uestion: When does ingenuity contract cancer? When does it inadvertently begin devouring the spontaneity on which it once suckled? When is it transformed into a commodity supplied by providers that both pose and solve challenges on their own terms and make dependency itself into a gadget?
The machines of 1950s and 60s offered solutions to age-old toil. Burgeoning middle class households got armadas of devices intended to make life simpler. Here were washers that cleansed and driers that aromatized; disposals that pulverized leavings; refrigerators that differentiated between meats and vegetables, chilling each with aplomb. Garage doors opened on command and black and white turned to color.
See that Moon? We’re coming.
World War II’s mechanical advances were revised to address domesticity — much the way Industrial Revolution’s creations had helped pump up agriculture and train travel. In a capitalist culture recently galvanized by ideology, postwar machines also added heft to America’s Communist rebuttal. Conspicuous availability and consumption gave capitalism’s worth its prodigal backbone.
But the objects of the postwar world were largely inert facilitators. A color TV just added hues. A drier didn’t have a friend list. Interaction wasn’t needed. Aside from car ownership, the self was only marginally invested.
By contrast, second-stage affluence is all about self, which means a change in the role of machines. Once created to enhance the functionality of an existing status quo, they’re now the sleek stars of their own parallel universe. Mobile telephones and personal computers are the first devices to emerge from narcissistic affluence, outside the context of fundamental need. As a result, they compel and nourish dimension based on limited responsibility and infinite craving.
What does all this have to do with ingenuity?
As the suppliers of a beloved technology compete for space in a riveted market, they inevitably come to see their tools and methods as essential, if not revolutionary. Saying, sending, and watching are advertised not only as self-reliance’s most potent assets but also as an inalienable part of a society’s day-to-day. The anorexia of focus that the method’s machines produce is fobbed off to attention deficit disorders or emotional defects that anti-depressants can contain. Any genie that emerges from free enterprise’s bottle is no one’s problem — unless it’s a health hazard, which the second stage may yet come to be.
Ingenuity exists at two levels, one part common sense, the other zealous problem-solving. Both are features of a pensive era, namely one that puts some kind of premium on taking a step back or taking time out to think things through.
But the tools and methods of the social interaction emphasize the opposite. Impulsiveness and emotionalism are encouraged ahead of common sense, while problem-solving is a projection of the supplied applications themselves, detached from any larger literacy. Relaxing from the tool is implicitly wasteful, since the tool asserts.
Therein the paradox: Ingenuity hinges on focus and brooks no distraction; the tied-in world depends on an abundance of trite commotion as a confirmation of social worth.
Even distraction’s accepted rationalization — “I’m multitasking” — is a bastard concept that assigns digital parsing skills to the human mind, an unreliable assumption at best.
The free thinker, unfettered and untied to social convention, authentic only to a version of personal originality, is for now an outcast, unfashionable. Commotion’s easily-shared excitements are instead put to use ahead of fortitude, considered an ill-fitting piece of ingenuity’s puzzle.
Most striking is this: Ingenuity arrives to a moment unshared and alone. It is absolutely individual, borrowed from no one, a literal bolt from the blue in the vein of Walden Pond and “Song of Myself” Whitman (“Nature without check with original energy…”) Only after the bolt makes landfall do others in its vicinity perhaps profit from its grand brightness. It is not advertised.
Ethical and intellectual ingenuity come to men and women free of the buzz. But the buzz is everywhere.
Just ask Google.