July 16, 2010

Fun culture of dangerous times even shows up on Radio Shack catalog covers

Here is a display of almost all of the annual Radio Shack catalogs from 1939 through 2005. If I'm right in all I've been writing about regarding how central the violence rate is in shaping the zeitgeist, you should be able to work backward from what the culture looks like to the crime rate. In particular, people are more social, including more sexual, when times are dangerous.

Do we see that anywhere in the Radio Shack catalogs? Sure: from 1961 through 1994, and since these catalogs are out at the beginning of the year, they represent the zeitgeist in 1960 and 1993. That is the period of rising crime, delayed by about one year (crime rose from 1959 through 1991). Particularly during the peak of the sexual revolution in the late 1970s and early '80s, not only are there people, but they look like young lovers who are only using technology to set the mood.

After 1994, there are people, but none are cute and they aren't interacting socially. Before 1961, there aren't even people on the covers except for 1950, but that just shows a "how it's made on the assembly line" picture, nothing social or fun. No one has noticed how that goofy "gee whiz, that's how it's made!" approach from the 1950s has become an elite status marker in the second half of the '90s and 2000s. During wild times, people just care about the quality and price, not the stupid thing's life history -- only when society turns trivial do people want to know, so that they can parrot it to their peers in a lame attempt to boost their status. ("Why Melinda, I never knew you were such a connoisseur of panini presses!")

So if they aren't showing people brought together socially, what do the covers from safe times show? Well, the gadgets themselves; at best there are shots of isolated individuals playing with their toys. This gizmo worship during safe times is a topic I'll take up in detail later, but it's worth emphasizing even briefly. How many times have we heard of the 1980s as the decade of materialism? That's real cute coming from the Money Magazine 1990s and the Bling Bling 2000s. Back on planet Earth, in the '80s no one gave a shit about gadgets for their own sake -- it was all about how they would bring people together socially and set the stage for wild fun.

After a transition during the mid-'90s, during the late '90s and 2000s gizmo worship really got out of control. Soulless morons wrapped around several city blocks just to get into a retail store and lay their hands on the next incarnation of the iPod, and now even your computer must "tell the world something about your personality" -- namely, that you're a loser if your laptop's brand is part of your identity. Throughout the '80s there were many new models of the Walkman, each one offering far greater improvements over earlier models than the new iPods do over earlier iPod models. And yet no one camped outside a Radio Shack to ensure they'd get one at midnight on the launch date -- young people only camped out for tickets to some exciting social spectacle like a rock concert. And your identity did not depend on who manufactured your computer or typewriter but again what mattered more were non-material experiences like what music you listened to.

Adam Smith catalogs plenty of contemporary gizmo worship in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which was written during falling-crime times in an Apollonian environment, namely the Scottish Enlightenment in 1759. (See here, ctrl F "tweezer.") He even tolerates it because such rewards motivate entrepreneurs to excel in business and thereby make the world a better place -- sure, but so would a culture where entrepreneurs had a life like the yuppies of the '80s and were motivated to succeed by non-materialist experiences like getting in to elite dance clubs and doing some cocaine. So the pattern of gizmo worship during safe times vs. "what can it do for my social life?" in dangerous times is not new. You don't really hear the Elizabethans or Romantics, who lived in rising-crime times, praising doodads per se.


  1. You treat the "safe/dangerous eras" very much in a blanket sense, even though relative safety or danger was always very much a local phenomenon, and most people durig your high-crime era (1950s-1980s) rarely came in contact with physical danger.

    I recall the early 80s very vividly as an early teen, and I never felt "unsafe," all through the decade, except when making a thrill-seeking trip to DC or NYC with buddies. But I never felt a sense of unsafety in my daily life. I suspect this is true of most people of that time. Blighted areas with crime were very much a quarantened phenomenon then.

    Even lower/working class whites back then lived in generally pleasant neighborhoods.

    If anything, it is today, despite lower crime rates, that can be called "unsafe." It's due to increased diversity, and thuggery being more in your face (ie, cars with booming bass), and demographic trajectory being a menacing thought everyone studiously avoids.

  2. The GSS asks people a question about whether or not they're afraid to walk around their neighborhood at night, and the percent of people who say they're afraid tracks the homicide rate, delayed by about two years.

    So when violence rates go up or down, it may take a little time for people to notice, but they apparently are aware of how safe or unsafe their local area is on an objective level.

    Threats to your safety don't necessarily have to be the urban blight type. Even in a homogeneous white rural area, there were more killings, fist-fights, rapes, burglaries, etc., during the crime wave than during the past 20 years.

  3. Marlowe was geeky about fortifications and counterfeiting; not to mention Drake and his sailboat geekery. Sidney's 'Arcadia' was geeky about gardens.

    Shelley was a boat geek too, and did electrical studies, and balloons

    I think you are right about today, though.

  4. Well they took an interest in fortifications, cannon, military formations, etc., but "geeky" implies something quasi-autistic, which none of them were.

    What I'm talking about is gadget porn.

  5. I like all your theories on dangerous vs safe times.

    I think this correlates with dangerous vs. safe economies, and can be seen in the pop culture and art that those economies create.

    For all the dissing people do of the 80's FEW would argue that movies are better now than they were then. This may have something to do with a volatile market economy vs a more socialist/stagnant economy.

    I am a big fan of Hong Kong action films. And I think that part of the reason Hong Kong produced such great action films is that they were a market economy. They had risk in their lives, which boosted creativity and risk in films.

  6. Off-topic, but since you talked about women in rock bands recently I thought you might be interested in this, which also has complaining about the relative merits of musical culture during different time periods. It also noticed the tendency for them to play bass.


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