Monday, July 29, 2013

Share a Coke with Stalin

Shortly after the fortieth anniversary of its hijacking hippie culture to promote a carbonated beverage, Coca-Cola launched a new campaign designed to sort-of-literally buy the world a Coke. Thanks to smartphones, Google and a series of specially designed and strategically deployed vending machines, Coca-Cola enthusiasts in select world locations would be able to purchase a can of the stuff and gift it to a foreign stranger at the chosen destination. Each gift could be accompanied by a message, and the special vending machines were engineered to record the surprised reaction of the recipients, as well as deliver a message of thanks in return. As the promotional video for the campaign solemnly concluded:
Today’s technology allows us to make good on a promise Coca-Cola made over 40 years ago, and lets users ‘Buy the World a Coke’ from the palm of their hand.
If the original hilltop ad was the multinational appropriating counterculture, this new one is the multinational posing as world superpower with global strike capability, its drone soda dispensers able to hit their target with pinpoint accuracy at the speed at which the internet thinks. Google was the ideal partner for such a project, as its fanatical dedication to superimposing layers upon layers of maps over every last inhabited inch of the planet matches perfectly Coca-Cola’s famous desire and capacity to reach the most remote corners of the world.

At the same time as this gimmick was being promoted amongst the relatively select few (Project Re: Brief wasn’t paired with any major media campaign), Coca-Cola Oceania was busy pursuing another kind of personal association with the company’s iconic product. Its Share a Coke campaign announced itself via the appearance on store shelves of cans and bottles of Coke imprinted with a range of common names. The genius of it is that you knew from the start what it was about, and even if you didn’t, if you happened to have a child of a certain age (shall we say: somewhat lower than the company’s stated young adult target) they would soon let you know: it made the world’s most common, most rigidly mass produced, most identical-to-itself product on Earth suddenly exciting and unique. You almost had to applaud the cynicism of the operation: how it manipulated the base human instinct, as old as language, to perceive magical, shamanic qualities in the sounds or symbols that people use to mean you.

In Australia the campaign reportedly resulted in a 4% increase in sales, making it an extraordinary success. But it was a parody of society, on those grocery store shelves: a statistical construct generated from a table of the 150 most common names in the birth register, as false and hollow as the idea that there could be a meaningful connection between the product and its customers. Coca-Cola would have us believe that people took the concept further than the immediate impulse to buy and consume, attaching great emotional significance to randomly encountering one’s name, or that of a relative or friend, whilst grocery shopping. Even using a bottle of Coke to declare one’s undying love. (Shaun and Laura, if you really exist: I wish you every happiness.)

As for the less commonly named, they could order their special bottle online, or – when the campaign migrated to the UK, this year – participate in the special Share a Coke tour and get their name printed on a label on the spot. The choice of names here is larger, but still the company is not quite ready to print any old thing on one of its labels, so if your first name is particularly uncommon you might have to bring proof of identity:
Both our special Share a Coke vending machines and in-store kiosks are pre-populated with thousands of popular names. If our printing machines don’t automatically recognise the name you have requested, you may be asked to show ID to one of our brand ambassadors, such as a driving license, utility bill or passport.

This also applies if you are requesting a friend’s name, so if you think it might not be in our database, please try to bring along one of these items. If you don’t have ID, in some circumstances we may ask you to select a different name.
Or your name could be Mohammed, in which case it won’t appear on a Coke label in any store in Sweden, in spite of being common enough to qualify, because – and I’m not making this up – the company believes that ‘it is less offensive to not have that name included in the campaign, than having it on a product that is so tightly associated with the United States.’

One welcomes such absurdities and contradictions: anything to make the plan less smooth, its capture mechanism less efficient. And then there are the glitches. If I use the online app I can print any name I want. I send a virtual Coke to my friend Stalin Johnson.

There is a whiff, the faintest aroma of totalitarianism in the mega-corporation’s desire to pursue such an intimate personal connection with its customer base – a population so large as to virtually encompass everyone – and arbitrarily exclude some undesired or suspicious individuals. So as the world’s single largest merchant of high-fructose corn syrup joins the fight against obesity and type-2 diabetes, I still see a bitterest kind of irony in that other thing. That marketing on a global scale should work so well, so effortlessly, while economics and politics fail. That still now, forty years on, there are people who can utter the phrase ‘I want to buy the world a Coke’ with a straight face, and make more money than the bottom half of all nations.

The progressive promise of a connected world is that we might find new ways to communicate with one another and discover new paths to solidarity and political action on a global scale. In the meantime, we can wave our smartphones in front of a fridge and send a Coke to some guy in Brazil.

