The Selfie Stick: From uselessness to must have

By now you all must have heard about the “selfie stick”, literally a stick made so that people can take better selfies, which itself is a quite recent phenomena. Well, it turns out that recently people in the internet have found out that years before the popularity of the invention, the “selfie stick” was already present in a book of “useless Japanese inventions“, published in 1995 to showcase a lot of humorous inventions made in Japan that anyone at that time would find useless.

What can we make out of that? Can we say that their interpretation was wrong all along and what was deemed as useless was in fact a multimillionaire invention? Or should we say that this just proves that today’s society worship the useless, and that in fact the selfie-stick is as useless and ridiculous as the book have told us?

I would prefer to say that the “selfie stick” teaches us a lesson in the historicity of values.

What is it that makes something come from the book of uselessness to the ultimate must have item of today?
Well, perhaps we should take a look at the societies that produced these different evaluations.

For starters, 1995 was not exactly considered the age of internet. Digital cameras were not exactly as popular as now, and even less were cellphone cameras, let alone smartphones. The world of interconnectedness was a far away concept that had little feasibility in those times.

For an author born in the late 80s such as myself, I remember going to the store to get the pictures revealed by a professional in order to take a look at how the photos we took in our camera turned out to look like. So, given that, it is indeed a strange idea to imagine a stick that can take a picture of yourself.

But this is not only about technology, for there was also no need to take a picture of yourself. After all, the means of showing pictures around would have to be inviting everyone over a photo album to look at it, and even that was considered a rather personal activity.

Now fast forward to today’s society. The society of online social networking. The society of the food pictures, the #Hashtags, the geo-tags, and more to our point, the selfie.

The selfie has emerged as a phenomena in an age in which most of us has grown accustomed to produce permanent, yet ever-changing, portfolios of ourselves. The selfie came about as a territorial demarcation in the age of mobility. A photographic veni, vidi, vici.  As if to say “I was there, here is the proof!”.

It is the age of experience marketing, the immaterial economy that consumes lifestyles rather than just products. But more than that, that advertises ourselves as having certain lifestyles, or more precisely, as having many lifestyles.

Given that, it is not hard to comprehend how an invention such as the “selfie stick” has moved from the Japanese book of useless inventions, and into the shelves of most stores around the globe.
Truth is, none of them were wrong, but they were both right from their epoch’s point of view.

Now, you may still want to say that a “selfie stick” remains an useless invention. But the truth is, it is certainly useful from the point of view of giving the needed tools to a society that demands our image to be constantly online, always updated, always somewhere new or doing something different.

Translate that into Japanese urban society and the news about individualization summed with hyper-marketization of human relations, and you get extra points of usefulness!

As someone that has been living in Tokyo for years, I grew accustomed (to a certain extent) to seeing stores that sell human-contact by the hour. For those who are already familiar with the image of Host and Hostess bars in which people pay someone to flirt and talk to them at a bar, I would say this is just the tip of the iceberg. Tokyo has also produced Dating games, that now with the gps technology of the 3DS portable consoles allows gamers to take their games for a walk, or going on a trip with them, all with corresponding reactions from the in-game girl. There is also places where you can pay by the time for someone to look you in the eyes, blow into your ear, pet your hair, and so on.

Another feature, as I indicated above, is the marketization of yourself into a permanent hyper-connected portfolio.
Linkedin, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and even a blog such as this one, are shortcuts into someone’s self-identity.
Thus the selfie becomes an apparatus of identity making. A powerful tool to those who need to create a marketable identity of themselves in a growing networked, connected, and marketed world.

For that, the “selfie-stick” is, indeed, a Japanese useless invention from 1995, that couldn’t be more useful for today’s society. As for me, I’m curious to see which next invention might make out of our categories of uselessness and into the world of must haves. Do you have any guesses?

Selfie stick


One thought on “The Selfie Stick: From uselessness to must have

  1. My reply will provide information about the person who created the selfie stick and the idea behind the useless objects by trying to dialogue with the post.

    Kenji Kawakami, born in 1946, coined the term “chindogu” 「珍道具」, which literally means “unusual instrument” (or “unuseless”), in the 1980s, when he was writing an article for a particular magazine (he does not mention the title in the interviews he gave). Kawakami is author of more than 700 inventions, among them the “must have” selfie stick.

    The inventor studied Aerospace Engineering in the 1960s, but dropped out during the students’ protests that was taking place at that time. He confessed that the leftist ideology greatly influenced him, becoming the tenets of the chindogu. Yes, the chindogu is not just about random and stupid artefacts. Actually it is seem as “contemporary art”, even being labeled as a “new form of dadaism” [1]. The objective of this reply is to explain what is the chindogu and what lies behind this phenomenon, of which the selfie stick is one product.

    According to Kawakami, chindogu “are tools that wind up being more inconvenient than convenient” [1]. A good example is the “toilet paper hat”, or the “electric fork”: they do solve you a practical problem, but create new ones because they are too inconvenient or may be source of embarrassment exposing the user to ridiculous situations. This point, the embarrassment and the ridiculous, is important to the case of the selfie stick: not only the invention turned out to be useful because of the already explained reasons (as an artefact that fits perfectly in our “urban-individualized-hyper-marketized society”, as detailed by Rafael), but also because the downsides of the invention were neutralized. Nowadays, it seems that to take selfies using the stick is not so inconvenient as it was in the 1990s in Japan (at least for some people!). However, we cannot fall into the trap and conclude that in the 1990s Japanese people were not part of an “urban-individualized-hyper-marketized society”; surely they were (as any other western society), but a fundamental component in today’s society is the constitution of an “online social networking”, as argued in the post.

