No matter what’s your take on the United States, there is no denying that the country has been on the forefront of scientific and industrial progress for much of the past century. In that time frame alone, the nation’s research institutions and corporations have made countless fundamental contributions to almost every single aspect of contemporary technology – from polymer science, to computing, to aviation, to medicine, to nuclear power, to space exploration, to communications, to modern warfare.
Given the country’s track record of relentless innovation, one would expect its residents to be quick to embrace technological novelties and futuristic design trends. But when it comes to everyday living, I find that the opposite is often more true. Let’s take banking: many of my Polish friends recoil in terror when they find out that the world’s most sophisticated financial system still settles many private transactions by writing checks; that in stores, you usually swipe the magnetic strip and scribble your name on a piece of paper; or that sending a wire transfer usually involves a trip to your bank, a hefty fee, and waiting a couple of days.
For many of them, it must be equally perplexing to visit a typical well-off American home. Kitchens are a good example: in much of continental Europe, the standard of upscale kitchen architecture tends to revolve around sleek, sterile looks constructed out of flat panes of glass, steel, plastic, and concrete; the drawers and cabinets will cleverly blend in to reveal space-age appliances hidden inside. The kitchen is, in essence, the embodiment of technological progress and of modern design aesthetics.
In the US, the European school of design has gained some foothold in pricey downtown apartments targeted at the wealthy youth – but the dominant, all-American archetype looks nothing like it. Many of the newly-built houses will feature old-fashioned, bulky granite countertops and ornate but functionally basic colonial-style wooden carpentry; most of the fancy small appliances will feel like they were pulled straight out of the 30s, too. Decorative details, such as crown moldings, vaulted ceilings, and marble columns are thrown in to differentiate luxury developments from the housing available to the middle class. Elsewhere in the house, featureless top-loading washing machines and clunky upright vacuums are a common sight.
The contrast is interesting and difficult to explain; it’s certainly not that Americans are Luddites: they are quick to take lead with many types of utilitarian technologies. The country pioneered and popularized everything from refrigerators, to air conditioning, to dishwashers, to automatic transmission, to smartphones, to microwaves. It’s also not that the residents show special reverence to the traditions of the bygone days. Perhaps the utilitarian principle is key: it may be that consumers judge many of their purchases based the utility and lasting value of the durable goods, more than their novelty or the image said goods may project.
If so, the observation would fly in the face of the country’s reputation for rampant consumerism, a stereotype frequently contrasted with the meditated sophistry of Europe. But then, the conclusion may be overly broad: even within the United States, there are many interesting differences in how tangible goods are used to signal personal wealth. In Los Angeles or Miami, just like in much of Europe, luxury sports vehicles are a widely accepted symbol of affluence. In Silicon Valley, the practice is frowned upon, with many of the dot-com millionaires living in unassuming homes and driving fuel-efficient cars. Perhaps this is a matter of social conscience; perhaps of having different priorities; and perhaps simply of fearing that they would be vilified by the society.