Monday, July 15, 2013

On not making a living

For me writing remains, at a profound level, significantly about not having a career.

(Alison Croggon)

So this is the time of the year when I pick a fight with Simon Wilson. Although ‘fight’ isn’t quite the right word, and besides I had honestly decided not to – after he wrote that silly essay of his on writers who waste time tweeting instead of submitting great work to his magazine – seeing as Ashleigh Young had drafted a perfect response, and so much more gracious than mine would have been. But then Wilson wrote back, and now suddenly my shoes are full of little stones that need picking out one by one.

A peasant. I refuse to tell you where this is from.

With all the talk we do about the present and future of the creative industries, I’m constantly amazed at how tenuous a grasp so many respected commentators seem to have of how they work. Writing for the Guardian last month, Suzanne Moore stated the following:
My children have been brought up in a world where they have to compete with those who will work for free. It is only a matter of time until we will all be asked to do the same. And I refuse.
This makes intuitive sense, doesn’t it? And we all know about the abuse of the institution of the internship. But can we really envisage a world in which the entirety of the media operates like The Huffington Post, cycling through an endless supply of unpaid labourers, without there being at the other end someone who will pay for creative work? And if we credit this scenario, do we really think that the solution is for individual writers to refuse to work for free, to withdraw that labour?

This shallow and demoralising apocalypticism is an all-too-regular feature of such debates, and it’s not surprising that Moore appeals in her piece to Jaron Lanier, a keen and astute observer of cultural phenomena who yet at times appears oblivious to the very existence of economics and politics. Thus he is quoted second-hand stating ‘that the internet may destroy the middle classes’. The internet. Not business, or capital. Just the technology, abstracted from society. As if such a thing even existed.

More mundanely, the reality is that exploitation in the creative industries (and everywhere else) existed well before the internet, and that new technologies have furnished capitalists, as they always do, with a new and broader set of tools with which to carry it out. The outcome of this tension – between technologies that allow to disseminate creative works in new ways, the desire of creators to find a public for their work and earn a living, and the interests pressing to extract a greater profit from the industry – is by no means pre-determined, but what is certain is that there will never be legitimate grounds to turn back and declare that ‘the internet has destroyed the middle classes’. Computer networks have no agency. Equally, insisting that people have a moral obligation to opt out (‘I refuse’) ignores the systemic nature of this struggle, which requires a collective – therefore political – solution. Quite simply (although it’s far from a simple task), workers need to show solidarity and organise. ‘Twas ever thus.

Which takes me, laboriously as ever, to Simon Wilson’s latest homily. But first, a disclaimer: I was asked to write book reviews for Metro on two occasions. The first time, I was a bit tardy in replying and by the time I did the book editor had found someone else; the second time, I turned down the assignment due to a conflict of interest that probably only existed in my head. I did conduct a brief interview for the magazine last year, for which I received no credit (this I accept was a honest mistake) but also no compensation*. I suppose it was silly of me to assume that there would be a budget line for such a relatively small job. I should have checked. This is also to say that while I’m certainly not one of the ‘top writers’ that Wilson calls to task, I do a fair amount of writing and I’m open to working for a mainstream magazine, given the right conditions and remuneration.

(* I've since been informed that the magazine's policy is to pay for such work.)

Briefly, then: if the first iteration of Wilson’s argument was that ‘top writers’ are too busy tweeting to produce the kind of bold and challenging work that he’d be happy to publish in Metro, the second one – even more strangely – is that working for money is nothing less than a duty which those same writers are neglecting. Why, asks Wilson, oh why
some of our best writers choose not to be paid for their work, by posting online or publishing in small independent outlets, when they could submit to a publication that will pay them?
Elegantly, this is the inverse of Suzanne Moore’s argument: we should not only refuse to work for free, but always and only work for money. If we don’t, implies Wilson, this will hurt the good businesses that are still willing to pay for quality writing. In fact, discerning readers and writers are in this together:
Culturally engaged, educated, participating members of society do not read, watch, listen and most of all, buy, the cultural forms for which they are the core market. It’s not the fault of the Philistines. They never bought any of this stuff or cared about it anyway. It’s us. We don’t support it the way we used to. There are lots of reasons for this, but one of them is that we can all get so much really good free stuff online – we can all feel connected to the debate without having to pay for it – that we value the old forms much less. One small example: I write a polemic in Metro lambasting writers for not submitting long-form feature ideas to the magazine, and it gets a quiet response. We post it online, and it creates a great flurry of comments – on Twitter.

