Shopping And The Design Of Mobile Apps As Inwardness (Colbey Reid)

CC0-Public-Domain-2-1000x450One of the hazards of living in great place when you’re a student is the knowledge that when you’re done with school, you will probably have to leave there to find work.

That isn’t a dilemma that plagues all professions, but it is exactly the problem that confronted me after I earned my PhD from the University of Washington in Seattle, a city that I called home for a decade and in which I could happily have permanently settled.

I had studied English literature, which is not a field known for its thriving academic job market. When I received an offer from a small college in a small city in southern Pennsylvania, both places I had never heard of before applying for work there, I knew that I was lucky to get it. But my husband and I still hesitated to move there.

We were worried about what it would be like to move from a hip urban center to a languishing post-industrial ghost town surrounded by farming communities.

He was a drummer with an encyclopedic knowledge of Indy music and film. I loved old books and the downtown boutique where I worked one summer while I was finishing my dissertation, a place called Alhambra whose stylish Turkish owners sold dresses I couldn’t afford by international designers like Bahar Korchan, Nanette Lepore, and Jason Wu. We both loved tapas and a French restaurant called “Le Pichet.

Though the job prospects in rural Pennsylvania looked oddly good—my offer was competitive, and he could continue to work for Microsoft as a telecommuter—we wondered what we would do in our off-hours if we moved there. And so it was that I made the decision to accept my first academic job: preoccupied by the concerns of a tourist. Was there good food? Art? Music? History? And secretly, but importantly: what about shopping?

My friends from the UW and I were not the kind of people who spent Saturday afternoons at the mall, loaded down with packages. When Taschen’s Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping was released with great fanfare in 2001, we were the kind of people who understood that the designers’ assertion that “the twenty-first century will be remembered as the point where urban could no longer be understood without shopping” was a critique.

We were not gladdened by the news that shopping might be “the last remaining form of public activity,” and that it was “infiltrating,” through “a battery of increasingly predatory forms,” “almost every aspect of urban life.” We wanted to believe that there still existed forms of pleasure and social connection that did not involve economic transactions.

But we were also the kind of people who read about Helga Crane, the Harlem Renaissance-era protagonist of Quicksand who spends her last dollar on an embroidered purse, and understood why she did it.  Like Helga, after a “taxing day’s work” we wanted to take refuge in “[O]riental silk,” the “bright covers of…books,” a “brass bowl crowded with many-colored nasturtiums,” and a “blue Chinese carpet” lit by the sun.

There was our official stance of anti-consumerism and our desire not to be materialistic, for sure. But there was also, in the Milton scholar Stanley Fish’s unforgettable words, “the unbearable ugliness of Volvos.”

I remembered my good friend from graduate school, who told me at the Modern Literature Association (MLA) national meeting that she—who had once railed against visitors to Seattle who frequented Starbucks instead of the local coffee institution Vivaldi, which has since gone out of business—had been driving to the Victoria’s Secret in Buffalo, an hour from the New York town where she worked as an American Studies professor, to look at pretty underwear.

In the end, a television commercial for online shopping helped me to make up my mind about the Pennsylvania job. The ad aired in around 2004 and featured a high fashion model in a strappy evening gown paired with Industrial styled thigh-high boots, and stomping some rough-and-tumble little Main Street like it was a catwalk in Paris.

Was it Montana? Wyoming? North Dakota? It was hard to tell. Shot in black and white and rocking a Nancy Sinatra soundtrack, the advertisement pointed out that wherever this town was, couture—which was fancy clothes, but also glamor, and culture, and ideas—could get there. “These boots are made for walking,” Nancy said, of the thigh-highs. In the commercial, a farmer looked on—dubiously.

But it was true: those boots, with their gorgeously improbable high-function-reconfigured-as-elaborate-embellishment design scheme, had stepped right out of Vogue and into—Anywhere, U.S.A—using the Internet as their dusty highway.

What is the difference between living in the country or the city when, as Joshua Meyrowitz put it in No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior (1986), Western civilization has possessed no true sense of place since the invention of television?

