"The Mall of the Future": An Exercise in E-Metafiction
The Mall of the Future, in its most deceptively simple form, is a mall directory map that lets the reader use simple mouse commands to navigate in and out of shops as he or she pleases. (Fig 1) But closer analysis reveals a dark and very eerie metafiction only possible through an online electronic medium. The person whom the narrator follows throughout the text—known only as the flaneur—paints the reader a picture of an Orwellian future where corporate muscle is king and marketing is tailor-made to appease the numb, desensitized masses. The narrator follows the flaneur through a day of his examination of the mall’s customers and employees, his comments on the malicious role marketing plays in his future, and, most importantly, his contemplations of who is really in charge of the mall, marketing schemes, and the customers themselves. The flaneur’s questions and contemplations move eerily and seamlessly toward the metafictional, making the reader question how far in the future this mall exists.
The flaneur appears to be employed by the mall in some capacity, though his job description is not clear; the most the reader can gather is that his job entails closely watching the customers—something he can do quite well. It is also just as likely he is not employed by the mall but considers walking through crowds and public places to be his chosen profession, similar to his Baudelairian predecessor. He does not want to miss a thing, and feels he is a failure as a flaneur when he misses some human action, as he does in the “Processed and Fried American Food Booth”: “If there was yogurt on the table when he got back that wasn’t there when he left, then his being gone had become yogurt on the table.” He was drawn from his table and by the time he returned, something had occurred without him being there to observe it. The evidence of this is the yogurt—evidence “of his failure as a flaneur.” What is of most importance is not that he was drawn away from his table, but what force drew him away. The narrator explains that the flaneur was window-shopping. Advertising and marketing drew him away and he suddenly found himself in a store with a lamp in his hand, “staring at the lamp and blinking as if the lamp were yogurt that had suddenly appeared.” Apparently advertising is something almost invasive that happens in that space of time when he is not aware of it; it is intangible and he is only aware of its existence through physical evidence that is available after the fact. So yogurt is a symbol of his failure because it is evidence of a time when he was not impartial, but he was lured into the same marketing traps of the people he is supposed to be watching.
Marketing and advertising are some of the foremost forces that occupy the flaneur’s mind, which the reader can see most explicitly in the way he names the various shops. Names like “The American Food Restaurant Geared Toward Business Men on Layover” and “The Interior Design Store For Perfectly Average People With Perfectly Average Budgets” show not only an awareness of marketing, but they also show how specifically marketing executives plan these stores. The flaneur seems to always have planning in the back of his mind; he repeatedly thinks of how the mall is designed and why customers go into certain stores. But most importantly he thinks about planning because planning involves watching—someone must watch people’s actions in order to create a plan that caters to them. The flaneur is constantly aware that he is being watched and on many occasions wonders exactly who is watching him as he watches others. In the Mall Atrium, the flaneur thinks, “the MEN UPSTAIRS…were watching the crowds and tailoring the mall to fit them.” He calls these unknown watchers the MEN UPSTAIRS because the thirteenth and last floor of the mall is inaccessible to all; he has worked at the mall for years and still does not know any means of getting up there. These nameless and faceless people watch everyone and tailor the products to fit the customers. This is one of the avenues the text takes into the realm of metafiction.
Upon entering the Web site of this text, the reader is asked to enter his or her name and email address “to better target and ultimately control [him or her] with better customer enticements.” (Figs 2 & 3) This marketing to the reader is not a one-time occurrence. Upon entering the site, the Web host tries to make you send email to them to insure that you give them the correct email address. (Fig 4) This message is not fictitious; the Web site will actually take your email address if you click “send.” Another incredibly frustrating marketing scheme is the shopping cart button located in every individual store. When you roll your mouse over it, the Web server will ask you if you wish to buy this individual node. The location of this button near the navigation button allows the opportunity of many “yogurt” moments, in which the reader mistakenly leaves the text and enters a purchasing screen. (Fig 5) Adding to this is the fact that you can actually buy Mall of the Future merchandise from the Web site—including a static copy of the text itself. (Fig 6) This gives the flaneur’s phrase in The Boutique for Beauty-Inducing Cosmetics, “everything was distant and unreal, as if it were for sale behind a glass case,” another level of meaning. Behind a glass computer monitor, everything is distant, unreal, and, according to the Mall of the Future, for sale. The most eerie marketing ploy is the non-discreet text always at the bottom of the screen that says, “Tracking [username].” (Fig 7) This gives the reader the same feeling of being watched as the flaneur.
