Growth & Culture

I spent a lot of time in Tokyo in the 80’s when I was in the Merger’s and Acquisition group at Merrill Lynch. The life of the Japanese Salaryman was always an endless source of fascination to me. When I would suggest to young Japanese that they could get out of the rat race, they would look at me with such sadness, saying in essence “there is no life here out side of a big corporation”.

And then Japan went through a period in the 90’s of zero growth. The assumption has always been that capitalism would collapse with zero growth. But that didn’t happen. But something strange did begin to happen, young people started acting as independant economic actors.

It was engineering prowess that lifted this nation from postwar defeat to economic superpower. But according to educators, executives and young Japanese themselves, the young here are behaving more like Americans: choosing better-paying fields like finance and medicine, or more purely creative careers, like the arts, rather than following their salaryman fathers into the unglamorous world of manufacturing.

The New York Times treats this story like the loss of engineering talent is some great crisis. I doubt it. I think the Japanese are collectively engaged in some sort of liberation process from the industrial machine which has dominated their lives since the end of World War II. You can see it in the Manga and the Anime. The Japanese have had a profound imaginative belief in “The Future”, in which magical productivity and brilliant robots would relieve mankind from the killing drudgery of life. But every year the subways got more crowded, the working hours got longer and the future never brought pleasure. So maybe¬†some decided that the worship of growth and efficiency was a trap–an they have opted out.

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0 Responses to Growth & Culture

  1. Hugo says:

    “You can see it in the Manga and the Anime.” I hope so. I’m grateful for that insight.

    It’s not that the Japanese “ant people” thing of the ’80s-90s was or is bad (don’t blame me for the epithet; blame the French Minister of Culture who got fired for coining it)—though the American response to it all was absurd beyond belief—but still let’s hope that the younger Japanese might lead the hepcat world to hipper and higher heights. That’d be great.

    I’ll believe it when I see the Japanese response, all these years later, to the soaring exuberance and sheer hopefulness of e.g. the Saarinens. NOT futurism, but rather, in keeping with the 13th Cent. cathedrals, an enormous encompassing hope toward the future.

  2. Hugo says:

    Like your (Saarinen-inspired) Theme Building at LAX, for example. When the arts in Japan take on that kind of soaring reach toward the future, then the Japanese will change the the tune the World dances to.

  3. Life as a Salaryman in the industrial machine was far from perfect in America’s heyday. On the other hand, the era of the 40-hour week, the lunch hour, the short commute, and the family dinner look idyllic from the vantage point of 2008.

    America has been liberated from the industrial machine, but the present and the future are filled with anxiety. People employed in the service-industry machine skip lunch, communicate with immediate family mostly by cell phone, and are mired in debt.

    I don’t think economic growth and efficiency are the answer; I haven’t got a clue about the answer.

    I only know that it’s the era of globalization, and we won’t be going back to the American heyday.

    Young men, whether college educated or high school dropouts, are increasingly unemployable in the post-industrial era. I don’t know where young men are going to find work in the near future. — Bernie

  4. Jon Taplin says:

    Bernie-I think you sounded the right note here. The future was supposed to bring us liberation from toil, but is really producing an appalling amount of waste and an increasing time-stressed populace. The fact that so much of our work (in the taxes we pay) goes towards rampant militarization, seems to me to be a place to start a change.

  5. Hugo says:

    Heavy. And spot-on, alas (yaksme).

  6. Rick Turner says:

    We have to think in terms of a post-unfettered growth period in human history. On the industrial side, we need to make products that last longer and are therefore less wasteful of resources and energy. An example…I remember the same rotary dial telephone being on the hall table at my folks house for well over 20 years. It worked fine for the entire time…good old Western Electric built for the ages quality. I think it was only replaced when the phone company went to touch tone phones. Now we’re seen as Luddites if we don’t get a new cell phone every year. That’s one small example of why we’re working harder for less happiness…

  7. Hugo says:

    That bops me on the nose, Rick, in that it’s been right before me all my life and yet I never construed obsolescence & disposability in the specific context of conservation—even though I consider myself a conservationist! Wow. Wow.

    So, you’re thinking is to use this point as a pivot upon which to launch a movement (let’s call it a motion) toward Durability, and therefore Quality, as subsets of Sustainablility? Have I got that right?

