Monday, January 16, 2012

Spontaneous Production

It is one of the peculiar qualities of the American psyche that we tend to want to believe big things have happened without much work going into them. One version of this thought can be seen in fantasy football, which allows fans of American football to imagine that trading players between teams is the key to success in the sport. This idea turns up in quite a different form in the often-heard suggestion that the Occupy demonstrators are people who are unwilling to work, as if spending weeks in the street was a walk in the park.

The glitter of retail encourages a similar attitude toward manufactured products, which are displayed on store shelves as if they appeared there by the economic equivalent of spontaneous generation, a fantasy phenomenon that I suppose could be called spontaneous production. People’s isolation from the work of making things leads final products of all kinds to be judged with a disheartening disregard.

This is not really a character flaw, but the inevitable result of more than a century of increasing aggressive marketing. Living in America means facing a non-stop marketing barrage that, impressively, has succeeding in getting the average person to buy three or four times as much stuff as they actually want. The resistance to commercial culture comes out in many forms, including a basic skepticism about the value of every kind of production, along with, ironically, a tendency to believe that knockoffs are the same as the real thing.

This kind of skepticism does not serve people well when they try to produce something of their own. Teenagers form a band and learn to play three Coldplay songs, then are frustrated when it isn’t enough to get them on television. Or, a computer manufacturer, seeing the popularity of personal music players, produces a crudely serviceable device in that category and can’t understand why it struggles to get its product into the stores. When there is real work to be done, it doesn’t pay to imagine that it can all happen after only a token effort.