According to a recent edition of the Financial Times’s How to Spend It supplement, $179,900 will buy you the “ultimate” Steinway self-playing grand piano. This ultimate piano is distinguished from the inferior non-ultimate models by its proficiency at reproducing not just the notes a famous performer played but the precise pressure with which he or she touched them. It will appeal, the FT suggests, to “the high proportion of buyers who can’t actually play the piano”.
Isn’t this weird? Buying this piano draws attention to a hobby you don’t have. Look at me, the expensive robotic piano says, my owner is slightly more boring than you might have supposed. My theory is that this is partly the point. The instrument signals that you can afford a big piano but are too busy and important to find the time to play it.
What’s happened, I think, is that in the hardworking, competitive modern world, the ability to sublimate your personality, your eccentricities, your creative fantasies to your work is rewarded. The boring succeed and so being boring has become a kind of status symbol.
If this sounds tendentious observe the almost flamboyant displays of dullness performed by the chief executives of tech companies. Mark Zuckerberg boasts that he wears a gray T-shirt every day because “I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous.” Jeff Bezos has identified Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day as his favorite novel on the unimpeachably inane grounds that it helped him develop his “regret minimization framework”.
The instrument signals that you can afford a big piano but are too busy and important to find the time to play it.
Once, the rich flaunted their leisure as a status symbol — hence the cabinets of porcelain, taxidermic animals, dead butterflies and rare books that fill most country houses. Today’s chief executives are inspired by the values of the university-educated professional middle class, from whose ranks they are mostly drawn.
And, for a few decades now, the punishing, all-consuming rituals of meritocracy — the battles for exam results, university places, internships, prestigious jobs and promotions — have been transforming our middle class into perhaps the most boring and cultureless in history. If you want to get on, you must streamline yourself by chipping away as many of the interesting bits of your character as you can. The suffocating tyranny of the dull perhaps explains the political success of eccentrics like Trump, Corbyn and Johnson.
I recall in my final year of university an elderly lecturer smiling out at the hall of English literature students in front of him and remarking that we must all be writing poetry at our age. Awkward shaking of heads. We weren’t writing poetry, we were applying for internships.
My university cohort was another bleak instalment in the collapse of the casually creative middle class. When I worked in a bookshop (a job I landed in part due to my failure to do any internships), I spent endless afternoons cataloging the various efflorescences of amateur Victorian creativity: album after bulging album of watercolors, pressed flowers, dried seaweed, poetry, bits of fern.
Now the great singing, piano-playing, poetry-writing, amateur-dramatics-performing bourgeois tradition is dead. Work, education and the battle for a share of the diminishing financial rewards and expensive properties have taken over our lives. Even hobbies such as stamp collecting, embroidery, model-building and DIY are in decline. Before the pandemic, museum and gallery attendance had dropped for three years in a row.
The suffocating tyranny of the dull perhaps explains the political success of eccentrics like Trump, Corbyn and Johnson.
It’s not only casual creativity that is threatened. Those rising house prices make it harder to be an artist. London’s brutal rents mean that the city has lost its ancient bohemian class of failed actors, painters, drunks and half-starved literary critics for the first time in its history.
Modern society offers its citizens a remarkably homogeneous life experience. Half of young people go to university where they’re all forced through systems of exams that tend to reward a very specific, specialized and often unquestioning kind of intelligence. Then, thanks to computers, the jobs available after university are increasingly indistinguishable. Our work culture rewards one principal attribute: the ability to bend your intelligence to unnatural extremes of concentration by sitting in front of a screen for hours every day. To do this we wear the increasingly ubiquitous uniform of jeans (or chinos) and a smart shirt, which is just as much a symbol of conformity as the bowler hats and briefcases of our ancestors.
Social media encourages us all to justify our lives in public, to promote images of ourselves doing the virtuous, sane, normal things that will make sense to our co-workers, our boss, our distant aunts and whoever else follows us. Often, the most successful members of these sites find success by scolding those who don’t conform to the rules by saying and doing the right things. On the Internet eccentricity is dangerous.
The cost of not conforming is higher than ever, financially and personally. Some doctors suggest that the overdiagnosis of ADHD and similar disorders is linked to the discomfort experienced by people who want a label to explain why they don’t have the personal characteristics demanded by our society’s narrow vision of success.
Meanwhile, the hobbyless, the dull, the impeccably CV-ed, the workaholic chino-wearers march ahead. One day the best of them will be rich enough to buy a piano that draws attention to the fact they are so hardworking and successful they have outsourced the pursuit of artistic pleasure to a robot.
James Marriott is the deputy books editor for The Times of London