  8. Jon Taplin says:

    Rick and Hugo-Now we are getting to the heart of the matter. Durability. I had a sound engineer named Ed Anderson, back in the late 60’s who had a 1954 Chevy. He said it was the last year before they instituted the planned obsolesence production policy. The Chevy ran beautifully and Ed hadn’t even rebuilt the engine.

  9. Rick Turner says:

    I live that in my work. I’m a guitar maker with a small factory building about 25 instruments a month. We make everything from acoustic ukuleles to electric guitars and basses. I’ve built for a very illustrious group of contemporary musicians, and my goal is to build instruments that will still be valid musical tools a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years from now for musicians I’ll never know whose music I’ll never hear. I do not build with the idea that my instruments will be obsolete. Sure, maybe they’ll need a major rebuild at some point, but I’d like to make pieces that last longer than it will take to grow the trees to build the next ones.

    And I’m no Luddite in this area, either. I’ve got two US patents on using carbon fiber in instruments, and I’m part of a company founded on my concept of using DSP (digital signal processing) to be able to model the signature sounds of acoustic instruments to enhance amplification. But even in this tech area of my work I’ve tried to hold to state of the art electronics that hold up as high quality for a long, long time.

    For a look at some of my past dealings with state of the art musical gear, check out “Grateful Dead Gear” by Blair Jackson. Our QC guru was Augustus Owsley Stanley, mostly noted for other activities, but the guy was and is an absolute genius when it comes to sound, gear, and quality goods in general.

    A lot of this gets back to “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.” But modern consumer pandering industry is going to have a hell of a time adapting to this idea.

    What if you were a furniture maker in a fixed population town and you made tables. Let’s imagine that you make pieces that will last for five generations (I say, typing on a keyboard on top of a small desk/table that was made in about 1828). Well, pretty soon you’ll have sold a table to everyone who needs one, and you’ll be wondering what to do next. Either you can decide early in the game to make tables that appear nice, but are really shitty and will fall apart in five years, or you can suck it up, make great tables, and then move on to make chairs…or beds…or whatever. So durable goods are a problem for lazy craftspeople…just like great telephones would be death for Nokia or Motorola or Apple. Got to build in that obsolescence and the flip side of that is you’ve got to make your new products so glitzy that folks think they need them.

    I grew up in a household with little money, but a nice house filled with wonderful old things, some quite precious antiques and pieces of art, some just nice old stuff. My early teen haunts were the boat yards in town with the smells of linseed oil and mahogany shavings and the sound of sewing machines in the sail lofts. I was around hands-on people making great stuff. Other haunts were the old style antique shops where you had to turn sideways to shuffle down the aisles and stuff was rising up from the floor and hanging down from the ceilings and it was as though you were inside the glass cases in a wonderful museum. And the stuff was made beautifully, clearly with the idea that it would last and be useful for decades…even if it had not achieved that.

    Fast forward and there’s the sterling example of Sony, etc. with the format wars with popular recordings. 78s to 33 1/3 & 45s, to 8 track cartridges to cassettes, to micro cassettes, to ElCassettes (remember them?), to CDs, to SCDCs, to DVDs, to MP3s, to lossless audio formats… Do you know why Sony bought Columbia? It was all about the back catalogs for movies and sound recordings; it had nothing to do with making new content…which they did a spectacularly bad job of. Get the back catalog and re-release it endlessly on new pre-obsolescent formats and sell the hardware…

    It’s so 20th century…

    And it’s broken.

  10. Jon Taplin says:

    Rick- As long as we are convinced that we can’t meet energy conservation goals because it would slow down our 4% GDP growth (Bush’s excuse for not signing the Kyoto Treaty), we will be trapped in Warstler World–where our only weapon is our military ability to capture other country’s resources.

    This is a fools errand and it’s important we think about what both John Stuart Mill and Lord Keynes called “The Stationary State”, where growth is modest but a great deal of time is spent on creative pursuits. Keynes thought that we should be able to reach a place where the average citizen worked less than 20 hours a week to get paid and spent the rest of their time on creative pursuits and voluntary aid to their community. This was supposed to be the end state of the networked industrial society, not the rat race pictured at the top of this post.

