2017 01, The home, a new domestic hub organised around the social uses of screens.
Understanding the shifting of borders between production, distribution, consumption and the environment
Dominique Desjeux, anthropologist, Professor Emeritus at Paris Descartes University, Sorbonne Paris Cité, researcher at the CEPED (UMR 196), international consultant
The world has always been in movement, this has only been afforded little or intermittent attention. However, the globalisation of the world probably began 3000 years ago, with the first silk routes which linked China to the Middle East. This followed the emergence of a new technology, the domestication of the camel, which allowed better circulation of merchandise. Today, the container ship has replaced the camel. The two silk routes, over ground in the north, and by sea in the south, are still just as vital for international commerce between China and West Europe. This globalisation seems to be accelerating in particular due to the boom affecting the new digital technologies and the quantity of information which is updated endlessly and is available on our mobile and fixed screens.
A method of observation which incorporates disorder, system effects and scales of observation
The anthropological method presented here does not seek to control all of the information, or have an overall approach, or limit itself to the individual and his/her motivations. It seeks, in a random and organised manner, to locate the information which may explain the behaviours of social actors in general and consumers in particular.
One of the findings, taken from the observation of day-to-day life thanks to qualitative anthropological investigations carried out in Europe, in China, in the United States, in Brazil and in Africa, is that societies and countries, today and throughout history, function as if they were parallel worlds. One conclusion is that the contacts between these worlds function in a discontinuous manner and are unpredictable, without an overall logic and without any representation common to the whole of the planet. It is therefore unceasingly necessary to observe what can emerge and impact on behaviours in a positive or negative sense in Europe and in the world, viewed as a great system of action organised around four major centres: production, distribution, consumption and the environment. These four centres are sensitive to a certain number of transformations relating to energy, forms of mobility, finance, the new technologies and military forces. The triggering of a change may emerge at the macrosocial scale just as easily as at the microsocial or mesosocial scale, the latter being the scale of organisations and institutions.
The “returns” of history at a macrosocial scale, or constant newness
One of the ways to present the history of the world from its beginnings is to show that the control of energy has always represented a key stake in the development and survival of societies, and hence also wars. Until the 18th century, it was the “biological power sources” which dominated, with human power, animal power associated with solar power which provides a food supply, wind power and water power. In the 18th century, use of coal revolutionised the world order. During the 19th and 20th centuries, it was power from fossil fuels which dominated. Today, under the constraint of pollution and global warming, alternative energies are in the process of emerging, particularly in China, which is one of the greatest global investors in solar power.
We also witness a certain number of “returns”, beginning with that of climatic uncertainties. These were linked to the seasons in agrarian societies. They are associated with global warming in modern societies. The second “return”, since the intervention in Iraq, is that of unilateral wars as a mode of regulation of conflicts surrounding the access to energy, raw materials and land, as can be seen in the China Sea, one of the most important transport zones in international trade, where military budgets are increasing the most. As well as military tensions, there are also digital tensions relating to the appropriation of data. The justification of these tensions is expressed via new mobilising ideologies which are “populist”, “Confucianist” and religious extremes.
The third “return” is that of “small farmers”, free-lancers and the self-employed, and of “landless farmers” who therefore do not have any revenue – some of the unemployed – associated with a mix of “sharecropping” and “hiring”, due to the platforms of services such as Uber or Didi in China, and everything which is described as coproduction, collaborative consumption and hiring of goods and services. The fourth “return”, which is very closely linked to the third, is that of the reconstituted link between production, consumption and exchanges in the domestic space, as was the rule in agrarian societies between 8000 BC and 1750 AD.
The fifth return is that of Asia, in particular China, after two centuries of decline, and of the importance of the interrelations between the large metropolises, from China to Europe, to the detriment of the peripheries, which feel abandoned. In 10 years, between 2000 and 2009, the global upper middle class, the class which consumes the most and which took 200 years to be formed, rose in number from 200 million to 560 million. This rise brought about a shift in the flows of wealth, military budgets and international tensions towards the Pacific. The Gulf of Aden remains one of the important crossing points from Asia to Europe, which needs to be protected militarily. China is establishing itself in Djibouti for this purpose.
With the industrial revolution, a strong separation was witnessed between the place of production and professional work, the place of consumption and domestic work, and the place of distribution. This was the rise of indoor shopping centres in large European capitals, of large shops around 1850, of supermarkets and malls in the United States and Europe, around which the triangular mobility was organised between place of residence, place of work and place of purchase.
The 21st century: the places of production, exchange and consumption are partly reunited in the domestic space
The triangular mobility was strongly called into question in the 20th century by the digitalisation of the circulation of information, which favours the establishment of platforms. Platforms challenge the link of salaried subordination, in favour of independent work, which employs 3 million people in France today. Independent work is carried out partly at home. These platforms also transform the role of distribution by facilitating the access to services, by lowering their cost and raising their flexibility. The digitalisation of distribution also makes the development of home delivery possible.
The increase in unemployment and in small jobs, part-time jobs, the retired, and sections of the population living on social benefits bring about strong constraints on purchasing power and at the same time a return to the home. The home becomes a new place of production (with digital workers and telework, not forgetting the traditional work related to DIY, gardening and household tasks), a place of distribution (with orders on the Internet and deliveries all the way to the door), and a place of consumption around the kitchen.
More generally, the constraints in purchasing power work in favour of platforms which allow a drop in costs, the comparison of prices and monitoring of production via evaluation. These allow the development of the commercial or non-commercial “good deal” and hence forms of self-sufficiency and non-monetary exchanges which reorient some practices of consumption outside of the commercial circuit.
At a microsocial scale, that of the living room, the kitchen, the bathroom or the bedroom, digitalisation has brought about an increase in the number of screens: television screens, computer screens, video game screens, tablets, and above all mobile telephones. Digitalisation has made it possible to appease some of the tensions which existed in the 1990s relating to the access to the landline telephone. It has enabled an increase in learning tools such as Italki for languages. However, it has also promoted the emergence of new tensions in the family relating to the purchase and control of items with screens, and then with their disposal or recycling. Video games remain a worry for parents. In China, there are even camps to treat children who are addicted to video games, using an electroshock therapy. We observe this with relation to the use of applications which favour the emergence of new settings for the social connection between peer groups, adolescents and young people, such as selfies or musical.ly. Not forgetting the risk of the return of the “Landru” model of the housewife, which is emerging in several countries with the rise in unemployment and religious traditionalism.
The problem is that the screens have a negative ecological effect in terms of raw materials, such as silicon, which is necessary for their manufacturing, and in terms of consumption, due to the energy which is required for their use. All of this has geopolitical consequences, particularly with respect to China, which has control over some rare earth elements.
The home today is becoming a digitalised mini-hub, due to the multiplication of screens in all of the rooms in the home, whereas in the 1990s and 2000s, the screens were concentrated in the living room. Today, it is around fixed and mobile screens, the telephone, connected objects or new digital Korean refrigerators that the new social connections of the modern consumer-producer-distributor are organised.
Paris, 2017 January 27