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Monday, October 06, 2003 - 11:58 AM Permanent link for The Substance of Style
The Substance of Style

I read The Substance of Style in preparation for a book / review presentation by the author, Virginia Postrel, here in the Bay area Thursday night, October 2.   Virginia's presentation / reading was OK - she started the talk saying that she is usually accompanied by Powerpoint and I could imagine how much a few visuals would have punctuated her talk (particularly picts of her now semi-famous inventory of toilet brushes). 

TSOS, the book, is on a precarious edge with me.   It's just enough within my knowledge comfort zone that I can really tear into the work and swim in its currents.   And yet, it's also just far enough outside my zone that I still expected some "magical" revelations on the next turn of the page.   This is a classic recipe for unfulfilled expectations and that's precisely what I got from the book.  Yes, it's good and rigorous / well researched on the ground Postrel chooses to cover.   But I wanted leaps and bounds and something that covered major new ground.

The lead endorsement quote on the book's jacket, for example, is from Steven Pinker who praises TSOS for "brimming with psychological insight".   That's a simply sterling endorsement from perhaps the most famous Human Nature researcher & writer of our time.   Pretty cool - it creates the clear expectation that Postrel will dive deep into why the aesthetic matters from a psych standpoint.   The preface starts rather boldly down this road [p xi]

...rejecting our sensory natures has problems of its own.  When we declare that mere surface cannot possibly have legitimate value, we deny human experience and ignore human behavior.   We set ourselves up to be folled again and again, and we make ourselves a little crazy.

Now I know enough about our current understanding of human psych to not expect deep answers on what is aesthetic but I did strongly expect a human-nature model that explains why people have what Postrel calls the aesthetic imperative.  Postrel, unfortunately, doesn't go there and simply provides ample evidence that the aesthetic imperative exists --> but *I* could have told you (some of) that.

So maybe the book isn't really targetted towards folks like me who are a tad more well-versed than average on evolutionary psych and scientific theories of the mind.  I feel nary a pang of guilt that I've purchased some shirts for $30 and others for $100 and cleanly integrate this with my gestaltung of economics, capitalism and self-fulfillment / self-expression.  I viscerally feel good when I look good and I don't consider this somehow kowtowing to baser, animal instincts - it's a cause for celebration, not embarassment.  Books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were milestones for comprehensively integrating the "pre-" and "post-" rational sides of many people's brains.

Nevertheless, the general idea of aesthetic-infused consumer products doesn't necessarily sit well with all [p 7]:

Because aesthetics operates at a prerational level, it can be disquieting.   We have a love-hate relationship with the whole idea.   As consumers, we enjoy sensory appeals but fear manipulation.   As producers, we'd rather not work so hard to keep up with the aesthetic competition.   As heirs to Plato and the Puritans, we suspect sensory impressions as deceptive, inherently false. 

Most barbs in the book target critics on all sides who decry the march of the aesthetic imperative as being unauthentic, a pre-cursor to cultural/moral decline, a substitute for true substance, and even - in the true Purtanical sense - the 4th horseman of the Apocalypse.  In my book - and Postrel's - this stems from various forms of elitism that many of our institutions get wrapped up in.   Postrel's book is unapologetically populist, sympathetic and respectful towards the mass market - as it should be, she's a fellow libertarian.

The technocratic elite got it wrong because while they were so wrapped up in maximizing the factors of production, they lost sight of the ultimate targets of consumption.   Their classical factors are only part of the ingredients for self-actualization of the everyday consumer - the other factors have always lurked and are coming to a full fruition [p 33]:

The prophets who forecast a sterile, uniform future were wrong, because they imagined a society shaped by impersonal laws of history and technology , divorced from individuality, pleasure, and imagination.   But economics, technology, and culture are not purely impersonal forces ruled by deterministic laws.  They are dynamic, emergent process that begin in the personal -- in individual action, individual creativity, and individual desire.

[p 45]  Those anticapitalists who criticize markets for luring consumers into wanting more than their basic needs, and those capitalists who scoff at aesthetics for detracting from serious work, are missing a fundamental fact of human nature.

With the onward march of technological and economic progress, many products in many markets have reached an Innovator's Dilemma -- basic product functionality is in "oversupply" and the old axes of competition have given way to the newer, more ethereal realm of aesthetic competition.  The result is an explosion of aesthetics impacting products far and wide - and often ones which had never been the subject of industrial design.  As restaurant food quality becomes so good that the difference between #1 and #2 isn't very perceptable, the first place to go is decor.

Postrel notes that as our aesthetic experiences rise in one area (for ex., restaurants getting progressively more beautiful) it ratchets up expectations in other areas (hotels, homes, offices).   Beautiful homes require beautiful furnishings.   Even the occupants start dressing better.   Towns start getting more aggressive about deed restrictions and aesthetically driven zoning regulations.    Entire cities get involved in architectural planning of keystone buildings.

Of course, it wasn't always this way.  We don't have to think back very long (although, we occasionally have to think very HARD) to find a time in the 70s, 80s, early 90s when household appliances were simply household appliances, when Viking ranges hadn't been invented, and when Starbucks wasn't the zeitgeist leading institution we have today.  In short, the time before the BoBo.  One interesting passage in the book talked about the first holes in the Western levee that let aesthetics flood in [p 62]:

Opposing aesthetics and function, aesthetics and business, or aesthetics and masculinity is not universal.   These contrasts are the culture-bound products of Puritan restraint, nineteenth-century romanticism, and twentieth-century technocracy.   Not surprisingly, many of the commercial innovations that have overturned these assumptions come directly or indirectly from cultures that put a high value on aesthetics, particularly Italy and Japan.   These cultures take look and feel as seriously as any other source of value. Being rigin

Being Virginia Postrel, I expected to see some detailed, econ-inspired discussion of the intersection between aesthetics and politcis.   She describes in some depth the externalities associated with community aesthetics (for ex., zoning laws enforcing a look & feel for a neighborhood) and has some discussion of how the Coase theorem's insights can be applied to the problem.   This passage in particular, rang through in a very Francis Fukuyama-esque way [p 92]:

"One of the signatures of any repressive regime," he wrote the following day, "is their need to control not just meaningful differences -- the voices of dissent, for instance -- but ostensibly 'meaningless' ones as well, like dress.   It will take some time for people to realize that creating the difference between Coke and Pepsi is not just an empty pastime but one of many signs of life in a free society."

So, overall, I really really really wanted to be blown away by Postrel's book.   I like her and I like her general message on most other topics.   But I needed much more of a structural theory in her book rather than an expository on why design drives economics more now than 15 years ago.   There are a few flashes of brilliant insight in the tome but this is such a large, interesting area that touches so many of us personally that Postrel really had the opportunity to hit a home run.

UPDATE - Postrel indexes her professional reviews on her blog
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