  11. Hugo says:

    You folks hit paydirt, yaksme. Deep lode stuff. Jon has me fairly rushing to dig out my economists and consult the younger Mill and even Maynard Keynes! (Don’t tell nobody.)

    Meanwhile, Rick, of course you’re not accustomed to thinking of yourself as a symbol, but still you do stand for—how else to put this?—something wrong. Your predicament, as the owner of a small business, is exceptional in that you and it are dependent on ART made real, but in all other respects I reckon you represent a great many noble small businesses.

    The art aspect—that, I really wanna mull.

    But your respect for wood. That comes through richly, and frankly it reminds me of a couple of my Native American friends (Hopi, and Chippewa) who despised waste—including wasted moments, wasted opportunities.

    It seems that we (excepting you) have so much to re-learn.

  12. Durability! I’ve been thinking that our problem was materialism. I guess the problem is really the churn of material goods, such as cell phones and cars.

    Durability might be an answer. With durable goods, we could continue to enjoy material things, just enjoy them longer and more thoroughly.

    If we could control materialism AND militarism, we’d be approaching a human-friendly economy.

    Durability and Peace, — Bernie

  13. Hugo says:

    Nah, Bernie, you know the drill: it’s not the material that matters [sic], it’s the “-ism”—the notion that that’s all there is. In the Talmudic tradition, of course, that’s pure-form idolatry.

    The “churn” to which you refer—it’s a kind of obscenity, isn’t it? It’s an expression of a great disrespect toward the material—toward material—yes? Well that feeling that you and Rick and Jon and I get, upon that particular drawing of distinctions: I think that’s stewardship, our sense of an ancient stewardship and our possible delinquency in that regard.

    And our lovely reluctance to surrender the charge.

  14. Morgan Warstler says:

    I guess by video comparison you could talk about CRT projectors – they were better than most LCD and DLP (but not DILA) projectors for ATLEAST 8 years.

    8 years ain’t much. And let’s be fair, in 8 years, we got 1080P, we got Gigalan, we got VOD, we got broadband, we got computers 10x as powerful costing 50% less. We got Google kicking Microsoft in the ass, we got Sony eating dog shit, we got passenger side air bags and we got solar panels finally showing signs of well…. working. We even got (and lost) the Bose Wave Cannon:

    I used to own one, it was SICK.

    In this regard, Rick, I’m interested in your take about the audio thing – I know a pro ear in the business – he did the programming work on Pro Tools (I myself am half deaf – and 100% tone deaf) I used to pester him about this, and I’d like your expert opinion here if you don’t mind… is it possible to duplicate Stradivarius digitally? Can I fool you?

    On the rest of it, as I said above, cheaper is better, we still have large margins in tech to make gains on… IKEA brands itself on disposable furniture and brings art to the masses.

    So let’s not go too far into the “old days” rabbit hole, ok?

  15. Rick Turner says:

    Digital modeling is in it’s infancy, but the potential is there to do a pretty credible job…as long as you’re listening to loudspeakers or over headphones. The experience of playing a really fine instrument is so totally physical that mere hearing is not sufficient to convey the full spectra of tone and feeling. For one thing, hearing isn’t just about ears. I’ve spent a little time with Evelyn Glennie, probably the finest classical solo percussionist alive, and she’s profoundly deaf. See the movie “Touch the Sound.”

    Digital sound reproduction can rival analog if the effective sampling rate is way beyond 44.1 K…the convenient rate chosen for CDs many years ago. Now sampling rates in recording are often 96 K or 192K, and Sony’s SACD effective sampling rate is much higher.

    Manipulation in the digital realm has a long way to go, but we have achieved pretty remarkable things with our DSP “Mama Bear” device. When we were doing the first Beta tests, we had guitarist Laurence Juber come into the lab to play his rosewood/Sitka spruce guitar with a pickup through our prototype digital guitar modeler. At one point he said, “I’m hearing koa and cedar”. We scrambled to see exactly which guitar model he was playing through…and indeed it was based upon an Ed Claxton koa/cedar guitar. Laurence correctly identified two different wood species represented by a digital audio manipulation of the sound of his own guitar made from very different woods. So that’s the very up to date, very non-Luddite part of what I do. I believe in product development and improvement. I do not believe in ever intentionally building in features or concepts that will make a product obsolete just so I can sell an updated version.

