On Decadence

One of the problems of getting older is that you get older. Specifically, you start having moments of bewilderment at contemporary culture, which can easily become TURN THAT NOISE DOWN AND GET OFF MY LAWN!!! crabby grandpa rants.

So I’ll try to say what I’m going to say today with some degree of reserve and humility. I’ll probably fail.

Nora forwarded me an article from the New York Times this morning, about the LinkNYC project. The project is simple enough in concept: a series of wireless* hubs, phone docks, and USB chargers that allow connected New Yorkers and visitors to sustain their electronic lives. I totally understand the value of doing that. And yet…

[The kiosks] are outfitted with sensors and cameras that track the movements of everyone in their vicinity. Once you connect, the network will record your location every time you come within 150 feet of a kiosk… [w]hen millions of these data points are collected and analyzed, such data can be used to track people’s movements and infer intimate details of their lives.

There’s been tons of commentary about the conflicting interests between privacy and safety and public health and so on. I could go there—Nora and I once had a deeply troubling conversation with friends who literally could not name a single interest in the value of privacy—but I have a different agenda for the day.

How does Google make its money? How do YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and online newspapers and magazines make their money? How are free things the backbone of companies collectively worth hundreds of billions of dollars? The same way that free radio and free television broadcasting made money; by delivering you, the product, to their paying clients, the advertisers.

So the question for the day is… how can there be so much advertising? How has our culture’s center of gravity shifted from making to selling, from working to consuming? At some point, there’s a balance point that we’ll pass (or have passed) at which more people will be selling things than making things.

I think we have passed it, actually. The British-Australian economist Colin Clark claimed that only a quarter of all employment in the UK is in the primary (extraction of natural resources) or secondary (manufacturing) economies, with three quarters in the tertiary (service) or quaternary (information and finance) economies.

It’s highly likely that the US and most of Europe is organized along the same proportions. The problem is that it’s invisible, and thus we don’t think to ask ourselves whether or not we like it, or could do something different.

An analogous phenomenon is taking place in higher education, in which the things being made (classroom experiences for students) are overcome by the services and organization supposedly behind them all. At the school I most recently worked at, there are 37 employees organized within the educational unit of the college (including the library), compared against 62 employed in other institutional functions. There are nearly as many people in non-educational student services and support (29) as in education itself.

(This doesn’t accurately reflect the actual labor of providing education, of course. Those 37 employees are themselves largely involved in the management of the two hundred adjuncts who staff the vast majority of classrooms. This is true in the larger economy as well, in which the small number of Americans engaged in manufacturing are in many cases assembling products and materials created by a vast and unseen army of manufacturing staff in other nations, equally disregarded and off the books.)

And that brings us to the idea of decadence, which holds two related definitions: a focus on self-indulgence, and a sign of decline or decay. Without going too puritanical, I do think that a culture of expensive coffee and free information and perpetual pop-up sidebar advertising is just a different kind of culture than a manufacturing economy in which most of us are involved in making things (at a decent, unionized wage). And I think that a college that spends as much money on admissions and financial aid and student life and student services as it does on education is just a different kind of a college than the more monastic, idea-focused schools we once aspired to.

Here’s a simple example. When I went to college forty years ago, I lived in a slum. They called it a dormitory, but really, we had twelve hundred students in the building, sixty guys for each bathroom, the hot water didn’t make it to the north side of the building in the winter, and the food service options were “you want it or not?” (It was a slum with beer, and thus pretty enjoyable.) But this condition would no longer be acceptable for the majority of students and parents considering college.

I’m not going to wind this up today with some thundering moral lesson about how hard we had it and how tough it made us. I’m just going to say that I’m wondering what our focus on convenience and variety and innovation has made us become. And I’m going to think some more about the idea of decadence.

*I refuse to use the term wi-fi, a term copying the 1950s interest in high-fidelity (hi-fi) stereo equipment. The “fi” of the wi-fi construction doesn’t stand for anything at all, it’s just a baby-talk sound. There’s a whole metaphor there that I’m too weary to explore today. Get off my lawn.