    The interesting part of this history is that Kawakami elaborated “ten principles” for the chindogu, giving philosophical rationale to his art (borrowed from this blog[2]):

    1. Chindogu Cannot Be For Real Use

    It is fundamental to the spirit of Chindogu that inventions claiming Chindogu status must be, from a practical point of view, (almost) completely useless. If you invent something which turns out to be so handy that you use it all the time, then you have failed to make a Chindogu.

    2. Chindogu Must Exist

    You are not allowed to use a Chindogu, but it must be made. You have to be able to hold it in your hand and think “I can actually imagine someone using this. Almost.” In order to be useless, it must first be.

    3. Inherent In Every Chindogu Is The Spirit Of Anarchy

    Chindogu are man-made objects that have broken free from the chains of usefulness. They represent freedom of thought and action: the freedom to challenge the suffocating historical dominance of conservative utility; the freedom to be (almost) useless.

    4. Chindogu Are Tools For Everyday Life

    Chindogu are a form of nonverbal communication understandable to everyone, everywhere. Specialized or technical inventions, like a three-handled sprocket loosener for drainpipes centered between two under-the sink cabinet doors (the uselessness of which will only be appreciated by plumbers), do not count.

    5. Chindogu Are Not For Sale

    Chindogu are not tradable commodities. If you accept money for one you surrender your purity. They must not even be sold as a joke.

    6. Humor Must Not Be The Sole Reason For Creating A Chindogu

    The creation of Chindogu is fundamentally a problem-solving activity. Humor is simply the by-product of finding an elaborate or unconventional solution to a problem that may not have been that pressing to begin with.

    7. Chindogu Is Not Propaganda

    Chindogu are innocent. They are made to be used, even though they cannot be used. They should not be created as a perverse or ironic comment on the sorry state of mankind.

    8. Chindogu Are Never Taboo

    The international Chindogu society has established certain standards of social decency. Cheap sexual innuendo, humor of a vulgar nature, and sick or cruel jokes that debase the sanctity of living things are not allowed.

    9. Chindogu Cannot Be Patented

    Chindogu are offerings to the rest of the world, they are not therefore ideas to be copyrighted, patented, collected, and owned. They must be freely available for use by everyone.

    10. Chindogu Are Without Prejudice

    Chindogu must never favor one race or religion over another. Young and old, male and female, rich and poor, all should have a free and equal chance to enjoy each and every Chindogu.

    The principles are clear crystal. Kawakami, in his interviews [1] [3], declares that the “anarchic spirit” is essential to chindogu. When someone think and creates an object that has (almost) no utility at all, he or she is going against the mentality instilled by capitalism, where everything that goes to the market to be traded have use-value.
    Considering that capitalism has the capacity to attach value to everything by creating or imposing necessities, it is reasonable why Kawakami stipulated laws prohibiting the commodification and patenting of his inventions. That is why chindogu can be understood as art, or as a creative act that gives shape to the unthinkable in our pragmatic society; “an intellectual game to stimulate anarchic minds” [1].

    An unwritten rule is that Kawakami never works with digital devices. Instead, he prefers to rely on analog mechanisms [1]: “Inventions can be designed digitally or in analog. Chindogu are all designed analog. With digital design, it is like putting input into a black box and getting output, but without seeing the process in the middle. But with analog design, you can see the process, right? For example, in the children’s TV program Pythagora Switch you can see their Rube Goldberg Machines that take a marble through a very complex maze, and you can see everything. I think that kind of thing is very interesting.”

    Rather than resorting to “black box technology”, the inventor follows the route of the materials and their materiality in order to “enjoy the process” and feel the experience of handling such devices (see the example of the electronic dictionary and the conventional one here [3]).

    A question that remains unanswered refers to how his inventions became commodities. An easy and good answer would be that since he does not patent his creations other people may claim the legal rights over his inventions.
    Actually, the selfie stick is just one of his products that hit the market. The “floor moppers” is now a product found at Japanese department stores and online stores, such as Amazon Japan, Kakaku and Rakuten (try to google モップスリッパ or mopper slipper). Another example is the “arm pillow”.
    This tells us that even “unuseless” devices are open systems, as contended by philosopher Gilbert Simondon. The technicality of an object has not to do with its automation or level of technology employed in its production, but with the “margins of indetermination” – different uses and applications that a device may have or acquire.

    Ironically, an artefact conceived by an anarchic mind turned out to be a must have device that sustains the selfie, or as Rafael puts, “the apparatus of identity making” in times of a growing network.
    I am not sure how Kawakami feels about this situation. He could be laughing, not because of the absurdity of his inventions, but because people found utility based on a selfish practice that he tried to combat through the chindogu. The absurdity is not inherently to objects, but to ourselves as well.

    p.s.: this reply is not a critic towards those who use or have a selfie stick. Actually, I think that the stick helps when it offers a better angulation to take pics. The whole provocation is not about the efficacy of the device, but in which context it acquired importance.

    *References and further reading




    Simondon, Gilbert. (1980). On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects.

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