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Society of Mind

5.5 fashion and style

Why do we like so many things that seem to us to have no earthly use? We often speak of this with mixtures of defensiveness and pride.

Why do we take refuge in such vague, defiant declarations? There's no accounting for it sounds like a guilty child who's been told to keep accounts. And I just like it sounds like a person who is hiding reasons too unworthy to admit. However, we often do have sound practical reasons for making choices that have no reasons by themselves but have effects on larger scales.

Recognizability: The legs of a chair work equally well if made square or round. Then why do we tend to choose our furniture according to systematic styles or fashions? Because familiar styles make it easier for us to recognize and classify the things we see. Uniformity: If every object in a room were interesting in itself, our furniture might occupy our minds too much. By adopting uniform styles, we protect ourselves from distractions. Predictability: It makes no difference whether a single car drives on the left or on the right. But it makes all the difference when there are many cars! Societies need rules that make no sense for individuals.

It can save a lot of mental work if one makes each arbitrary choice the way one did before. The more difficult the decision, the more this policy can save. The following observation by my associate, Edward Fredkin, seems important enough to deserve a name:

Fredkin's Paradox: The more equally attractive two alternatives seem, the harder it can be to choose between them — no matter that, to the same degree, the choice can only matter less.

No wonder we often can't account for taste — if it depends on hidden rules that we use when ordinary reasons cancel out! I do not mean to say that fashion, style, and art are all the same — only that they often share this strategy of using forms that lie beneath the surface of our thoughts. When should we quit reasoning and take recourse in rules of style? Only when we're fairly sure that further thought will just waste time. Perhaps that's why we often feel such a sense of being free from practicality when we make aesthetic choices. Such decisions might seem more constrained if we were aware of how they're made. And what about those fleeting hints of guilt we sometimes feel for just liking art? Perhaps they're how our minds remind themselves not to abandon thought too recklessly.