In her new book, The Substance of Style, former Reason magazine editor and current New York Times columnist Virginia Postrel declares that society has entered The Age of Aesthetics, one where sensory appeals are everywherefrom airport terminals decorated to look like Starbucks to the popular home-improvement shows like Trading Spaces. I recently E-chatted with Postrel, who also writes the popular Dynamist.com blog, about the meaning of this trend and the role of technology in driving it.
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Next News: So you're saying that the popularity of Trading Spaces isn't just because of the charms of perky host Paige Davis, right?
Postrel: Paige's unironic enthusiasm does set a tone for the show. Trading Spaces is all about the pleasure and meaning of how our homes look and feel. It's the one place on television you see today's typical suburban homelarge and luxurious, but with little color or personality. Mass-produced homes tend to be generic spaces that homeowners can transform with their personal aesthetics. But most of us don't really know how to do that. Trading Spaces offers average homeowners the fantasy of having an aesthetic expert create a beautiful room. At the same time, it plays on the fear of that expertise. The room may be beautiful to an outsider, but if it doesn't match your personality and tasteif it has the wrong meaningthen you won't like it.
Next News: But what really is different here? Haven't aesthetics always been valued? I mean, Chipotle may be cooler inside than McDonald's, but there was a time when McDonald's was the cool thing, especially compared to local restaurants and diners and such?
Postrel: Human beings have always valued aesthetics. But aesthetics is one of many different sources of value, and we're always making tradeoffs among them. What we choose next to devote our time, energy, and resources to depends on what options are available at what costs, and on what we already have. The question isn't what's cool but why. Given what already exists, what's the new source of additional value? Where is the most promising margin for improvement? McDonald's offered convenience, cleanliness, and low prices. It didn't invest much in aesthetics, because there were other things people didn't have and that they valued more highly than restaurant atmosphere. When I was a little kid in the early 1960s, McDonald's didn't have tables. You took the food home or ate in your car. When McDonald's added tables, it deliberately made the seating a little uncomfortable, to discourage lingering.
Today, Americans already have convenience, cleanliness, and low prices. On the margin, they're looking for something more. In the restaurant business, that "something more" is fresher, better tasting food in an appealing aesthetic environment. Interestingly, people seem more interested in better sensory experienceslook and feel and, in this case, tastethan in more service.
Next News: What is driving this trend? And have there been times in the past when aesthetics were more important and then less important?
Postrel: Higher incomes, lower costs, and shifting cultural attitudes fuel the trend toward more aesthetics in more aspects of life and, at the same time, more aesthetic pluralism. The importance of aesthetics does wax and wane both for society as a whole and for particular industries, depending on where people find the greatest added benefit at the least cost. In the 1950s and 1960s, automotive design and manufacturing seemed maturecost and quality fell into predictable nichesso car buyers focused on looks. We got those famous tail fins. In the 1970s, the tradeoffs changed. Gasoline shortages made fuel efficiency more important, and Japanese and German competitors offered significantly higher reliability. Suddenly, the relative costs of aesthetics, fuel efficiency, and reliability shifted. Aesthetics became less important, relative to other goods. Today, by contrast, even the least reliable cars are good by historic standards. Gasoline is plentiful and, in real terms, relatively cheap. So how cars look and feel has become important again. At the same time, manufacturing advances are making it easier to offer more different styles at the same time.
Next News: What is the role of technology in all this?
Postrel: Technology has significantly lowered the cost of aesthetics and, in many cases, improved quality, from the durability of upholstery fabrics to the subtlety and staying power of hair dye. The laser alone is hugely important as an aesthetic tool, whether you're talking about scanning photos or resurfacing skin. Information technology applied to distribution and retailing makes aesthetic goods more available and plentiful. Direct marketing, whether through catalogs or Internet sales, makes aesthetic niches profitable, even at middle-class prices, and direct marketing depends on credit cards and computer data bases.
Increasingly, aesthetics is the "killer app" for information technologythe reason for buying new and improved digital equipment. Look at the spread of digital cameras and computer systems to store and manipulate photos. Computers make graphic design cheap and pervasive, though you can still see a big difference between professionals and amateurs using similar tools. [Architect] Frank Gehry has just launched a new company, Gehry Technologies, to market the computer system he uses to turn his curvy designs into plans that contractors can follow. Starbucks designers use 3-D animation software to demonstrate how layouts, materials, lighting, and artwork will look in real stores. Software adapted from pilot-training flight simulators lets real estate developers show potential buyers and land-use regulators exactly how new houses will fit into the landscape. On the GE Plastics Web site, customers can specify, display, and order more than 30,000 different colors.
Next News: How important, do you think, is style to Apple computer? They have only 5 percent of the market as it is. What if Macs looked like PC boxes?
Postrel: If Macs looked like generic boxes, Apple would be out of business. Its style is necessary, though not sufficient, to its survival. Apple attracts customers with a combination of a good operating system and beautiful machines. It's more enjoyable to do your work on a Mac. On a side note, Apple also understands the importance of aesthetic applications.
Next News: Is this aesthetic imperative also a factor in growing popularity of body modification? Do you think it will play a role in the desire with people to greatly tinker with the human form, especially as genetic engineering advances?
Postrel: When we get to "tinkering with the human form" at the genetic level, I would expect most alteration to work in favor of universal standards of beautysymmetry, clearer skin, straight teeth, perhaps greater height, preventing baldnessand for that alteration to take place through gene therapy on adults (or possibly teenagers) rather than prenatal changes in inherited traits. I would not expect a world of uniform-looking blue-eyed blondes; people like to look distinctive, and some of us prefer brown eyes. But we're a long, long way from knowing how to do any of this. Even relatively straightforward gene therapy, like changing lung cells affected by cystic fibrosis, hasn't worked. In the short-term, we're more likely to see more and better plastic surgery and all sorts of treatments to improve the youthfulness of skinagain, mostly in pursuit of universal standards of beauty. For quirkier modifications, people tend to want reversible procedures like colored contacts, nail polish, hair dye, or jewelry that allow for fashion. I often wear bright blue nail polish, not to flout convention but because I think it's beautiful. I can change the color easily if I need to. And while some people think it's weird, it's not disturbing.
Next News: Since much of what you write about is hard to measure, do we tend to ignore it when assessing our quality of life? I don't think aesthetics makes it into many economic models.
Postrel: Like any characteristic that comes bundled with goods and services, aesthetics is hard to measure separately. We don't have economic measures for convenience, hygiene, or privacy either. So the standard of living can improve and if competition keeps prices down, that improvement won't make it into the aggregate data. The increasing importance of aesthetic poses significant technical problems for various economic measurements.
Next News: Any prediction of how the focus on style affects society in whatever ways over the next decade?
Postrel: One obvious effect will be how schools respond to the increasing importance of aesthetics. Do they continue to treat art as a skill for the especially gifted and frivolous "creative fun" for everyone else? Or do they try to give everyone some introduction to basic aesthetic principles? Another effect will be more aesthetic conflict. We already see this trend, especially in land use. As people care more about the look and feel of their surroundings, they're more likely to see other people's aesthetic choices as "visual pollution." In addition, we'll probably see more lawsuits trying to forbid employers from discriminating against less-attractive workers.