  16. Azmanon says:

    There is definitely something to be said for durable goods actually being durable. Is there any reason why things like furniture and houses (and yes musical instruments) shouldn’t be made to last at least 100 years and be built by skilled craftsmen, people who enjoy and take pride in their work? Kudos to you Rick.

    When it comes to technology though, this matter of durability becomes tricky. It will be a telling tale as to how we balance the capabilities and full development of digital media communications infrastructures without all the shamefully wasteful obsolescence that seems to go with it. How long can we deal with computers, devices, software, formats and codecs that become obsolete by the minute?

    I’m consistently impressed with brave companies like Sound Devices and Red Digital Cinema for taking on the great industries of mass produced electronic devices, in order to set their own levels of quality and durability, really because they can (and this stuff is actually made in the USA).

  17. Ken Ballweg says:

    Artisanal craft is more of a constant than many want to believe; people like Rick are as common proportionally as they have always been I suspect. But a big variable is the range of resources available for them to work with: example, hardwoods. Finding large pieces of extremely dense hard woods to work with is getting to be next to impossible, and truly becomes a limiting factor in continuing to create the stuff of Rick’s (and my) childhood. Cheap pine furniture existed, but wasn’t as prevalent as the pressboard (sawdust and petroleum based resin) stuff of Ikea. The dominance of syntha-wood is due to a combination of too damn many people and not enough good wood.

    As the forests got used up and it became obvious that hardwood tree farms are not a short term investment anyone is going to make a living on, Artisanal craftsmen have had to adapt. It’s not just the will to crate lasting items, it’s also a matter of cost for the quality materials. Some of the churn in material goods is associated with trying to find replacements for the base materials that have been used up.

    Once oil is scarce, you will see some interesting experiments aimed at replacing plastics (silicon based??), and a lot of crap produced in the trial and error stages just ‘cus folks wont know what lasts until it lasts.

  18. Jon Taplin says:

    As Hugo says, there is a rich lode of material here. Some random thoughts.

    1.-Doesn’t open source software programming become like an artisinal craft (with all due resprect to Rick’s guitar making) in which networked individuals can work at home and cooperate over distance? It seems like many of the improvements Morgan mentioned (Gigalan, etc) are the product of software not necessarily hardware.
    2.-Durability in the creation of a table, chair, couch, bed, floor, house, etc. is totally possible and not going to be upset by technology adoption curves. Plus, it uses less materials (like the wood Ken mentions). Personally, I’m so sick of those “syntha wood” book cases that disintegrate after two years.
    3.I think Hugo’s notion of Stewardship is another part of the puzzle. Morgan is flipping out on the Obama Multitudes string, because Barack said we have to stop wasting so much energy. Obama is totally correct, but it offends Morgan’s libertarian crowd. But the word Stewardship, has a different resonance, and doesn’t elicit such a harsh reaction.

    More on this later.

  19. Azmanon says:

    I think the development of open source software is considered more a part of the gift economy or a result of what Clay Shirky calls social or cognitive surplus, that people use their spare time and energy to contribute to large scale distributed projects.

    For me artisans and crafts people work more on the hardware end of things which is why I posed the question of what might a 21st century high tech craftsman look like?

  20. Rick Turner says:

    Well, I’ve got a three axis CNC machine in my shop working alongside of skilled craftmen. Down the road I’d love to have a CNC laser as well. These save drudgery and sometimes dangerous labor and allow high tech craftsmen to concentrate on what we can do best…design and fine tune our work and also do custom work.

  21. Another Jon says:

    This was a really great conversation. I am sorry I missed it, or came in on the end. But the question of “Quality” – what happened to it and where is it going – is a good one. I have lamented the demise of quality for some time now.

    Just because I do not really want to see the thread die yet, I will throw out something that has become a truism for me personally. It seems to me that unionized labor has dragged down the level of Quality required from skilled crafstmen and artisans to the extent that we are surrounded by poorly built and poorly designed citites. The unionization of the workforce has made individuals answerable only to the market and not to the quality of the work. It is systematic and corrosive. I see it everyday.

