Making Modern Consumers: rationalization, mechanization, and digitalization in the Twentieth Century (June 2011, Washington DC)


Dates: June 16 – 18, 2011
Proposal submission deadline: 15 October 2010
Location: German Historical Institute
Conveners: Gary Cross (Penn State University), Angelika Epple (University of Bielefeld), Uwe Spiekermann (GHI Washington)

The historiography of twentieth-century consumption usually either analyzes processes of production or centers on narratives of actors. Consumption is presented as an active process, grounded in the changing patterns of needs and wants driven by firms, consumers, or both. While these narratives underline our understanding of rationalization as a process of acceleration, the rapidly developing spheres of consumption and production emerge as more or less autonomous, clearly separated from each other. Our conference will question this perspective.

In our view, historical analysis of consumption and consumerism in the twentieth century must include the structural economic and technological changes that are normally analyzed only in reference to a supposedly independent sphere of production. Depersonalized, anonymous structures shaped not only the way consumer goods were manufactured, but also reconfigured the sphere of consumption as well as the subject-formations and self-definitions of the individuals involved. Rationalization, mechanization, and digitization caused acceleration on all social levels. They shaped and were shaped by all aspects of twentieth-century consumption, from modern retailing, product design, advertising, and supposedly personal forms of communication to the perceptions and choices of all actors involved, including entrepreneurs, marketing specialists, and consumers.

To determine the extent and significance of these interactions among anonymous structures, the twentieth-century history of consumption, and the process of acceleration, the conference will focus on three major topics:

First, we will present and analyze basic structural innovations that served to rationalize, mechanize, and digitize consumption. We will provide insight into both the actors behind these processes and the new demands that these processes placed on individuals, particularly on consumers. Examples include the emergence of the first automatic restaurants, self-service shops and restaurants, vending machines and vending machine streets, ATMs, bar codes and labeling, as well as GPS and RFID. All these innovations were accompanied by new challenges for consumers, who, from now on, were spoilt for choice and constantly had to control their desires to consume. This part of the conference will not only analyze consumer goods and other elements of the production process, but it will also investigate the interactions between consuming subjects and anonymous determinants of consumption.

Second, these structural changes not only influenced the relationship between production, consumption, and consumers. They also shaped how the spheres were mediated, that is, they triggered new aesthetics in selling goods and attracting consumers. Consumers were forced to develop new economies of attention and new techniques of defense or resistance. Therefore, we will focus on how these anonymous structures led to the reconfiguring of services, consumer goods, and packaging‹as well as of shops and other spaces of consumption. We will also examine shifts in the communicative presentation of services, changes in advertising and marketing, and redefinitions of salespersons, service staff, and consuming subjects.

Third, we will focus on acceleration processes caused by the rationalization, mechanization, and digitization of production and consumption. At the same time, we will also examine opposing moments or slowdowns. Where or when did self-service fail? Who was excluded from accelerating processes or access to technical innovations? Who was outside the range of rationalization, mechanization, and digitizing? Who resisted becoming a “modern consumer”?

The conference will not only compare American and European developments and examples. It will also investigate their interactions and mutual interferences. Special attention will be given to papers that include developments in non-Western societies.

Paper proposals (one page preferred, two pages maximum) are welcome for all topics from both young and established scholars of different countries and disciplines. Proposals should include an abstract in English and a curriculum vitae. These materials should be submitted via email (preferably in pdf format) by October 15, 2010 to Baerbel Thomas

If you have any questions, please contact Uwe Spiekermann (

About Fil Salustri
I'm a design methodologist and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada. Adjectives that describe me include: secular humanist, meritocrat, and long-winded. Some people call me a positivist too, as if that were a bad thing. Go figure. My real home page is

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