Jonah Lehrer:

I’m waiting in line for a cappuccino. It’s gonna be a good one: short, intense, the foamed milk emulsified with the syrupy shot. I glance up from my phone and look around at the cafe. It is, for lack of a better adjective, a hipster joint. There are the artfully branded items for sale (T-shirts, espresso cups, etc.) and a long list of single varietal beans. Hot water is being poured out of sleek Japanese kettles; the baristas are wearing fedoras. And then I look at the other people in line. I notice their costumes: the slim dark jeans, flannel shirts, scuffed boots, designy glasses, mussed hair. Everyone is staring down at the gadget in their hands. They all look like me. I look like them. This is the definition of self-loathing.

I mean no disrespect. I’m a sucker for single-varietals. I own one of the Japanese kettles. Right now, I’m wearing that branded T-shirt from my coffee place. What interests me, however, is the irony of the situation. Here we all are, seeking uniqueness, looking for those things that neatly express the idiosyncrasy of our peculiar personalities. And yet, our uniqueness (at least as consumers) is mostly a sham. Somehow, we all end up in the same place, chasing the same trends while drinking the same drink while staring at the same app on the same phone.

Isaiah Berlin identified the period following the death of Aristotle as an important one in the development of Western concepts of individuality, when the philosophical schools “ceased to conceive of individuals as intelligible only in the context of social life…and suddenly spoke of men purely in terms of inner experience and individual salvation.” He specifically credited the ancient sophist Antiphon and Diogenes with reacting against the social life of the polis with the idea of independence meaning freedom leading to happiness. The individual rather than the group became the natural unit, ethics were the ethics of the individual, and privacy became a new value.

Peter Watson said that “In all cases, then, we have, centering on the sixth century BC, but extending 150 years either side, a turning away from a pantheon of many traditional ‘little’ gods, and a great turning inward, the emphasis put on man himself, his own psychology, his moral sense or conscience, his intuition and his individuality.” Colin Morris called the “discovery of the individual” one of the most important cultural developments between the years 1050 and 1200, one which seemed to correlate with a fundamental change in Christianity. And John Benton claimed that an increase in self-esteem during this period, along with a larger verbal and visual vocabulary for concepts of selfhood, led to the age of discovery and the Renaissance.

So our conceptions of individuality itself have been a long work in progress, to understate it mildly. But I would imagine that the sort of individuality that Lehrer is talking about, one that primarily identifies the self with expression through consumer products, is much more recent. Authors like Thomas Frank and Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter have argued that the urge to differentiate oneself through owning the newest and the rarest commodities is actually the driving force behind rapacious consumerism, rather than the usual conception of consumers being a mindless herd of people all wanting to be just like everyone else. The emphasis on external signifiers, of which there can only be so many variations, after all, as opposed to internal experience, is what causes this silly kind of hipster angst.