There are many things happening in that paragraph, and not all of them are bad. It’s true that people who used to support the publications that carried quality writing have partly stopped doing so (case in point: I’m no longer a subscriber to The Listener). Many of us can vouch for the very reason that Wilson adduces: there’s so much we can read online for free. But it’s not that we are stingy: it’s that much of what’s written online is better. To take Ashleigh Young’s points a little further: one of the best essays of the decade, on the national event of the decade, was written on a blog; the best columnist in the country is a blogger; the best political commentary (as opposed to reporting) is to be found online, on sites too numerous to mention. Poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction thrive on the New Zealand web. While they are sometimes not as polished or technically accomplished, or the product of what Wilson would likely regard as our ‘top writers’, I would strongly argue that these kinds of online writing are consistently bolder, hence more relevant, than what one reads in print.

(Lest this claim is turned into a strawman: there are, of course, exceptions going both ways. But my single main complaint is this: that in spite of the book pages and the talent available to our mainstream magazines, together they give the picture of a country with little or no intellectual ferment, that runs on self-satisfaction, as if metaphorically stuck on page 94 of The Listener, listening to Bill Ralston drone on about 'life'. Whilst, with all its flaws, the country that one can piece together from the blogs and the independent journals and magazines is, if absolutely nothing else, alive. It's also a great deal more diverse.)

As a nation and as a culture, we have two problems: to produce and disseminate bold and relevant writing; and to sustain an industry the remunerates the best and most committed writers. But it’s very important to understand that these are two separate problems. To suggest that writers are leaving good money on the table because they are ‘satisfied with tweeting’ is grotesque. Wilson would be much better advised to turn the question inwards: seeing as I am in the enviable position of possessing a budget, why is it that I can’t attract the best writing in the country? How can I reach out to the writers that would rather ‘write online, or for independent publications’? Is it possible that my idea of what constitutes a ‘top writer’ is flawed? I just hired Matthew fucking Hooton, whose mediocre opinions these days can't be accessed in any more than twelve other publications as well as on the radio. Why didn’t I spend a week on the phone with Scott Hamilton instead, begging him to become one of my star columnists? And why am I not wearing any pants?

Really, though: those I outlined above are two separate problems. 1,500 words ago, I was going to make the post about that; about how we forgo the money sometimes, or some of the money, in exchange for the freedom to experiment with form; for the immediacy of the feedback; for the ear of a sensitive editor who doesn’t berate us for tweeting; or because we don’t know how to make that transition (in which case you should offer us guidance); or because we see the mindless dross that paid writers put out, especially in that godawful genre that is the New Zealand column, for no other reason that you, the editors (although Metro in this is better than most, to be fair), have little or no expectations of the people who fill those particular roles; or because we know that freelance rates haven’t increased in twenty years, and so we figured from the start that this wasn’t going to be a viable career, and so we carved out a space some other way, and now we are fond of that space, of the things it allows us to do.

For the most part what writers want, if they are serious about writing, is to find ways to do more of the writing they want. Becoming professionals isn’t the only way. It may not even be the best way. Not in all conditions. Not at all costs.

Alison Croggon’s beautiful essay on not having a career, to which the title of mine is a homage, is offered in lieu of a closing paragraph.

Edit: In between my writing this and my publishing this, the very good folks at Pantograph Punch have also waded in, and I neglected to mention it. Do read the piece though.

Speaking of good magazines, the Winter issue of Overland is out and it's very good.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The enlightened solution

In what you might choose to view as a coincidence, the cities of Auckland and Wellington are both engaged in a fight to eradicate street begging. Not homelessness or poverty, mind you: just begging. Auckland will likely vote later this year on an outright ban. Wellington, the more genteel capital, has opted for a measure that it has christened 'alternative giving', whereby citizens will be encouraged to donate to organizations who work with the homeless instead of the beggars themselves. Of the two initiatives, I find this one to be the most odious.

The Alternative Giving campaign relies primarily on two pieces of technology: in the initial phase, a series of posters like the one above are designed spread the message amongst the public. The posters feature a QR Code allowing smartphone users to make an instant donation, with the amount to be split evenly amongst the six participating charities. In the second phase, which is yet to be implemented, a series of "charity boxes" will be installed in begging hotspots, so that people can physically redirect the spare change they were about to give to the beggar, and put it to an economically more rational use. This is the image that is stuck in my head: that of a person begging for money, and of a passer-by reaching for his or her pocket, then putting the money inside the box instead of giving it to them. Will glances be exchanged? Will the look on the face of the alternative giver say: 'I'm doing this for your own good'? Or will in fact the gesture be accompanied by a little homily? 'You might spend this money on booze. I'm giving it to the box.'

