extrinsic factors and inherent value -- 8/2/19

Today's selection -- from The Elephant In The Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. The impact of extrinsic factors on what we consider to be valuable:

"Consider the lobster -- as David Foster Wallace invites us to do in an essay of the same name. 'Up until sometime in the 1800s,' writes Wallace,

lobster was literally low-class food, eaten only by the poor and insti­tutionalized. Even in the harsh penal environment of early America, some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats. One reason for their low status was how plen­tiful lobsters were in old New England. 'Unbelievable abundance' is how one source describes the situation.

 "Today, of course, lobster is far less plentiful and much more expensive, and now it's considered a delicacy, 'only a step or two down from caviar.'

"A similar aesthetic shift occurred with skin color in Europe. When most people worked outdoors, suntanned skin was disdained as the mark of a low-status laborer. Light skin, in contrast, was prized as a mark of wealth; only the rich could afford to protect their skin by remaining indoors or else carrying parasols. Later, when jobs migrated to factories and offices, lighter skin became common and vulgar, and only the wealthy could afford to lay around soaking in the sun.

"Now, lobster and suntans may not be 'art' exactly, but we neverthe­less experience them aesthetically, and they illustrate how profoundly our tastes can change in response to changes in extrinsic factors. Here, things that were once cheap and easy became precious and difficult, and there­fore more valued. Typically, however, the extrinsic factors change in ways that make things easier rather than more difficult.

"Prior to the Industrial Revolution, when most items were made by hand, consumers unequivocally valued technical perfection in their art objects. Paintings and sculptures, for example, were prized for their realism, that is, how accurately they depicted their subject matter. Realism did two things for the viewer: it provided a rare and enjoyable sensory experience (intrinsic properties), and it demonstrated the artist's virtuosity (extrin­sic properties). There was no conflict between these two agendas. This was true across a variety of art forms and (especially) crafts. Symmetry, smooth lines and surfaces, the perfect repetition of geometrical forms -­- these were the marks of a skilled artisan, and they were valued as such.

The leisure-class woman as subject and object of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure: (Idleness, by John William Godward, ca. 1900)

"Then, starting in the mid-18th century, the Industrial Revolution ush­ered in a new suite of manufacturing techniques. Objects that had pre­viously been made only by hand -- a process intensive in both labor and skill -- could now be made with the help of machines. This gave artists and artisans unprecedented control over the manufacturing process. Walter Benjamin, a German cultural critic writing in the 1920s and 1930s, called this the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and it led to an upheaval in aesthetic sensibilities. No longer was intrinsic perfection prized for its own sake. A vase, for example, could now be made smoother and more symmetric than ever before -- but that very perfection became the mark of cheap, mass-produced goods. In response, those consumers who could afford handmade goods learned to prefer them, not only in spite of, but because of their imperfections.

"In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen invites us to consider the case of two spoons: an expensive, handmade silver spoon and a factory-made spoon cast from cheap aluminum. As utensils, the two spoons are equally serviceable; both convey food to the mouth, no problem. And yet consumers vastly prefer the silver spoon to the aluminum spoon. Is it because silver is more beautiful than aluminum? Many consumers would say so. But imagine showing the spoons to an untrained forager from the Amazonian forests, someone who knows nothing of modern manufacturing or the scarcity of different metals. Both spoons, being polished and shiny, will catch and please the forager's eye; the slight differences in grain and color won't matter much. The silver spoon may be heavier, but the forager may just as well prefer the lighter spoon. Perhaps the most salient difference will be the fact that the aluminum spoon is made to a more exacting standard, with nary an imperfection on its sur­face, whereas the silver spoon will have minor defects from the silver­smith's hammer. After attending to all the perceptual qualities of the two spoons, the forager might easily prefer the aluminum one.

"What's 'missing' from the forager's experience is nowhere to be found in the spoons themselves, as physical objects. The key facts, so relevant to modern consumers, are entirely extrinsic to the spoons. We know that aluminum is common and cheap, while silver is rare and precious. And we know that factory-made goods are available to everyone, while only the wealthy can afford one-of-a-kind goods handcrafted by loving artisans. Once these key facts are known, savvy consumers -- those with refinement and taste -- quickly learn to value everything about the silver spoon that differentiates it from its more vulgar counterpart, imperfections and all.

"The advent of photography wreaked similar havoc on the realist aes­thetic in painting. Painters could no longer hope to impress viewers by depicting scenes as accurately as possible, as they had strived to do for mil­lennia. 'In response,' writes Miller, 'painters invented new genres based on new, non-representational aesthetics: impressionism, cubism, expres­sionism, surrealism, abstraction. Signs of handmade authenticity became more important than representational skill. The brush-stroke became an end in itself.'

"These technological and aesthetic trends continue well into the present day. Every year, new technology forces artists and consumers to choose between the difficult 'old-fashioned' techniques and the easier, but more precise, new techniques."

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Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson


The Elephant In The Brain


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2018 Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson


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