Commodifying culture

 Posted by (Visited 10116 times)  Game talk, Reading  Tagged with:
Jan 172012

20120108-184004.jpgFeast your eyes on the book porn to the left.

Go ahead, click on it and get the larger picture.

Gorgeous, aren’t they? They’re the complete set of the D’Artagnan Romances by Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, and the three volumes of The Viscomte of Bragelonne,the final volume of which is generally better known as The Man in the Iron Mask.

They were published by Thomas Y. Crowell Co., no longer extant as such, in 1901. Not first editions — that would look like this — but glorious nonetheless. Gilt on the edging, inlaid on the relief covers, onionskin endpapers in front of every engraved illustration…

Nice enough that you can still buy an facsimile of this exact edition, alas without the rich red covers and with something fairly hideous on the cover instead.

They’re something to hold, to examine. Maybe not to read. Defintely something to have visible on a shelf where people can ooh and aah. They were given to me by my uncle for Christmas this year.

I have more than a few other books like that. I’ve got a hardcover American edition of the first Harry Potter, signed by Jo Rowling, made out to my daughter with a personalized message. A bunch of old books, a lot of autographed SF novels written by people I know, some of whom are pretty well known: Brin, Sterling, Doctorow.

I have a lot of the same books as epubs on my iPad. And it’s qualitatively different. The e-books are commodities, and if one get deleted, I won’t have any regrets. Whereas if my complete run of first printings of the Doonesbury compilations (even including the obscure one for the TV special!) were to get lost or damaged, I’d be quite upset.

There is a fetishistic quality to the physical object, a quality that means that I will probably never have a house without books. In fact, now that we have a larger house with bookshelf space, we have carefully placed 4×4 beams towards the back of every shelf so we can double-stack the books and still see every spine (a trick I recommend! Buys you two additional shelves of books per bookcase).

Oh, there’s a lot of books that probably I don’t need and will never read again. But I carefully gather up and keep in order every Ian Rankin mystery novel, every volume of Transmetropolitan, each of the slender paperbacks of Mafalda in the original Spanish. And I make sure they can be seen.

Signaling theory is a small branch of cognitive science which argues that quite a lot of the things we do are intended as signals to third parties — especially prospective mates — about our status and interests. I think of what we do at our house with books as being basically that: a sign of who we are. We’re just not the types of people who will ever live without physical books, because electronic copies aren’t visible, and aren’t valuable.

There is an implicit valuation of cultural objects based on physicality — indeed, implicit calculation of actual monetary value. Rarity matters — whether it’s the fact that one of my two copies of M.U.L.E. is still in its original shrink-wrap (the Commodore 64 one, not the Atari 8-bit one — I played the heck out of that one!) or the fact that my print of the goblin market from Stardust is signed by Charles Vess.

In fact, I am having great trouble keeping myself back from boasting about even more of my geek possessions as I write this. I am engaging in signaling to you about what matters to me.

It’s gotten a lot harder to signal music. It’s everywhere. The rarity and the scarcity is gone. Some music geeks are working hard to bring it back, by putting out vinyl limited editions, precisely because the physicality of the vinyl format, with its generous cover sizes, the patina of survival, the whiff of authenticity from when music seemed (I do say “seemed”) less commercial, all seem like the qualities that bring back that fetishistic element. People don’t collect the MP3s of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for the intact cut-outs in the album sleeve (that my vinyl copy from the 60s has, neener neener).

All culture, though, is becoming commodified. And cheapened — I mean that literally, cheapened on the open market. The benefits are enormous:

  • Even as pro-level content has gotten dramatically more expensive to produce, we have seen the quality of amateur content explode. Now there are Beatles in living rooms everywhere. Far far more people have turned out to have talent than I think was ever evident in all of history.
  • Creative output can be shared fairly trivially, enabling people who have never before had access to libraries’ worth of information to learn about darn near anything. Just tonight by daughter was complaining about her biology teacher, and I said that in this world, there’s no excuse… just go find another bio teacher at Which may not exist, but should. The point being that where information was scarce, it is now more like air. Polluted, but everywhere.

