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Today, a singer-songwriter I like, Jay Brannan, had an outburst on his Facebook page: “when an item or article of clothing wears out or breaks, i want to replace it with EXACTLY the same thing. the idea of “discontinuing” or “redesigning” ruins life.” Soon after, he tweeted the same thought, refining it: “the idea of “discontinuing” or “redesigning” ruins life,” he wrote.
I feel this way, too. I want what I want, and I want what works. But American commerce usually has other ideas.
Over the years, I have come to suspect that the tendency of American industry to incessantly reboot, reimagine, retool, and recycle is a symptom of more than petulance. It’s not even a sign of creativity, or of homage, although it’s usually sold to us that way. It’s desperation.
Our parents and grandparents enjoyed many of the same products, more or less unchanged, for generations. My mom grew up with pretty much the same Coca-Cola in the 1960s that her mother grew up with in the 1930s. But our generation just can’t resist mucking everything up.
Coke replaced sugar with high fructose corn syrup. National Geographic went from an exploratory, heady photographic journal to a lightweight photo book that seems to be inspired by the lifestyle section of your local newspaper. The previously enigmatic Mr. Peanut and Tinker Bell spout quips like second-string sitcom characters. The affordable VW Bug that served the budget needs of surfers, hippies, and young adults fresh out of college was superseded by a luxury version more likely to suit moneyed marketing executives. What’s left unchanged? What’s actually better?
Why do companies incessantly monkey around with stuff that was proven to work for generations? Why does Facebook change its interface every 14 months, and why do we discard the latest must-have staple of everyday life (Friendster, then MySpace, now maybe Twitter) as “over” sometimes seemingly because it’s been around for more than two years? If everything is declared “over,” what will last?
People now relish the hasty dismantling of the very things that caused the destruction of the institutions that came before them. We’re tripping over ourselves to trash the things that are most central in our lives, and praising redesigns and retoolings that have no real cause to exist except for the unsettling and hollow feeling that “it’s time.”
There is a wide, and growing, school of thought — very active on Twitter and other social media — that celebrates the science and design of every new change and new reinvention, but never stops to pragmatically wonder if any of it was really necessary.
Those Bug-buying marketing executives are partly to blame. In corporate offices across the world, people are actively justifying their jobs in order to afford those VW bugs they so unwisely changed. So is Wall Street, whose stockholders demand companies make more and more money instead of just enough money.
These days, if you’re content to merely get by with a decent living, you must be a farmer. A real business, one with investors and cubicles, is one that needs to constantly top last year. Modern business must exceed enough, and to do that, it doesn’t honor tradition so much as strip mine it. It waters down the formula, it chases trends with no hope of social endurance, and five years later, when the public only dimly recalls the revolution, they must either do it again or pull the plug.
The threshold of profit is now so high, thanks to stockholder demand, that a candy bar with a modest following — say, a Nutrageous in America or a Fuse in Britain — has no hope of survival because it’s not a smash. A very good television show, such as My So-Called Life or Arrested Development, cannot live because it isn’t a blockbuster. Your favorite coat, your best pair of socks, the cut of your trousers — so many things that do not need to be changed must be made unavailable to you because in some boardroom somewhere, an upstart junior executive dodges the axe by justifying the eradication of the old. Like having children, destroying old things is a way to leave an imprint forever.
What has become of American tradition? I mean, besides the fact that everything we buy went from local, mom-and-pop origin to global, gotta-please-the-stockholders scale. Our grandparents lived with stuff that played unchanging roles for most of their lives, but our generation shucks off everything once it loses the whiff of trendiness and gains a well-worn groove of familiarity. We even have entire industries that celebrate this utter lack of self-identity: What do you think fashion is all about?
On a recent TCM documentary series, Moguls and Movie Stars, historian David Stein said: “We revere them. And then we destroy them. And then we revive them and make them saints.” He was talking about Clara Bow and Marilyn Monroe, but he might as well have been talking about our beloved products, which are the shadow celebrities of American culture.
I don’t think it’s just about the nature of a consumer society. It’s become systemic, making so many of the props in our lives into something rootless and rudderless, with a new expectation that nothing is allowed to age and cement.
Our society now has a subconscious expectation of a flimsy lifespan. My fear — or realization — is it’s a sign that America is in steep economic decline. We jump so rapidly from product to product, and we abandon without hesitation the few constants that have bound our wide society together. We tell ourselves that we’re improving what needs improving, but in truth, our economy has gotten so bad that businesses can no longer survive on the old, just-good-enough margins. They have to keep racing ahead. Enough is not enough anymore.
It’s been said, and I agree, that Americans have the attention span of hey what’s that–
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