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Do Commodities Reproduce themselves through human beings? Man vs. nature vs. technology: problems and new conceptualisations


Mika Pantzar


From the Reader distributed for the Consumption, Everyday Life and Sustainability Summer School 1999, Lancaster University. For table of contents with links to all of the other papers of the reader, click here.



Rapid population growth and rising standards of living are well documented in their implications for the future of the global environment. The average Western consumer utilises approximately 300 MJ of energy per day, the majority of this energy is derived from fossil fuels, the main cause of global warming and many local environmental problems. Each day, Western consumers utilise twice our own weight of primary materials. Moreover, one fifth of the world’s population use four fifths of the world’s resources. If our consumption patterns were replicated in third-world countries, a four-fold material flow would be required. By the year 2050, with double the current world population, global material flows would be eight times as large as currently. Daily on a global scale, for every thousand new products that appear on the shelves of supermarkets, a hundred natural species perish forever. These rough estimates give us a general indication of the volumes we are dealing with.


Man-nature-technology - From criticism towards self reflection

In developing a valid critique of consumerism, attention must be directed toward the consequences and dynamic aspects of consumption, rather than the consumer’s misinformed motive or lack of awareness. The focus should be on explaining why and how certain early decisions that are made, have long-term implications for society and lifestyles. In order to take a critical stance on consumerism, we must form a better understanding of global changes and the compound impact of countless, seemingly minor everyday decisions. We also need a deeper - self-reflective - understanding of the dynamics of our own commodity-dependency.













Figure. 1: Domestication of Everyday Life Things


The appearance of novelty (the essence of modern consumer society) has received surprisingly little attention in recent environmental debate. However, the ways in which commodities are introduced, institutionalised and naturalised within daily lives, reflect essential social processes. The social history of technology provides a picture of some general trends, for instance the metamorphoses of novelties from 'toys' to 'instruments', from 'luxuries' to 'necessities', from 'pleasure' to 'comfort' or from 'sensation' to 'routine'. The motives and needs behind buying and using technology are somehow transformed in the process (see Figure 1, for a general impression).


The vertical axis refers to the mental states of consumers in a specific choice situation. It could be maintained that both rational economics (upper left) and the sociology of consumption (upper right) deal with mental states that are quite stable and durable. Rational economic theory suggests that consumers make their decisions and calculations on the basis of ordered preferences according to price and income constraints. In sociology, concepts like lifestyle (in some conceptual forms) and way of life, suggest that decisions are made on the basis of role-expectations and social norms. Fashion and passion are clearly different 'reasons' behind individual choice behaviour. These mental states are 'hot' and less stable than those assumed in economic or rational sociology. Stability of lifestyle and every life is reached through difference socialisation and routinisation processes. For instance, television, radio and other forms of new media technology made their breakthrough in an initial phase of enthusiastic passionate experimentation, the boom thereafter being sustained by 'bandwagonism'. Within only a few decades, radio and television became an accepted and inseparable part of our lifestyle. The story of the automobile and the bicycle proceeds along much the same lines. These transformations become understandable when the perspective is shifted from single commodities and individual needs, to systems of commodities and evolving networks. In time commodities such as automobiles or televisions are embedded 'as components' in larger systems of goods. When commodities integrate with each other, such as within lifestyles, homes, or neighbourhoods, there is diminishing room for spontaneity. A single commodity and its use are increasingly dictated by 'necessity' when the existence of other commodities and consumption activities become dependent on it. For instance, the need to use one’s own car is not only psychological and cultural, but also embedded into physical structures including 'the needs of other goods'.


Consumption is not only a destructive and devouring process by definition, but also an essential precondition for the regeneration of society and the individual. Not only should ‘environmentally harmful choices’ be prevented from becoming routine, but harmful routines which have already become a fixed part of our lifestyle require de-stabilising. One form of criticising consumerism is to reappraise the necessity of commodities, which we take-for-granted in our everyday lives. Daily hygiene habits, for example, are full of such taken-for-granted routines, routines which are embedded in recent history. The use of soap and daily showers - in which we use 70 kg of water to remove 20 grams of dirt - have become ingrained in our daily habits, although they were initially motivated by very conscious choices.


