The Age of Un-Useless
Having been to Japan recently, and lamentably found myself forced, after just two short weeks, to return home to my western day job, I thought I’d take a moment to celebrate my Japanese hero, Kenji Kawakami, founder of the art of Chindogu: the un-useless invention. For it seems to be the case that, more than 20 years since Kawakami first lit up the world with his beguiling nonsense, life has once again imitated art and has, once again, ended up getting things horribly, horribly wrong.
The key to the un-useless invention is that, on first glance, it appears potentially useful or taps into a pain-point with which we vaguely empathise. It’s only on further reflection that we realise the invention isn’t really any sort of upgrade on how we’re doing things already.
From the toilet-roll hat to the extendo-spoon, Chindogu is both intriguing to behold as well as revelatory; its beauty, ingenuity and utter pointlessness tell us something about the meaning of life, which is why Chindogu is also considered a philosophy. Indeed, it is underpinned by ten central tenets, amongst them such gems as, ‘Chindogu are tools for everyday life,’ ‘Humour must be the sole reason for creating Chindogu,’ and, ‘Chindogu are without prejudice…These inventions should be equally (almost) useless to everyone who sees them.’
Chindogu had its heyday back in the 90s (I remember it from quirky CBBC science and technology show ‘It’ll Never Work’) but it’s a philosophy worth reflecting on when considering prevailing western attitudes towards problem-solving and a contemporary culture in which people genuinely believe Dollar Shave Club is an innovation we need in our lives.
People use #firstworldproblems as an effective shorthand for acknowledging privilege, but it’s also a useful barometer for measuring our sheer incompetence as residents of this planet. Compared to other species, we citizens of the first world are rapidly degenerating into a gaggle of drooling fucktards.
All you need do is stick March of the Penguins on your on-demand, multi-device streaming service, to see a species with real problems. Most of the things we first-worlders complain about are not problems at all. They are nothings; the vapid ramblings of people who simply lack anything remotely worthwhile to protest about.
The reason we do not need a handbag-sized butter stick is because the transportation and spreading of butter is not a problem. And this is fine because Chindogu is a celebration of the art of useless. Where things become actually problematic is the commercialisation of such pointless endeavours, a pursuit that directly contravenes at least two of the central tenets of Chindogu – that a Chindogu cannot be for real use, and that Chindogu are not tradable commodities.
So many companies springing up around us today are in the business of creating Chindogu, built to solve non-problem problems for financial gain. Companies that manage your Airbnb property on your behalf (for a handsome cut of course), companies that deliver surprise novelty homeware direct to your door (unbelievably, this is a real subscription service). Whatever the minor inconvenience, however minimal the value-add, you can bet there’s a start-up out there to service the need, some wannabe entrepreneur that thinks such a pointless contribution to human endeavour could be the get-rich-quick scheme they’ve been searching for.
This is, of course, what happens when reality TV mentality supplants actual entrepreneurialism. The goal is no longer to improve the world; it’s to scratch the entitlement itch that constantly reinforces the message that we too are automatically deserved of our day in the sunshine alongside the synchronised pastry chefs, canine hypnotists and every other moron that has managed to strike it rich without actually demonstrating a modicum of bona fide talent.
And so we arrive at a culture of faux entrepreneurialism perpetuating a golden age of un-useless. Spot something that needs ‘solving’? There’s your ticket to fame and fortune! Who cares whether it’s a real problem or not? So long as there’s the possibility of a feckless multinational you can flog the idea to in five years’ time, you’re laughing all the way to the venture capital house.
What this all means is that if we do happen to spot something that genuinely needs fixing – a flawed sales process, a confusing customer journey – no one thinks to give feedback to the responsible party so that they might set about improving things. Nope, instead we focus our efforts on disrupting their entire industry and putting the fuckers out of business.
Based on the current direction of travel, entire economies are going to be built upon the un-useless, reliant upon business leaders that either cannot discern a genuinely good idea from an idea that *might* make them some money, or that simply don’t care. All of which is so far from the central tenets of Chindogu that it’s barely worth thinking about, and leads me to conclude by saying, I applaud you Kawakami-san for your beautiful philosophy; you could not have known that it would give rise to such a tidal wave of shit.