Sunday, April 5, 2009


One of the most misunderstood words in our language is "objective." It stems from grammar: the basic form of a simple sentence such as "I saw Juan" has as its components the subject ("I"), the object ("Juan"), and the transitive verb ("saw"). So the idea that something is "objective" means that it, like Juan, stands outside of me, is something that I can regard or act upon without self-impact. When we use it as an evaluative term, "objective" implies that, since the phenomenon is separate from me and my interests, I can regard it without judgment or favor, and merely report on its factual characteristics. (Something "subjective," then, is so bound up with the subject — me — that I can't separate myself from it. I have a stake in it, a preference for it, and so my description is likely to be tainted by my self-interests.)

Quantification is an especially valued marker of objectivity. Something has a specific weight, height, density, duration, cost, chemical content, and so on. If we report those numerical descriptors, we can say that we have been objective, since its weight is its weight regardless of who describes it.

But numbers can sometimes be remarkably subjective. A few days ago, I was sitting in a corporate conference room on the 12th floor of a Boston office tower. The firm in whose conference room I was sitting was one of those distinctly bow-tie Boston financial outfits that specialize in making old money even older. (Its Beacon Hill predecessors had played a special role in colonizing my home state, funding -- and claiming most of the profits from -- the copper mining that gave Michigan's Upper Peninsula its primary reason for European habitation.) Trading rooms lined the hallways, each with its television in the upper corner streaming CNBC or Bloomberg stock-exchange feeds.

Those of us assembled for the buffet lunch were not of the high-finance persuasion. We were instead academics and college administrators, advertising people, high school teachers and students. So our host had to make explicit something that went unsaid in that building every minute of every day. He said, "I worship at the altar of the free market."

No surprise there, though one might equally substitute "trough" for "altar," but never mind. The surprise was a move to the "objective," through the following statement:
The average American family's quality of life is over ninety times that of the average American family of 1776. We'll soon have a quality of life that is more than a hundred times greater.
First to note the distinctly Bostonian, first-families reference to "1776." Yeah, your ancestors signed the Declaration, get over it. But I noticed that only half a minute after I noticed the first thing, which was that our quality of life is ninety times larger than it once was. I had a sort of small synaptic seizure when I heard this, a vapor-lock of the brain. Are we 90x as happy as the Colonials? Do we live 90x as long? Are we having 90x as much sex, or 90x as much religious ecstasy, or 90x as much yogic meditative peace? Does our corn taste 90x better? Is our work 90x more satisfying? Do we hang out 90x as long at the village tavern, playing 90x more music and 90x more games of darts over our 90x more pints of ale? I had a hard time listening to the next fifteen minutes of introductions and platitudes, because I was trying to get my head around this 90x thing.

A standard of living 90x that of two centuries ago. Not 75x, and not 136x, but 90x, and on its way to 100x. That's pretty precise. Seemingly objective. The problem, obviously, lies in the precision of some numerical observation and the remarkably subjective definition of "standard of living" to stand for (inflation-indexed, averaged across the population, based on a six-week rolling mean, blah blah blah) how much money we have. Or, rather, how many things we have and how much they cost. Now, that's not a surprising yardstick to be applied on the 12th floor of a capital-services tower, but it's anything but objective. It's the winners' judgment, since it's how they define their success, and since they take home so much more of that money than you and I do. (That's one of the common errors of averaging when you have a broad range; the old joke is that Bill Gates walked into a bar and the average income was suddenly over $100 million a year...)

But you and I might hold different definitions of "quality of life," having to do with love and bad jokes and good ideas. Reducing quality of life to someone's averaged share of the Gross Domestic Product makes it simultaneously measurable and meaningless.
But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. — Robert F. Kennedy, Address to the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968.


Sarah511 said...

I'm reading your book, Landscape..., and I love it. I found it in the basement of my house in Portland. It's even got a dedication in it to Chris Henry. Don't be mad at Chris for leaving it. There were a lot of boxes of various things left in the basement. I got lucky that your book was left. I'm wondering about the idea of a new version of sorts. I worked at bar from 2000 to 2006 and watched the whole kind of evolution of the social networking thing. All of the sudden kids were coming to shows, all ages shows in the afternoon, and not talking to each other anymore. They'd say "I'll myspace you later." instead of having a conversation with the person right next to them. That was the beginning. A couple of months ago a friend of mine - he is 6 years younger than me in his mid late 20's - got broken up with on myspace by his 21 year old kind of girlfriend. I guess what I'm trying to get at is that I think the book has a new addendum or something. And I'd like to be a part of writing or researching or whatever. And again. I really love your book. It's not only a fascinating and totally new kind of looking at this thing called growing up, but it's fun to read and heartbreaking and just great.

Herb Childress said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Herb Childress said...

Hi, Sarah511. Thanks for your kind comments about Landscapes... I think it's fabulous that you discovered it in such an unexpected way. It's clearly found its way into good hands.

I taught at Duke from 02-06, and saw the origins of Facebook. But I also asked my students how many of them had ever texted or IM'd someone in the same room, and it was more than a third of them. Sometimes even in their own dorm room, four feet away from their roommate. I see lots of girls walking down Newbury Street, ostensibly in pairs but each holding her own independent cell conversation. We've invented lots of ingenious ways to be together when we're alone, but I think they can also make us alone when we're together.

Shoot me an e-mail at the Boston Architectural College and we'll talk more. And thanks again.