For Meyrowitz, the placelessness of the post-TV era is the product of that electronic medium’s ability to shatter boundaries between “front stage” and “backstage” behaviors as well as between the types of knowledge possessed by members of different cultures, adults and children, men and women, and the powerful elite and everyone else.

That is the source of the intense pleasure nearly 12 million viewers have found in watching ABC’s “Scandal,” the contemporary Shonda Rhimes political melodrama. From my family room I can see what a fictional President of the United States does with Olivia Pope in the Oval Office, while standing in the video monitor’s blind spot.

A public official’s backstage becomes my television’s center stage, and so an object in my home becomes a direct link to one of the most public spaces in America at precisely the moment its inhabitant is behaving like he might in his bedroom.

A vertiginous disorientation takes place when this private citizen is transported into that public office, and that public office is suddenly in my house, oblivious to the actual and symbolic differences between a living room and the White House (which is itself, now that we’re thinking about it, a paradoxical combination of private home and public institution). “Scandal” simply replicates on television the effect of the many new technologies besides television responsible for the intensification of placelessness that has occurred since 1986.

Because of these technologies, “television” is now more of an extraordinarily successful category of apps than a material object, insofar as “t.v.” is no longer the name of a piece of furniture and has become an experience that happens to a person with the help of a phone, tablet, laptop, desktop, or other transmitting device (I am indebted to Dr. Dennis Weiss, a Professor of Philosophy at York College of Pennsylvania, for the insight that software engineers are “all looking for an App as successful as television,” and for sending me this interesting link on the topic).

Shopping has gone the same route.  Working under the direction of Rem Koolhaas in 2001 Harvard designers linked the evolution of shopping to the invention of objects like counters, mannequins, mirrors, roads, lighting, topiaries, air conditioners, and escalators.

But the latest retail mechanism—mobile shopping apps—has made every last one of those inventions irrelevant. Like television, shopping is now an experience we seek more than it is a place we go. And what is more, mobile shopping applications have transformed “arguably the last remaining form of public activity” into something we can do from the sofa.

As Sze Tsung Leong points out, by the twenty-first century institutions and public works like town centers, streets, churches, airports, train stations, museums, hospitals, schools, the military and the Internet were all shaped by shopping. An ad for an airport reads “It’s a Mall…It’s an Airport…It’s Both: The Latest Trend in Terminals.”

A textbook clipping instructs architects on “Designing a Mall-Like Ambience for Worship.” Headlines announce “Grand Central Reborn As a Beaux-Arts Mall” and that if “You Didn’t Go To Harvard You Can Still Wear the Shoes.” Leong even assembles news spots explaining how a U.S. Navy Admiral applied what he learned at Harvard Business School to turn a Norfolk Naval Base into a moneymaking theme park by turning warships into tourist attractions.

These days, however, institutions can engage shopping behaviors without dedicating brick-and-mortar space to them. I am more likely to shop for embryos online than at my local hospital, for instance. The discretion with which we can digitally shop allows us to search for and purchase goods that it would be considered tasteless to materially house in a structure.

Furthermore, specific shopping behaviors that would one have required a good deal of public foot-traffic have been virtually eliminated by apps that accomplish the work digitally.

Bargain hunting, once a shopping mainstay and source of considerable physical exertion, used to involve forms of public engagement like standing in line, travel, negotiating, and conversations with friends and strangers. It can now be accomplished without leaving the house or speaking to a single person through the digital interventions of LivingSocial, Google Shopper, or ShopSavvy.

These shopping apps do things like compare prices, provide reviews, stream videos, and even let you know if anyone else you know has “liked” the same deal. With Groupon, people can get the kind of special deal from a business that once might have involved cultivating a relationship with the owner. An app called “Decide” will help you quantify decisions you might otherwise discuss with friends and merchants.

And with PriceGrabber’s popularity-sorting function, you don’t even have to look around while you’re out walking around to know if the thing you’re thinking about buying is “in.”

