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May 11th, 2021

By definition, frippery, or decoration is not useful, at least not directly.  But a thoughtful bit of frippery can be very effective.  Frippery is defined as specifically showy or unnecessary decoration.  The negative connotation is a bit ironic: isn’t all decoration by definition showy and unnecessary?  Unless perhaps there is a difference between first order effects and second and third order effects.


Switching gears for a moment, think about the fact that many languages apply a gender to nouns.  The gender often doesn’t even make sense when there is an opportunity to categorize things as male or female or neuter.  So what’s the reason?  In information theory, the reason why there isn this arbitrary identifier to nouns is to help with transfer fidelity.  For instance let’s say you didn’t hear the noun clearly when someone was speaking, but you did hear the article correctly which usually conveys the gender.  That gendered article would help you figure out exactly which word was being said.  Here’s an example.  In French the word for sea, or ocean and the word for mayor are homophones.  They sound identical.  But the word for ocean is feminine and the word for mayor is masculine.  Granted, in this case the context would likely be more powerful for determining exactly which noun was intended, but the gendered article which is often seen as a useless pain by students everywhere does carry some informational power.


To return to the more traditional form of frippery, which is often in the visual sense, the utility isn’t direct, but indirect: it often allows a viewer to understand a great deal about the attention paid to detail.  Arbitrary detail is still detail which requires some thought and effort, and this is what it conveys: the level of thought and effort that a creator was willing and able to put in.  Such frippery indicates: if someone was willing to pay attention to these useless details, then it’s likely they also pay attention to the useful and very important details.


This natural and intuitive logic can be inverted to subversive use.  A product or service can seem legitimate because someone has done a good job with the tasteful frippery that accompanies serious endeavours that care about communicating these sorts of things and still all the while, that product or service could be a scam.  This results in an interesting phenomenon that is painfully obvious on a platform like Instagram: people are faking lives far beyond their actual means to try and bootstrap their way into that sort of life via the leverage that comes with a large audience, which is more easily procured by broadcasting a lavish lifestyle.  It’s ‘fake it till you make it’ in the most superficial way imaginable. 


This brings up the issue of priorities.  While trying to build something, what should be the priority?  Details in the way something looks?  Or details in the way something works?  One is clearly more important.  If something doesn’t work than it’s literally useless, but that doesn’t make this a binary choice of importance.  Making something that works perfectly but doesn’t look like it works is a recipe for crickets, meaning, if the project doesn’t effectively signal to a potential audience what it does and how well it does it, then that audience may end up being no audience at all.

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Podcast Ep. 1122: Useful Frippery

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