Is it possible to recognise the water closet, cars and televisions as luxuries and conscious choices, rather than a daily necessity. A potential solution to the problem of materialism is precisely that of taking materialism one step further. There is nothing more wasteful than driving a car without deriving pleasure from the speed, freedom or independence that it affords. Perhaps by learning to appreciate and cherish our material possessions, the greater would be our desire to keep them as long as we possibly can. In the eyes of a collector, ‘rubbish’ can be treasure. As new objects are added to the collection, each individual piece becomes more and more precious. In the light of a new ultramaterialistic ideology, a commodity like the television plays the role of a pet-like companion. Indeed, televisions were originally advertised as a ‘new member of the family’. Should we, then, launch a new campaign advising families to hang on to their old television sets? What better example of domesticated technology! Some 10,000 years ago, man tamed animals to serve as his companions, can technology be tamed in the same manner?


Over time our relationship with commodities might become increasingly critical and discriminating. 'The commodity was its own message', might describe man’s relationship with many early technologies, but the product itself, and the playful experience it offered were also of paramount importance. Gradually, however, consumers began to raise their expectations toward the new commodity (for example, the sound quality of radios) and, at the same time, the product itself began to make certain claims on its environment (such as claims that radio and television dictate daily schedules). Possibly we are now in a position to analyse our own commodity-dependency and to question our lifestyle more generally. This third stage has, however, yet to arrive. Pessimists would describe this phase as an era of anti-consumerist criticism. Optimists would describe it as the era of the Art of consumption. The critical question facing modern society is which will come first, an active critical awareness of the problems related to consumerism, or a more radical backlash in the face of more extreme imperatives? Extensive literature on postmodern lifestyles might reflect the emerging theme of the self-reflexive consumer, it can be forcefully argued that the consumer society of the future will revolve around ecology, ethics and aesthetics, and the art of consumption. Consumption is after all, an enriching experience.


Technology interacts with human beings - New Perspectives and disciplines


Motto: 'Unfortunately, we lack proper conceptualisations to analyse different organising processes where technology interacts with human beings' (Latour, 1993).


In the man-artefact relationship there appears to be a general trend towards ever broader consumer-commodity networks, each individual branch being cemented by interdependent commodity relations (such as between the TV and the VCR) and the ties between man and commodity (for example, the family unit and its chosen form of transport). It is proposed that the evolution of commodity networks can be described in the following terms: as commodities become increasingly widespread and firmly anchored in our lifestyle, human needs begin to take second place, and the priority shifts to "the mutual interdependency of the commodities in their own right". These networks become tighter and more solidly fixed. The inexorable standardisation and routinisation of both technology and everyday life offers a good illustration of this process.


Systems of goods either stabilise or disappear in time. At the level of the individual household, this process can be described as the formation of a particular type of lifestyle. On a broader urban level, the process results in the formation of neighbourhoods and communities. Each home ‘generates’ demand for services, and these services in turn uphold the community which created them in the first place. Indeed, modern consumer society as a whole can be viewed as a vast metabolic organism which perpetuates itself. A number of conceptual innovations are needed in both consumer theory and in broader social theory if we are to study the changes and functions of the metabolic system of modern society (Baccini & Baccini 1989; Heiskanen & Pantzar 1996). Four inter-connected alternative views on the dynamics of man-artefact interactions, summarises these challenges: the biography of things, social shaping of technology, actor network theory and ecology of goods (replicative model of evolution). All these perspectives focus on interactions between human beings and technology, and the way in which these interactions either stabilise or disappear.


Figure 2: Perspectives on human being - technology interactions



Biography of Things

Social Shaping of Technology

Actor Network

Ecology of Goods

Unit of Analysis

Micro: Commodities and Households

Meso: Technological Systems

Meso: Sociotechnic Networks

Meso: Chains of Commodities and Consumers


Anthropology, Sociology, Consumer Research

Sociology of Science and Technology


Institutional Economics

Main concepts

Domestication, Appropriation, Objectification, Incorporation

Social Construction, Technology Systems and Frames

Translation, Heterogeneous network

The Origin, Maintenance and Selection of Variation


Carrier, Kopytoff, Lofgren, Miller and Silverstone

Bijker, Hughes, Pinch

Callon, Latour and Law

Boulding, Pantzar, Rip, Pier Saviotti


First, the term 'biography of thing' refers to newly emerging perspectives that describe the ways in which different commodities become integrated into the sphere of our daily life. For instance, the way that meanings become attached to specific goods and in the processes are transformed from experiences of uncontrolled chaos, to ordered cosmos, and the processes through which anonymous commodities with objective exchange value are transformed into personal possessions. Compared to the cultural critique typical of the older sociology of consumption, anthropologists, historians and sociologists concerned with the meanings of things take this as an empirical question (Miller 1995).


