1914 | Columbia, MO

Inventing the Superfluous

Thorstein Veblen on man as cog in the machine.

The relation in which the consumer, the common man, stands to the mechanical routine of life at large is of much the same nature as that in which the modern skilled workman stands to that detail machine process into which he is dovetailed in the industrial system.

To take effectual advantage of what is offered as the wheels of routine go around, in the way of work and play, livelihood and recreation, he must know by facile habituation what is going on and how and in what quantities and at what price and where and when, and for the best effect, he must adapt his movements with skilled exactitude and a cool mechanical insight to the nicely balanced moving equilibrium of the mechanical processes engaged. To live—not to say at ease—under the exigencies of this machine-made routine requires a measure of consistent training in the mechanical apprehension of things. The mere mechanics of conformity to the schedule of living implies a degree of trained insight and a facile strategy in all manner of quantitative adjustments and adaptations, particularly at the larger centers of population, where the routine is more comprehensive and elaborate.

And here and now, as always and everywhere, invention is the mother of necessity. The complex of technological ways and means grows by increments that come into the scheme by way of improvements, innovations, expedients designed to facilitate, abridge, or enhance the work to be done. Any such innovation that fits workably into the technological scheme, and that in any appreciable degree accelerates the pace of that scheme at any point, will presently make its way into general and imperative use, regardless of whether its net ulterior effect is an increase or a diminution of material comfort or industrial efficiency. Such is particularly the case under the current pecuniary scheme of life if the new expedient lends itself to the service of competitive gain or competitive spending. Its general adoption then peremptorily takes effect on pain of damage and discomfort to all those who fail to strike the new pace. Each new expedient added to and incorporated in the system offers not only a new means of keeping up with the run of things at an accelerated pace but also a new chance of getting left out of the running. The point is well seen, e.g., in the current competitive armaments, where equipment is subject to constant depreciation and obsolescence not through decline or decay but by virtue of new improvements. So also in the increase and acceleration of advertising that has been going on during the past quarter of a century due to increased facilities and improved methods in printing, papermaking, and the other industrial arts that contribute to the appliances of publicity.

A machine is a slave that neither brings nor bears degradation.

—Benjamin Disraeli, 1844

It is, of course, not hereby intended to imply that these modern inventions meet no wants but such as they themselves create. It is beyond dispute that such mechanical contrivances, for instance, as the telephone, the typewriter, and the automobile are not only great and creditable technological achievements, but they are also of substantial service. At the same time, it is at least doubtful if these inventions have not wasted more effort and substance than they have saved—that they are to be credited with an appreciable net loss. They are designed to facilitate travel and communication, and such is doubtless their first and obvious effect. But the net result of their introduction need by no means be the same. Their chief use is in the service of business, not of industry, and their great further use is in the furtherance, or rather the acceleration, of obligatory social amenities. As contrivances for the expedition of traffic both in business and in social intercourse, their use is chiefly, almost wholly, of a competitive nature, and in the competitive equipment and maneuvers of business and of gentility, the same broad principle will be found to apply as applies to competitive armaments and improvements in the technology of warfare. Any technological advantage gained by one competitor forthwith becomes a necessity to all the rest, on pain of defeat. The typewriter is, no doubt, a good and serviceable contrivance for the expedition of a voluminous correspondence, but there is also no reasonable doubt but its introduction has appreciably more than doubled the volume of correspondence necessary to carry on a given volume of business, or that it has quadrupled the necessary cost of such correspondence. And the expedition of correspondence by stenographer and typewriter has at the same time become obligatory on all business firms, on pain of losing caste and so of losing the confidence of their correspondents. Of the telephone much the same is to be said, with the addition that its use involves a very appreciable nervous strain, and its ubiquitous presence conduces to an unremitting nervous tension and unrest wherever it goes. The largest secure result of these various modern contrivances designed to facilitate and abridge travel and communication appears to be an increase of the volume of traffic per unit of outcome, acceleration of the pace and heightening of the tension at which the traffic is carried on, and a consequent increase of nervous disorders and shortening of the effective working life of those engaged in this traffic. But in these matters, invention is the mother of necessity, and within the scope of these contrivances for facilitating and abridging labor, there is no alternative, and life is not offered on any other terms.

Contributor

Thorstein Veblen

From The Instinct of Workmanship. After receiving his PhD from Yale University in 1884, Veblen failed to secure a teaching position and sequestered himself on his father’s Minnesota farm, where he spent much of the next seven years reading. In 1899 he published his first book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he coined the terms conspicuous consumption, pecuniary emulation, and honorific waste. Despite the book’s success, his academic career remained unstable. He was forced to resign from the University of Chicago due to an indifferent teaching style and allegations of marital infidelity.