As a member of Generation X and writer for The New Yorker magazine, John Seabrook examines the erosion of the distinction between High Brow (good taste) and Low Brow (bad taste), and the introduction of a new concept of what makes something culturally valuable.
For a long time, cultural value was based on whether or not the object was original, of high quality, and fit in with a well-known and agreed-upon canon of “good” objects of that kind. From men’s suits to literature to furniture, taste, or your ability to identify and acquire objects that met these criteria, gave you class and status.
But why should one small group of people have the right to decide what is good and bad? The agreed-upon distinction between High Brow and Low Brow began to crumble as marketers empowered individuals to see themselves as tastemakers. Soon, having “good taste” meant being able to build an authentic and interesting identity for yourself out of the objects you consumed.
One of the most interesting ideas Seabrook introduces in Nobrow, centers on the particular importance of self-identity in the American psyche:
"There was the America of 200 million and there was the America of you and me. De Tocqueville had similarly observed in the United States in the 1840s that in the absence of a definite sense of the reality of the social world, Americans tended to be preoccupied with their own identities. ‘In democratic communities, each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object: himself. If he ever raises his looks higher, he perceives only the immense form of society at large or the still more imposing aspect of mankind. His ideas are all extremely minute and clear or extremely general and vague; what lies between them is a void. When he has been drawn out of his own sphere, therefore, he always expects that some amazing object will be offered to his attention; and it is on these terms alone that he consents to tear himself for a moment from the petty, complicated cares that form the charm and excitement of his life.’"
De Tocqueville could have written this yesterday, much less 150 years ago, and provides an some pretty hefty insights into how people work (at least in America).
The habitual contemplation of self plays into the perceived importance of building self-identity through consumption. Marketers rely heavily on this deeply rooted need to perfect self identity to sell products, promising that they will help complete the picture. The problem being that there’s always another flourish to add, another hole to fill, or a whole new outlook to express… with things.
Additionally, individuals can’t be motivated to seriously tackle major social issues, generally not understanding how they connect to their everyday lives, which is where “charm and excitement” and thus, interest, lie.
How does the Internet fit into all of this?
On one hand, the Internet enables narcissistic and navel-gazing behaviour, building entire cults of personality around individuals who make it truly difficult to figure out what creative talent they possess. It’s also pretty easy to reinforce your own beliefs and avoid content that challenges them, especially as websites cater more and more to personalization and particular world views.
On the other hand, the Internet is also used as a great equalizer, amplifying the smallest voices and forging unexpected, paradigm-shattering connections everyday. Powerful social changes have been catalyzed by the Internet and the social media networks using it to connect humans.
If anything, De Tocqueville’s thesis is a good reminder to use this incredible medium we have at our fingertips almost anywhere we go, any time of day to spend a little less time contemplating puny things and more time filling in the void between ourselves and the truly important challenges we face.
Robert McKee (found in Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath)
I think this is a fundamental insight about humans that explains a lot of what experience designers try to do:
Craft a story that will play to someone’s curiosity so that they engage with you. If your story is interesting enough and compelling enough, they will engage with you enough for a relationship between you to form.
— John Seabrook “Nobrow”