On the eclipse and the depressing uniformity of American commerce
August 22, 2017
I got back today from a four-day trip to Tennessee to watch the eclipse. We were so happy that no rain was forecast, but we worried about the "partly cloudy" forecast. The forecast was exactly right. As the eclipse was going on, we saw only about half of it. Fifteen minutes before totality, a ginormous cloud sidled up and decided to cover it. In a panic, we decided to try to dash to the west, where it was still perfectly clear. When it was definitely totality, we got out of the car, still under a cloud. Damn! But we saw stars, in practically all directions. Just not...up, where the sun and moon were.
The trip down to Nashville was uneventful and even pleasant. The boys, who had made pinhole cameras, were very excited, and Rita seemed to be enjoying herself. The trip back was something else. We left at 2:45 p.m. or so, travelling north, when approximately two million other people from the Great Lakes states, Pennsylvania, and other places were going home too. At first I thought we had dodged a bullet, because although it was fairly heavy traffic immediately north of Nashville, there were several miles of pretty easy going.
Then we got into the longest traffic jam I've ever been in—literally hundreds of miles long. The 200-mile trip we took yesterday was significantly longer because we kept exiting the highway for faster routes on country roads. Faster, sure, but more hair-raising, as the roads were winding, narrow, with no shoulder, and frequently scary-looking ditches. The only mercy was that there was almost no traffic traveling in the opposite direction. With all our "fast" detours, still probably beat the people who stuck to the interstate, but—to make a long story short—we rolled into a hotel, which we had "wisely" reserved last week, north of Louisville.
Boy, did I get an earful from someone who didn't think the last 15% of totality was worth all that. She wasn't impressed by my very solid arguments that I wasn't responsible for the weather and that, if we had seen the sun, she probably wouldn't be so angry. Once I started saying "sorry" a lot she seemed to be satisfied.
To make a long story short, my family rolled into the hotel after a 9.5-hour trip. I'm so grateful we didn't get into an accident.
I've never been in anything like that before. It was a very weird situation. I thought, sure, maybe we'll add a few hours to our time, but there aren't that many science lovers out there, right? People sure proved my cynicism wrong. Though they might be smarter (and more careful drivers, which was another mercy) than the average tourist, the eclipse attendees, just like me, weren't counting on that many people being out. And since most of those people hadn't booked hotels at reasonable distances (given the traffic) from the path of totality, they stuck to the road. For hour after hour after hour...
It was totally an educational experience for all. For one thing, my boys had never stayed up until 1 a.m. before. That was an exciting new experience too!
The most depressing thing about the trip, and the thing that has stuck with me today, is not our failure to see the sun go behind the moon for two minutes, nor the hellish trip back, but just how complete the uniformity of American commerce has become. The same goddamn chain stores everywhere throughout Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, looking quite similar to what interstates and suburbs look like all around the whole goddamn country. People were complaining about this when I was a kid. God, it's gotten worse—a lot worse.
No personality. No culture. No attempt at beautification beyond cleanliness and the same dull modern styles. The chain restaurants, which on the road are the least risky and most predictable, are, for all their "variety," always the same variety.
It occurred to me that this is just a reflection of a broader collectivization that Americans, supposedly an individualistic people, seem comfortable with. Not only do we shop at Walmarts everywhere and eat at McDonald's everywhere, we buy our insurance from the same small set of enormous insurance companies, bank with the same small set of goliath banks, buy our tech from the same few vendors, use the same email, use the same search engine, etc., etc.
We live in cities, suburbs, and towns that look mostly the same, in houses that vary in just the same ways depending on the type of neighborhood and age, drive the same kinds of cars, eat the same brands of food, watch the same badly produced television and ridiculous movies, go to the same kind of crappy schools and biased universities, and on and on.
We're cogs in a machine, just like the hippies said fifty years ago. The machine grinds on, becoming more efficient and productive and richer—and more uniformly engineered.
There are options. There are huge numbers of options. You can live in a funky different sort of town, drive a weird foreign import, buy funky food in what I am amused to call the "liberal food" section of your supermarket or at Whole Foods or just locally, have bespoke stuff made, etc. All this takes time and, more importantly, money. Most people can't afford all that character and individualism. We shop at Walmart not because we particularly like it, but because it's cheap and easy.
Some liberal friend will be reading this, sensing a teachable moment, and prepare to write about how they avoid GMOs and buy local, etc. Oh, please spare me. I've heard/read it all before. I'm not talking about my individual habits or yours. I'm talking about the country and what I view as a problem. And, sorry, but if you're shopping at Whole Foods, bragging about how you drive a hybrid, working as a lawyer for a nonprofit, unlike all those rubes out there, you're just as much of a goddamn conformist as the rest; you're just conforming to a smaller, richer, more elite group that fantasizes that it's better than other people.
Don't suppose this is a problem about capitalism, or multinationals, or globalism. It isn't. There was far, far more dreary sameness in socialist countries. We Americans, once the world center of individualism, have descended into a dreary sameness—more varieties of dreary sameness, perhaps, so there's that—for precisely the same reasons that the socialists did. It's collectivism.
Notice that I do not say that people are the same. While there are of course similarities, I can never avoid the conclusion that all those people, even the dullest Walmart shopper or the boringest corporate drone, are each individuals, each possessed of a dignity and uniqueness and point of view I am totally incapable of dismissing as I dismiss the corporations, products, and institutions that shape so much of their lives.
