Unruly consumers • 26 December 2007 • The SnowBlog

Unruly consumers


I've touched on this before, but in my mind* there's a definite link between Le Parkour, modern crafts and the impulse that makes someone take the back off their Xbox and fiddle with it until they can use it to check their e-mail as well as play video games. Parkour, by the way, is that thing you've seen on TV, but may or may not know the name of, where scruffy athletic types bounce like ninja rabbits 'cross-country' through a city. Have a look here if you want your mind well and truly boggled. 

The common element I see in all those things is a refusal to behave like a good consumer. With Parkour, you're given a city with paths and pavements and 'Keep Off The Grass' signs all laid out for you, and you decide instead you'll zip across rooftops, bop over walls and traverse urban precipices in much the same manner as flying squirrels. With crafts, you're less likely to break your spine in fourteen places, but it still seems to me to be an act of assertion. It's ordering something that's not on the menu. It's seeing a million advertisements a year for factory-made goods and saying, "You know what? I think I'll make my own." And because so much effort and money goes into cramming every shop on the high street with finished goods, there's something almost seditious about wilfully rolling your own. 

My take on crafting is that it satisfies a number of desires: the desire to learn skills and to practice craftsmanship; the need to be an individual; the desire to have something tangible and practical to show for one's labours  (as opposed to being a small cog in a boring machine - which most of are (or have been) in our day jobs). And the need for a community based on something other than geography or career choice.

Parkour partakes of the punk ethic, but stylishly so. And it achieves something rather beautiful: all the rigour  of a full-contact martial art, but with no fighting. There's a chapter in Naomi Klein's No Logo about how we don't even have the right any more to choose what we look at. We're not allowed to get rid of billboards or take down advertisements - regardless of whether we can afford any of the products we're being wooed and hounded to buy. We apparently have no right to be left alone by advertisers unless we want to lock ourselves in our homes. We have no right not to be sold to. Those 'rights' are available only to the rich. And if you take an Orwellian view of Le Corbusier's maxim that a house is a machine for living in, then a city becomes something rather inhospitable and confining. It's no wonder that sometimes the dwellers inside the urban machine want to rebel and assert themselves. Ad-busters and culture-jammers rewrite corporate billboards (among other things); Banksy (et seq.) generate their own 'folk' friezes and assert their 'right' to decorate the city they live in. Urban explorers and infiltrators regard 'Keep Out' signs as an invitation to enter and a promise of good things. It's much more about defying rules and conventions than breaking laws.

And my personal favourite, and perhaps the least consciously political of these things is hardware hacking: the aforementioned tinkering with consumer technology. Microsoft might regard the Xbox 360 as a finished and inviolable design, but a cadre of stubborn and inquisitive hackers see it as an excellent starting point for building some cool gadgets. I tried my hand at some of these things last year. I turned a little wireless router that lets my laptop connect to the internet into a wireless music player. I set up my Sky+ box so that I could copy shows (the unencrypted ones) straight off its hard drive and onto my computer, where they could then be put on DVDs. My phone, my MP3 player and my wifi router are all running software written by geeks instead of the code they came with. I love the fact that somebody somewhere handed over a couple of hundred pounds for a mobile phone, and when it didn't do quite what they wanted and the software was buggy, they didn't hand over more money for another model, they fixed it. 

My favourite magazine at the moment is a cleaned-up and law-abiding outlet for this instinct for tinkering, customising and adapting. It's called Make, and if you ever wanted to take control of the inanimate objects around you, you'll love it. They do their best to sound like well-adjusted home-grown engineers rather than disenfranchised hackers but I can't help thinking that the impulse behind both is similar: the wish to be allowed to use one's ingenuity and free-will to fashion - and re-fashion - the various gadgets, appliances and accessories of the modern world. Just as urban infiltrators take 'Keep Out' signs as a challenge, hardware hackers see those little 'Warranty Void If Opened' stickers and dive in.

To make a larger point, I think the better big businesses get at having their own way, the more these mild forms of consumer disobedience will spread - but I like to think even if the power of big business diminishes people will still want to cultivate craftsmanship and apply it ingeniously and  individualistically.

*some of these ideas are from Leila's mind too 


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