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3 Modern Economy, Interpretations and the Media

3.1 The Economy Is Not the Subject of an “Objective” Science

Knowledge-based economy has suggested paradigm shifts for the interpretation and practice of production, compared to the dominant concepts in Fordist economy. Different skills are required. The useful knowledge is no longer formal and systematic, based on “hard” (quantifiable) data, quantified procedures, and universal principles. This knowledge depends on letting individual employees develop “tacit” subjective insights that are also related to images and symbols, and on testing their possible use by the company as a whole (Nonaka, 1991, pp. 96–97). These interpretative and subjective aspects free this economy from a strictly “objective” scientific approach.

I would add some observations that concern the economic field in a much more general sense. The distinction between production and information, between means of production and means of communication, is theoretically weak. In what we call “means of productions” receptions and interpretations too are significantly involved. Modes of production have always been also means of communication. Hunting, fishing, agriculture, arts and crafts have always communicated forms of living through their products. Industrial “mass” products organize mass consumers and their imagery (Duchamp's ready-mades and—in a different way—many of Warhol's works highlight this implication). Individualized products organize individualized imageries. This can give rise to habits which are stable for a certain time. However, their coding (in the form of moral, social and juridical laws) is contingent, because they have no stable conditions in an absolute sense. They are partly natural, partly contingent upon history. The limits between nature and culture change according to historical and cultural events, and there is no way of tracing them once and for all (I will come back to this philosophical thesis in the fourth part of the present text).

In the capitalist economy commodities spread their imageries through their existence on the market, which always produces exhibition spaces. Shop windows and advertising images on the TV screen are necessary consequences of the commodity form of things. Karl Marx used the word “fetishism” to indicate the illusion that things themselves—instead of social relations, which remain hidden— have this power of producing the space in which they act, almost as if they were people. Guy Débord, consistently with the extension, in late capitalism, of the commodity form to all human relations, applied the notion of fetishism to this whole, and concluded that the human space has become a “spectacle” (Débord, 1992[1967]). His prediction has come true to such an extent that not long ago an economics book was published that—in all seriousness and without the slightest irony—was given the subtitle Work is Theatre & Every Business a Stage (Pine & Gilmore, 1999).

The space of the commodity form requires its fulfilment by means of advertising and marketing. The direction of this process has always been from production to consumption, but there are also trends in the opposite direction, which seems to emphasize consumer choice (the sense of this “seems” will be precisely the subject of a discussion in the next pages of the present text). Marketing has changed. From the model corresponding to Fordist mass production (so-called marketing 1.0), it has passed to the segmentation of the market (2.0), and finally to a new phase in which consumers play an active part in orienting the production—”Marketing 3.0”. This is the title of a recent book, subtitled From Products to Customers to the Human Spirit (Kotler, Kartayaja, & Setiawan, 2010). The subject of the offer is more differentiated and tends to coincide with individual interests.

This transformation of marketing converges with the fact that the so-called new media have become more and more internal to the production, insofar as this extends beyond the more evidently “tangible” aspects, and deeply involves customers. So-called “design thinking” implies ethnographic work and participatory planning that go deep into the cultural and social sphere (Calcagno, 2013p. 37 ff.). The vocation of the market to expand indefinitely the exhibition space of the commodity has advanced to the point not just of incorporating “culture”, as Adorno had described in Kultur Industrie (Adorno 1998[1947]) in relation to the American society of the 1930s and 1940s, but even of appropriating the human space-time horizon itself: experience. The title of the book subtitled The Work is Theatre & Every Business a Stage is The Experience Economy—henceforth, before reading Kant or Husserl, we must read this book which resets, brushing aside, elaborate philosophical pretensions!

This intimate incorporation of the economy entails the involvement of ethics at all levels, from the most immediately emotional (as in the case of so-called “emotional marketing” shows), down to habits and more elaborate systems of value. Conflicts happen not only in the field of the struggle for the appropriation of the means of production, but also in the areas of consumptions, of the ethical and juridical legitimation of the uses of social (or “common”) wealth. Economic needs arise through interpretations of the rights to health, safety, culture and human dignity, urging economic thinking to deal with issues such as “well-being” (Kahneman, Diener, & Schwarz, 2003) and/or happiness (Bruni & Porta, 2006; Sen, 2011) and “relational goods” (Donati & Solci, 2011).

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