The commodification of everything

Including commodification, it seems, in the form of Andy Warhol’s personal brand. From “Warhol’s Bleak Prophecy” in this issue of The Atlantic:

Maybe it’s never been easier to make the case for his powers of influence because his afterlife has paralleled the rise of neoliberalism—the attempt to turn over all human activity, no matter how sacred, to the marketplace. Neoliberalism is simply Warholism as a theory of governance.

Christmas is everybody’s favorite fable of commercialization, a once sacred holiday turned first into an excuse for excess consumption and then into a dull obligation to engage in it. Leave it up to artists to form the dreams that one day become the creed of nations, as Goethe put it, I think. Except that in Warhol’s case they were airless, ironic dreams. I prefer his sensibility as art, not a daily way of life.

What do you think?

Copy critique: Believe

Snapped this tonight on 34th Street.

For those of you not familiar with New York, the area around Macy’s, whose door is shown in the photo, is bleak. The streets can never handle the number of tourists, the hordes of travellers flowing in and out of the mouths of Pennsylvania Station, and the homeless and just plain lost. Walking on 34th Street at night in winter is to stroll down an avenue on the way to one of Bosch’s hells.

Perhaps it was this way in the 1930s when Miracle on 34th Street was first filmed, which makes the idea of a miracle there all the more improbably.

Yet seeing these letters, with their period script and obvious reference to the film, made me stop like a tourist and snap this photo. In that moment, I believed.

It was Macy’s consumer advertising which made me want to go into advertising, and it’s clear they’ve still got the magic.

For your long weekend read: The secrets of the great magician

While the secrets of his tricks are not revealed in this article, a profile of master magician Ricky Jay, the piece will still make you feel like you’ve just seen something impossible happen in front of your eyes.

Among the tricks described: Cards merely thought of but not named aloud by bystanders appear rolled up inside the necks of wine bottles, pristine blocks of ice seem to materialize inside cars on hot days, cards flicked into the air toward the audience return like boomerangs into the hands of the magician, who is calm through it all, mesmerizing the audience with the power of his words and his patter.

Published twenty-five years ago in The New Yorker and reposted on their website on the occasion of Jay’s death last month, the article itself is a magic trick. You think you’re learning about magic, but actually you’re learning about a lost world of mountebanks, eccentrics, mad men, old world charm, lost treasure, and books so rare they’ve been almost entirely forgotten, even by the profession that lives by their secrets. You think you’re reading about a magician, but actually you’re reading about a great artist, atop his profession but also secluded from it.

Ricky Jay, you will be missed.

Copy critique: When you ride ALONE you ride with Hitler!

Here’s another gem from the FDR presidential library and museum in Hyde Park. It’s an effective pair of headline and call-to-action, the kind we’d still discuss creating today. And the rhetoric itself is something you might recognize from ads to raise awareness of climate change, or advocate car pooling.

Eleven words of copy. One ghost Hitler. All you need to change hearts and minds.

Book review: Zero Hour for Generation X

Initially, Michael Hennessy’s book Zero Hour for Generation X says it’s about a coming showdown between generations. It’s time for Generation X, he says, to show lazy, shallow, tech-obsessed millennials what it means to make sacrifices and fight for what matters. As Generation X occupies the prime middle age years, it’s time for us to claim our moment setting the national agenda or else we’ll get usurped by those younger and less capable than we are.

The book does follow through on this premise. There is a section contrasting the economic woes of Generation X and millennials, in which Generation X is seen to have it worse off, and there is a short chapter laying out the now predictable argument that millennials have been so coddled by a culture of self esteem and safety that they now inhabit an alternate reality of safe spaces and social justice where free speech and self reliance are impossible. Only some of this is convincing. 

The book has plenty of bile for Baby Boomers, too. Though they presided over the end of the Cold War and the unprecedented economic boom of the 1990s, a formative time for Generation X, Hennessy argues that they suffer from the same self-importance as millennials. This has led them to keep too many of their economic gains for themselves and to fail to lay a real foundation for long-term prosperity. But worst of all, says Hennessy,

… has been their flaccid acquiesce to the still-incoming wowy-zowy technological utopia dominated by Internet connectivity and artificial intelligence, in the process of putting untold numbers of artists, businesses, trades, and traditions on the road to extinction. This betrayal is at the heart of the economic and social riddle that Gen Xers will have to help unwind.

ZAnd it’s here that Hennessy gets to the strongest arguments in the book, and the only ones that ever lend any real support to the somewhat spurious concepts of generations. In the postwar era, the most powerful shared experience people born around the same time can have is the effect of new technology, and Generation X will be the last American generation to know from experience what life was like before the Internet co-opted every part of it. And when I say every part I’m not exaggerating. 

Boredom, privacy, silence, uninterrupted concentration and direct experience, and the exhilaration of discovering something or someone not because an AI shoved it into your feed, but because chance and sensibility led you to it–all these are being given up in exchange for whatever else the Internet may have to offer. 

Hennessy is the Op-Ed editor of The Wall Street Journal and Zero Hour for Generation X is a conservative book. I don’t agree with his criticism of a universal basic income or of the supposed vapidness of social justice culture, but I do agree with his assessment that it is a shift in the main medium by which we experience life that is changing its essential character and that too little attention is being paid to this fact.

Americans have not become dumber or less virtuous since the late 1990s. But we have changed the way we experience life. Where once we saw one another face to face, now we spend most of our time peering at screens.

Hennessy is a conservative, but he is no lover of Donald Trump and the thoughtless social media culture which helped bring him to power. Like Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard, Hennessy is an educated, cosmopolitan conservative who feels alienated by the Republican party and the America it represents, and Zero Hour‘s call for a more mindful future is one that thoughtful people on the left and the right can share. 

In the end, as with other technological critics, Hennessy has little to say other than to turn away from the new devices and spend more time in the world. Put down your phones, he says, and set a better example for the millennials.

From the commonplace book: Daniel Bell on why you have no time

From the The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society:

When productivity is low, time is relatively cheap. When productivity is high, time becomes relatively expensive. In short, economic growth entails a general increase in the scarcity of time.

This is from a later section in Bell’s great book, in a section called “The New Scarcities.” Before the abundance of mass production, it was material goods that were scarce. Now that most people have what they need (and more) materially, it is abstract things that become scarce, specifically for Bell information, coordination, and time.

While experiences to be had and objects to be enjoyed multiply, time remains finite. While we now have hundreds of restaurants where we can eat dinner, we will only have enough time and appetite for one dinner per day. And furthermore the cost of choosing where to have it and the anxiety that we might be having it somewhere better or with someone better are additional costs which were not felt as acutely as before.

We are time poor because we are rich in so much else.

How do you solve problems?

When I have to solve a problem, I need silence, time, and no interruptions. For most of my life I assumed this was how everybody did it, and noisy and more collaborative approaches struck me as just invasive or dumb. Thanks to my sister, who forced me to take a psychological test that defined my “workplace personality,” I learned that my way of solving problems is just one of many effective approaches.

What I take for interruptions are what others think of asking for help. What I take for needless time-wasting in chatty meetings others think of as necessary collaboration. I still despise either of those approaches, but I do know they can be valuable and that others think of them as work.

So, when life presents you with a challenge, what’s your approach? Retreat or collaboration? What drives you nuts about the way your colleagues approach problems?