The New Consumer Society

ENGL 1101 (Fall 2010)

The current economic crisis, alongside developments in social media, has prompted a growth in a new consumer society, characterized by collaborative consumption. The collaborative consumption movement, according to Rachel Botsman, signifies “the rapid explosion in traditional sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting, and swapping redefined through technology and peer communities.” Building upon the successes of popular social commerce sites such as eBay, Threadless, and Esty, the new generation of collaborative consumption stretches the boundaries of exchange between individuals, so that strangers can effectively share anything imaginable, from tools to cars, cash loans, or personal services. In this class, we will explore historical and contemporary discussions of commodity culture; the way consumers identify with brands and their branded communities; and how technology can facilitate relationships between individuals in the new consumer economy.

To view the PDF file of the syllabus in full, see: ConsumerSyllabus

Projects and Student Examples

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Unit I: The Story of Stuff

The first unit will offer an introduction to historical and contemporary discussions of commodity culture. Your major assignment for this unit will involve your engagement in a social commerce site where you can buy, sell, or exchange goods. During your reading of the selections in this unit, pay close attention to the value that is attributed to “things.” Analyze your own relationship to “things” as you make deliberate decisions about what to keep, what to give away, and what to acquire.  Plan to write a critical essay on the objects you exchange, and prepare to accompany your essay with photographs of the objects and snapshots of email exchanges, advertisements, and the exchange interface.

Introduction (Aug 23-27)

“[H]umans have an innate propensity to reciprocate because we understand that it is in our long-term self-interest to do so.”—Rachel Botsman
M Introduction
W WOVENText 1: Introduction, Critical Concepts
“Vending Machines.” Rocketboom (22 June 2010). [Video]
F “Rachel Botsman on Collaborative Consumption.” TEDxSydney (31 May 2010).
Related: The Stranger Exchange

Hyper Consumption (Aug 30-Sep 3)

“We live by object time: by this I mean that we live at the pace of objects, live to the rhythm of their ceaseless succession. Today, it is we who watch them as they are born, grow to maturity and die.”—Jean Baudrillard
M Baudrillard, Jean. The Consumer Society. Ch. 1: The Liturgy of the Object. [PDF on T-Square]
Introduce Unit 1 project: Choose objects to buy, sell, or exchange on the web. Begin the product exchange process. Document every stage of the process.
W Schor, Juliet. “The New Politics of Consumption.” Boston Review (Summer 1999).
WOVENText 6a-d: Reading: Words and Images
F Diderot, Denis. “Regrets for My Old Dressing Gown” (1769).
Hunter, Leeann. “How to Annotate Digital Texts.” TECHStyle.
Due: In groups, set up a WordPress account. Establish an area of expertise. Set up a blogging calendar.

Commodity Fetishism (Sep 6-10)

“We have become a nation of consumers. Our primary identity has become that of being consumers. Not mothers, teachers, farmers, but consumers. The primary way that our value is measured and demonstrated is . . . by how much we consume.”—Annie Leonard
M (Labor Day)
W Karl Marx, Capital (1867): Commodities, Ch.1: Sections I and IV.
WOVENText 21a-b: Exploring and Narrowing a Topic
F Patel, Raj. The Value of Nothing. Ch. 2: Becoming Homo Economicus (pp. 25-40).
Due: Complete the product exchange process. Write first draft of consumer essay. Submit drafts on T-Square.
Related: The Story of Stuff

The Division of Labor (Sep 13-17)

“What we’ve done in human society, through exchange and specialization, is we’ve created the ability to do things that we don’t even understand.”—Matt Ridley
M Samuel Johnson, The Adventurer, No. 67 (26 June 1753).
WOVENText 25b: Peer Review
W Smith, Adam. Wealth of Nations (1776). Read Book I, Ch. I-II.
F Patel, Raj. The Value of Nothing. Ch. 4: On Diamonds and Water (pp. 61-73).
Due: Complete peer review on first drafts of consumer essay on T-Square.
Related: I, Pencil. When Ideas Have Sex

The Gift Economy (Sep 20-24)

“We can see that organizations designed around a culture of generosity can achieve incredible effects without an enormous amount of contractual overhead.”—Clay Shirky
M Mauss, Marcel. The Gift. Introduction, Ch. 1: Sections I-III. [PDF on T-Square]
W Belk, Russell, “Why Not Share Rather Than Own.” The ANNALS 611.1 (2007): 126-40. [PDF on TSquare]
F Due: Submit revised consumer essay for a grade on T-Square.
Related: Social Capital ; Cognitive Surplus

Unit 2: The Story of a Brand

At this point in the semester, we’ll turn our attention to the way in which individuals identify with brands. For the project in this unit, you and a partner will work together to research a single brand and document with photographs its identity in the Georgia Tech and Atlanta community. During your reading of the selections in this unit, pay close attention to the purpose of branding. In what ways is branding useful and when is it harmful? Is it possible and/or preferable to create an unbranded public space or identity? How can brands be crowdsourced? Plan to produce a photo essay that captures a sense of how consumers project the brand’s image.

