Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Welcome to the Supermarket of the ‘Real’

I came across this piece of news the other day. It is fascinating. Even the title contains myriad layers. ‘Tesco nears 'dream' of 3D ecommerce offering’, it reads. In brief, the article is about how ‘One software company, Keytree, has now built a virtual Tesco store… that can be navigated with an Xbox Kinect, allowing people, in theory, to shop in a store through their TV.’

Actually through their TV. Using their actual bodies to guide them through a 3D representation of the aisles. Actually picking objects off of shelves.

Magic, huh?

There was a time when technology such as this was the province of science fiction. And it was not a time too long ago or far, far away. References to it which appear in recent shows such as Futurama, set in the year 3000+, now, in light of developments like this, begin to seem, if not quaint, then certainly under-reaching in their speculative aims. The sort of thing that wowed audiences ten years ago in Minority Report is now pretty much here. Albeit not yet supplied in a package deal with a crisp, blue-tinged sheen, and one’s own personal Tom Cruise running about all over the place and emoting with actorly gusto.

Now, it is, apparently, the ‘dream’ of supermarkets to bring it to your living rooms. To bring their stores to your living room. And they’re ‘near’ it.

Watching the video at the bottom of the article, which showcases this technology (albeit not yet in its 3D, fully-interactive version), I couldn’t stop another image entering my mind. Yet another film reference, I’m afraid. Presented with the sleek, white, hi-definition simulation of a supermarket, I was reminded of the scene in The Matrix in which the character of Neo is presented with stacks upon stacks and rows upon rows of weaponry within the resistance’s own simulation of the eponymous simulated world. And, as a result, all I could think was: ‘Food. Lots of food.’   Of course, The Matrix is famously (or infamously, depending on who you talk to) based upon the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard, as found in his 1981 work, Simulacra and Simulation. [Without having a copy of this text immediately to hand, I have been forced to refer to the relevant Wikipedia article, which, whilst, somewhat ironically, lacking Baudrillard’s original text, does contain the gist of his argument.] It is probably advisable to check said Wikipedia entry in full to get a better idea of what’s going on, but the overarching point contained within it is this: ‘our current society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is of a simulation of reality. Moreover, these simulacra are not merely mediations of reality, nor even deceptive mediations of reality; they are not based in a reality nor do they hide a reality, they simply hide that anything like reality is irrelevant to our current understanding of our lives.’

It’s pretty bleak reading/thinking matter, truth be told.

In fairness, though, I don’t think anyone would describe an out-in-the-world supermarket as a ‘profound reality’ to begin with, and so, in becoming a ‘reflection’ of it, this software started off at a disadvantage.

Moving it closer to Baudrillard’s ‘fourth stage’, which ‘is pure simulation, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality whatsoever. Here, signs merely reflect other signs and any claim to reality on the part of images or signs is only of the order of other such claims. This is a regime of total equivalency, where cultural products need no longer even pretend to be real in a naïve sense, because the experiences of consumers' lives are so predominantly artificial that even claims to reality are expected to be phrased in artificial, "hyperreal" terms.’

Baudrillard does break these simulacra down into four stages, however, therefore avoiding damning all simulations as, well, terrifying demonstrations of everything civilization-wise going down the swanny. For instance, the Wiki entry points out that ‘The first stage is a faithful image/copy, where we believe, and it may even be correct, that a sign is a "reflection of a profound reality" (pg 6), this is a good appearance, in what Baudrillard called "the sacramental order".’ Which sure sounds pretty good, and helpful. Pleasingly instructive, even. I’d like to think that the finest works of fiction fit into this category, though can’t say for certain whether ol’ Jean himself would have agreed.

Despite that slight uncertainty, I’m sure that this ‘3D supermarket’ idea doesn’t fit that particular bill.

Oddly, as a result of this, the ‘dream’ of a santitized 3D interactive supermarket might not be too hard to sell. Indeed, I guess part of the idea behind it is to provide the ‘experience’ of a supermarket without the fuss often inherent in visiting one. The oft-irksome business of other customers, all those unknown, or known-and-unliked, quantities jetting around the place with their overladen trolleys and their overactive kids. The grim phenomena of the queue. All the staff, young and old alike, who, if you watch them closely, appear secretly and permanently disgruntled that they’re not somewhere else, and seem unable to wait until self-service checkouts take over entirely.

