the loss of human contact, the paid jobs that are lost because they are willing to work for no pay, and the dehumanization of their relationships with corporations.
Because of the increasing acceptance of self-service by consumers, some corporations have taken the outrageous step- with nary a peep from consumers- of charging them fees for handling tasks the corporations used to perform without charge. Among the examples are airlines charging customers $50 for a paper ticket, $25 for having the audacity to make a reservation by phone, $20 for asking for a receipt for an e-ticket, and a $10 fee for having a boarding pass printed out by an agent. Fees such as these are likely to increase in price and to proliferate in number and variety in the coming years thereby further increasing the costs to consumers and profits for the companies.
Profit-making organizations have discovered that they can increase their profits by cutting personnel costs and by exploiting consumers to an ever-greater degree. There are many more customers than employees to exploit, they accept their exploitation meekly and, indeed, they often embrace it eagerly. This system greatly reduces the possibility of class consciousness among the declining number of employees who are ever-more fearful of losing their jobs. Worse, the system can operate without fear of the development of class consciousness among consumers who are too diverse and self-interested to think of themselves as a class, to become a class, and to act as a class. As much as one might like to hear it, we are not likely to hear consumers utter the clarion call- “Consumers of the world unite, you’ve nothing to lose but your iPad”.

Makers: The Promise of “Something” Rather than “Nothing”

In the Globalization of Nothing2 I have distinguished between nothing and something. Nothing is any social form, in this case a product (such as a Big Mac or an IKEA book case), that is centrally conceived, centrally controlled and lacking in distinctive content. Something is a form (such as a meal cooked at home from scratch) that is locally conceived, locally controlled, and rich in distinctive content. While our world is increasingly dominated by nothing, the increasing number and importance of the makers makes likely a significant increase in products that can be characterized as something.

Anderson makes this clear in arguing that the makers are producing, and will produce, things that cannot be purchased at the world’s leading purveyor of nothing- Wal-Mart. Furthermore, they are things that can’t be mass-produced in China or other low-wage countries. Indeed, Anderson sees hope for the American economy in the future in the makers and their production, in my terms, of something.

Anderson argues that the makers will serve a “mass market for niche products” (77). Large numbers of makers will produce niche products in relatively small numbers, at least in comparison to those that are mass produced. Because so many people will be involved in this as prosumers, it will constitute a mass market, albeit one that is quite different from today’s mass markets. The best current example of what Anderson has in mind is Etsy.com which specializes in offering handmade items, or “real stuff from real people, not packaged culture from companies” (182).

In a world increasingly awash in nothing, makers promise at least a modest increase in something.

The Internet Through a Postmodern Lens


This blog is derived from a plenary talk given in 2011 at the first Theorizing the Web conference at the University of Maryland. This seems an opportune time to raise the issues once again because they seem more relevant than ever. In addition they are offered here in anticipation of the third Theorizing the Web conference scheduled for early 2013 at the City University of New York.

Our understanding of the Internet, social networking, and the role of the prosumer in them is greatly enhanced by analyzing them through the lens of a number of ideas associated with postmodern theory.

There is, for example, the argument that the goal in any conversation, including those that characterize science, is not to find the “truth” but simply to keep the conversation going. The Internet is a site of such conversations. It is a world in which there is rarely, if ever, an answer, a conclusion, a finished product, a truth. Instead, there are lots of ongoing conversations and many new ideas and insights. Prime examples of this on the Internet include wikis in general and Wikipedia in particular, blogs and social networking sites. Google’s index is continually evolving and a complete iteration online content is impossible. All such sites involve open-ended processes that admit of no final conclusion.

Postmodernists tend to decenter whatever they analyze and to focus on the periphery. One searches in vain for the center of the Internet or of social networking sites. They are multi-faceted and always in the process of being made. As a result, even if a center could be found (and it can’t), it would immediately change. The idea of the “long tail” reflects this kind of decentering. Instead of focusing on a few “hits”, blockbusters, or best sellers, the long tail involves an emphasis on the infinitely larger number of phenomena (e.g. books, music productions) that are part of the long tail.

The work of Jean Baudrillard offers a treasure trove of ideas that are very useful in thinking about the Internet and Web 2.0. Implosion involves a contraction, a telescoping, a collapse of opposing poles in on one another. The digitality of phenomena makes them much more amenable to implosion. The possibilities for implosion in the digital world are endless. There are no physical barriers to limit, at least for very long, implosion in that world. It is this, of course, that lies at the heart of the ability to remix and mashup sound, photos, text and much else on the Internet.

Then there is the idea of simulations and the argument that we live in “the age of simulation”. Simulations are copies, even copies of copies. This idea of copies is particularly relevant in the Internet age which is a world of perfect copies without limit. The fact that copies are both unlimited and perfect (e.g. through file-sharing) makes the possibility of creating simulations on the Internet greater than ever before.

