In Search of Brand-Name Nostalgia

In his book, The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control, Ted Striphas discusses the effects bar coding has on the job of an Amazon "picker":

"Still, there's a potentially more pernicious side to's use of the ISBN and Bookland EAN coding schemes. Not only do they allow the company to coordinate complex operations inside its order-fulfillment centers but they empower management to monitor worker productivity to an astonishing degree. Its implementation of these everday - often unnoticed - commodity codes has resulted in a workplace increasingly suspicious of and hostile to living labor."

This got me thinking about the popularity of a show like American Pickers. Part of the appeal of Mike and Frank is that they are portrayed as self-employed free agents who eschew the Interstates for the "backroads" of America searching for "rusty gold." The real joy of their job comes when they are "freestyling" and left to make it or break it on their own instincts. Their deals are made with haggling and a handshake, not a contractual agreement. They deal not in identically packaged products but instead those items that "pop" and "speak" to them. An item with a unique story or history. A piece of industrial folk art for example.

Of course this is all bullshit. Mike and Frank work for a huge media corporation. They rely on GPS surviellance and multi-media networking in order to locate "honey holes." There are reams of waivers and other paperwork signed off camera. To say nothing of the fact that they are plucking the low-hanging fruit of a number of dead or dying industries and picking clean the corpse of the labor of those industries.

Yet it is the illusion of freestyling and the nostalgia for dead industry that draw in eyeballs, stimulate renewed interest in the consumption of repackaged and recycled brand names, and sell advertising time. This is the aura in the digital age of information and the mass media.



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