Why the Decline of High Street Retail Could Have Troubling Consequences for Our Freedom

by Alan Bradshaw

22 September 2020

Two people sat facing shuttered high street shops.
Photo: Lee Smith/Reuters Design: Bronte Dow

Among the casualties of coronavirus culture is an institution that has long been defined by its own underlying condition – the British high street.

Before Covid-19, Leicester city centre – to take an example – had clear symptoms of decline and fall. Already, Leicester’s Market Street, until recently a bustling quarter with a large department store, was visibly succumbing, with most units either boarded up or converted to charity shops selling donated goods. At that time, the evacuation of the city centre had as much to do with the irresistible attraction of the fancy High Cross shopping centre that absorbed foot traffic, leaving nearby streets in a dreary slump. 

Today, however, the High Cross shopping centre also feels the strain. According to the British Retail Consortium, the impact of coronavirus culture has been devastating, with further stark recession expected for the short-term. Although Christmas approaches, the thought of heaving crowds filling the shops seems to speak of another world, before we learnt to be afraid of gatherings and proximity. 

To an extent, coronavirus culture has not caused the crisis of the British high street, rather it has accelerated and clarified a long visible trend: the decline of bricks-and-mortar retail, as consumer demand shifts online. The busiest people today, it seems, are those engaged by the gigantic supply chain networks, as Amazon owner Jeff Bezos accumulates such vast wealth on a minute-by-minute basis that he might as well now be a god. What we see, then, is a gradual withdrawal of one form of shopping and the rise of another.

Of course, city centres are arguably no more than the imprints and remnants of different, once embedded market paradigms, from old Roman walls to medieval markets that in some cases, like Bern, still display market meters defining particular measurements for commodities. Such remnants remind us of the contingent reality of our current retail paradigm. And we might do well to remember that as impressive as the great palaces of consumerism are – such as the great global department stores like Harrods, Lafayette and Tiffany – they once ushered in an age of retail as the society of the spectacle, of the commodity fetish, with all the class and gender consequences that came with it. 

The ‘science’ of shopping.

Consumer society has long attracted svengali-type characters like Edward Bernays (nephew of Sigmund Freud), who wanted to develop methods of manipulating and controlling public sentiment and determining popular trends. According to Bernays, the people who understood how to do this type of marketing work, which he called ‘propaganda’, amounted to an ‘invisible government’. 

Bernays presents us with the idea of the marketer as what Vance Packard would later term the ‘hidden persuader’, who sought to manage consumerism as a form of social control. Notional scientists argued that it was possible to create a ‘servicescape’, which saw shops designed according to a series of psychological prompts that could determine and prime our movements and preferences. Corporations like Muzak, for example, developed scientific jargon, like its ‘stimulus progression chart’, to persuade clients that it had the knowledge to control how consumers would shop by ‘arousing’ them via fast, intense music in order to make them drink and eat faster, or to slow them down so that they would linger longer in supermarket aisles as the music conditioned their product selection.

Today, we might laugh at Muzak’s tragically slick delusions, which led them to once rename the song Funky Town as ‘S-3293 A-6′ in order to maintain their façade of serious science. But we might best understand the rise of Muzak as part of a wider fascination with how space could be reframed as a laboratory to condition and control behaviour. As Marshal McLuhan warned, a thin line divided such technological innovation for retail from military-led fantasies of psychological control and manipulation. 

Whether so-called servicescape management ever evolved beyond a fantastic pseudo-science practised by charlatans or not, it is undeniable that many retail environments today are highly controlled spaces. Consider, as sociologist George Ritzer famously did, how in McDonald’s our conversations with staff follow the scripts of McDonald’s discourse. As we queue in an orderly fashion, take the food to the table, dispose of wrapping paper on the way out, the consumer process is played out with the near-precision of an industrial conveyor belt – the difference being, of course, that instead of commodities being processed, it is people. 

Total social control.

Today, coronavirus culture accelerates us deeper into the world of big data and algorithm-mediated shopping, whose science of prediction and control advances possibilities that were previously inconceivable. Equipped by a surveillance infrastructure that endlessly tracks our most minute behaviour, exceeding any 20th century military-industrial complex, the promise holds that marketing research will soon understand our own desires better than we ourselves ever could.

Add to this the normalisation of subscription services like Netflix or Amazon Prime, which extract our consumer spend via direct debits rather than point-of-purchase persuasion, and we find ourselves beckoned towards a world of automated shopping. Today, the complexity of big data and its sophisticated algorithms moves us closer towards the modern fantasy of total social control; a fantasy that only seems interested in imagining the advantages for business without considering the possibilities of exploitation. 

In the attempts to develop track-and-trace technology apps, we see the intention to use the same surveillance and control potential of big data to address complex social dynamics generated by coronavirus culture. To what extent should we worry when we see these technological convergences of the apparatus of automated governance with modes of shopping? This new emerging paradigm might best be conceived of as what Christian Fuchs terms ‘big data ideology’, whereby the trend to analyse increasingly huge volumes of information is used to predict and control the development of certain aspects of society – a convergence that, he notes, carries fascist potential.

Moreover, in this focus on quantification, we also see the rise of what philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls ‘digital positivism’, whereby decisions are made on the basis of statistical and computational research that disregards broader analyses of human meanings, interpretations, experiences, attitudes and moral values. Indeed, any system that develops an ethos of governance so devoid of any philosophical, critical, or for that matter, qualitative reflexivity, seems destined for crudity at best, cruelty at worst.

A watershed moment.

Today, we find ourselves on the outside speculating on the forms of ideology represented by the strange new world of Cambridge Analytica, Steve Bannon, Russian interference, Dominic Cummings, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Steve Bezos, the CIA and others. We see herein an entanglement of state governance, democracy and everyday consumer culture.

This configuration is in itself not new, but today coronavirus culture, by accelerating the demise of bricks-and-mortar retail and the rise of online shopping, and by ushering in new biosurveillance applications, presents the potential for a watershed moment to structure and rationalise our lives in previously unimagined ways. The way that we shop has always been saturated by political consequence but the intensity of that saturation may just be about to be severely notched up. 

Alan Bradshaw is a professor of marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the co-editor of The Dictionary of Coronavirus Culture and co-author of Advertising Revolution, both available on Repeater Books.

  • The Future of Work focus is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).

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