As I sit, I can feel the shop wondering why I sit here judging it, unwilling to admit that a café might just be a café, or that this chair might just be a chair. And as I enter minute 100 or so, sniffing around for inauthenticity, it occurs to me that I’ve been doing this the whole trip, and perhaps my whole life, so intent on finding the hypocrisy or hidden agendas in everyone and everything that I neglect to simply take things as they are.
As a child, I would spurn recommendations from waiters and waitresses because I was convinced what they were recommending was either relatively more lucrative for them or close to going bad so they needed to unload it. Now I’m doing the same: analyzing the lamps and the chairs and the wood and the jars in an effort to make sure I’m not being played. Maybe growing up in a touristy area conditioned me, but then again, not everyone who grows up where I did does this.
As people filter in and out ordering food and coffee I realize that they may be doing it not because they’re trying to look a certain way or fulfill a certain aesthetic but because maybe they’re just hungry or tired, and I realize I have no idea what’s authentic and what’s not and I’m not sure anyone else does either. I know when something feels authentic. This café, after all, “feels authentic,” but in labeling it as such, I’ve begun the process of rendering it decidedly not. Something can be labeled “authentic” and remain so for a time, but only as long as the characteristics that make it so (reclaimed wood) are not then repurposed to sell more stuff or hire more people (exposed ductwork, Ping-Pong tables, etc.).
And of course, the cases of that happening are fewer and farther between with each passing day; the preservation of an authentically-forged trait, after all, would mean fewer flat whites Starbucks could sell, or a lower star rating on Airbnb. (God forbid.)
We appear to have reached a point where authenticity has become so marketable that the delay between a trait existing authentically and being identified and reclaimed by the markets is so small that it may as well not exist. It did not take long, after all, for large corporations to adopt the “exposed ductwork” aesthetic, a characteristic of startups not because it was cool or because it appealed to employees, but rather because the opportunity cost of covering up the ductwork would’ve been a month’s worth of runway.
The idea of authenticity, then — at once a result of availability and affordability, of budget constraints and relative scarcity — is eroded by the mechanism hailed as one of humanity’s greatest achievements, the mechanism that pits traits and ideas and aesthetics against one another and determines what works and what doesn’t, and sits at the heart of economics: markets.
Authenticity exists now only momentarily, swept up in hashtags and photographs that alert everyone else to what works so they might profit — until it no longer does, at which point there will be something else.