    The tenured professor that has cashed it in….same thing. Our culture has cashed it in and IKEA blows our doors off. We are a slave to the market where Rick is making beautiful things but sells them at a premium (just a guess Rick) while others are playing on a Tonka Toy.

    How is that for some Libertarianism!

  22. Jon Taplin says:

    Another Jon- I’m not sure you can pin the decline of quality on the Unions. In my first example (at the beginning of the thread) it was the Chevrolet corporation that decided to embrace the idea of “planned obsolescence”. The union had nothing to do with it. If you look at the role of the Unions in the Japanese auto factories, where quality is so highly prized, they have a lot of say. Anyone can pull a cord and stop the assembly line if they see something that does not meet their quality control.

  23. Rick Turner says:

    The prices for what I make are premium…but then, they will deliver a lot of musical notes over a long lifetime, so I think if you calculate the bucks per tune over a couple of hundred years, my instruments become a long term bargain!

    It goes back to the analogy of the table maker…So you get a $1,000.00 table and it lasts in your family for 200 y ears. That’s $5.00 a year… Get a $100.00 table…and you’ll need another in five years. You do the math. Plus the $1,000.00 table is going to just be a nicer table for all to enjoy.

    It would be interesting to know how many times folks replace their personal possessions in a lifetime and whether those possessions are worth a tinker’s dam when the original owners die.

  24. Hugo says:

    I really want to chime in on this, but there’s so much to think about that it’s still working its way through my third bovine stomach. I flash on Ruskin & Morris and the Christian Socialist response to idustrialization, on Gandhi and village tech, on Brand and his appropriate tools, on Schumacher and Wendell Berry on scale, on my own half-assed work on the Amish and Hutterites, on the radical techno-egalitarianism of Negroponte and Barlow and others, and even on the damnable Heidegger and his fascinating essay “On the Origin of the Work of Art”, and the Fate of that work in the age of technologism—the shameless worship of Look What I Did!

    I feel that Rick’s right about the need for a post-mortem strategy, but I’m afraid we’re already in the belly of the bigger fish that swallowed The Machine, the industrial age. (Sorry Jon: No Interregnum, except maybe for California—and admittedly that’s a formidable concession, CA.)

  25. Another Jon says:

    Jon….sorry. I did not mean to sound like I was pinning the decline of Quality on Unionization at the risk of giving the corporations a free pass. I do believe, however, that the unionized workforce in the U.S., has contributed to this decline AS MUCH AS the corporation. And I do not strictly mean in the sense that they were complicit in moving the market towards a throw away, please-me-now consumer driven economy, but also because the socialization of craft and artisan driven products has made the individual obsolete…except on the fringe where he can survive only by supplying the people who can afford it.

    I really am not trying to sound like a Libertarian. But I have read way too much Emerson, and spent too much time standing in front of the paintings of the Hudson River School to submit to the masses quite yet.

    And I look at it like we are leveraging the masses at the expense of Quality. Japan has just recently started wading into this pool. Luckily for them, they have centuries of history programed into their veins to shield them from some possible pitfalls. I am optimistic.

    I sometimes try to imagine what our housing market would look like without labor unions….when I do I find myself thinking we would be living in a much prettier world.

    Rick, I get what you are saying. But that $1000.00 table did not used to be a $1000.00 table. It USED to just be a table. The question is WHY is it now $1000.00. And the answer, for me, is not material, it is labor. What did a Shaker chair cost before IKEA?

    And Hugo, I agree…I have been trying to understand the decline of what I call Quality, with a capital “Q”, for a while now and have worked my way down the rabbit (w)hole. This is only how I am framing the discussion in my own head. There were a number of tangents and points brought up so far that are pertinent to this discussion not touched on in my own understanding of the decline of Quality. I just did not wanna see the thread die quite yet.

    Post-mortem strategy is right….but that does not mean NO Interregnum.

  26. Rick Turner says:

    The decline of Quality is tied to the rise of the Rush of Owning the New. When the surface of an object, and therefore the pure visual appeal, is more important than the substance of the object, and the surface is made to have symbolic importance in representing the owner’s wealth…and therefore success in society, and the Newness factor…Fashion…becomes endlessly hawked to an increasingly dumbed down populace…that’s when you have Quality taking a back seat to Durability.

