The Haves and Have Nots: Comparing Materialism and Morality in Sociotechnical Contexts

“Man – no Woman in Heidegger – is possessed by technology, and it is a complete illusion to believe that we can master it.” – Bruno Latour

 

Reading this week’s texts about technology’s distributed agency while on the Metro was a bit odd for me. When considering Latour’s thoughts on technologies cementing the identities of its users, I began questioning the lifestyles of the passengers around me.

By now, we can agree that the use of media conveys a particular message about its social value and function – “The medium is the message.” Retracing our steps, we can recall the in-class discussions about signs, representations and interpretants. The affordance of objects cannot be entirely dissected from where it fits in culture and society, which are entirely subjective realms. So, Calvin Klein undergarments serve the same function as Fruit of the Loom, but the former garners more acclaim than the latter. An experiment on Brain Games shows this:

Cakes of Deception (as seen on Brain Games)

Bruno Latour’s theory of the materialist and the moralist really drives this concept home for me. The materialist believes that we are defined by our possessions and our technologies have a way of deblackboxing who we are. Assumptions are often made about the lack or abundance of tangible objects we possess, particularly from a socioeconomic perspective. For example, quiet observation can illustrate much about metro transit passengers. Imagine two passengers sitting adjacent to one another; for the sake of conversations, let’s say they are of the opposite sex. The woman totes an eReader device with Beats by Dre headphones plugged in, and sports a Pandora bracelet, Cartier frames and Christian Loubotin pumps. Conversely, the male is wearing Wrangler jeans with holes in them, a vintage starter jacket, no jewelry and isn’t reading a book. The technologies or objects of both subjects can provide a context for the user’s lifestyle. One could assume that the woman is wealthier than the man due to her possession of commoditized goods. One could even confirm these preconceptions based on where the two passengers get off on the Metro, thanks to gentrification methods and increased cost of living in inner cities.

On the other hand, the moralist concept centers on being unchanged by external factors – you either innately are or are not. I would have to side against this belief, in saying that technology’s strong hold on its user is observable even in the minutest of circumstances. Latour assers that our illusions about technology trickle into our discourses and image representations. Paired with consumerism and self-inflicted urges to obtain the mirror image (see Lacan), we as consumers fall into the trap of trying to fill voids with new or even antiquated technologies. Think about when you were a kid and you saw the commercial for the all-new Crayola 128-piece crayon set – you convinced yourself you needed it to do or become something. Let’s say in this case, the crayon set would jumpstart your aspirations to be an illustrator. Without the technology, your aspiration cannot fully come into fruition – at least you thought. But with it, you become different. You were suddenly happier and more equipped for drawing. You were manipulated by technology. Lacan’s theory of the mirror image, or the perfect self, feeds off of this social-technical interplay in the capitalist-consumerism spectrum. Not only does it change how one sees him or herself, but also one is perceived by others. Advertising is guilty of gratifying our dreams and desires by way of pushing products into our senses. The motto engrained into coerced buying is: Purchase ______ to become (a better) ____ .

Do you have $300, a license and a bank account? Then you can drive away with this new car! 

You have a paintbrush and paint? You’re an artist and you’re already halfway there. Participate in our artfest.

Do you have a better idea than this? Visit this site and invent your own product!

On a grander scale, when artists gain recognition through label signing and increased record sales, they acquire more monetary value for their “hit” records. Often times, the content of their art changes due to the constraints of the system they’re in – demand from record labels versus demand from fans (see Kanye West).

With all of these scenarios and concepts brought into the mix, it’s clear that our wants and ultimate gratification/consumption of goods and services places us in a master-slave dialectic in which we are shaped, thus controlled, by the very objects we use.