Saturday, October 29, 2011

Truly Unthink(able)

It's certainly not surprising that many political organizations (I'm looking at some Democratic Party-affiliated groups here), and many corporations, want to cash in on the new activism in any way possible, in order to sell stuff. This is at least as old as citizen-activism itself, and picked up speed significantly in the late 1960s, when Madison Avenue wanted to make advertising bucks off the "youth revolution." In fact, the second-ever issue of National Lampoon in 1970 had an article, 'Crossing the Rubicam,' ("Up against the wall-to-wall carpeting, Max Factor!") about how the revolution would be sold back to you so that you could be branded. Damn, that piece predated the arrival of Adbusters magazine by almost 20 years!

It's hard to get mad at all the new corporate-sponsored efforts to "stick it to the man," and some scarcely seem worth mentioning, though the irony and paradoxes associated with protesters at Occupy Together often seem overwhelming, and become a constant source of satire for Fox News and others. It might be unfair of me to place the launch of social-networking site in this category, because it never claimed to be an aggregator of nonprofit and activist networks - it only claimed to be a killer of Facebook by respecting privacy. But because it moved into beta during the height of Occupy actions, many commentators have claimed that it's the social network to help bring about the revolution - or at least smack down Facebook and Google+ in one fell swoop.

If it mildly failed at that task, it would not be worth a blog item here. But there is something more insidious going on at Unthink, something I think Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn and cultural critic Thomas Frank will have fun dissecting. The site creates protected zones similar to Google+, and in that sense is an interesting spin from the latter. But it also collects information about the type of activist a person wants to be, and attempts to correlate that with how innovative a user might be in trying new technology. And it brings in the concept of brand loyalty and brand equity, which suggests that Unthink would like to get multiple big-business sponsors, and create databases of how a person might see him/herself as green, culturally liberal, economically collectivist, etc.

At this point, a civil libertarian might sit up and say, "What? Perfect consumer marketing databases? This sounds like something both large corporations and the CIA/NSA might want to invest in, even more so than Facebook or Twitter!" Maybe so, but I'm not trying to make a paranoid reach here. Instead, my complaint is about assumptions that are more subtle and pervasive.

Remember, Occupy Wall Street grew out of Adbusters, and the magazine has a larger critique than economic or political specifics. It makes the cultural observation that the individual has been wooed over from the former role of citizen, to the role of corporate consumer, defined through buying and selling in the market, first and foremost. It's a point Thomas Frank has made eloquently in the books What's the Matter with Kansas?, The Conquest of Cool, and One Market Under God. Lasn and Frank have been quick to point out that Occupy protesters might be a wee bit hypocritical when they purchase supplies at Wal-Mart, hold a sign along with a Starbucks frappuccino, and carry their Androids or iPhones with them everywhere.

Now none of us can be purists, though some try harder than others to divorce themselves from branding, eating locally, bartering or buying green, etc. I'm not arguing for ascetical purism. But I'm suggesting that when a new social networking site claims to be the anti-Facebook and to divorce itself from corporate malfeasance, and then collects information on how the subscriber wants to use high-tech toys and adhere to brand equity, they are performing the worst type of sins that the Occupy Together movement is trying to address. I don't think that Unthink is a conscious trojan horse for Apple, Nike, Samsung, and the federal government. Instead, it's worse in some ways through its own unawareness that there is a problem here. Its founders fail to realize that the key to 21st-century activism is enacting the divorce from corporate branding, and to a certain extent, that includes distancing yourself from high-tech gadget fetishism. The Unthink profile reinforces the image of the Occupy Wall Street protester with the iPhone 4S and Starbucks coffee, and yes, there is something wrong with that picture.

1 comment:

Grace Episcopal Church of Ludington said...

Three words that sum up our culture, politics and mindset now: everything's for sale. Sigh.