Friday, February 11, 2005

Managed superficiality

Call me a Maoist if you must, but I've always romanticized the idea of a non-descript uniform that removes appearances from the evaluation of social position or competence, thinking with utopian naivete that such an arrangement would usher in a more perfect meritocracy. Of course the image of the masses in bland, sterile matching jumpsuits is a staple dystopian image, a staple of science fiction movies depicting advanced races who have lost their soul, the perfect picture of dreary conformity that we've all been trained to believe is the height of oppression -- "I can't wear my anarchy T-shirt? Man, our principal is a fascist!" But isn't it just as oppressive (if not more) to be compelled to advertise one's individuality, to have such a large investment in the being recognized as irreducibly different from other members of your species, and effort always already destined to fail? And isn't it worse, a far more dispiriting turn of the screw to find that your gesture towards being seen as unique has been anticipated by thousands of others who've done the same thing? That a higher conformity dictates every effort at originality?

One of the Internet's seemingly unhappy effects is to reveal how many people have simultaneoulsy hit upon your neat idea for something, to disabuse us of the idea of our own creativity. But there's an upside to this -- we can have instant confirmation that our idea was a good one, that we have solidarity with other people out there who've paused to think about whatever subject your idea dealt with; also, it demystifies creativity and discourages us from valuing an idea simply because its unique to us, because we feel we've coined it. It seems to promise to remove ego from our aesthetic.

I know there's a value to the sheer expression of difference (I've read Virginia Postrel's noxious book), and that strict uniformity is not the best solution to entrenched and unfair hierarchies of appearance. Perhaps I'm just trying to imagine how one could develop a personal style independent of those positional, relational pressures. Or maybe I'm just nauseated by the truth of Robert Frank describes in "The Demand for Unobservable and Other Nonpositional Goods," the tendency of people to judge your ability based on your consumption and appearance in situations of limited information. When your ability is not observable directly, Frank surmises, employers (prospective or otherwise) or potential mates or new friends or business partners draw conclusions about your ability based on your appearance. Because ability is correlated with income, and income is presumably correlated with the ability to wear expensive polished shoes and well tailored clothes and expensive watches, people are right to use your appearance as a quick guide to your overall competence. In economic-speak, the more positional consumption you exhibit, the more productive ability you demonstrate under conditions of imperfect information. This, Frank concludes, makes it personally imperative to consume positional goods individually, even though its clearly a waste of domestic product, as the host of demonstration-effect theorists have amply proven.

The way to defeat this appearance bias is to find ways to make clarify information about ability, to obliterate those situations of imperfect information that leads people to judge by appearance. But this seems impossible, as decisions are required immediately, and ability only manifests itself over time. In reality, the drift is in the opposite direction. If appearance begins to signify ability, eventually it starts to trump it, or redefine what the nature of ability is. "Ability" starts to mean the capability of presenting a coherent, impressive appearance, of having mastered the visual cues of success. "Ability" will soon only outfit you to be an adman or a fashion editor. Those hired to positions of power because of their appearance will naturally redefine the meaning of their positions and their power to correspond to their valued skill -- managed superficiality -- and the power in inherent in manipulating appearances will continue to loom larger and larger in our world. The point of all power willl be the control of appearances -- just think of the televised politics of spin. It will become harder and harder to remember another definition for ability other than a knack for tours de force of theatricalizing power. The idea that ability could have anything to do with critical thinking or the ability to disregard appearance for some Platonic reality beyond it will seem utter quaint and naive, just like my dream of levelling Mao suits for all.

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