musings by Bec Johnson – July 2014
The close of the 19th century saw technological progress take leaps and bounds, dragging along the constituents of society giggling and shrieking with simultaneous delight and apprehension of what the future was to bring. The world was changing at an unprecedented pace and this graduation of human achievement over environment deserved celebration. The first such was the Crystal Palace exhibition in London of 1851 where the focus was on the scientific revolution. Never to be outdone on a party, the French exploded this celebration to a gaudy and glamorous “Electrical Fairyland” extravaganza at the 1900, Parisian World Fair.
The 1900 exhibition was far more than a showcasing of scientific achievement, “[it] provide[d] a scale model of the consumer revolution” (Williams, 1986). At this fair the focus was shifted to the art of selling the dream, and capturing the imagination (and purse strings) of a new class of society, the consumer. Under the glow of electric light, exhibitors at the 1900 fair took merchandising to new heights accomplished by “appealing to the fantasies of the consumer. The conjunction of banking and dreaming”, (Williams, 1986). Ong’s premise that “sight isolates” (1982) is never so emphatically disproved as it is in this example of society uniting as a collective consumer consciousness under the lighting spectacles of 1900 Paris.
Consumerism among the masses had been primarily a result of necessity since the dawn of time; based on the trading of food and other commodities required for sustaining life. The physical needs of people almost always coming before the “needs of imagination”. With the technological revolution the general populous had more dispensable income, products could be more cheaply made and it was only a tick of the electric clock before the astute business people of society sought to profit from this new world order. “The lesson of things…was that a dream world of the consumer was emerging”, (Williams, 1986).
This paradigm shift in the nature of consumerism also lead to department stores and fixed pricing, ironically divorcing the buyer from taking an active part in the creation of the sale, at a time when the buyer was also experiencing an expansion of consciousness through this new technology. “[A] simple touch of the finger on a lever, and a wire as thick as a pencil throws upon the Monumental Gateway” (Corday, 1900, as cited by Williams, 1986). This sentiment can be compared to that of Carey’s on another technological revolution, “The telegraph permitted…a thoroughly encephalated social nervous system in which signaling was divorced from musculature.” (1989). McLuhan takes this train of thought one step further, positing that “With the arrival of electric technology, man has extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself.”
In this new “Electrical fairyland”, a world in which the imagination within is lighted by the glow of electric light from without, the inner desires of the buyer are tempted with the promise of manifestation of their fantasies. Williams says of 1900 Paris, “Glowing pleasure domes…a collective sense of life in a dream world”, words reminiscent of Coleridge’s “sunny pleasure domes with caves of ice” (1786). Villiers dry remark “Heaven will finally make something of itself” (cited by Williams 1986) demonstrates his “forebodings of the moral consequences when commerce seizes all visions” (Williams, 1986).
And here we stand, a century later, to view the resultant leviathan of consumerism. An age in which, material gain has become a religion. An age in which people buy imaginary objects in the imaginary electrical fairyland of online gaming; long since abandoning any pretense at necessity other than the promise to fill the existential void of self with something external, sparkling, new and….electrifying!
The First Age of Consumerism
These Neolithic clay tokens found at Susa currently reside at the Louvre. It is believed these tokens were used for trade and commerce, likely for things such as sheep and wheat. (Schmandt-Besserat, 1992). This is the age of consumerism as necessity.
The Second Age of Consumerism
The Trocadero Palace at the 1900 Paris world fair ushered in a new age of consumerism selling dreams as merchandise under the glow of the electric light. People are convinced of necessity of manifestation of their desires where before they had been complacent with these inner thoughts as purely fantasy not reality.
The Third Age of Consumerism
These virtual boots (that only exist in an online gaming world) can be purchased on Second Life marketplace for L$24,000. That is roughly $113 real US dollars according to the Virtual World Bank. They were sold out on the day of viewing, 12th June 2014.