24 March 2010

But Today, Ads Collect Us

I’m inaugurating this blog with a quick response to a question posed by Mimi Zeiger for the remix, revisit, remaster project. Her assignment was to juxtapose two texts—Alison & Peter Smithson's "But Today We Collect Ads" and Reyner Banham's "The Great Gizmo”, with additional ideas and commentary.

Peter and Alison Smithson’s text “But Today We Collect Ads” was conceived in the wake of their involvement with Theo Crosby’s 1956 exhibit This is Tomorrow. It continues an earlier conference held in Paris that contemplated the drawing together of the fine and applied arts. In this essay, the Smithsons advocate learning from how mass advertising was creating a common language among consumers that contextualized new innovations in home goods and technologies before the products themselves reached the British marketplace. The Smithsons believed that this new language was more successfully penetrating and shaping the desires of popular culture than either high art or architecture. Ads were particularly interesting to the Smithsons because they illustrated that marketers were not just selling novel goods, but the idea of products and the sense of what moods and emotions they could inspire. This was not a new position; it had already been suggested in psychology through the work of Sigmund Freud, and in business practice through the adaptation of Freud’s principles by his American nephew, Edward Bernays.

The advertising style that the Smithsons call “Pop” was a recent innovation. Advertisements developed in the United States during the aftermath of World War II had moved away from the direct and dry Unique Selling Propositions of the early 1950’s (where products were sold based on their merits and features) toward exciting and suggestive narratives that almost tangentially included consumer goods amongst free significations with much less regard to use value. These narratives existed not only as the traditional paper advertisements to which the Smithsons had greater access, but also as television commercials and a growing number of product placements in films and television.

This process (largely developed by the now famous Mad Men of Madison Avenue) was not only used to manage markets, but was also endorsed and researched by the United States government to maintain a docile postwar society focused less on feelings of racial bigotry, economic disparity or social discontent and to help create a more unified and inclusive group identity centered around the desire to consume goods from an available field of capitalist plenty that could be purchased through money earned as members of a productive labor force.

For the Smithsons, this vision of a mass consumer culture appears to be liberating. Gone from their version of modernism is an overtly political or utopian social ambition, replaced with the presentation and display of desires against a blank architectural background. The Smithsons’ vision of modernism depends on a population of consumers who will constantly fill and organize the emptiness of architectural space. Some of this desire can be explained as a minimalist consequence of post-war scarcity, but their authors’ predisposition toward science fiction and fantasy reveals a greater attraction toward curating short-term novelties and futurisms while maintaining a more enduring architectural stoicism.

By collecting ads, the Smithsons hoped to gain part of the advertiser’s understanding of what is “fine and desirable for the ruling class, and therefore ultimately that which is desired by all society”. For them, new innovations in architecture would have to learn from, adjust to or be replaced by new innovations in mass production. The objects and technologies being created to re-fit existing homes were already taking attention away from architecture, showing instead items that could be successfully placed into any style existing home at a much lower cost than new construction. In an environment of post war scarcity and potential civil unrest the Smithsons hoped that the motivating forces behind obtaining your desires and feelings of belonging to a group with a shared language of mass expression would help England rebuild itself not in the utopian vision of heroic modernism, but as a newly re-industrialized nation with a plentiful and miraculous world of exciting consumer goods.

Banham’s essay “The Great Gizmo” was written almost six years later. It explores what he perceives as America’s fascination with gizmos, or portable things that do things. If the Smithsons were looking toward physical ads for evidence of mass advertising’s influence, Banham looks toward the purchased objects themselves. Gone from his list of gizmos is the erotic symbolism of desire that permeates the Smithsons’ essay, and in its place is a celebration of the portable efficiency and convenience of achieved automation. Banham surveys examples of mechanical and electronic industrial goods to illustrate that the typical American’s response to dreams is to purchase a piece of equipment to make them realized.

