With his concept of the tragedy of culture, Simmel explored how cultural objects, once they confront their users as external forces, often constrain our attempts to cultivate freedom and individuality. How do cars and computers allow us to fulfill some of our needs, while at the same time constraining our pursuit of independence and individual goals? What other cultural objects possess these opposing elements? How so Simmel’s views on such issues compare with those offered by Marx’s understanding of alienation and commodity fetishism?

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The phenomenon that Simmel describes occurs primarily when the intellectual component of an activity is usurped by a machine and becomes objectified in its mechanization.

In this case, a car per se might not particularly be guilty of this phenomenon. It arguably only mechanizes an already relatively mechanistic and repetitive process, the act of walking). The intellectual component primarily involved, i.e. navigation, could still remain entirely up to the driver.

However, considering the larger context of the car and our culture, we can find a number of things that might constitute grievous constraints on subjective culture: The GPS, for example, aims to provide the optimal route for us and does away with any active thinking or creativity on our part. Roads and traffic cones and barricades keep us in line, telling us where we can and cannot go. The order imposed by the flow of traffic and traffic lights also dictate the directionality, timing, and pacing of our movements. Landmark signs, repetitive patterns, and constricted areas all present in the city arguably limit to some degree the extent to which driving challenges our cognition.

With computers, there is the concern that humans off-load the mental burden of various tasks upon external objects. This phenomenon has existed for probably about as long as language has, albeit in simpler forms. Simpler forms of this would include innocent acts like writing a reminder on a post-it or jotting down a grocery list, carrying a book around to remember certain information, using a calculator to do our calculations for us, or asking somebody else to remind you or explain something.

But with computers, the sheer ability and depth of information that these machines posses raises the concern about our extent of dependence on it. A relevant and famous study here was the "Google Effects on Memory" study conducted by Betsy Sparrow. Sparrow studied how the computer and internet might affect cognitive abilities like memory. The primary takeaway was that people were less likely to remember things if they thought that information would be readily at hand. The problem is the internet has grown ubiquitously "at-hand."

Marx and Simmel's views on the subject of fetishism and alienation are comparatively similar, differing mostly on emphasis: Both of them believe that alienation is the improper separation between the self and an object, where the usual example is the self and the intellect. They both believe that fetishism is the object gone awry, independent, and tyrannical, to the effect that one is more likely to consider relations between objects rather than relations between selves (think about how you consider stores or merchants by the things they sell, and how you might be looked at based on things like your purchasing power).

Simmel was influenced by Marx so these similarities are unsurprising. The difference between Marx and Simmel is that Marx is more concerned broadly with how this phenomenon is produced historically by the existing socio-economic structure. He also wants to explore how this might be alleviated by re-organizing and revolutionizing material conditions leading to alienation. Simmel is more concerned with how these phenomena impinge upon the abilities and liberties of individuals, and how "objective culture" is overshadowing "subjective culture."

Some good examples of alienation and fetishism include the factory worker versus the craftsman; factory workers do not have any intellectual input in the outcome of the product. Another may be the consumer versus the designer. Consumers confront trends and styles as seemingly pre-existing objects independent of their own decisions. Taste is made for them, so becomes both a case of alienation and fetishism.

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