Alternative Giving is the liberal answer to the problem of begging. Supported by the Green mayor, Celia Wade-Brown, and administered by former Alliance Councillor Stephanie Cook (this is the pair who blamed the neighbours of Michael Clarke for being insufficiently neighbourly), the initiative has been compared favourably to the Auckland ban, both by Cook herself (who called it a 'less harsh' and 'much more compassionate and pragmatic option') and by Diane Robertson of Auckland City Mission, sister organization to one of the recipients of the Wellington campaign. Criticism of Alternative Giving has also been generally less harsh, with no-one venturing to match Councillor Cathy Casey's accusation that the proposed Auckland bylaw 'treats beggars like dogs'.

Since Alternative Giving is the liberal answer to the problem of begging, its backers have to resort to a far greater degree of equivocation. The Auckland advocates – bless their black, black hearts – seem largely unperturbed that the bulk of the submissions they received came from retailers who wish to quite literally be allowed to sweep poor people away. In the more cultured, more enlightened Wellington, it is necessary for the goal to appease business owners to be carefully dissimulated. Thus begging is presented as the problem, but why or how it's left studiously vague. The Mayor said that 'it's not good for anyone to have a significant number of beggars on the streets', elegantly glossing over the issue of whether people needing to beg in the first place might be a bad thing, and for whom. A council spokesbeing lamented that people in an actual state of need stand to gain too much due to the generosity of Wellingtonians, estimating that they can accumulate (as opposed to earn, for words do matter) as much as $100 a day. Why this is a bad thing, however, he left unsaid. Some noises were also made about beggars possibly misspending the funds to buy 'alcohol or drugs', as if these were straightforward causes, as opposed to symptoms, of their economic distress. Or as if poor people shouldn’t be allowed some of those middle class vices. For their part, central city retailers approached by the Dominion Post 'reported an increase in begging overall, often among people who did not appear homeless or in obvious desperate need', as if their beef wasn't with 'real' beggars, but just the opportunist pretenders (which apparently they can spot by their 'tailored cigarettes and expensive energy drinks'. And no, I'm not making this up).

As for the effects of the policy, Councillor Cook suggested that '[t]hose who are currently perhaps 'opportunist' beggars if you like, will gradually disappear because they're not getting a result.' Why the genuine beggars won't be similarly deterred, or deterred less, I couldn't tell you. Perhaps Alternative Giving is like one of those intelligent bombs that never hit civilian targets. The statement however reveals the campaign for what it is: an instrument not to address homelessness and poverty but to hide the homeless and the poor. To make them 'gradually disappear'. How you do that is not by donating to organizations that will help them out (that particular money will never be enough to go around, and besides it could be solicited in other ways), but by reducing their income from street begging. That is the sole point of the campaign, and the reason why it is so much more loathsome than its Auckland counterpart: because it dresses up as piety and turns into a desirable social goal the community's desire to remove its poorest members from sight.

This ethics of not giving is persecutory and evil, and must be opposed. But it's also important to recognise that the effort to sanitise the streets – which on the surface is nothing more than another exercise in capitalism keeping up appearances during a downturn – is also a form of control. And no, I'm not saying this just because this ostensible social programme happens to be co-sponsored by none other than the New Zealand Police. It is the same paternalistic logic that governs the national programmes of welfare reform. It is the insistence that we must be cruel only to be kind; that we must punish the weak so they can become strong. As if this wasn't deep down about enforcing a failing economic and social model by correcting the subjects that fail to conform to it. This is how we care now. Look at it. This is who we are.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A woman's place?

It was the absurd question that lingered, for me, above the din of the leadership coup: whether Julia Gillard was a real female Prime Minister, or a leader who was female. That one should seek to make that distinction, and from within an ostensibly progressive, feminist frame, is baffling enough. But there is a weariness that sets in. To grasp the discomfiting essentialism that still dominates the discourse on gender gives one temporal vertigo. Where are we, or rather, when are we? Why does progress never seem to leave the station?