Key to this idea is Banham’s image of a lone welder walking through a salt flat desert carrying a portable welding plant toward some unknown project. The gizmo is both a fetish and a tool, granting the satisfaction of independence brought about by horsepower and productive function. But to the contemporary reader, this image is immediately problematic. In today’s world, Banham’s notion of labor is largely obsolete. Throughout contemporary America, there is a surplus of portable welding plants and little demand for them. The concept of work has become much more abstract and ritualized over the last half century with office work replacing the prevalence of factory labor. Vending machines, Toyotas and outboard motors were only useable on weekends and holidays and could not alleviate the boredom of being chained to a desk for the other five days of the week.

Late century offices tried to become more fun and humane than their mid-century counterparts. Ideas borrowed from the Quickborner Team led to open office planning and ended with visions of the Dot.com office as playground environment. Compulsory entertainment, however, is not the same thing as freedom. It wasn’t until the availability of notebook computers, spread of affordable cell phones and even spread of high-capacity DSL and Fiber lines that a new escape seemed possible. If there was to be any hope of freedom from office work, it was to come by working outside of the office itself, either remotely from home or as a freelance consultant/creative who traveled from place to place. Portable computers and cell phones allowed modern laborers to begin carrying relatively vast amount of resources with them including libraries, research labs, creative studios, private offices, and conference centers that allowed instant face time with nearly any of our coworkers and associates.
As I’m sure every response to this query makes clear, it is the development of smart devices like the iPhone and iPad that make looking at Banham relevant once more. These smart devices are the contemporary gizmo and make the mobile office dream a practicable reality. Gone from this new generation of gizmos are any traces of mechanical function, leaving behind a single blank screen. Past a point, the ubiquitous object has become a re-invention of the Smithsons’ neutral background facilitating the availability of software to perform theoretically limitless abstract functions within a technological framework. Largely these functions center on the ability to manage and create content, and the ability to share this content efficiently among the largest possible participatory audience.

It is clearly understood that most apps are meant to be free or sold at a minimal cost, funded instead by sponsored links and pop-up ads. It is also generally accepted that these ads and apps track users interests and habits in order to better direct and field future searches and advertisements toward a more personalized set of interests, culminating a half decade’s development of target marketing and analysis.

(A brief and certainly flawed understanding of this development can be outlined as follows: First, commercials and ads were paired with appropriate content. Next these ads were fundamentally integrated into stories as product placements. Third, Public opinion surveys taken in readers digest polls and telephone surveys allowed a feedback cycle that integrated the mass markets response to ads back into ad campaigns at a large scale. Fourth, purchasing patterns were traced by firms like Claritas to a consumer’s home addresses creating an even greater understanding of lifestyle demographics and clusters that would allow region-specific modulations of campaigns. Finally, large online companies like Amazon, Netflix, Google and Facebook collect browsing patterns over the course of a users history and tailor search results, linked sponsorships, and recommendations custom shaped in real time.)

Ads are no longer passive narrative references, but links that record our interests and associated desires in a feedback loop. They report back to the companies that pay for them a variety of types of information including whether you linked to an ad from Barnes and Noble or Pornotube, what search terms led you there, how long you stayed on the site and how deeply did you penetrated the site’s architecture.

In this environment, it is not we who collect ads, but the gizmo that lets ads collect our information. Ads have become readers of the people that read them. As every aspect of online content becomes more fully and seamlessly integrated with sponsorships and data mining, an ominous potential unfolds: despite the Smithson’s early enthusiasm, it is increasingly less possible for us to understand the world in which we live through media alone. The aggregation of many tips of many long tails may frequently seem like a survey of mass taste, but really just signifies so much surface noise. We are all the center of our own small worlds, cool hunters on the verge of breaking the next big trend. The world of our online experience is shaped for us by our own desires and fed back to us without explanation, creating a window that reinforces a perspective we have already seen but somehow always seems to be new and full of novelty. Even news reports are geared toward attracting the most readers for any given demographic or taste. There are a few exceptions to this rule; Google news was partially designed to try and feed Americans toward more balanced reportage from sources that they otherwise would not see including business publications and global news sources like Al Jazeera and the BBC, but these occurrences are few and far between. Customizable subscription services like Google Reader based on user set preferences are increasingly replacing general surveys and newspaper style collections of reports.

