Lane DeNicola, Anthropology Department, University College London
The meme of the Internet’s radical transformation of commerce, and specifically the consumer-level experience of e-commerce, recognizes an amalgam of shifts. Perusal of commodities via keyboard and display, for example, engender a quite different posture than traditional “brick-and-mortar” venues. Shoppers are less “on display” themselves in the former case, and so the cosmetic preparations that attend shopping in physical spaces are typically eliminated. Further, groups of more than perhaps two or at most three who attempt to shop online “together” (i.e. using a single display or interface) will likely find it a less-than-satisfying experience, in contrast to traditional shopping, a highly social activity. Most significantly, some have levelled a critique of e-commerce (or “online shopping” more specifically) as an unfortunate abstraction, an excision of consumption from its traditional context of social interaction and the experience of local spaces. By sedentarizing and individualizing such practice, online shopping nudged us even further in the direction of homogeneous, alienated consumers.
It is worth considering, however, some recent examples of digital culture in the vein of retailing. The cases mentioned here demonstrate that online shopping has heretofore been an activity shaped by paradigmatic understandings of the Internet as a medium, more specifically as a derivative of television. Yet a combination of factors—the routinised embedding of webcams in computers, innovations in image processing, and the promulgation of automatic identification standards and advertising-subsidized Web services—have destabilized such understandings. The challenges implied (e.g. to traditional publishing) by the possibility of users uploading their own text or images to the Web has expanded now into the domain of objects. Certainly 2D visual displays have so far remained the pivotal feature of most people’s experience with the Internet, and others have shown that this delicate membrane never really did segregate in any objective way people and objects on the one side from texts and representations on the other (cite Turkle). Yet the proliferation of sensing devices—especially cameras, microphones, accelerometers, and location finders—via desktop computers and mobile devices has dramatically intensified the entanglement of physical and virtual objects and spaces. The particularities of some recent examples in augmented reality and the Internet of Things yield important insights for digital anthropology.
Take Delicious Library, for example, a desktop application from the software company Delicious Monster (no relation to the Delicious of social bookmarking fame). Originally designed (as its name might suggest) for the management of physical books, the software’s principal innovation was two-fold: first, it turned the average webcam into an EAN-13 bar code reader, allowing the user to simply scan each book in his or her library rather than entering its ISBN in manually, a capability long-enjoyed by many professional librarians but rarely worth the expense for home use. Second, once a volume was identified the software would automatically search Amazon.com for corresponding information (bibliographic particulars, cover illustration, reviews, retail price), downloading it into the users local library database. Now in its second major version, Delicious Library will also catalogue many movies, music, software, toys, tools, electronics, video games, “gadgets” and even some apparel. The scanning mechanism has been made to resemble that of the typical grocery store checkout, both visually and audibly, an ironic naturalization of the object-to-information binding. The aesthetics of the interface itself echoes the suturing of physical to informational: as each item is scanned, it’s cover or identifying icon appears on a wood-grained “bookshelf” in a smoothly animated materialization, its retrieved specifications filling a drawer on the right.
Company literature cites a number of reasons one might use Delicious Library. It provides a very complete inventory for the purposes of insurance claims in the event of loss (assuming the data isn’t lost as well, of course). It helps keep track of borrowing by allowing you to “check out” items from your collection to any contacts in your address book, ensuring you know who borrowed what when. The conduit for commercial activity that it represents, however, is of particular interest here. By virtue of its connection to Amazon, Delicious Library advises users on “products they may be interested in” on the basis of those in their current collection, and users are afforded a streamlined mechanism for reselling items in their collection via Amazon. More significantly, users can “export” their library or collection for posting to the Web for perusal by others (e.g. prospective borrowers or those looking to purchase a gift). Like the circulation of music playlists on social networking sites, the transmigrated “library/collection” becomes a platform for the construction of online identity.
A second example foregrounds this dimension of digital retailing even more strongly. Closet Couture, a social networking site built around wardrobe management, invites participants to upload images of their own individual garments to a “virtual closet.” This basic data collection sets the stage for a variety of activities: the design of outfits, the filling out of wish lists, the preparation of packing lists, and an enhanced version of online clothes shopping, wherein retailers’ images of clothing items are imported into the user’s own virtual closet for review. Most importantly, one’s closet can be shared with “friends” (in the usual social networking sense) and/or retailers, who are then able to make style suggestions or even “dress you up.” In contrast to the notion of online shopping as a parade of product images to be passively absorbed, Closet Couture enrols participants in an active co-construction of an online social activity centred on material artefacts imbued with some measure of personal meaning. The prospect of commercial transaction is symbiotic with (or perhaps parasitic to) the informational and social service provided.
