Look At Me…I’m Reading Kurt Vonnegut, Damn It!
A week or so ago, I read James Walcott’s essay in the August Vanity Fair* about how the rise of devices like the Kindle and the iPod will end a certain sort of cultural signaling.
In the last few days, several bloggers have weighed in on the topic and I have to say I kind of agree with everyone!
I certainly take note when I see someone working through a magazine I’ve read. I find myself occasionally jealous when I see someone reading a book I’ve been wanting to get my hands on. Like Matt Yglesias, I will occasionally change my Adium or gchat status to let people know what I’m listening to. So, like a lot of people, I’m guilty of signaling
On the flip side, Conor Clarke points out that this kind of cultural signaling often leads to a wasteful form of conspicuous consumption. And he’s right. A ton of well-intentioned people are attempting to slog through the Infinite Summer challenge. David Foster Wallace’s massive novel currently goes for $17.99 on Borders’ web site (before shipping and handling). The book is over 1,000 pages and I’m sure people are riding buses and subways across the country, trading smug glances and knowing smiles when they see a fellow commuter haul out their copy. But I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of these folks will utterly fail to get through the book. So while $20 or so might not seem like a big deal, it leads to the kind of thing Clarke warns against and it’s one of the reasons I didn’t seriously consider joining the fray. The book can double as a great doorstop, though.
Derek Thompson points out that we may be better off without these advertisements of our intellectual or cultural tastes, but Ezra Klein and Julian Sanchez note that existing social networking tools or forthcoming technological advances will still allow for this sort of thing. Like Klein, I attempted to use Visual Bookshelf for a while, but got lazy and stopped doing updates. I’d call that an active form of signaling. What Sanchez mentions is almost like a passive form of signaling (actually, inadvertant over sharing) that also happens to be much more invasive. It still requires a bit of active work (loading your books into your profile), but after that, viola! Anyone who happens into your physical proximity could find out what tunes you like, what books you read, etc. and you wouldn’t have to do a thing. At least as it’s currently constituted on Facebook, you’re only broadcasting to a pre-screened group of people. If the future that Sanchez imagines comes to pass, then you won’t have the ability to filter. That seems deeply disturbing and possibly even dangerous.
(*I know. I’ve mentioned VF in every other post for the last week, but it’s been a long time since one issue of any magazine had so many good pieces. I even convinced some lady who was in front of me in the checkout line at Mollie Stone’s to buy it the other day).