It is no wonder that Gallup polls and opinion surveys are so fascinating. Who among us really knows what the mass consensus is, especially when every new event is relayed in real time as a possible tipping point and game changer? Even our social networks are increasingly becoming insular, replacing the need for a general public. The presentation of self as a listing of tastes, endorsements, and status updates listed in advance direct us toward connections with others that share our current tastes instead of risking the cultivation of uncomfortable new ones. Facebook’s underlying financial logic depends on it. The hope is that somehow advertisers can somehow take advantage of the predisposition of people to assemble into groups of like-minded people who nearly relieved of social friction share cultural tastes among themselves in a peer-to-peer network of trust and authenticity. These groups would take on much of the work of advertising by sharing videos and other generated content on behalf of large companies. The system is tipped toward a community of mutual interest. Whether it is advocating toothpaste or policy, real moments of debate and dislike can be eradicated by peer pressure and third party endorsement.

Peter and Alison Smithson could not have seen the degree to which mass advertising and marketing analysis has established our worldview. Ads have established our whole pattern of life -principles, morals, aims, aspirations, and standard of living and we are powerless against them. We have lost the measure of media’s intervention. It isn’t clear any longer what desires are our own and what are fed to us, the workings of the gizmo are now invisible and the labor it performs is not just done by us, but also to us.

If products like the iPhone are the ultimate gizmo for our current time, the function they mainly seem to take on is maintaining constant access to a tailor-made media, a world of image culture that more and more becomes integrated with advertising and product placement.

If in earlier times, architects had to make an effort to collect ads with hopes of transforming the world. Today, advertisements are collected for us by the gizmos we told advertisers we wanted, and they progressively transform the world into something more mobile, but remarkably less free.


  1. We feel that there is a strong Debordian argument here... Ads collecting us, doing something to us, turning us into powerless consumers in between a monstrous spectacle...
    Guy Debord introduced his famous polemic 'Society of the Spectacle' in 1967, maintaining that the spectacle is a static “social relationship between people that is mediated by images”, more specifically by ads, we might say.
    Debord's spectacle is a totalizing and monolithic formation with a structural autonomy implied by capitalism and opposed to the individual. It is a figuration that represents a plurality of modern institutions, imposing an illusionary unity onto a more heterogeneous field of culture. It is a quite mystic functioning of power that turns the individual into a passive and consuming spectator.
    Debord's first thesis tells us, “all that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” He outlines the development of the modern society, which is characterized by economy's domination and in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation. Debord recognizes a kind of development, like you do in your text: In the early phase of the consumer society, social life has been demoted from being into having, determining all human activity. The present stage displays the complete merging of social life with the commodities and the shift from having to appearing:
    "all effective 'having' must now derive both its immediate prestige and its ultimate raison d'être from appearances. At the same time all individual reality, being directly dependent on social power and completely shaped by that power, has assumed a social character. Indeed, it is only inasmuch as individual reality is not that it is allowed to appear.”
    It is about an appearance that is the illusion of the image. For Debord, the visible world becomes a series of autonomous images which dominate the gaze, and which reduce visual experience to the uniform perception of pure appearances. These appearances are deceived and monopolized within the field of a continuous spectacle. It has not just transformed “real life” into representation, but also inflicts the “nightmare of imprisoned modern society”, giving the subjects no other role than that of passive spectators. Under the society of the spectacle, they turn into the deceived spectators of their lives rather than truly living them.
    Of course, in this perspective, the Smithsons look like naive victims of the society of the spectacle. Yet, they look like this, only if we assume a purely contemplative position in this society. We, however, recognize the contrary: we are living in a society, in which contemplation and passive consumption is no longer possible at all. We are forced by all those gizmos and blogs to participate and intervene, we are forced to act, at least, if we want to become (blog-)authors. Therefore, we understand the Smithsonian message in means of strategy: strategy for authorship in times of advertisment...

  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/23/technology/23share.html?hp