We live in an age where people are sagely telling us to move into tiny houses and get rid of the accoutrements of consumerism. An implicit message is that we should not be valuing many of the things we value nearly as much as we do. After all, is the value of The Three Musketeers in the binding or the text?

Bizarrely, I think for me, at least right now, it’s in the binding. Content is ever more ubiquitous. Containers are what has grown rare and precious.

I think of this now with our increasingly digital medium of games. I have a 60s edition of Risk, alongside a modern one. I have a handmade Nine Men’s Morris, a Lord of the Rings chess set. I have a MAME cabinet, and I can play Centipede with a trackball, dammit. And I still keep the cases of Playstation 1 games that I have not bothered to boot up in many years. But in not too distant a future, I’ll probably be paying quite a lot extra to have a physical object to fetishize and show off my devotion to my craft and hobby.

Someday, when everyone gets to carry around the complete works of humanity on a cufflink, it’s going to be interesting to see how we tell each other who we are.

  14 Responses to “Commodifying culture”

  1. I’m always running into people with vast collections of geek detritus, whether old comics, media collectables, worthless computer hardware, games of all kinds, books, etc. If you own 7 items out of a series of 10, it’s like your bookshelf is mocking you, begging to be filled with the remainder. eBay sellers thrive on this mentality. 5 years ago, I disposed of 95% of this stuff I owned, and it’s like a weight was lifted. I was spending a lot of time and resources curating a very small and unvisited museum.

  2. As David C so notably pointed out, collecting on impulse may be dangerous to your wallet and own personal space. Perhaps even your mental health and stability. Though that threshold would be a hard one for many of us to cross, I think.

    When you have collected more than you can possibly manage, you are a packrat.

    Expanding on Raph’s topic of Signaling Theory, is it possible that our physical possessions / collections also serve as signals to ourselves?
    “This is who I am. I have stock in this.” Perhaps as people grow intellectually, and develop higher financial means, they collect more of these things.

    For myself, it is important to have physical touchstones of the things I love to remind and inspire me. Yet it is also important for me to periodically weed out the things that can be done without, or that simply clutter things up.

    Could we persuade you to show us a few snapshots of your collection, Raph? It’d be interesting to see the 4×4 shelving method you mentioned.

  3. It’s a choice.

    I sent this blog post off to my husband because we are struggling with exactly this question: we are in our 30’s and moving into an RV to live and work (developing games primarily) full time on the road.

    But we have a massive collection of books and games.

    A lot of our friends can’t believe that we’re able to set aside what we have, but it comes down to a choice: we cannot travel and explore like we want if we are bringing large collections with us.

    Instead, we’ve saved the most important comics (~10 longboxes worth), the most important games (about 27 cubic feet of them), and the most important books (older ones, signed editions, copies of friends, old favorites, childhood books, etc.) and put them into storage to have when we move back into a physical house in a decade or two.

    It’s also showed us how much of our previously critical items weren’t as important as we thought when we had to take an explicit choice to pay for them via storage. It’s easy to forget that each time you buy a larger house to store your stuff, you’re paying to store all of that (even moreso if you have external storage units.)

    That said I agree that containers are increasingly important, and it’s how you can make money off cheap or free: some people will pay to own a better copy of something or a physical, displayable copy even when it’s available for free electronically.

  4. Much of my stuff consists of memory talismans. Seeing them, holding them, stimulates my memories in pleasant ways.

    That’s the only reason I can think of that I’ve hung on to my Beta I disks for Star Wars Galaxies… I doubt they’d have much meaning to other people, but they have value and meaning to me. Whenever I flip past them on the shelf, they make me smile.

    I do share stuff I’m proud of… but that’s usually stuff I’ve made or earned, not stuff I’ve bought.

  5. What you have there are art housed in art. Those book covers and bindings are like a temple to artistic quality and expertise.

  6. One of my professors once offered me this advice: Never sleep with anyone who doesn’t have books in their room.

  7. Gave away all my physical books minus reference manuals that don’t work well on a Kindle last year. Never going to miss them. They just took up space. It’s going to take a lot longer, but I suspect that displaying books to project the image you want to project to house guests is going to go the way of the home DVD rack.