Simulations are not only copies, but they are also fakes. It is arguable that web-based locales bring the age of simulation to perhaps its highest point thus far. This is epitomized by the Sims and Second Life, as well as other artificial life simulations and games of various sorts. There are few, if any, material realities that restrict the ability to create simulations in these worlds. Indeed, there is nothing in these worlds but simulations.

The hyperreal is more real than real; more beautiful than beautiful; truer than true. It is beyond reality in every way. The Internet involves sites that are more real than comparable sites in the material world. Amazon.com has infinitely more books on sale than a bricks-and-mortar book stores and no parking lot based flea market can compare to the offerings on eBay. Hyperreal sex is available on many sites on the Internet. Remixes and mashups of photographs, videos, and the like are well-suited to producing pornographic images that are more real than real.

Ultimately, we can be seen as living in a fractal age where things proliferate endlessly and expand like a virus or a cancer.  There is no goal other than endless proliferation. The Internet is legendarily viral with all sorts of texts and images, as well as viruses and spam, proliferating endlessly.

An interesting idea in this context is the strength of the weak. In this case the weak are the individual users of the Internet and social networking sites. Their strength comes from the fact that their voices, while weak individually, become powerful when they are combined. Thus, for example, sites on the Internet that users visit individually can, when taken together, rise to the top when links are analyzed by Google’s algorithms. More dramatically, as in the Arab Spring, powerless individuals can come together, for example via Facebook and Twitter, and form a powerful revolutionary group.

The postmodern world is obscene since everything is made visible, broadcast, and so forth. The Internet is obscene because it is characterized by endless information and communication as well as never-ending social commentary,

Baudrillard’s most important anticipation of the current reality lies in his notion of symbolic exchange which involves the general and reversible processes of giving and receiving. This anticipates Chris Anderson’s world of the free, especially on the Internet. Those involved in the free world of the Internet offer gifts- additions to a Wikipedia entry, sharing a file, adding code to Linux, etc. In return, they receive various gifts including the knowledge Wikipedia has to offer, files from others, and the use of Linux. This symbolic exchange is not limited to a specific exchange of goods, but is rather continuous and unlimited.

The postmodern ideas employed here, and many others, are ideally suited to an analysis of the Internet and social networking. In fact, in many cases they seem to be more applicable today than they did when they were first created decades ago. In many ways, postmodern social theory can be said to have anticipated today’s (and even more tomorrow’s) realities and to have provided us with a toolkit full of concepts to analyze that world.

Of course, we should not be satisfied with extant concepts. Rather, we should relate them to new realities in order to help us create a set of new concepts and theories that will not only help us today, but will, hopefully, put us in a better position to analyze coming changes on the Internet and in social networking.

New Cathedral of Consumption

The last half of the twentieth century was characterized by the rise of- to use a concept I coined- “cathedrals of consumption” such as shopping malls, mega-malls, big-box stores, and the like. However, in the 21st century these consumption sites are all showing signs of distress (e.g. dead or increasingly vacant malls). There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important and most likely to increase in significance is the growth of online cathedrals of consumption led, of course, by Amazon.com. While it is not a material space like the classic cathedrals of consumption, its virtual space is, like its forerunners, spectacular, in the Guy DeBord’s sense of the term.

Amazon’s spectacle is derived from an unlimited virtual space, the seemingly endless array of products that can be offered and purchased there, its ease of use (one need not physically travel to the site), and the speed with which an order can be placed and received by express delivery. In fact, Amazon has set as its goal the same day delivery of at least some orders.

But this is in many ways a different kind of spectacle than that offered at the classic brick and mortar cathedrals of consumption.Until such time as we have computers that can grind out material products in our homes, there remains a need for material structures from which  orders can delivered. To this end Amazon.com has created huge- in one case million-square foot- warehouses already in existence in Nevada and Arizona and soon to be built in several other locations. The spectacle here, as in most cathedrals of consumption, is the sheer size of the site and the many things on offer there.

However, there is an important difference. While classic cathedrals of consumption offered spectacles to enchant themselves in order to attract droves of consumers, no customers are drawn to Amazon’s warehouses. Therefore, these warehouses do not need to conceal from consumers (since none will find their way there) what classic cathedrals of consumption had to hide- the rational, especially efficient, systems that lay at their core. The spectacle of the warehouse is not created with the consumer in mind, but with the ways it will interface with other elements of a highly integrated and efficient system that includes the website, the warehouse, express delivery companies, truckers, and most importantly airports and airplanes. In fact, as is already the case with the distribution centers for FedEx and UPS, Amazon’s warehouses could become the center of the aerotropoli of the future. These are cities built around massive airports (instead of the old system of building airports in the middle of, or near, major cities) with the focus on efficiently moving products and people around the globe.

The sheer size of a brick and mortar cathedral of consumption like Wal-Mart makes it obvious to the consumer that it is highly rationalized. However the immaterial nature of a website like that of Amazon.com, as well as the fact that no customers will ever see or visit its huge materialized warehouses, makes it easier to conceal the rational system at Amazon’s core. This, in turn, makes it seem more magical, more enchanted than material cathedrals of consumption and therefore highly attractive to consumers; an irresistible lure.