The social shaping of technology perspective argues for the interpretative flexibility of scientific findings and technological inventions, and thus for a non-deterministic model of technological change (Bijker, Hughes & Pinch, 1987). This approach focuses on the legitimisation processes and social mechanisms by which different commodities are constituted (such as, social construction). The social shaping of technological systems view shares with the theories of path-dependent systems (Arthur 1989), a plea for seeing history as essentially open: there are multiple paths (equilibria) of technology. Non-optimal technology is another distinct possibility. Often complex technologies display increasing returns to adoption and network externalities (i.e. nonlinearity), in that the more they are adopted the more they will be adopted.


A related approach is actor network theory, which explicitly examines the power of goods (Callon 1991; Mackay & Gillespie 1992). However, in contrast to the social shaping of technology, the primacy of human elements, or any distinctions between the 'technical' and the 'social', is strongly rejected. An ‘actor network’ is suggested to consist of very different kinds of actors: "The actor network is reducible neither to an actor alone nor to a network. Like a network it is composed of series of heterogeneous elements, animate and inanimate, that have been linked to one another for a certain period of time... The actor network can thus be distinguished from the traditional actors of sociology, a category generally excluding any nonhuman components and whose internal structure is rarely assimilated to that of a network".(Callon 1987, 1993) Power is not a property of any one of those components or elements, but a chain Latour 1991).


Actor network theories also focus on the stabilisation processes of organisations, i.e. the ways that different networks (systems or circuits) either become stabilised or disappear. Specific focus is placed upon the association and dissociation processes of human beings, upon different organizations and artefacts (Anderson & Tushman 1990; Pantzar 1983).13 These observations and generalisations could also be approached in a context of general evolution (Csanyi 1989; Pantzar 1991; Csanyi & Pantzar 1983), in the form argued by14 Kaufmann, states when discussing the world of interdependent artefacts: "An economy and single units within it, such as individual households, is a web of transformations of products and services among economic agents. New products and services entering market or as well to single households must 'mesh together coherently to jointly fulfil a set of needed tasks'" (Kaufmann 1988).15 In this sense, the web of consumers, producers and artefacts transforms over time, driven by technological advances and economic opportunity.


The ecological perspective on goods takes its starting point from the following observations: Examining the various components of such entities, as cells, organisms, societies, it can be found that these entities exist and are sustained through the self-maintenance or self-production that is continuously renewed by their own components. In self-organising systems (both biological and social), a similar general tendency toward replicative quality and integration with other systems exists (Csanyi 1989).16 Resulting systems are cyclic processes, within processes rather than given or stable entities. The cycles reproduce themselves in a continuous resource exchange with its co-actors and environment.


A minimum requirement for a sustainable system is that its components do not erode the system by their interaction. Quite clearly this condition is not fulfilled in modern society. As Lovelock indicates, we know very little about different feedback effects influencing the sustainability of our planet.

Concern over emerging feedback mechanisms makes the living systems metaphor a suitable starting point for analysing the relationship between consumption and production. Whereas a machine is geared to the output of a specific product, a biological organism is primarily concerned with renewing itself. For instance, during the early period of economic activity in the automobile industry, there were only minor feedback effects from the production to the demand for cars. There were however, some resources to start the evolutionary self-organising process, such as the Ford Company’s technological ability and its economic resources that brought the T-Ford to the market. The emerging cycle was related to Ford’s original vision of workers being able to buy a new T-model ('People’s car'). Before this period it could be maintained that the producers (‘workers’) and consumers (‘idle class’) were different people, and the feedback effect had a minor role. The emerging mass consumer society challenged this state of affairs, as the behaviour of each agent (artefacts, human beings, organizations), is bounded through reciprocation to the behaviour of the others in an extensive way.


These theoretical claims provide interesting insights and hypothesis to different routinisation processes, inherent to the life cycle of single commodities. It seems that the early phases of new commodities are dictated more by voluntary choices (enabling) and individualism. In time however, artefacts integrate with other goods and increasingly play the role of constraints (ef. network externalities). These evolutionary processes could be seen both on the most general level of mass consumer society, and at the level of single households.


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Baccini, P & Baccini, P (1989) Metabolism of the Anthroposphere. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Bijker, W, Hughes, T & Pinch, T (eds.) (1987) The Social Construction of Technological Systems. New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bijker, W & Law, J (1992) Shaping Technology/Building Society - Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bijker W (1995) Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Boulding, K & Pantzar, M (1989), The Choreography of Everyday Life - A Missing Brick in the General Evolution Theory. World Futures - The Journal of General Evolution, 1989, Vol. 27, No. 2-4, 207-226,

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