Presumably, all of those factors will not be replicated in this software. Something that might well seem cause for jubilant celebration.

And yet, when I, and, I suspect, most people, think of trips to the supermarket, those factors are very much on my mind. If you end up visiting at peak times (which, round my way, seem to be nigh on perpetual) then there are usually even queues for the self-service machines. Frustrating, yes. But undeniably part of the experience of supermarket shopping. If they are removed from the view of the store presented by this software, then does this mean it is not a true simulation, and, if so, why bother? Why not simply make-do with online shopping as it is? With a series of lists and menus and thumbnail images, and a ‘basket’ that you don’t even have to pretend to carry around?

If you’re going to go to the trouble of wandering down supermarket aisles, whether they’re populated by other customers or not, why not simply go to a supermarket, and be done with it? There’ll be one near enough, so it probably won’t take too much more time than ‘walking’ through one on TV.

But then, it’s not even as if the software and the developers of that software themselves are really at fault. The idea as it stands in that video is not entirely theirs. As I mentioned, and as Baudrillard suggests, this whole ‘simulation’ business was going on well before I heard this particular piece of news. Even without all the versions of such technology presented previously in sci-fi works, the transposition of ‘simulacra’ onto the original versions of things has been going on for yonks. Aeons, even. It is nothing new.

More specific to the context of the device on which it is proposed that such software will be rolled out, computer-generated simulations of this kind are relatively old-hat. In fact, most games are simulations, of one kind or another. Even Pong is, albeit loosely, a simulation of table tennis. Then you have things that are more explicit about that being the case, such as RollerCoaster Tycoon, and subsequent, similar games. Yes, it’s approached from an omniscient, isometric viewpoint, but it still attempts to simulate what it might be like to run a theme park. Same for games such as Football Manager. Only, one would hope, with slightly fewer mascots about the place, terrifying guests.

Then, perhaps more worryingly (if, that is, you’re inclined to worry about such things), there are an increasing succession of games that seemingly aim to act as training simulations for armed service. Indeed, one that was first released a few years back, America’s Army, was based on the actual simulation used by the US Army at the time.

Then there are the range of games already in existence that make use of the recent development of motion-responsive technologies to allow the player to perform approximations of various activities – anything from tennis-playing, to bowling, to snowboarding, to sword-slashing is now within your grasp.

[There are plenty more examples besides, but I’ll stop there, before I suddenly realise I’m turning 86 instead of 26, and beginning to yell at all them whippersnappers to ‘Get off my lawn!’ Which might, were that to be the case, be a virtual lawn, instead of one of those pesky grass and mud ones, which need water and the attention of a dedicated lawnmower technician. But, again, this is straying somewhat.]

The difference is, they, by and large, accept the distinction of being fictive, of being ‘games’. No real money is (or, at least, should be) changing hands, expect in the initial purchasing of them.

What this 3D supermarket plan involves is, as far as I can gather, offering the customers what the video refers to as ‘the best of both’; i.e. the superimposition of an already simulated experience (that of online shopping), on top of the sanitised ‘simulation’ of physical in-store shopping, within a framework that might feasibly be found in a game. Only, they intend to supplant ‘lots of guns’ with ‘lots of food.’ And then to make ‘lots of money’ off of it. Actual money.

Put simply, this idea has a messy, tangled history. A list of progenitors that it might even be beyond the skill of the research team behind Who Do You Think You Are? to sort out correctly. As such, it may even class as a recycled simulation. 

This stage, clearly, raises numerous concerns.

One of which is, what will happen to the actual physical stores?

Are they simply doomed to become outmoded, relics of ‘reality,’ overlaid and overtaken by the ‘hyperreality’ offered up by software such as this? The article suggests that ‘Tesco [is] seeking to explore ways in which it can reach customers ‘wherever they are’’, and it clearly no longer sees its actual stores as the be all and end all of that process. It is not enough to have several stores – regular, ‘Extra’, and ‘Express’ – in close vicinity of most towns and cities. It must keep up with online-only competitors such Ocado, and, such being the rules of this particular game, continue to best those competitors on all fronts. If the majority of consumers soon carry out the majority of their shopping online, whether they use 3D walkthrough systems or not, then surely even the large supermarket stores will wind up closing down. 