It bothers me that I don't take the time to beautify my home in a certain way. Other people do, and I admire them for that. I'd like to take the time to landscape things beautifully, pick out better plants, add art here and there, maybe even build a trail. Most people don't do any of this in more than a perfunctory way. I don't have art (other than the boys' art) because I don't like doing things in half-measures. Good art and design takes time and money.
A lot of what bothers me about the sameness of the American landscape and culture is the lack of anything remotely resembling an individual aesthetic. We leave it to builders to build our houses, and they give us what they think we expect. A lot of seem to seek out sameness in our surroundings, if our suburbs are any indication.
We spend no time cultivating or paying for the sort of public art that most people would actually enjoy. Instead, we leave it to our elected officials, who leave it to the experts, who clearly don't give a flying flip about what the public actually enjoys.
We each have our specialization. Mine is making websites, so I spend most of my time on that. I put time in on a few other things that I think are important, especially homeschooling and family, but also fiddle and a few other things. How does that leave time for cultivating an individual aesthetic?
In this regard, except for the sufficiently idle and rich, and the people who actually specialize in art and design, we're all in precisely the same boat. Of course, if you're a snooty professional, or a retiree, or whatever, you might make some more efforts in this regard (and it helps that you have the money to pay for it, now doesn't it?).
How do I imagine it was before modern life began making our lives so uniform and dull?
Well, of course I don't think people in, say, the 19th century actually had more exciting or varied lives than we do. Of course they didn't. Surely we have far more wealth and variety than they ever did.
I'm just disappointed how we spend this wealth.
There are no sincerely tremendous public works anymore—no incredible monuments to liberty, no stunning cathedrals that require over a century to build. I imagine that inns and restaurants had surprises on the menu, local specials, things you could find out about, because the decisions were made locally, not by some asshole in an office in New York City.
Why do we give all our money to these chains? Why do we build houses that are all the same? Why don't we beautify our lives?
I know folks will say "it's economics, of course, silly." Yes, of course there's more variety and lower prices at Home Depot than at the local hardware store that is going to go out of business in a couple of years, if it didn't 20 years ago. That's why.
We specialize, and when we gather in certain kinds of giant collectives, we can do things (in certain ways) much better than we can individually or in smaller groups. Just look at Wikipedia.
I don't have any easy answers.
Sometimes I think that, maybe, we should have bought a smaller house, and made it really, really awesomely decked out with all the money I saved. Maybe I should just start spending more money at local fruit stands, and always avoiding the chain restaurants whenever I can, etc.
Of course I don't have to use Chrome, Google Search, Gmail, Facebook, Apple products, etc., and everything else where so many decisions are made for me. I've already moved to Firefox and DuckDuckGo, and will soon be forwarding my Gmail to some other service.
I don't watch broadcast or cable TV at all. We watched some of that while on the trip. So much of it is absolutely intolerable bullshit. We're not missing it in the slightest. We're going to movies less and less. I doubt they've changed for the worse recently; mostly, I have changed.
I don't know. I just think that the conformist tendency in most of us leads us, due to the economies of scale, to embrace institutions that make our lives uniform, bland, and boring.
I like economies of scale, really I do. I like that Google is so big and competent that they can make Gmail both free and awesome. I get that, really. I just can't support a giant collective, like that, that has discovered its power and decides to abuse it. Then I back out.
Similarly, I hate broadcast TV with its insipid commercials and unintelligent writing and bad morals and bad politics. There are things I wish I had easier access to, perhaps, but I don't miss them considering the dreck that would be flooding the house along with it.
The problem is that the people who take control of the levers of power when there are these economies of scale want things made uniform, because they're easier to manage and less risky. And because kids grow up in that sort of sameness and then get corporate jobs that require bland opinions and bland personalities, they find nothing particularly wrong with chain stores. Sure they're boring, but they've got what you want. Sure your sports team is just like every other one, but they're your team, so they're the one you root for.
Americans want a good deal. We get a good deal from the truly massive economies of scale that 300 million pretty-rich people, interlocked in one giant market, can create. We also get a truly oppressive sameness and neither taste for nor ability to produce the sort of rich aesthetic life, even if it's just folk music and song we produce ourselves, that would make all this wealth seem actually worthwhile.
The tragedy is that I think even the dullest corporate drone doesn't really like Walmart and McDonald's and public schools and stupid sitcoms all the other mostly mediocre, and certainly uninspiring, stuff that depressingly shape so many American lives. Nobody does.
Should we spend more time creating, ourselves, and strive to become a society of artists and intellectuals?
Lots of ordinary people have some intellectual and creative outlets or other. That doesn't solve the problem.
The problem seems to be baked into the very notion of prosperity. Prosperity is very complicated. It requires so many jobs, and thus such specialization, that there's no way for us to research and appreciate the rich tapestry of life, even in one flavor of it. We rely on others to design our houses, line up our entertainment, feed to us quickly while we're off taking the kids to lessons, etc. This all goes by quickly and we can't appreciate it. If we took the time to appreciate any one thing, we'd be missing so much else, and we'd probably lose the modern balance. If you take two hours every day to make, eat, and clean up a real meal from scratch, you're talking about a hobby. And there are so many things to do. Why not leave it to Marie Callender or Prego or McDonald's, so you can catch your favorite show?
This sounds all depressing to me, and I don't know what the answer is (as I said), but I'm still not convinced that massive economies of scale in a market economy like ours must be subject to all the soul-killing uniformity we've seen around us for generations.