Most of us, in a world where the majority of things we use are mass-produced, cannot afford to buy a lot of things that are truly unique. Unique in this case means hand-made. Many of the things that we use in the modern world are so complex mechanically, that they wouldn’t lend themselves to being made by hand. However, there is an exception to standardized technological production and that is 3-D printing, where people can design and create everything from human body parts to guns. Here we get into the idea that there are different degrees of uniqueness. Can something that is made mechanically ever have the same sense of uniqueness as something that is created organically. Is a 3-D printed guitar going to have the same tone as a hand-made guitar even if unlike a mass-produced factory guitar, it does have a certain amount of individualization in concept? If the answer is yes, why bother making a guitar by hand? Why bother making anything by hand?
Well art and crafts are still being made by hand. Clothes are still being made by hand. And one-of-a-kind outfits are still being made, particularly for women. Perhaps, it is in the area of fashion where we can still find some things that are quite unique. But there aren’t too many areas of modern life, where uniqueness is still readily available. If anything, most people feel more comfortable with standardization. A lot of people prefer to go to chain restaurants and drive-ins, rather than to try something different at a one-of-a-kind restaurant. In a world filled with the predictable processes of machines, computers and robots, people have adapted themselves. They have become numb from the experiential vacuum in which they live as a result of modern technology, and find unique organic sensory stimulation to be overstimulating. For most people today, uniqueness can frequently be almost painful.
In one of the earliest articles in this column, I discuss the fact that there are different kinds of infinity. In particular, there is delimited infinity, which can be represented by all the discrete positive numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,….. And then there is nondelimited infinity which can be represented by all the points on a line. There are mathematical proofs that show there are more points on a line – any line, short or long – than there are discrete positive numbers. In other words, the first represents a larger infinity than the second.
As an analogy, we can say that there is a larger infinity of unique hand-made items than there is categories of mass-produced items. To gain the kind of control that they want over the world, humans have increasingly reduced the world in which they live into a place of delimited infinite possibilities. Hence, a world in which uniqueness becomes an increasingly scarcer commodity.
And this is true not only of the products which humans have at their disposal. As machines, computers, and robots increasingly take control of the processes that are a part of human lives, the whole human life narrative becomes increasingly delimited in its possibilities. And the whole development of human personality and sense of self becomes increasingly delimited. So the possibility for truly unique life situations becomes constricted. How can people have unusual adventures when they are glued to the conveyors of screen reality: movies, television, video games, computers, smartphones, and tablets? Where is the opportunity for uniqueness when one is immersed in standardized digital processes?
As people become more and more numb, immersing more and more in screen reality situations, it becomes more and more difficult for them to absorb unique phenomena . Yes people can still absorb great athletes who break records. But that is a more narrow kind of uniqueness. Great athletes don’t disrupt the way we think about things or the way we feel about things. Their greatness is more linear and therefore more delimited.
Most people today are interested in mass-produced phenomena, which by definition, are less unique. These people conform by liking the same consumer products, which are promoted on television, radio, and, of course, now the Internet. These people want to be a lot like one another in all sorts of superficial ways. The other-directed person – the person who wants to participate in the fads and trends of the moment and be like everybody else– is an intrinsic part of the fabric of modern technological society. It’s a notion that came from David Riesman, a Harvard sociologist, and it was made famous by a book called The Lonely Crowd. It can be considered the ultimate anti-uniqueness social category.
In such an environment, the real non-conformist is very special. I use the word real, because I am not referring to the person who simply wants to be different for difference sake. I am referring to the person who is different, because it is the only way he can be true to himself. Borrowing another of David Riesman’s terms, the autonomous person. Such a person might not be unique in flashy glaring ways. But he is unique in enough small coherent ways so that he presents a unique persona and sense of self to the world. It is a unique organic presence filled with unique flowing blendable continual stimuli. Such a person potentially can make a special contribution to society, if we choose to let him. But so much of modern society works to standardize everybody, so a real non-conformist has a great deal of difficulty avoiding being leveled into a nondescript mainstream personality. That is the way things are today.