Innovation and fashion

[9 April 2007]

By Rob Horning

Rob Walker’s Consumed column in yesterday’s NYT Magazine, about the “innovations” in toaster technology, raises the question of what constitutes an authentic innovation without quite answering it. Do all innovations become commoditized, or can products be continually refined so as to refresh their novelty and extend their usefulness? Should we differentiate between cosmetic improvements and actual functional improvements. The column ends with this punch line:

the market has spoken, and its message is that this innovation — while it may not rate as breakthrough status — is, to some, worth paying for. As Clyne notes, the Egg & Muffin toaster is being tweaked with even newer options. Like more slots. And a version with a stainless-steel finish. But those innovations will, of course, cost you extra.

This seems to suggest that anything consumers will pay more for should be considered an innovation in our consumerist culture, and maybe that’s right. There’s no more sense seeking authentic innovation than there is deciding what really counts as creativity (rather than cultural recycling or cynical commerce) or what the true use value is of various commodities—postmodernism should have taught us that there is no measuring stick with which to take stock of these things (no Archimedian point from which to lift the world, so to speak; no standard that is not itself free of the need for evaluation), and into that void of verifiable authenticity we may as well let the market and its scoreboard of dollars exchanged stand.

But still I balk at letting interchangable stylistic refinements stand as innovations—society did not progress with the invention of the brushed-stainless-steel toaster, and the $200 pair of jeans is no humanist triumph either. Fashion cycles turn in a wheel without propelling society forward —but ah, how can I even say I know which direction society is moving in? We can refer to increases in efficiency and output, but adherence to these economic gauges may come with spiritual costs: a corrosive rationality that can’t comprehend pity or sympathy, a loss of community, a preference for facile convenience over the difficult but enriching bonds of human companionship, and all that. Nevertheless, fashion and style innovations intend to allow consumers to signal primarily their superiority to others, imposing on them a net loss in the zero-sum game of status. “real” innovations would have to overcome that net loss by supplying some compensatory utility that is free from the game of self-aggrandizement. But isn’t it the case that utility, as a matter of individual preference and satisfaction, is virtually defined as self-aggrandizement? Does such individualism at the root of how we conceive innovation doom us to focus our innovative efforts on those things that will ultimately consume themselves in a burst of trendiness or fashionability that’s quickly spent? These are convoluted ways of asking whether the conflation of style with innovation basically turns all innovation into mere shifts of fashion, with it impossible for us to judge what are lasting improvements from a standpoint more comprehensive than what’s good for our own ego. Encouraging the motive of self-actualization, through signaling goods, etc., has broken fashion as an idea out from its former niche as a frivolous aristocratic preoccupation in precapitalist times to be a primary force driving the economy—and if innovation is a matter of growing the economy, than perhaps fashion is innovation. Sorry—I seem to be going in circles here.

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