fashion is everything

Michael Arrington is bored. About eight months ago, Alexis Madrigal was similarly bored. These guys are leaders in their field, and consequently I think their malaise is likely to spread. I suspect it has to — that it’s an inevitable consequence of the kind of mentality on display in this audio clip:

That’s from NPR’s “Best Apps of 2012” piece. I think it’s revealing: Brown picks an app in a done-to-death genre and *explicitly* says that novelty forms the basis of his excitement about it.

This statement can perhaps be dismissed as a Freudian slip, but I think it’s representative of a subtext underlying most popular writing and thinking about technology and startup culture — the elevation of “disruption” as an end in itself is just as emblematic of this focus.

And perhaps that’s fine: there’s nothing wrong with enjoying novelty. I know that I derive a lot of utility from it, and consistently base various consumption decisions on it (“What albums are on the 2012 year-end lists?” versus “Which of these albums are objectively better than my all-time favorites?”). And at Sunlight we know that novelty is of huge importance: we rely on the press and public to spread the technology we build. We know that people will only be driven to do so if it excites them, and we know that novelty is one of our best tools for achieving that end.

For aesthetic consumption industries in general, pursuing novelty seems just fine. It’s why books and music and movies and fashion organize themselves into trends and movements. It makes culture understandable and criticism rewarding. But, speaking as a software engineer, it can be an odd criterion to have to grapple with, and it has been slightly bizarre to watch its selection as the primary lens through which our culture perceives this discipline.

(It also seems like a pretty silly way to allocate financial resources when, unlike those other disciplines, reaching profitability is usually premised on a comfortably long product lifecycle, the idea of which is badly undercut by a focus novelty (though I suppose the possibility of hitting it rich as a fad does help with reaching scale). Then again, I don’t really know anything about investing.)

It might be that all of this is obvious, but hearing that report on the radio made something click for me. And I think it marks a useful dividing line for tech journalism. Was this story written because its subject is new, or because its subject is important? For me, outlets like Ars, Techdirt and MIT Tech Review immediately come to mind as publications that consistently choose the latter rationale, and I think that has a lot to do with why I prefer them.

Some people really enjoy fashion. More power to them! There’s no reason they can’t enjoy software on those terms. But I do think that this type of tech connoisseurship is ill-served by the story it currently tells itself about its true motivations, which are usually said to be about convenience, economic importance, or more far-fetched ideas about the transformation of society. The problem isn’t so much that these claims are incorrect (though they usually are) but that they ground what should be an artistic endeavor in a terminally boring bourgeois aesthetic. You are never going to get a punk rock photo app from someone who follows Fred Wilson on Twitter. In this respect, tech writers would be well-served to look to the indie gaming scene and hope that a similar miracle of independent taste and thinking can colonize the app store.

Anyway, you should give that NPR piece a listen. There might be some apps in it you enjoy. And it has some good news for Mr. Madrigal: his lightbulbs-as-a-platform startup idea seems to have come to pass.

2 Responses to “fashion is everything”

  1. brian

    Please tell me the title is a reference to Paul’s band back in Charlottesville.

  2. Tom

    It is!

    (To be honest I just vaguely remembered it was a reference to some terrible band lyric, but didn’t remember which one. I’m delighted to learn that it was Paul’s band, though.)

Leave a Reply