Controlled Consumption Interfaces – When digital culture becomes software business

Søren Pold & Christian Ulrik Andersen
We live in the era of cultural computing. New IT gadgets – such as game consoles, tablets, smart phones and e-readers – are sold as platforms for cultural content. But how is this changing digital culture?

Culture has broadly been conceptualised through two different, opposing approaches: the object-oriented and the exchange-oriented. One is concerned with objects, goods or works, that have an author or a brand and is seen as stable, also when put in different relations and contexts. The other sees culture as a process made up of collective collaboration, sharing and a constant creative process (Stalder). The object-oriented fits into traditional copyright legislation while the exchange-oriented is more related to cultural practices, collaboration and remix.

IT and digital culture has been a primary battle scene for this discussion – between anti-pirates and pirates, between established rights holders and new emerging media artists, or between the old content industries like the movie and music industry and new disruptive business initiatives like Napster and Google. For a long time, it looked like the cultures of sharing and exchanging were winning the battle over a paralysed traditional content industry, but currently companies with their roots in new media such as Apple, Microsoft and Amazon are developing new business models and software infrastructures in order to offer a model for cultural computing that handles the inherent dichotomies of culture. One emerging and apparently extremely successful business and infrastructure model is controlled consumption. As we will discover below, this model can both be seen as a potential and threat to digital culture.

Controlled Consumption

Where the music industry failed in developing business models that both take advantage of the net and prohibits file sharing, software companies seem to rule by implementing new business models of cultural consumption. One of these business models can be characterised by the term “controlled consumption” developed by Henri Lefebvre in 1967, and applied to contemporary publishing and book trade by Ted Striphas. Striphas summarises controlled consumption in four principles:

1) A cybernetic industrial infrastructure integrating and handling production, distribution, exchange and consumption is developed around the product.

2) The consumption is controlled through programming that closely monitors consumer behaviour and the effects of marketing through tracking and surveillance.

3) Controlled obsolescence is programmed into the product limiting the functionality and durability.

4) The overall effect of controlled consumption is a significant reorganising and troubling of specific practices of everyday life.

Controlled consumption precisely characterises business strategies from both cultural software industries (e.g. the way the XBox and Playstation 3 game consoles include online shops), the way software companies develop cultural business models (e.g. Apple’s IOS devices and their integration of iTunes and Appstore) and the way new cultural digital formats are handled (e.g. the way Amazon has developed the Kindle bookstore and e-reader in order to handle e-books). Apple’s IOS iTunes and Appstore, Microsoft’s Xbox Live, Sony’s Playstation Network (PSN), Amazon Kindle are all examples of controlled consumption strategies that work along the four principles, though there are significant differences in how tightly the control is exercised.

The model of controlled consumption opens up for a very particular business model for cultural software. It works for some uses but also standardises software culture to a specific object-oriented model, where the consumers are forced to adapt to a specific, rather passive model of consumption framed by the licenses and the technology. In this way, it also harbours a specific model of culture, which excludes potential new developments of a culture of exchange. Furthermore, it is a ready-made business model for artists, and while this can be seen as an advantage it also limits the possibility for artists to engage in developing new alternative ways to engage with their audience, e.g. through business models that build on collaboration, engagement or just other ways of collecting payment. In this way, it is potentially stifling innovation in digital culture, and we need to look for alternatives.

Works cited

Stalder, Felix. Open Cultures and the Nature of Networks. Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, 2005. Print

Striphas, Ted. The late age of print : everyday book culture from consumerism to control. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. Print


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