Doomed to Dilettantism

by Rob Horning

4 February 2009

Information has never been easier to come by, yet it's never been harder to turn information into knowledge.
Image (partial) found at 

In his 1904 novel Nostromo, Joseph Conrad describes the sheltered harbor town of Sulaco as a place where “the material apparatus of perfected civilization which obliterates the individuality of old towns under the stereotyped conveniences of modern life had not intruded as yet.” It’s a bit of a throwaway line, but it captures well what it felt like in American suburbs for the past decade, watching the countryside turn into shopping centers and chain stores.

The financial crisis may have halted the proliferation of strip malls, but during the real estate boom they had been metastasizing at a rate impossible to ignore. (This chart, which depicts the spread of Wal-Marts across America, can serve as a suitable proxy to show the relentless momentum of building.) As the farmland was transformed into huddled complexes of McMansions, the well-travelled roads connecting developments were filled in with commercial-real-estate projects that seemed redundant even at the time—how many supermarkets are really necessary in one square-mile area? Does every fast-food chain need representation on each malled-up stretch of suburbia? Who exactly was doing all this shopping at Dick’s Sporting Goods and Pier One Imports? Who is eating at all these Panera Breads?

The store whose sudden ubiquity I found most baffling was Michael’s, the big-box craft-supply store. You know, “Where creativity happens.” The slogan is a perfect piece of mental jujitsu, because the exact opposite is true: Michael’s seems like the place where creativity is interred. The last time I was in Michael’s, on a fruitless search for miniature rubber babies (don’t ask), it struck me as a great big repository of sadness. Scrapbooking, arranging silk flowers, collecting rubber stamps and stickers—these activities, I’m sure, bring great joy to many (I’m imaging elementary-school teachers across the country), but while I was in Michael’s, I couldn’t look past the possibility that people might actually be purchasing decorate-your-own-mug kits.

Michael’s seems to specialize in these all-in-one-box kits in which the manufacturers try to package the creativity inside, as though they hope to assuage the fear they imagine their customers must be paralyzed by: “We’ve thought of the project for you, don’t worry. All you have to do is follow directions. And if you can’t think of what slogan to emboss on your mug, we’ve provided some for you!”

Such kits are basically the home-consumer version of deskilling, the process by which artisans are gradually stripped of their craft knowledge and their descendents are forced to joylessly follow standardized operating procedures instead. In factories, this process turned carpenters into punch-press operators. At Michael’s, the kits condense the process, hoping to take the artisanal urge and nip it in the bud.

For example, rather than sell you the raw materials of soapmaking, Michael’s offers only soapmaking kits, preempting your chance to learn how to make soap for real. If for some benighted reason, your first move upon deciding to become a soapmaker was to go to the place “where creativity happens”, you would have been stuck with a half-assed block of glycerin and some cheap plastic molds. The end-product, had you followed through, would most likely be rather unimpressive—kind of like the beer you can make with Mr. Beer home-brew sets.

The same is true for dumbed-down computer applications: Most of the people who have GarageBand on their iMacs will never record a song, let alone become musicians—though its inclusion in Apple’s standard software suite does allow for some pleasing flights of fantasy about what we could do, and the sort of person owning a Mac makes us into. And the peculiar popularity of Guitar Hero may best example of the culture indsutry’s success in deskilling hobbies to make them more “fun”. Guitar Hero seems like karaoke without the bother of having to hear the sounds you make, with the added bonus of a scorekeeping aspect.

If one wanted a more interactive way to enjoy music, why not dance, or play air guitar? Or better yet, if holding a guitar seems appealing, why not actually learn to play one for real? For the cost of an Xbox and the Guitar Hero game, you can get yourself a pretty good guitar. I assume I am missing the point of the game, the competitive thrill, but I can’t help but feel that Guitar Hero (much like Twitter, a service devoted to those hoping to communicate but who can’t commit to writing more than one coherent sentence) would have been utterly incomprehensible to earlier generations, that it is a symptom of some larger social refusal to patiently embrace difficulty. (Sure, TV shows may have become more “complex”, as Steven Johnson has argued in Everything Bad Is Good For You, but watching shows nonetheless remains passive, albeit more absorbing.) A society that requires such short cuts and preemptive blows in the name of the short-attention span surely must be deeply broken, our progenitors probably would have thought.

Since, lamentably, what we do for a living tends to lack meaning to us, we rely more on our leisure time consumption to supply our lives with meaning. But consumption and self-realization may be at odds as philosopher Jon Elster points out in a passage from his Introduction to Karl Marx:

Activities of self-realization are subject to increasing marginal utility: They become more enjoyable the more one has already engaged in them. Exactly the opposite is true of consumption. To derive sustained pleasure from consumption, diversity is essential. Diversity, on the other hand, is an obstacle to successful self-realization, as it prevents one from getting into the later and more rewarding stages.

There may be a balance between novelty-oriented consuming and self-realizing praxis, but it’s not easy to achieve. Marketing pressures (which arise from the need to sell all the junk we make at our unmeaningful jobs) tips the balance precipitously toward consumption, destabilizing the economy and our own psychological well-being simultaneously. Elster, paraphrasing Marx, writes, “In capitalism, the desire for consumption—as opposed to the desire for self-realization—takes on a compulsive character. Capitalism creates an incentive for producers to seduce consumers, by inducing in them new desires to which they then become enslaved.”

So, surprisingly, the way the loss of opportunities for self-realization plays out is not through a paucity of options but a surfeit of them, all of which we feel capable of pursuing only to a shallow degree before we get frustrated or bored. The kits at Michael’s, Guitar Hero, Garage Band—to varying degrees they all institutionalize that propensity to boredom. They make us all into Edie Brickell—they won’t let us get too deep.

With more “diversity” available, it’s becoming harder to evade boredom, which is hardly a matter of unsated individual curiosity but instead is engineered socially by proliferating options and accelerating fashion cycles. As Nicholas Carr, puts it, “Distraction is the permanent end state of the perfected consumer, not least because distraction is a state that is eminently programmable.”

The tendency to become distracted is not some personal failing or the indicator of someone’s weak will, but the accomplishment of a bundle of associated forces that help naturalize certain consumerist preferences. Our susceptibility to boredom is “programmable” through the amount of stuff thrown at us and the amount of stuff a “normal” with-it person is assumed to know about and the various ways cultural ignorance can be exposed. (Hence the useless entertainment quizzes and trivia contests and the like. These seem innocuous enough, but they help calibrate our boredom, suggesting what the breadth and depth of our knowledge should be.)

Fortunately, we are not yet “perfected” consumers but if we are not vigilant, our attention span will continue to shrink, and those available conveniences that help us force more and more material through our tiny pinhole of focus will proliferate. (Just as road-building worsens traffic problems, media-management and organization tools tend to exacerbate our attention problems. Hence, I spend as much time editing metadata as I do concentrating on music I’m listening to.)

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