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You Are Not a Mac

November 24, 2010

Having recommended Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft to a friend on the basis of the magazine excerpt I’d read, I thought I should pick it up myself.  Imagine my delight when, after having slogged so rigorously and methodically almost all the way through Sennett’s The Craftsman, I read this in the opening pages:

Allow me to say a word about what this book is not.  I want to avoid the kind of mysticism that gets attached to “craftsmanship” while doing justice to the very real satisfactions it offers.  I won’t be talking about Japanese sword makers or any such thing, and generally prefer to use the term “trade” or “craft” to emphasize the prosaic nature of my subject…we tend to think of the craftsman as working in his own snug workshop, while the tradesman has to go out and crawl under people’s houses or up a pole, or make someone else’s stuff work.

No Japanese swordmakers (or “Linux programmers”) – what a relief.  There is a vein of dark sarcastic wit in Crawford’s book that makes me want to marry him more than I already did.  (Sennett either had no hard feelings about this, or didn’t see that the criticism was directed at him, because he blurbed the book on the back cover.)

I am still thinking about writing my defense of the culture consumer who doesn’t produce any culture herself, though, just like said consumer, with a full time job and my remaining free time going either to Bronzino or rest, I’ll be damned if I can figure out when I can get it done.  I’ll have to make time to read Clay Shirky’s book, and whatever valid criticism I can find that’s already been done (including Jaron Lanier’s, though I think that was not written directly in response).  I think that, like the Orderly March pieces, it’ll have to boil in my subconscious with pieces of it popping out when something I read triggers it. 

There was something in this book that slipped another cog into the machine I’m trying to build, when Crawford talked about consumerism.  Discussing the “moral significance of material culture,” Crawford noted that more and more of our products are coming with “idiot lights” designed to “protect” us from having to do things like check our own oil or know more about a car (or motorcycle in Crawford’s analogies) than how to drive it. 

On all sides, we see fewer occasions for the exercise of judgment, such as the old-timers needed in riding their bikes.  The necessity of such judgment calls forth human excellence.  In the first place, the intellectual virtue of judging things rightly must be cultivated, and this is typically not the product of detached contemplation.

I think there are three levels of consumerism.  First, the passive recipient of whatever he’s told is “cool” who nevertheless sees himself as making active, informed choices – “I’m a Mac,” he says, surrendering the essence of his very self to a corporation and identifying that self to others as being that of a certain kind of rare bird (9 billion sold!) associated with a corporate product.  Microsoft tried to turn “I’m a PC” into a counter-demonstration, so they’re guilty too, for even responding to the insult that if you’re a PC, you can’t be a man because you don’t smoke the same cigarettes as me – the response only validates the concept that you are what you buy. 

This is also the same guy who will hold forth loudly in a café about how “corporations are gay,” tone deaf to the fact that he has surrendered the job of creating and presenting his public self to Apple Inc., who will continue to mold his image as “a Mac,” through advertising and marketing that will continue to show him people who do and dress and act as he should, who love this song and do this dance and wear that shirt and watch this show, all of which he will do too if he wants to remain a Mac.  I am a rebel, and I am free to choose AT&T as my long distance carrier.

There is surely no more idiot-proof, idiot-light-equipped product than the one-button iPod (two if you count the power switch).  This level of consumer is a sucker for what Crawford calls “freedomism,” the form of advertising “where Choice and Freedom and A World Without Limits and Master the Possibilities” are used to sell you a charge card which will, ironically enough, put you into seven years’ bonded servitude paying it off.  I’m surprised Crawford didn’t note (maybe he’s getting to it) the cult of Clean Design as the ultimate fetishization of the idiot light – what Crawford calls the “promise to disburden us of mental and bodily involvement with our own stuff so we can pursue ends we have freely chosen.”  The irony is of course that you are not free to choose – Steve Jobs has made all the choices for you, doubleplusgood, and will continue to make the choices about what you can and cannot (Flash, porn, books banned as porn a century ago, gayness, seditious material) put inside the item that makes you what you are.  Those corporations who succeed, and oh how they have, at this level of consumerism succeed not so much in the products they make, but in how they make you feel about them.  They have taken the envy quotient in advertising, the thing we mock now as shallow and “lame” (the Amana Radarange will make every other housewife in the neighborhood jealous!) and transformed envy into an aspirational virtue:  David Hockney draws on his iPhone, what’s your fucking problem?  “Freedomism” is lame if it’s only giving you more time to run for the shelter of your mother’s little helper (I am so going to get sued), but if it’s “enabling” you to do cool shit, well hell yeah! 

The genius of the Mac and iPhone ad campaign (and campaign is a good word for it, since it’s the act of a corporation going to war to conquer you and force you to submit to their stuff) is that it has blurred the line between “thing” and “device,” as Crawford quotes philosopher Albert Borgmann.  A musical instrument is a thing – you can create your own music, play something someone else has written, improvise a variation.  A stereo is a device – you play what you get.  You can fiddle with the equalizer but that’s about it.  Advertising has made the iPhone “okay” to buy as a device because it has the potential of thinginess; it thus exempts itself from the uncoolness of consumerism.

99.99% of the people who buy Macs and iStuff aren’t going to create any cool shit anywhere ever – but they want to be seen in public pulling a iPhone out of a Marc Jacobs purse or Ecko jacket as if it proved in itself that they were the kind of people who do create amazing, Hockney-quality art on their phones when you’re not looking.

At the second level of consumer is the “informed consumer,” who reads Gizmodo or Car and Driver and who isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty “tinkering” – taking that iPhone and jailbreaking it, for instance (the recent introduction of that word into popular technical lingo speaks volumes about how even the next tier of consumer views the passive experience of the first tier consumer).  This is the guy who, with refreshingly un-Sennettian prose, Crawford calls someone who wants “To Be Master of One’s Own Stuff.”  He doesn’t want to live in Steve Jobs’ “nanny state,” no matter how gilded the cage.  He’s an enthusiast, which is to say someone who cares enough about his “stuff” to understand it, maintain it, and improve it.

At the third level of consumerism, and this is for another post, is the expert, if not the critic, who has gone beyond tinkering, and has become engaged beyond the hobbyist level with Stuff.  This is still somewhat vague in my head so I’m leaving off here, but this is where I see the role of the most valuable consumer, especially as patrons of the arts.  This is the person who receives Stuff in the form of books or plays or movies or artworks, who has educated herself and refined her taste over years, and become an excellent judge of Stuff without making any of her own.  Because unlike “stuff” sold via “freedomism,” appreciating Stuff made at the highest level requires discernment (as opposed to Stuff Rich People Like which is sold to them under the false flag that paying a shit ton of money for shit makes them Discerning), this consumer is the linchpin in the system that allows and encourages the best Stuff to continue to be made, as she exercises “the intellectual virtue of judging things rightly.”

Happy long weekend.  I’ll try and post again by Saturday.

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