The central theme of this text is not marketing but what it means to watch and be watched. The most prominent figures on the mall map are the six observation towers placed around the first floor. (Fig 8) Each circular tower watches over a semicircular set of storefronts. The flaneur cannot see into the towers, but he has the feeling something within the tower is watching his every move. In The Store For Soft Things Meant To Be Placed On Sleeping Bodies, the flaneur thinks, “It was rumored that the thirteenth floor held the offices of the MEN UPSTAIRS and the CENTRAL OBSERVATION DECK.” The flaneur, as well as the reader, does not know who is doing the rumoring, since the passive sentence has no real subject. It seems that real information trickles down from the thirteenth floor and that all other information has no source and is, therefore, groundless. The flaneur thinks in the passive voice again in this bedding store, revealing something deeper than the structured flow of information: “It was rumored as well that if one were ever taken to the Thirteenth floor he was kept blindfolded the entire time.” This idea of one-way information flowing into the regional observation towers and into the central observation deck is very similar to Michael Foucault’s Panopticon, envisioned for prisons. With Foucault’s model, a very small number of people could watch and control a large number of people through the architecture of the structure, which is very similar to the mall’s architecture and its withholding of knowledge. The ones in charge withheld the knowledge of whether or not the masses were truly being watched and by whom. While he is outside the Observation Tower, the flaneur expresses the thoughts of one controlled and made paranoid by a Foucaultian system. He looks at “the opaque black eye of a surveillance camera peering arrogantly from the wall.” The opaque nature of the lens allows the camera to see out, while no one can see in—in a fashion similar to the one-way blinds envisioned by Foucault.
Outside the Observation Tower the text, once again, slips into the metafictional. The flaneur thinks:
For the reader to understand this passage, he or she must realize this text is not a third-person limited narration but a third-person omniscient one. It is true that most of the sections look into the thoughts of the flaneur, but not all of them. The flaneur is not even around The Chain Drugstore, where the reader sees the mall through the thoughts of a woman named Claire. And in the French Restaurant, the reader gets into the head of one of the waitresses. This shows that the reader does not simply view the mall from the flaneur’s consciousness, but that the reader has the privileged vantage of seeing through the consciousness of any one of the mall’s patrons. In short, the reader is viewing the mall from the first floor of the observation towers. When the flaneur looks into the camera and feels a human presence watching him from the other side of the wires and electric pulses, he feels the reader. So the reader is watching the flaneur whose job it is to watch the mall patrons. But one must not forget that the CENTRAL OBSERVATION DECK and the MEN UPSTAIRS watch the local observation towers. And the flaneur’s thought in the bedding store that the local observation towers’ “interactions with the MEN UPSTAIRS…were probably limited to memos and electronic communication” reminds the reader of all the ways in which the Web server is watching the reader.
The question of how a person in one of the observation towers can read an individual’s thoughts is not as troublesome as it may first appear. At the Chain Coffee Booth, the flaneur remembers that “one day recently he had walked casually to the counter and found his exact order already there and waiting for him.” The reader gets the feeling someone knew what he was going to order, considering that the flaneur admits this is not what he usually buys and that he had changed his mind three times on the way to the coffee shop. This feeling of omniscience increases when the reader fills out the survey after reading the text. The survey reads, “There is no use lying. We already know all your answers.” (Fig 9) And as the reader fills out the survey, the program randomly tells the reader he or she is incorrect and to stop trying to lie! (Fig 10) It seems as if the MEN UPSTAIRS are watching the reader, and that through some technological wizardry, they have the ability to know what the reader is thinking—even before he or she thinks it.
The deceptively simple layout and intuitive navigation of the Mall of the Future allows the reader to slip into a paranoid world where he or she is no longer in control. The reader somehow allows this to happen and realizes it only after the fact, paralleling the flaneur’s yogurt incident. To add to the metafictional quality of the text, the authors and maintainers of this invasive Web site are not named anywhere, and can be reached only through the email address TheMenUpstairs@BuyOrBeware.com.
"The Mall of the Future." April 2003 <http://www.buyorbeware.com/yesflash.html>.