Should this happen, or come close to happening, then how will it impact upon the workforce? Taking a hypothetical leap (something which, if we’re honest, rambling pseudo-philosophical essays like this are wont to do), will this mean the end to the quasi-tradition of summer holiday supermarket till-jockey work that has served many a young person (though not, I should perhaps point out, myself) well, in terms of furnishing them with relatively ‘easy’ money and valuable ‘retail experience’? What will it mean for those who work at supermarkets in such capacities either out of choice or simply because it was a job that they could get? Sure, there will still be warehousing work, but that experience is far less likely to lead to a more glamorous position in, say, fashion sales on the High Street.

Of course, taking a larger hypothetical leap, it could be reasoned that, if this technology is a success, more and more stores, of the supermarket and other varieties, may take it on. And so retail work as it is understood today may become, as they say, ‘a thing of the past’. Rendering any worries about not getting relevant experience moot.

There are further questions along that road, but I am in no way qualified/well-researched-in-current-employment-statistics enough to be asking them, let alone attempting to provide answers.

I will instead muse on what such a change might mean for the prominence of in-store bakers and butchers, and for speciality areas such as the deli counter. Again, I’m assuming that such areas will likely feature in the on-screen simulation (although, having checked the video again, it really does seem as though there are rows and rows of shelves and nothing resembling those counters…), but, even if they do, I doubt you will be met with a virtual baker, or butcher, or… deli counter…er. – Even with the best graphics currently available, the ‘uncanny valley’ effect might put people off their purchase. – There will, probably, be no sense given of the skill required to perform any of the tasks involved in readying all those different types of bread, different cuts of meat, different deli spreads. To say nothing of the work of the fishmonger.       

Not to come across all Jamie Oliver, but will this serve to sever people even further from the source of their food, from an awareness of where it comes from, and how it is all prepared for their consumption?

Will future generations learn about the professions of butchery and bakery and fishmongering? If they don’t, how will food that might come under the jurisdiction of those professions be prepared, packaged, sold?

Will it matter?

How many people, after all, pay close attention to the skills of such workers, or take time to consider and respect those skills, even now, when on in-store shopping trips? When was the last time they might honestly say that they did?

Baudrillard suggests (or, at least, the Wikipedia entry summarising his work does) that many other things were already in, or otherwise approaching, the fourth stage of simulation, even 30 years ago when the work was first published. If this is indeed taken to be the case, and most of the things that we’re familiar with are already more ‘simulacra’ than reality, and not many people have taken the time to kick up too much of a fuss about it, then will the difference be noted/lamented at all?

Moreover, given that actual weekly/twice-weekly/however-frequent shopping trips are usually shit, is there any point griping about this technology?

Perhaps not.

But, perhaps it’s worth asking why those shopping trips are frequently so dull that people might choose to pay a visit to the 3D ‘food’-lined walls of ‘Uncanny Valley’ instead? And, on top of that, if they’re so dull, then why the hell would anyone want to go to the lengths required to produce a simulation of the ‘experience’?

Would I, I find myself wondering, be less scathingly sceptical of this idea if actual supermarkets appealed to me more?

Then I wonder: If they appealed to me more, why would I need a simulation of them, to make sure I could reach it and the goods it holds ‘wherever I am’? Surely I’d be willing to travel to such a fantastical palace of foodstuffs and assorted homeware, cookware, clothing, chart CDs, DVDs, magazines, booze, and bathroom accessories.

Following query: If there is a worry that people might otherwise let themselves go hungry than visit actual supermarkets, in the absence of online alternatives, why not make the in-store experience better? Like, way better.

Certainly, even crappy supermarkets offer what the 3D simulation implies it can give you. Namely, ‘Food. Lots of food.’ It’s all there, laid out on the shelves, in the point-of-sale stacks, and in the fridges and freezers. There’s salad, and salad dressing. There’s fruit, and fruit juices. There’s meat, of at least three kinds. There’s fish, and fish sauce. There’s bread, and buns, and brownies. And little plastic things full of cold custard. And loads of cheese. Even the squeezy stuff. And cereal. And eggs. And pasta. And herbs. And potatoes, and onions, and garlic, and chili peppers, and even some green vegetables. Courgettes. Broccoli. Runner beans. Mushrooms. Pizzas, and bare pizza bases. Tomato sauces to slather on top.    

