C Magazine


Issue 127

Perfume Area by Laurel Schwulst and Sydney Shen
by Sam Davis

Automation, broadly speaking, is the reduction or removal of human intervention from any process. Any task or process, at any scale, requires some expenditure of energy across some duration. At this point in time, an exhausted consumer majority believes that if we can save that time and energy, and still produce equivalent, satisfactory results, we should.

While I could perform Siri’s searches myself, I might be driving. So I’d have to pull over but I’m also in a hurry to perform other tasks, as usual. Time is thus saved and potential energy is never expended. Similarly a dishwasher compresses both the event-length and the physical intensity of the labour involved with washing dishes by hand.

Earlier this year, Amazon unveiled its Dash Button, a service that allows Amazon Prime subscribers to compress and partially automate the process of replenishing their most used products. In a short trailer online, we see a home filled with little stick-on Dash buttons, placed near the products to which they refer. Detergent, moisturizer, espresso pods, yogourt cups. When we notice our supplies are running low, we push the button and an order for replacements is fully automated with the aid of stored personal information.

Processes automated both actually and potentially here include (but are not limited to) a trip to the store, the removal of a credit card from a wallet, the transport of the product itself and the reiterative choice to purchase the same product. The compression, subsumation and obscurance of the first three physical processes are less interesting to me than the automation of the last.

When my detergent runs out and I go to the store to replace it, even if I plan on repeat purchasing the brand, I still have to actively make the choice to do so when confronted with 30+ commercially available detergents. At the very least, I have to visually locate it in a busy field of competing brands. The choice to purchase the same brand is a new choice every time and Amazon knows that actively making that choice in repetition is a fool’s errand to the store.

An interior process local to my body (choice, a desire to reproduce results that have pleased me in the past) has been automated, externalized and outsourced to a nonhuman entity that can do it more efficiently.

Ian Crouch, in a piece on Dash for The New Yorker, makes the automation of these processes a problem of consumer ethics. The Dash trailer’s admonition that the consumer not “let running out ruin [their] rhythm” is, for Crouch, a site of “real dystopia.” Crouch suggests there might be “actual value in running out of things” and that it can be “a check against the inertia of consumption.” He calls this break “a chance to make a decision, a choice – even if that choice is simply to continue consuming.” “Shopping should make you feel bad,” he says, “if only for a second.”

But why? Why should shopping make us feel bad? Is feeling bad the only way to be a responsible consumer? Why should anything make us feel bad when a largely selfish and intolerant global community primarily expresses itself through violence, forceful inequality and suffering? Will guilt and self-loathing save us? Across a comprehensive gradient of economic and class strata, the end goal of the things we purchase is making us feel good, or at least better, even if these purchases are often short-sighted, wasteful, violent or self destructive.

Whether or not capitalism is the primary ontological framework for these patterns of consumption/suffering, it certainly defines the pace. Especially with regard to automation, it’s always a 24-hour work day somewhere, for something. When Amazon expresses its concern that running out might “ruin your rhythm,” they don’t necessarily mean the rhythm or tempo of an embodied human labour force.

“For its part,” says Paul Allen Anderson, “capital never sleeps.” Anderson, whose paper on Neo-Muzak recently appeared in Critical Inquiry, examines the affective-consumptive desires of “web dependent cognitive laborers and others,” i.e. anyone with a mobile Internet connection. As long as humans “chafe at the call for continuous interface,” capital’s “functionaries can only forestall bodily fatigue and nervous collapse…through a rigorous regime of affect management.”

Buying detergent, however, doesn’t make me particularly happy, so, if I’m really going to “perform a normative positive mood at work and in social interactions,” I’ll probably engage in outsourced and potentially automated processes of “virtual vicarity,” which Anderson defines as “the partial exteriorization and mechanization of emotional activity otherwise branded as personal.” Like Amazon’s automation of my choice to continue purchasing the same pleasing brand ad infinitum, services like Pandora, says Anderson, externalize and automate a choice-making process calibrated to the alleviation of a suffering I don’t have the resources to address, at least right now.

While Anderson’s study focuses on streaming music as it exists in the workplace, Pandora and Spotify are also widely utilized for recreational listening. In parallel, I use Amazon for more than the repeat purchase of detergent and espresso pods. If I need variety, novelty or newness in the recreational products I consume to forestall Anderson’s “bodily fatigue and nervous collapse,” the automation of my consumption becomes more complicated. There’s no Dash Button for the books I buy on the site and I don’t want the same book over and over. I’ll collaborate with their recommendation algorithm when given multiple choices, but I don’t know if I trust it to automatically make my next purchase. Pandora, on the other hand, does automate choices like this and so do Netflix, Spotify, YouTube, and any other streaming service with auto-play functions tailored to individual users.

If Pandora can do it with a tolerable and relative accuracy, at least for a few hours, there’s no reason that I couldn’t ultimately have an Amazon Dash Button for the books I read, something unexpected and different every time. A Dash Button next to my reading chair, pushed when I’m nearing the end of the book.

This sort of automation, however, is a long way off. Most current “predictive” or “adaptive” technologies are actually just simple machines, designed to steer users to branded content and strategically placed impulse buys (or streams). Even if they were designed to function as artificial intelligences, the predetermined sandbox of possible choices for a user makes complex and truly “adaptive” processing impossible.

Perhaps this is why the customer review persists as it does. Amazon easily has more reviews than it does products. Humans are great at inference and the qualitative space between five miserable stars is certainly equal to the “over 450 musical attributes” identified by Pandora’s Music Genome Project®.

Perfume Area is a collection of perfume reviews written by artist-designer-authors Laurel Schwulst and Sydney Shen (the book was designed by Bryce Wilner). As of this writing, it exists only in an edition of 300, published by Ambient Works, and is not available on Amazon. It is that portable, affordable art object, refusing to assign primacy to either its text or its design: the artist-book. In May, Schwulst and Shen read excerpts from the book at New York’s Printed Matter while David Ertel supplied background music.

Each perfume is a small prose pocket world, a tiny set of ontological assumptions set into motion. Smell, as alluded to by Ertel’s musical accompaniment, is rarely an autonomous sense; it almost always comes bundled with not just acoustic, but visual and haptic qualia, too. It is hopelessly, complicatedly embodied. Like most product reviews, the authors extrapolate this sensory bundling into a contextual framework. This is what allows it to exist in the consumer imagination, so the buyer knows what they’re getting into. While the perfumes reviewed are, for the most part, commercially available, the texts themselves are speculative, fantastic and verge regularly on the science fictive. Despite its futurity, and maybe because perfume lives in some hopelessly specific and embodied area even further away from automated consumption than books and music, the perfume area is moist, it has problems. It’s not a dystopia, necessarily, though individual reviews might be, but it’s still not a unified utopian vision. You do not hover or quantum leap down Milk Road, you ride a motorcycle (as in the 5-flower review of Le Labo’s Lys 41). In Schwulst and Shen’s gentle future, aliens are sweating, humans are drinking Lactaid and for all the gleaming chrome, post-apocalyptic abandoned malls and conjured simspace, we still fall asleep with our hands in bags of potato chips and knock over the bong.

When Perfume Area began, it was a project that lived exclusively online but it was not a work for Twitter or subversively posted to sites where perfumes are available for purchase and review. As well, the website and book are each a semiautonomous forum, a collected set of ontological functions – different stories from the same world. Besides its more general futurism, Perfume Area has this in common with science fiction, too: a structural and accretive approach for world building. Perfume, under the supervision of Schwulst and Shen, becomes, like all of the products we purchase, a reflection of the various intersecting economies of consumption and desire in which we find ourselves suspended.