All of these apps are designed for mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, so shoppers who are actually in a retail store can avoid looking around in other stores or talking to the sales staff. Given how much this process diminishes or even eliminates interactions with marketplace strangers, cities, or even suburban strip malls, it becomes hard to imagine the Harvard designers arguing that this kind of shopping constitutes “urban engagement.” Has shopping thrown out the city entirely, in less than fifteen years?

Mobile shopping apps may mark the beginning of the end of the final remnant of urbanity and public engagement in our time. If so, shopping is not undergoing a radical transformation because of them, according to Leong. In his review of the impact of air conditioning on modern shopping, he observes that shopping has always “historically preferred to do away with the outside, seeing nature as an unpredictable interference with the unfolding of commerce” (93).

Indeed, Leong writes, the only thing that is truly reflective of shopping’s inner nature is reinvention. Transformation is its “survival apparatus,” a mechanism “that seizes on any technique for squeezing out a pathway toward life” (135).

Shopping “will always find another vehicle by which to survive and expand.” In the case of mobile shopping apps, information is the means by which shopping can continue to expand—in this case ever inward, as is its wont. Through this new wave of technological inventions, shopping will spread into even more areas of our lives, including the most personal and private

In the end, back in 2005, my husband and I pulled the trigger and moved to Pennsylvania. We were there for eight years, during which time we became close golfing (husband) and drinking (me) buddies with the owner of the Crossfit gym where we worked out.

He told us what athletic shoes to buy, where to get them, and when they were on sale—among other useful things about the comparative virtues of different styles of exercise, jump ropes, gluten-free granola, and beef jerky websites. Since we bought many of our groceries at the local farmer’s market every Saturday, we got to know several of the vendors by name.

One of them, the owner of an antique stand called Alley Cats, also knew my name and once called me at home to let me know that after all, she was willing to take a lower price for a mint-condition 1930s peignoir I had admired that weekend.

The butcher where we bought all our meat knew that I was always forgetting my wallet at home, and told me it was fine to pay next time whenever I did. He also let me know on more than one occasion that my husband had already been in and bought everything we needed that morning. I took tango lessons in a local teacher’s basement with my favorite deli’s owner’s son, after he heard that I’d been driving all the way to Lancaster for lessons he’d found locally.

While we were dancing I learned he wanted to get his MBA, and offered to help him with his business school application essays. In exchange, he made exquisite cheese recommendations, bought my coffee whenever I came into the deli, and let me stay at my favorite table an hour after closing on Saturdays, grading papers while his family gathered to drink wine and talk.

All of these sorting, choosing, hunting, finding, bargaining, and paying shopping activities took place, as it turned out, in more public and conventionally urban ways than I had ever imagined attempting when I lived in Seattle, where the vast deli selection made my cheese-buying behaviors a little too erratic for becoming friends with a merchant.

One turn the present reflection could take is to note that all of these activities are more likely to occur today via app, especially if they are linked to an urban or suburban setting. This observation could be fodder for the fair criticism of some of the social implications of mobile shopping apps. But it is also the manifestation of one of those strange surprises of modern life whereby small towns can suddenly become more public-oriented in mood and fact than urban or suburban places

Another turn this reflection can take is to prompt questions about the new kind of relationship being forged for urban and rural spaces with public and private acts, particularly as mobile technologies become increasingly the norm for shoppers. In so inquiring, we might better comprehend, in Shakespeare’s words, how our commercial innovations might cause institutions we care about to “suffer a sea change/ Into something rich and strange” without giving up our ability, and responsibility, to co-create what is happening.

Colbey Emmerson Reid is Director of the Consumer Innovation Consortium (CIC) and professor of practice in the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University. Reid has over 16 years of teaching and research experience in literature and composition  as well as experience creating and overseeing study abroad programs and an interdisciplinary research and lecture forum. Reid has also chaired an institutional grant-awarding committee to promote faculty development at York College, where she was formerly Associate Professor of English.   Her scholarly activities have focused on the topics of communication, innovation, creativity and design. She received the Leon Edel award in 2009 for her essay on the language of accounting in Henry James and the Fredson Bowers awards in 2011 for her essay on the relationship between early 20th century design innovation, consumption habits, and avant-garde poetry.

Originally published March 3, 2015.

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