Photography (Sep 27-Oct 1)

M Introduce Unit 2 project : Begin assembling research, observations, interviews, photographs of your selected brand.
W Klein, Naomi. No Logo (2002). Introduction: A Web of Brands. [PDF on T-Square]
WOVENText 21e: Organizing Verbal and Visual Information
F Kodak Photography Tips: Composition
Kodak Photography Tips: Top Ten
Related: Homeless in America [Photo essay]

Community Branding (Oct 4-8)

“[T]his corporate obsession with brand identity is waging war on public and individual space: on public institutions such as schools, on youthful identities, on the concept of nationality and on the possibilities for unmarketed space.”—Naomi Klein
M Klein, Naomi. No Logo. Ch.1: New Branded World. [PDF on T-Square]
W Schor, Juliet. The Overspent American. Ch. 2: Communicating with Commodities. [PDF on T-Square]
F Botsman, Rachel. “Brand ‘We.’” AFR BOSS (Jun 2010).
Due: Select 25 photographs from your excursions. Begin composing your editorial.
Related: How Great Leaders Inspire Action

Consumer Identity (Oct 11-15)

“Through the strong personal connections people come to feel toward products, our possessions become . . . our ‘extended’ selves. . . . Who we are not only affects what we buy. What we buy also affects who we are.”—Juliet Schor
M Baudrillard, Jean. The Consumer Society. Ch. 6: Personalization or the Smallest Marginal Difference [PDF on T-Square]
W Schor, Juliet. The Overspent American. Ch. 3: The Visible Lifestyle. [PDF on T-Square]
F Due: Choose and assemble 10 photographs into an essay. Write editorial captions. Submit draft on T-Square.

Debunking Consumerism (Oct 18-22)

Freegans are scavengers of the developed world, living off consumer waste in an effort to minimize their support of corporations and their impact on the planet, and to distance themselves from what they see as out-of-control consumerism.”—Steven Kurutz
M (Fall Break)
W Kurutz, Steven. “Not Buying It.” New York Times (21 June 2007)
F Rosenbloom, Stephanie. “But Will It Make You Happy?” New York Times (7 Aug. 2010).
Due: Complete peer review of photo essay.
Related: How to Simplify When You Love Your Stuff

Happiness and Nothingness (Oct 25-29)

“To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence.”—E.F. Schumacher
M Schumacher, E.F. “Buddhist Economics.” 1966. Small Is Beautiful. Hartley and Marks, 1999.
W Patel, Raj. The Value of Nothing. Chapter 10, Anton’s Blindness
F Photo Essay Showcase
Due: Submit photo essay for a grade on T-Square.
Related: A Happy Little Kingdom ; What Makes Life Worthwhile 

Unit 3: The Story of People

Up until now, we have focused almost entirely on people’s relationships to commodities. In this unit, we will turn to relationships between people in the new consumer economy and consider ways of using technology to facilitate these relationships. Each group will create a TECHshares project: a social network that facilitates sharing in the Georgia Tech community. The readings in this unit will serve to model, inspire, or question the concept of sharing in its many manifestations on the web.

Theories on Sharing (Nov 1-5)

“It’s an approach built much more around intrinsic motivation, around the desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, because they’re interesting, because they are part of something important.”—Dan Pink
M Introduce Unit 3 Project: Choose groups and brainstorm ideas for your TECHshare network.
W Belk, Russell. “Sharing” (2010).
F Orsi, Janelle. “Four Degrees of Sharing.” Shareable. (16 Sept. 2009).
Due: List of three viable ideas for your TECHshare. Evaluate the potential appeals of each option. Begin designing the logistics of the best option. Begin building the platform for your website.
Related: Science of Motivation ; Timebanks ; How to Share Time

Collaborative Consumption (Nov 8-12)

M Angela. “Consumers Get Together: From Group Buying to Collaborative Consumption.” TrendsCovered.com. (17 July 2010).
W Botsman, Rachel, and Roo Rogers. What’s Mine Is Yours. [PDF on T-Square]
F Pioneers & Protagonists
Due: Test your TECHshare idea on each other. Record your experiments with audio and visual data. Develop your brand and begin creating designs for your website.
Related: Zipcars ; Designing for Sharing

Entrepreneurs (Nov 15-19)

M Kiyosaki, Richard, and Sharon Lechter. Rich Dad, Poor Dad (1997). [PDF on T-Square]
W Gates, Bill. “Making Capitalism More Creative.” Time Magazine (31 July 2008).
F Let’s Raise Kids to Be Entrepreneurs
Due: Based on your initial experiments, what changes do you need to make to your TECHshare? Develop essential content for your website: statement of purpose, theory of social change, how the TECHshare works, who the consumers are, etc.

TECHshares (Nov 22-26)

M Group work on TECHshares
W Due: Group Blog evaluated for a grade
F (Thanksgiving)

TECHshares (Nov 29-Dec 3)

M Group Work on TECHshares
W WOVENText 97: Presentation Aids
F Due: Complete peer review of websites and props.

TECHshares (Dec 6-10)

MWF TECHshares Symposium TBA

Final Reflection (Dec 15)

W Portfolio due

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