It's Really Good
- Gas-powered leaf blowers. A poster child for stupidly useless modern conveniences. Besides wasting energy for marginal benefit, their noise is a menace.
- Tomatoes. One of the things that a man-in-the-moonable society ought to be able to provide is a great tomato, widely and affordably available. While passably edible tomatoes are now tobe had at premium prices, the U.S. food distribution system still seems expressly designed to keep good native tomatoes out of supermarkets. Even at harvest time, when farmers markets everywhere have piles of ripe ones, the typical supermarket is oblivious.
- Barney. I feel fortunate that my household has remained nearly Barney-free. While I was not the most discerning child, early on I still became suspicious of the foul dreck (some of it anyway) that is so often passed off as children's culture. It's probably hopeless, but I'm trying to give my daughter advantages I never had.
- Collectible mania. This is the dark side of the admirable modern interest in preservation and appreciation of what came before (an interest driven partly by vain obession with authenticity). An avalanche of price information, mass distribution and mass demand means both that few bargains are to be had with quality old stuff and that there is a plethora of trashy merchandise at inflated prices that can always be justified by reference to some published price guide or, more recently, Ebay.
- Hegemony of showbiz. Modern show business reflects a set of particular historical moments and forms of entertainment -- a weird amalgam of minstrelry and vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood, filtered through radio and then TV. But why exactly should art, music, fiction, journalism and every other creative endeavor be folded into a show-business culture that elevates flip celebrity over all other values? Why should a talk-show host morality dominate all of society? Even though there is still a certain layer where alternative cultures flourish unrecognized for a few moments in showbiz's shadow, ultimately any cultural phenomenon that achieves a significant social presence is transformed into just another of its degraded wings. To appreciate eccentric creativity is, to a large extent, to destroy it.
- Eradication of local or regional distinctions in food, music, architecture, etc. Consider where popular music was in 1900, when sentimental favorites, minstrel tunes and operatic beauties dominated, and then ponder the far richer spectrum that followed. Without the great populist musical upsurges of the recent past -- blues, jazz, country & western, primitive rock & roll -- our musical life would be awfully impoverished. But those wellsprings are matters of history and never likely to be reproduced in a culture where communications are so thoroughly and commercially programmed. Consider also regional cooking, which looks to be receding even faster into a relic as franchise restaurants spread far beyond any reasonably appropriate place in our diets.
- Music everywhere. Among the many virtues of travel abroad is that in some places you can enter a hotel, restaurant or other public space and not be assaulted by the drone of musical slop. Here, programmed sounds are universal in franchises and just about every other public place, while car radios, Walkmen and all the other reproduction devices keep the silence away everywhere else. The upshot: Music exists mostly as a mood regulator. It's the triumph of Musak theory, which shows how musical sequences can be scientifically structured to calibrate the behavior of shoppers. Traditional Musak itself has been displaced by a more popular repertoire, with the repertoire being the loser. All songs have been brought into the service of the Musak stimulus progression.
- Development of every square inch of Florida. Soon nothing will be left of the natural condition outside of a few parks. What isn't already a housing tract has a for-sale sign on it.
- Overcrowding. It's relative, since lots of places have been overcrowded for a long time. New Yorkers spilled over to clog up the countryside for hundreds of miles decades ago. There are just too many people going too many places, and not enough nice places to go around.
- Sprawl. Overcrowding made metropolitan. Getting to the country from many cities is moot as one subdivision after another moves the country first hours and then days away. Country towns that were once a plausible getaway destination or even a residential option for commuters are now at best quaint downtowns for armies of executive homes.
- Suburban houses. It's not that the bad ones are any worse than ever. The only charm that, say, a '50s ranch has is that it's from the '50s. The appeal is pure nostalgia. What's depressing now is the complete sameness of supposedly custom homes. The bland colonials and cautious ranches of an earlier time were on occasion counterbalanced by exercises in modern design. While these Contemporaries were hardly Mieses, they at least showed some influence of creative thought, and over time they have become more interesting. Go to an expensive subdivision today (at least in the Midwest), and every last house is some knockoff of somebody's vision of a chateau.
- Master suites. The upper middle classes deserve their encounters with decadence, I suppose. In new construction these are a silly extravagance, in renovations they seem downright stupid, since they usually require the sacrifice of a perfectly good bedroom. With their clear shower doors and more floor space than most people's bedrooms, the master suite speaks useless luxury even more eloquently than a four-car garage. Undoubtedly the clear doors are meant to comfort the owner with a sense of privacy that is increasingly missing in our computerized society outside. They say this bathroom is so secluded that you don't need frosted glass to protect you. It's the ultimate inner sanctum. They also proclaim a spousal intimacy so perfect that no concealment could be desired. Meanwhile, the extravagance of physical space fuels a strange new kind of paradoxically private ostentation: It's sufficient that consumption be conspicuous to yourself.
So is everything worse today? Has progress marched on? All in all, the truth is that it's your choice.
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Copyright William Swislow 2001