And yet, it’s all ‘Food’, with that capital F. It is, by and large, boxed-up and branded and obscured from view. It is all hidden, and replaced by photographs of possible contents, unless you buy it and take it home to unwrap. Or it’s shrinkwrapped in sellophane. Or, if it’s a piece of fruit or veg, it might be in a net, or even open to the elements. But it doesn’t smell like food. Natural stuff. Like the stuff that falls off a tree or is pulled fresh from the ground. At any rate, it doesn’t smell like you feel that kind of food should smell. Even the cooked produce, at the deli counter and the bakery doesn’t, unless you’re really close to it.  

It’s possible that this is intended. That it is contrived to be that way so as the scent of one area doesn’t cause people un-enamoured with said scent to boycott any areas nearby. And, if so, that is certainly one potential problem that a 3D simulation would sidestep entirely. With every product reduced to a replica of a cardboard box covering the actual/virtual contents, then people can select their purchases according to brand-fidelity and special offers alone, without becoming distracted by the promise of anything fresh, which might make them turn their nose up at the canned goods in front of them.

Yes, it does indeed seem to be a modern retailer’s ‘dream’. A marketing paradise. Logo after logo, and no interferences, no actual people to befuddle the issue. The video even promises that anything you point-and-pick off the shelves will be ‘ADDED TO REAL BASKET’ –

But that is where the truly problematic part of the idea lies.  

The ‘REAL’ that is mentioned here (and alluded to in the title of this piece) is not the Real as Lacan identified it – i.e. something unobscured/ungoverened by symbols and by simulacra. Rather, it is a conception of ‘reality’ that is a direct result of that process of obscuring. Because so much of the world that people know today is approached symbolically, and so much of our understanding of life is considered and expressed through symbolic terms (that is, through language, which gives names and ascribes meanings to things which otherwise simply are), the Lacanian Real holds, as philosophers such as Slavoj Žižek suggest, a kind of horror which comes from our no longer being conditioned to deal with such a world. Following this, other notions of reality have become accepted in its stead.

This takes us back to the ‘first stage’ of simulacra, as set down by Baudrillard. The primary copy, as it were. The initial symbolic framework, which enables humankind en masse to make better sense of things around them. However, the ‘REAL BASKET’ represents something different.

It is, to paraphrase Palahniuk, a copy of a copy. The basket referred to is the usual online shopping basket, which is to say that it is a screen that holds a list of chosen items, ready for purchase. It is not an actual physical basket, but it does mirror the intent of one. The same could be said of the products being purchased, though they will, it is to be hoped, turn up in their physical form at some point. The online shopping basket will do no such thing. Instead, calling it the ‘REAL BASKET’ suggests that, indeed, the online arena is intending to supplant and usurp the physical one.

This can therefore be seen as yet another step in the progression Baudrillard identifies, taking humanity further away from reality, and into a realm in which symbols, in being increasingly removed from their original purpose, in becoming symbolic only of other, preceding, symbols, cease to have any true meaning.     

This builds, however, upon the work of physical supermarkets themselves, which have, in their time, enacted a similar coup. They have copied and then supplanted other things.

But which other things? What were they attempting to make ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ in the first place?

I suppose their closest forerunners were the outdoor and indoor markets. You know, the ones that still linger on, in some towns, but seem to be getting smaller and held less frequently. Places that, ideally, should take advantage of the visual and olfactory lure of actual fresh produce, without having to overload them with symbols in order to sell. That should showcase that produce in all its glory, sans any advertisements save the bellow of the given stall’s proprietor, and make the customer want to buy it, safe in the knowledge that it will not only taste good, but will be good for them as well.

However, before I get too misty-eyed and chest-beating about all that, I need to make something clear. I’ve never really enjoyed those kinds of markets in this country either. Perhaps it’s because, by the time I was really aware of being out food shopping, supermarkets were already taking over, and a general defeatism had begun to set in. Clocking that they were fighting a losing battle, most markets, at least those near me, seemed to have all but given up fighting.

If it can be said that most of our instincts, food-wise, come from our childhood; and, consequently, that one of adult life’s chief pleasures comes from becoming reacquainted with sensations which remind us of that time, then, market-wise, I’m buggered. My most vivid childhood memories of such markets are of the scent of none-too-fresh fish, the disturbing (because I didn’t really know what it was or where it’d come from) sight of the meat on the butcher’s stalls, and stacks and stacks of lettuce and cabbage. And the overriding stench of food intended for dogs and other pets, leaking out of big plastic bags hung up in corner stalls that were still too close to the actual people food for comfort.

