Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Inconspicuous Consumption

This past Sunday I had the distinct honor of chaperoning 35 children--preteens, mostly--while they visited Wal-Mart. This particular excursion lasted two hours, giving one preteen the opportunity to buy $150 of candy and soda. I usually get antsy after 25 minutes of shopping (and I only bought $125 worth of candy and soda) so I ambled over to the magazine section and purchased a copy of Vanity Fair, mostly because the cover advertised the presence of an article written by Michael Lewis (which was, not surprisingly, excellent). This is the first time I've cracked open a copy of this particular periodical, and I was impressed with what I found. This is mostly because of a piece written by James Wolcott, titled "What's a Culture Snob to Do?" In it Wolcott says,
Books not only furnish a room, to paraphrase the title of an Anthony Powell novel, but also accessorize our outfits. They help brand our identities. At the rate technology is progressing, however, we may eventually be traipsing around culturally nude in an urban rain forest, androids seamlessly integrated with our devices. As we divest ourselves of once familiar physical objects—digitize and dematerialize—we approach a Star Trek future in which everything can be accessed from the fourth dimension with a few clicks or terse audibles.
It's a good question that Wolcott raises: now that our books and music and movies are all contained in shiny but indistinguishable iPhones and Kindles and whatever comes next, how can people communicate their intellectual consumption?

Wolcott raises other questions related to the preponderance of these devices (for example, what will become of album cover and book jacket design?), but, to me, the shift of our reading material from conspicuous to un- is the most interesting. Here is Wolcott's conclusion:
I suspect that once this downturn plateaus and shrinks in the rearview mirror, we’ll just stock up on other possessions, which will be arrayed and arranged to show off not our personal aesthetics or expensive whims but our ethics—our progressive virtues. A place where we could play host to Barack and Michelle and feel assured they’d find nothing amiss.
I'm not sure that I agree with him. Humans have been using objects to communicate certain characteristics to the general public for a long time now. I'm not sure that we're ready to give up this personal marketing system just yet. I like knowing what people on the train are reading. I feel a modest kinship with those people who read The New Yorker on the subway. I don't even have to see the cover; the three-columned layout and interspersed cartoons and poetry are distinctive enough. I would hate to give that up, and I imagine other people would agree with the general sentiment. I base this partly on the habit people have of posting their currently playing music choice on Google Chat. Are we going to figure out a way to continue broadcasting our reading habits? Would the Kindle be a better product if it allowed for the option of listing the book currently being read? (The optional part would allow people to hide from embarrassing reading choices.) Is this the type of thing that might eventually migrate to a Twitter-integrated reading device? That would ruin most of the fun, because I already have a general sense of what types of things my friends like to read--it's way more interesting to try to judge strangers based only on the book they have open. I can't know for sure--and I have no idea what the mechanism might turn out to be--but I have confidence that intellectual snobs will figure out a way to continue making snap-judgments of others.

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