The Aggregate: America’s Most Famous Survey // Art and the Experience Economy
“Aggregate is a unique word. As a noun, it indicates different elements brought together in the same place. As a verb, it seeks to collect and assemble disparate pieces to create a more cohesive whole. This column seeks to do both of those things; breaking down some important stories in print journalism each week and presenting them in more bite-sized pieces.”
This week’s edition has one foot in the past and one foot in the future; we’re stepping away from the present to visit two thought-provoking takes on where we’ve been, and where we’re headed.
The U.S. Census: The History of Documenting History
The New Yorker – Ted Widmer, “How the Census Changed America”
This article comes to us from The New Yorker, where Ted Widmer recounts the long and complicated history of what seems like a fairly straightforward questionnaire. Aside from being an interesting history lesson about the most famous survey in America, this article teaches about the census as an important tool for democracy, and shines a light on the times when the census was a means for even broader change and reform to occur throughout the country. What may seem like a series of trivial questions that could be found on any other type of government document has actually been one of the most impactful sources for change, as well as a beacon for the importance of meaningful representation in America’s complex history.
“[T]he census is, more than it might seem, a mirror of our politics. It has always reflected the promise and prejudices of our country, and its story drives to the heart of the Constitution—indeed, to its very first three words. Who are we, the people?”
Widmer points out that counting the people of the United States in a census was not a point of interest until after the Revolutionary War, when the Founders wrote into the Constitution that the government must take stock of its people every ten years. These instructions were weirdly specific for a document that has left so much of its language open to interpretation, and so the first census began:
“The act of counting rooted a rootless people. On the first Monday in August, 1790, U.S. marshals began to fan across the continent, enumerating everyone they could see. It was hard work. There were few rules, and some states needed extensions […] In the early days, the findings were not even published; they were simply posted, in each district, “at two of the most public places . . . to remain for the inspection of all concerned.”
This unorganized methodology would haunt the census-taking process for generations. Frustrations with archaic technology finally grew strong enough that a contest for more efficient methods of data collection was presented to the public, and the results of this contest would eventually influence society in massive, unforeseen ways:
“[Herman] Hollerith’s tabulator was a triumph. His energies were also drawn to the private sector, and Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company, which merged with other manufacturing companies to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. In 1924, it was renamed International Business Machines, or I.B.M.”
The Census’ ability to shape culture doesn’t end there. The haphazard preservation of the 1890 census led to its eventual destruction when the boiler room in which data cards were being stored caught fire.
“In the wake of the fire, the government began to reassess its responsibility to the past. In an op-ed, the Washington Post argued that new steps were needed to protect the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which were then kept in wooden cabinets at the old State Department. The idea of a National Archives also emerged in response to the disaster […] we have no choice but to honor the precise instructions of the Founders. They knew that self-government begins with self-understanding.”
The Census spurned great inventions and kickstarted efforts for preservation of the nation’s history, but above all else, it reminds the people of the United States that the country is a dynamic and rapidly changing one– and always has been. The ability to take stock and make changes accordingly is a valuable process, and the growth and development of the census-taking process itself shows that democracy is never a stagnant entity. The past is made highly accessible through documents like the Census, and a nation that makes an effort to stay close to and make sense of its past is far more prepared to deal with anything the future may hold.
Meow Wolf: Art for the Future
The New York Times Magazine – Rachel Monroe, “Can an Art Collective Become the Disney of the Experience Economy?”
This article from The New York Times Magazine brings us an in-depth feature of the Santa Fe-based art collective known as Meow Wolf. You may not recognize their name, but their work has served as inspiration for some of the highly recognizable ‘Instagramable’ spaces popping up around the world in what is increasingly referred to as the “experience economy.” Rachel Monroe spends an extended amount of time with a handful of these collective founders, and chronicles some of the endeavors that brought them from a disjointed jumble of local artists to a wildly popular and rapidly developing business venture. Monroe explores the people and the technology at work behind the scenes in the experience economy, and through this intimate portrait of Meow Wolf, readers are able to grapple with changing ideas about space and how people are relearning to interact with the world around them in the age of technology. Let’s start at the beginning:
“[W]hat’s sometimes called “the experience economy” [is] the idea that, when it’s possible to buy or watch virtually anything online, the only way to get people to leave their houses and spend money is to offer them a fresh, surprising experience.”
This kind of experience is precisely what these interactive spaces aim to provide. Many of these spaces are a corporate undertaking behind an artistic facade – a way to generate brand recognition and for companies to build social clout – Meow Wolf is the exact opposite. Their rags-to-riches tale makes them easy to cheer for, and their recent success indicate that this group of artistic outlaws may actually have a better feel for what the public craves than those in the mainstream.
Meow Wolf’s story echoes the classic start-up narrative, in which the brilliant underdogs make it big against improbable odds. Six years ago, the group was an anarchic collective of artists who were barely known outside Santa Fe, N.M., their hometown. They numbered a dozen, or a few dozen, depending on how you felt like counting, and were known for prankish installations and raucous warehouse parties. In the years since, as the group’s playful aesthetic has aligned with the market’s appetites, it has undergone a dizzying transformation. Meow Wolf has broken ground on a $60 million flagship project in Denver […] and signed on to build a three-story, 75,000-square-foot permanent installation in Washington.”
‘Instagramable’ spaces and interactive experiences at everyday locations definitely already exist, but they will most likely continue to expand as demand increases as well. Despite arising out of boredom and financial excess, the experience economy incentivizes interaction and engagement in a way that feels new and exciting to a generation raised on social media – which may ultimately be a force for good in efforts to get people to connect on a more organic level.
“In 1998, B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore announced in The Harvard Business Review the advent of what they called the experience economy. In an affluent society with an abundance of opportunities for consumption […] companies no longer distinguished themselves merely by the price or quality of their goods or services; instead, the new competitive advantage was providing a ‘distinct economic offering.’ […] Consumers increasingly expected an entertaining or interactive context in which to spend their money.”
Meow Wolf is a group of artists who have found an effective way to navigate the complicated space between art and industry. While there is some art influenced by industry and some industry influenced by art, Meow Wolf has found a way to operate that does not necessarily fit either of those molds. They are just one example of ways that traditional boundaries between spaces, ideas, and people are rapidly dissolving and reforming in far less concrete ways. A society with the ability to move and think more freely between all of these spaces is perhaps the best suited society – being interdisciplinary, adaptable, and resourceful – to deal with the complex and unprecedented problems that younger generations have to face head-on. A lesson to the STEM loving parents of the world (among other skeptics), maybe it is worth paying college tuition to study art, after all.
Thanks so much for reading, and we’ll see you again next week.