A third example inverts this pattern, the shadowing of physical objects online. MagicSymbol is a product of Inition, a company with projects in 3D content production, manufacturing, and interfacing (though open source precedents such as ARToolkit, a product of the University of Washington Human Interface Technology Lab, do exist). Applied initially as a unique marketing vehicle, MagicSymbol is an augmented reality application that relies on a computer vision technique known generically as object recognition. A virtual 3D rendering is superimposed over a physical 2D symbol the software is programmed to recognize in a live video image. As the 2D symbol changes orientation within the field of view, so the orientation of the 3D object changes. A computer outfitted with a webcam allows users to reorient and interact with virtual 3D objects by simply manipulating the 2D symbol. In an early but quite successful application, MagicSymbol was employed as one component of the advertising campaign for the BMW Z4. In that campaign, a variety of print and television media showed the vehicle being driven on an expansive matte white surface, leaving tread-marks in bright primary colours. Those who installed the MagicSymbol software and printed out the symbol could place it in front of their webcam and observe a “drivable” mini-rendering of the Z4, complete with retractable top and selectable tread-mark colours.
The technology has yielded a spin-off company (Holition) built around a just-launched application of the same basic premise but targeted toward watch and jewellery retailers. In this application, prospective customers “try on” high-resolution 3D renderings of different watches and jewellery items—rings, necklaces, earrings—by adorning themselves with paper “blanks” or “placeholders” bearing a unique symbol and observing their video image. The Holition software overlays the paper blank with the rendered object, reorienting and masking portions of it as necessary, matching surface lighting and glint to conditions within the field of view, and even sampling the customers own skin for patching over areas where the superimposed rendering doesn’t completely cover the blank. The simplicity of the paper blanks means that the system can be set up not only in brick-and-mortar retail stores, but within the consumers home. All they need do is download the software and the paper blank from the retailer, print out the latter, cut it to shape, put it on and observe themselves in their own webcam, cycling through whichever products the retailer has made available. Holition representatives suggest that their product obviates a number of issues retail jewellery store owners have noted about their business, including the anxiety many customers feel in entering such spaces while “knowing so little,” or the predilection of many spouses against leisurely jewellery shopping. Key, of course, is the fact that this operates in a quite different mode from the photographic catalogue. Holition developers consider the experience of jewellery shopping ineluctably linked to individual bodies and spaces. Through the Holition software, consumers see these items portrayed as artefacts—kinetic, luminous, and in intimate scale—at a pace and in a space of their own choosing.
One thing that draws these examples together is that they illustrate how digital culture has refracted “shopping” into a shifting constellation of objects, spaces, and social relations, and two commentaries on this topic bear note. In a critique of the conflation of shopping with the capitalist logic of finance, Miller (2001) has suggested that from the perspective of most consumers shopping as an activity is less about conformance with capitalist hegemony and the logic of finance than about the creation and maintenance of relationships. Further, the dichotomization of shops—local stores versus big name retail chains—entrenches a contradiction between, on the one hand, moral imperatives that he argues are inherent to shopping (which often juxtapose individual desires with caring for kin) and, on the other hand, the moral imperatives of progressive middle-class ideology (which juxtapose our responsibilities to our own micro-communities with those to regionally or globally-disparate communities).
We could consider the question of how shops, shopping, and community are transformed in the digital era through the examples presented above. We might do so on the basis of the class implications of the commodities involved—books, clothes, jewellery—or on the basis of the associated retailing communities these systems tie in and their political economies, but it may be just as illuminating to consider the operation of these information/visualization systems on the perception of objects and spaces (and as a corollary, social relations). In each case, the commodity (as physical object) is bound in a new way with a digital world shadow, a capillary network of specifications, documentation, discourse, and exchange. Further, the metaphor of the “virtual shop” of e-commerce—an information space that mimics the physical experience of shopping and catalogues—is nowhere to be found in these retail spaces. Instead, the domestic spaces that constitute the consumer habitus—the bookshelf, the wardrobe, the body—are foregrounded as sites where commercial transactions may happen in the background, piggy-backed as it were on social interaction. The personal relationships and community-embeddedness that characterizes the best of consumer experiences at local stores is largely decoupled from the retail transaction itself in these examples, provided instead through those services to which those transactions are parasitically attached (the organization of collections or closets, admiring prospective jewellery items at home).
In her examination of the “surface culture” of 1920’s Germany, Ward (2001) focuses one chapter on the emergence of the department store display window as a defining architectural form of modernity. “The Weimar display window,” she writes, “was immediately understood as a vital, interactive, spatial membrane along the newly streamlined façades of metropolitan buildings…[it] was ideally situated as a powerful point of interconnection between product and potential buyer” . Most insightfully, she suggests that
…consumerism’s imagination-oriented dictum of the incitement to buy, as paraded in window design, gave to the new glass culture of retail the very thing that both Benjamin and Kracauer found missing from modern architecture’s attempted transformation of the domestic living space—namely a certain warmth, imagination, and desire of occupancy that yet did not return to the old surplus ornamentation of the Wilhelmine era. 
Given the explosive rise of powerful mobile computing devices, some observers have suggested that the days of “the computer” as a visible domestic fixture may be waning. However, given the longevity of related appurtenances such as the television and the shrine this may involve more of a transmutation than an elimination. We may ask, then, how the computer display—operating in a matter not so far removed from the display window endemic to the landscape of urban culture—transforms the geometry of retail, imagination, and domestic living space.
Miller, D. 2001. The Dialectics of Shopping. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.
Ward, J. 2001. Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany Los Angeles, London. University of Calif