Thick braids rest on each breast while her interlocking fingers are clasped seductively behind her head. With eyes nearly closed, she looks as if she is either being pleasured or on heroin. Her jeans are unbuttoned; a sultry invitation.
The peasant pigtails suggest the slow life of the countryside, but her makeup and injected lips are firmly cosmopolitan. It is impossible to know the woman’s ethnicity. She could be from anywhere: India, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Brazil, Guatemala, Europe, North America. She is the icon of the 21st century: global, sensual, sexual, and on an advertisement for a multinational chain.
UNITED COLORS OF BENETTON, all caps, white print on green background. There are four mannequins, all white, the men with swimmers’ bodies and the women with hardly any bodies at all. They wear the standard fare: tight pants, tight shirts, summer scarves, designer sunglasses. They are lifeless, and yet infinitely more fashionable than we mere humans could ever hope for.
I desperately needed a break from the daily routine of waking up, checking my email, adding items to my to-do list, and then spending the rest of the day checking them off. I needed a break from the invisible world of bytes; a foray into the outside world of atoms, trees, and buildings. I grabbed my paper journal, the latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, my sunglasses, and headed out to Porto’s blinding summer streets.
It felt as though my journey could have taken my anywhere – that was, after all, the whole point. But now it seems inevitable that I should arrive here, Dolce Vita, the “sweet life”, Porto’s most luxurious shopping mall. The four-story atrium of advanced capitalism lures you in with soft light, cool air, the lapping sounds of the ground-floor water fountain, the familiarity of brand names and perfectly presented display cases. The opaque glass floors are sparkling clean; not a speck of dirt to be discovered by the most probing eyes.
Pepe Jeans London has a backdrop of leaning Caribbean palm trees. An orange and yellow beach chair is draped by a single pair of artificially worn-out jeans and a simple red t-shirt. Four cardboard boxes painted deep denim blue sit atop scattered sand and broken seashells. They announce in white paint that from now until September 15 select items are marked 20, 30, 40, and 50% off.
I stare and wonder how the whole display came about. Is it packaged in a single box that is shipped directly from Pepe Jeans London headquarters? Who is in charge of purchasing the sand, and where does it come from? Who is the entrepreneur that thought to collect sand and seashells to sell to multinational retail stores for their display cases?
I try to picture the young woman responsible for setting up the display. She is proud of her work. I can picture her telling her parents over a family dinner that building a display case offers her a creative outlet. Like any artist she has her tools and she must craft beauty with them. I picture her sprinkling sand slowly on the floor of the display case. Then, unhappy with its appearance, she sweeps it up to start over. Her cell phone rings – a special ringtone – and she explains to her boyfriend that she will be late. She really wants this to look just right.
Upstairs on the fourth-floor food court are all the usual suspects: KFC and Pizza Hut (both owned by Yum!), Burger King, and a handful of Portuguese chains. I settle on Ò Kilo, its slogan: “the flavor of Brazil.”
The men wear white button-up shirts, khaki pants, red aprons, and matching visors, all with the Ò Kilo logo. The woman wear red polo shirts and tight khaki pants – no apron to cover the curves of their bodies. Ò Kilo is the Boston Market of Portugal — comfort food reminiscent of Sunday afternoons in the park. You choose three types of meat, three accompanying sides, and you pay a single price. There is even a glass jar of lemonade topped with ice cubes and freshly sliced lemons next to the cash register.
I worked at Boston Market (a subsidiary of McDonald’s) as an 18-year-old in Washington. Every item on our menu arrived weekly from a central distribution plant in clear, frozen, plastic bags. Preparing food at Boston Market is as simple as pulling one of these bags from the freezer, inserting it into an industrial steamer, and pouring the guts of the bag out into the black plastic serving bins. Every single gram of food was measured, quantified, tracked. Food scientists had developed perfect recipes to maximize taste and profits. The kitchen was the essence of stainless steel industrial efficiency, and the restaurant outside was covered in clever imagery of pastoral pastiche.
A couple days later I was sitting with Sara and her family at their dining table for a freshly cooked meal. Sara had just arrived from East Timor where she had been working with a group of women who make cloth dolls and textiles. She has been trying to build a market for these goods here in Portugal, but all the shoppers are at the malls and the retail stores don’t deal with small scale suppliers.
The next week I sat in on lecture after lecture by various academics pontificating with lefty lament that the wildly independent internet that we once knew and loved is being replaced by a few gigantic corporate platforms.
Just as the small independent shopkeepers of our city centers closed down, unable to compete with the efficiency of retail shopping malls, so to is the online ecosystem closing in around the digital versions of mammoth shopping malls and food courts. It is an unfortunate trend I suppose, but I think that it is far from the inevitable future. The 1990’s was a decade of massive corporate consolidation toward centralized efficiency. In major cities around the world independent stores closed down and were replaced by multinational retail corporations that today can be found from Johannesburg to Jakarta to Japan. The era of artisans and boutiques, it seemed, was over.
But in recent years local artisans’ movements have taken hold in just about every major city in America. Downtown districts are gentrifying, boutiques are back, farmers markets are spreading, and most young fashion designers would prefer to sell their designs to just about anyone other than major retail chains. Against all odds, independent bookstores and music stores are surviving in the digital era while their big box brethren file for bankruptcy.
Facebook, Amazon, and future ‘online malls’ will always be around; as will their real-life equivalents. But I predict that in the next ten years (if not five) we will begin to see an artisan internet emerge around open standards like OpenID, and led by digital natives yearning to express their individuality in a world of indistinguishable mass-manufacturing.