Last year at a book fair I picked up a number of issues of the feminist magazine Broasdsheet, and also a handful of the glossy monthly Woman and Home ('incorporating Everywoman'). The two collections dated roughly to the same years (late 1960s / early 1970s) and offer as stark a study in contrast as you might guess judging from the two sample covers reproduced above. A comparative reading of the two texts is a useful reminder that vastly different attitudes about issues such as the role of women in society can and do coexist; that their history is not linear. Of interest to today's proceedings is a pull-out career advice guide that Woman and Home offered to its readers in July of 1967, shown to me by a friend. As its authors stated
The choosing of a career is a particularly exciting decision to make these days as there have never been so many fascinating opportunities open to us.
And what are these opportunities? In no particular order: teacher, school matron, survey interviewer, manicurist, traffic warden, guide lecturer, corsetiere, GPO telephonist, 'with the WRVS overseas', librarian, demonstrator, air stewardess, travel agent, working at sea, secretary, in the women's services, matron in an old people's home, auxiliary medical worker, radiographer, medical laboratory technician, nurse, physiotherapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, fashion model, fashion buyer, dress designer, hairdresser, beautician, TV make-up artist – while the second and final instalment would deal with 'working with animals, on the land, in the hotel and catering industry, in social service, in broadcasting and journalism, and in the artistic world of art, music, drama and dancing.'

This was the spectrum, the gamut, that a magazine of a practical bent – one that sought to work within society as opposed to struggle against it – might feel inclined to tell its female readership about without incurring the risk of wasting their time.

It’s a list that might be best summarised as follows: be a nurse, not a doctor. It’s the narrowing of the prospects and experience of women that the writers of Broadsheet struggled against. Broadsheet had its practical streak, too, and ran a series on manual work (favourite instalment: 'plumbing demystified', November '74), correctly identifying how barring women from – or not teaching women about – even the most menial of the tasks traditionally regarded as the preserve of men was a form of oppression. But feminism in this period was also developing the vocabulary and the systematic tools for critiquing the representation of women in society. This work found one of its best expressions nationally in Judith Aitken's book A Woman's place?, an admirably accessible little handbook which includes suggestions on how to quantify sexism in texts such as schoolbooks according to criteria that are very reminiscent of the Bechdel test.

It is testament to the effectiveness of these consciousness-raising efforts, as much as to the success that women have had in making inroads into most professions, that a mainstream magazine nowadays would likely be unable to produce such a crassly limiting list of jobs for its female readers to take a crack at. Both the list and the criticism however remind us that the working woman is herself a social construct, as the propaganda that made and unmade Rosie the Riveter had already sharply underscored. As such, as always, we would expect it to find some of its most transparent expressions in children's books.

While different editions of Richard Scarry's works already exemplified this, there is a much more obscure book that has become an object of periodic debate on the web, ever since it was re-discovered and digitised by an American blogger in 2008. I've reproduced a selection of the pages below, but you'll find the whole set at her place.


These are wonderful little vignettes, I hope you'll agree. The first problem for the internet archaeologist is to place them in time. How old would you say this book is? If you guessed 1950s, you're in the good company of the writer who covered it for Feministing, although why she didn't check the date on page 3, I'm not sure. Had she done it, she would have discovered that the book was in fact published in 1970.

Problem number two then is to establish if it's for real, as it were. The fact that it was published as late as it was, and that its author had worked as a cartoonist for the New Yorker, have made many people conclude – in that blog's comments, later quoted as evidence by Slate – that the book must be a piece of satire. Personally, I have strong doubts. I see nothing in that date – after the Woman and Home career guide, of which it is the perfect companion; before Broadsheet, of which it is the perfect foil – that suggests that 1970 was too late to produce a sexist manual for children. In fact an acquaintance with popular culture of this period suggests it may have been a cartoonist's backlash to the women's liberation movement, which – like its anti-68 counterpart – was a rich genre. Too many of the vignettes are too benign for satire. Likewise the saccharine resolution militates strongly against the idea of a biting piece of social critique. There are also none of the metatextual clues that we might expect if the book was really aimed at adults. Down to its dedication to 'Bob and Hermine' – who sound suspiciously like they may be the children of the author – this appears in all respect like a straight children's book.

If it is, then it may elicit that paradoxical feeling of nostalgia for the forms that prejudice used to take, and that are offered as an overt object of aesthetic appreciation in Mad Men. There may be some comfort to be derived from the fact that it is no longer possible to put women in their place quite so crudely – if that's even true. But we are also the societies who debate if a politician was a real female Prime Minister. Not a feminist one. Not a progressive one. A female one. A 'real' female one. (With or without the scare quotes, which make not a blind bit of difference.) And so we might choose instead to study these documents, these artefacts from earlier eras of sexism, not for what has changed – the language, the code – but for what hasn't. For the things that are still so hard to assert: about equality, about the work of women, about the empire of the family. This may be a more useful measure of our progress.

Google Reader is going to shut down today, whether or not in time for any of my subscribers to be directed to this post I'm not entirely sure. If you're not going to switch to another RSS service but still have a mild interest in following this blog, may I politely direct you to my email list? It's an automated affair run by feedburner. It's been going for a while but I've never explicitly advertised it - seems a good opportunity to do so now.