Wherever abundant consumption is established, one particular opposition is always at the forefront: the antagonism between youth and adults. But real adults — people who are masters of their own lives — are in fact nowhere to be found. And a youthful transformation of what exists is in no way characteristic of those who are now young; it is present solely in the economic system, in the dynamism of capitalism. It is things that rule and that are young, vying with each other and constantly replacing each other.That particular quote is taken from The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord, published in 1967. It probably loses something in translation from the French, but I was really engaged by his ideas about the consumer society, especially that last sentence. In some ways, we take for granted the idea that newer is better, that young people are the true dictators of what is cool in this world, and the rest of us just hang around, smelling a bit mouldy and generally getting in the way of progress.
In Debord's view, the perceived conflict between old and young is simply a marketing gimmick, a way of driving consumption by convincing us that buying into the "new" is far preferable to sticking with the "old" things we already own. Nowhere is this dynamic more in evidence than in the technology market. Every day brings a hail of new product announcements: e-readers, smartphones, tablets, laptops, tablets that transform into laptops, smartphones that make candyfloss (ok, I made that one up). Each new technological advancement makes the printed book seem increasingly old-fashioned, as we find more and more ways to deliver content electronically.
But is this progress illusory? Are we really gaining from the move to digital, or just transitioning for the sake of it, because the new technology seems to offer us a more convenient way of accessing content? Yes and no. Digital does offer a lot of opportunities, new ways of publishing that make it easier to access and interact with the written word. Digital also offers a wealth of feedback that wasn't previously feasible – it's now possible to see how quickly people read books, which sections they reread, even which page makes them abandon the book and never return. But all this doesn't stop the printed book being a very effective (and attractive) delivery method in its own right – not better or worse than digital, just different.
Guy Debord's ideas are striking in others ways, not least that they are still so pertinent, over 45 years since they were written. Perhaps in that time, the nature of consumer society hasn't changed that much, because it still seems that the teenager rules much of popular culture. How many times have you heard people complaining that books, films or technology are predominantly targeted towards teenagers and young adults, rather than the majority of the population? You only have to look at how many YA books are being read by adults (84% according to a recent survey) or notice that the 12A has become the go-to certification for blockbuster movies. There is a worrying trend too, in the US, towards commissioning YA novels from younger and younger writers, many of them barely out of their teens. Some of them are very good (Divergent by Veronica Roth springs to mind), but many others feel more like youth-driven marketing gimmicks.
Will Debord's predictions continue to be proved right? Perhaps change is coming - as the consumer society looks increasingly shaky, it can no longer rely on younger people to set the trends and do all of the spending (especially when they can't get a job). In the publishing arena, the apocalyptic predictions for the death of the book are yet to be fulfilled, and the decline in print sales has slowed. Rather than the old ways being swept aside to allow for the new, it seems as if print and electronic products may coexist in the marketplace, each serving a different purpose. Indeed, it may be e-readers that are swept aside, as more and more people choose to use multifunctional tablet devices to read their e-books. The competition between the things, it seems, will continue as long as we have money in our pockets.