I hear my parents talk about markets they used to go to as children, and, in a lot of ways, they sound better. At least, I presume they must have been better, in order to provoke such warm nostalgia now. But I can’t say as I’ll feel that way about the markets of my youth. Except, perhaps, for the sweet stalls.

There are some markets I’ve encountered more recently, however, which suggest other, more welcoming options still exist.

Borough Market, in London, comes to mind. The first time I visited was on a quiet day. The morning’s activity was winding down, but a select few vendors were still hawking their wares. Most appealing, to me, of these was a stall selling a variety of curries. One large, simmering pot full of a green Thai effort, another full of Caribbean curry, and the third and final of something more Indian in flavour. And in scent. Spice mixes that permeated and swam throughout the high-roofed interior, the cavernous space resembling (and quite possibly being) a former warehouse or factory floor. Spices that drew me towards them, bade me try a sample of each curry before settling on the Thai.

The second time I visited, it was in full flow. All stalls open and packed. Variety being the order of the day. Everything from a stall selling nothing but roasted pig parts, to another that sold kangaroo, to yet another, or perhaps several, that specialised in a whole gamut of cheeses and chili sauces and jams and chutneys. All somehow arrayed in close-quarters, yet not so that it felt uncomfortably crowded.

And then, crossing the channel and the bulk of a whole ‘nother country, there’s Marseilles. There’s the thrill of being down near the Vieux Port at half ten in the morning, with the sun climbing white through the blue as you squint towards the horizon, out between the stony entrance to the harbour, looking for the place where the ocean gets stitched to the sky. There’s the rush of the fish market, not smelling like what you thought a fish market was meant to smell like at all. Smelling only of brine and the cool non-scent of ice. Fishblood being hosed clear of the pavement and back into the bay. People, locals, going there to buy fresh-caught fish, perhaps to cook bouillabaisse. Some of this fish might make its way to any one of the number of restaurants that line up along the seafront and on the streets behind, for them to try their own versions of that dish.

Further up the hill on which the city’s built, there is at least one other market, on a street set just off one of the main thoroughfares. Coriander is the first thing that rises in my recollections of that place. Bunches of it, piled high on the wooden counter of one stall, practically a shrubbery. So green it was as though somebody had ramped up the contrast.

Strangely, so fresh and vivid that it looked almost Photoshopped.  

And in Arles, where Van Gogh either went mad, or went to recuperate, or both, the market in the square, just coming into autumn, a long table, a doubled-up table, with so many different types of mushrooms laid out across it that I couldn’t keep count. At least, I can’t recall the number of them now.

Experiences that awakened in me the pleasure of being able to see, and smell, fresh, unpackaged food; experiences unreplicable on any simulation, 3D or otherwise.

Experiences, also, that were most likely heightened by the fact that I was just visiting those three places, that those markets were not my local food-buying haunts. There is the old notion that there are some places you might love upon holidaying there, but that you wouldn’t want to live in, out of fear, I suppose, that it would become ordinary, and therefore boring. A line from Lost in Translation comes to mind: ‘Let’s never come here again, because it would never be as much fun.’ Indeed, part of the reason the sensations I felt at these markets resonate so strongly comes from their status as, more or less, standalone events.

This needn’t remain the case, however. Certainly, I would welcome spending more time in environs such as that over drudging through cookie-cutter, constructed-to-a-formula supermarkets. What if there were several thriving markets of that kind around the same town, packed the same as supermarkets are now, and those markets were all, in some way, unique, all supplying the best and most interesting of certain kinds of locally-sourced produce?

What if the onus were placed not on simply exploiting every technological advancement made available, but on rediscovering the pleasure I referred to earlier, on rediscovering those reasons to return to a less-simulated reality? On observing the possibilities inherent in the actual, physical world around us, and making them more easily accessible, and, therefore, more openly-enticing.

What if people were given that reason to feel, if not good, then at least better about, and therefore closer to, the world and the towns/cities/communities around them?

Would they still think of shopping interactively through their 3D TVs as a good idea? Or would they realise that the ‘dreams’ of certain supermarkets might not actually be in-line with their own? 

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