  8. If you are really doing signalling, just put shit on your digital bookshelf. There’s an app for that. I would say that of all the things I own, the only losses which would matter to me would be my ipod and my laptop. I have shelves and boxes and plastic containers loaded with books and games and legos and trading cards. But most of those books are stored in my personal organic memory unit 😛

    And I can play any trading card game with marked tokens and a reference website all for free. I have mincraft now. And games are available for online download, torrenting, emulating, or just creating myself.

    I have a personal javascript turn based text rpg which contains a huge number of character creation options, and an unlimited supply of opponents to fight. And I can always as more. With jQuery its like 10 minutes for a new ability, although sometimes its longer if that ability has to integrate with previous functions. You can also make it multiplayer or coop or w/e you want with a little php to transfer the content of the variables.

    I suppose that part of the ease with which I can give up a physical possession has to do with my memory training. I can sink back into any part of my life just by closing my eyes.

    And of course the best RPGs are accessible via my brain via lucid or waking dreams. I used to do that in my AP Gov class, just close my eyes and after a while the colors you see when you close your eyes would become wormholes or dragons or w/e. And not even intentionally, I guess my subconscious or w/e decides what world I’ll be living in on a given day.

    When I store something in the cloud, or in my brain, I can’t lose it either, unlike physical possessions.

  9. A lack of physical possessions on display could be just as much signaling as an abundance of them. It says “I’m clean, efficient, and modern!”

    I’m strongly considering getting all the things I care about tattooed on my skin so that in the cufflink data transponder age (or in prison), I can easily be identified by my mate 😉

  10. Mafalda! <3 I grew up reading that particular side of Quino's work. My parents even gave me the 10 Years With Mafalda in a lovely hardcover edition, but unfortunately we lost it many years ago. Nowadays, I stare with longing at collected editions of it but do wonder if I really need to lug around such a hefty book. I wonder if it weighed one pound for every year? It certainly felt that way when I was a kid.

    Nowadays I've grown less attached to physical products but still carry some with me. Some I have a choice, like comics and books (I suppose there are digital version of Alan Moore's works, though I always thought it was kind of a badge of honor to keep the book as free of damage as possible over the years); others not quite. Wwhile the future is rapidly moving towards a digital distribution of videogames, there are no digital versions – at least oficial ones – of hundreds of older generation games. Sure, some may get rereleased, or get remakes, but many still remain very much a thing of their own time. I guess this is primarily my main quibble with giving up these games. They're more than products, more than things only understood as "recent" or "obsolete". I still regret the day I sold all my 8 and 16-bit consoles and games in an effort to keep up with the 32-bit era. Many titles that I adored, and were closely linked to me growing up, are now hostage to the demands of collectors and those that feed them.

  11. I am fairly recently divorced. Even more recently moved to Texas. My best friend of many many years was so happy for me, finally starting a ‘new life’. I wonder if it is a new life, or finally being able to be me. And what makes it me? I can display my books on actual bookshelves finally. I have hardbacks I ordered in high school from like, the first ever sci-fi fantasy bookclub. I was going to get rid of them before the move, but I couldn’t do it. So there they are. I am in a monogomous relationship again and instead of combining, I am expanding. My bed room expresses me. My books. My books are me…my interests, my faith, some has to say who I am in some symbolic fashion that no one…..will ever understand. My UO map from years ago is taped to the wall, even though I never play anymore. I cling to my hard copy of Skyrim even though I could have got it staight from Steam, and the chances of my losing it through steam are far less than my losing this disc. My ST ships made the move, but I am angry that I can’t find my SW blaster. I just turned 50….why is all this an issue? Never heard of this signalling theory. Its interesting. But what i wanted to say, is that as fragmented and old fashioned this is….glad I am not the only one.

  12. @ damijin’s comment: in contrast to my spreading out over the house, my bf came into this thing with no more than a dozen personal possessions that were not computer related or in the catagory of furniture. I have thought alot about the whys of this. I have been told many times I over think things. I am also amused by the idea of tatooing who we are on our bodies. This effort would not a beautification project, but self identifying. I hope I last another ten years to see what happens next.

  13. […] Commodifying culture: […]

  14. […] that immersion is dead (I paraphrase). I’ll ignore that for the time being, and focus on another post, where he ponders the inherent value of culture and specifically its means of presentation, with a […]

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