    Durability, however, does not have to mean dull…just as New does not necessarily mean Good. Classic designs are few and far between, and too often they are discarded too quickly in the churning of the New. The automobile industry is a great example of this. Volkswagen did very, very well by sticking with a basic classic design…the Bug…and making incremental improvements over decades. Other companies bounced from one flash design to another and still try to sell the Rush of Power to a world running out of the money to pay for the fuel…

    Hope the caps aren’t too distracting…been reading some 17th century historical fiction + Pepys’ diary…Stuff of Quality!

  27. Jon Taplin says:

    My older brother used to build furniture, based on Shaker designs. The dove tailed joints and all. My daughter has a desk he made for her and she will no doubt hand it down to her daughter. It’s not the “newness” that makes it special its the simplicity and grace. The Quakers (and the Shakers) understood the gift of simplicity.

  28. Another Jon says:


    Your first paragraph was wonderful. I echo every sentiment. The only thing I would add is that Quality is a thing that should be, or is, a constant. Meaning that certain charateristics that may define it, like Durability, cannot be taken out of the equation and still have something that results in Quality. So the switch you talk about, to fashion, is spot on because it deals with the temporal vs. the constant.

    Jon, it is too bad your brother no longer makes his furniture. The Shakers are a dying breed and their furniture will go with them. I find them to be some of the most beautiful things made.

    It is amazing how much work it takes to achieve simplicty, while chaos can happen at the pull of a lever…or a checkmark on a ballot.

  29. Jon Taplin says:

    Another Jon-My brother is out sailing off of Martha’s Vineyard in a beautiful hand made sloop. He makes the occaisional piece for his own joy, but he wife who is an artist surround themselves with craftsmanship.

    We’re all going to fight this “fashion” ethos you talk about. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said “The Central conservative truth is that culture, not politics determines the success of a society. The centtral liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

    The throwaway culture we have created must be saved from itself.

  30. Hugo says:

    What role taste?

  31. Another Jon says:

    Taste? None my friend.
    Your mind can play tricks on you.

    “The throwaway culture we have created must be saved from itself.”

    I am on it.

  32. Jon Taplin says:

    Hugo- I would distinguish “fashion” from Taste. Men and women of discernment, such as yourself, will always be needed. We just don’t need to change styles every 6 months.

  33. Hugo says:

    YES, INDEED! But what does it say of the state of taste in American culture when a 12 year-old’s G-string can be pitched as “fashion”?

    No, I’m thinking of the aesthetic theories native to the U.S., and the (to me) surprising centrality of “taste” in all of that. That’s why I join A.J. and Rick in pleading for more time: because I’m trying to figger how to supercharge a 100 year-old artifact of American intellectual history, and I’m not as fast as I was as a pup.

    Meanwhile, consider Citizen Julia’s motto: “After all, it’s got to taste good!”

  34. Another Jon says:

    There is a quote I am reminded of that has stuck with me since I read it. It is from Vincent Van Gogh, from one of his letters to I cannot remember who…probably his brother. But it is this:

    ” Seek the eternal in the temporal!”

    I am not sure there is a better direction forward.

  35. Hugo says:

    Here’s what I’ve been mulling. It’s the psychological theory of aesthetics, and what that theory might mean for our crass culture. Though it’s really a construct of Contintental philosophy—for example, of Merleau-Ponty, via the usual suspects—it was foster-parented here, by e.g. James and Dewey and their sporadic heirs. I still find the results surprising.

    And surprise has a lot to do with it. The Europeans have concentrated on artistic expression, from the artist out, while the Americans have looked at aesthetic contemplation—the intake side of the work—or what Dewey called “aesthetic experience”.

    And that’s all I really wanted to submit: the home-grown American notion that taste isn’t a function of genes nor of wealth, but rather of the richness and diversity and intensity of one’s experiences, to the extent that they have aesthetic components. Yes, the children of the wealthy have all the advantages in this regard as in so many others. But not necessarily. And this nation can take steps to ensure that children have a great wealth of experiences of rich aesthetic quality. Result: more highly developed taste, and demand for products like Rick’s.

    And Rick, I want to buy one of your uke’s, man.

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