#113: Room at the Top

“Race to the bottom” is a phrase that usually describes the effects of globalization—the degradation of wages and working conditions that occurs when localized markets formerly insulated from one another by regulatory boundaries are suddenly thrust into competition within a newly emergent, larger-scale market. Beyond free trade, races to the bottom characterize many of the economic, social, and cultural upheavals we’ve observed over the past few decades, as the internet eliminates informational borders: What is journalistic clickbait if not another kind of race to the bottom? If an unfettered worldwide market makes certain things inexorably worse, though, it also produces an equivalent and equally familiar drive to make other things better: Theoretically, the same globalized competition that is so harsh on the supply side works wonders on the demand side, yielding unprecedented quality, variety, and affordability in consumer products. There’s plenty of room at the bottom, as Richard Feynman said, but at the top, we only see the winners that manage to squeeze into the available slots, which create an illusion of widespread success that is best appreciated from the consumer perspective.

The above should be fairly obvious after a couple of extremely online decades: In domain after domain, we’ve crested the local maximum in pursuit of the global. But a global marketplace encompassing a multitude of local ones is different in kind, not just in degree, and the incorporation of one into the other transforms the landscape of the local. Jia Tolentino recently examined the phenomenon of “Instagram face,” or “the gradual emergence, among professionally beautiful women, of a single, cyborgian face.” An array of tools have emerged for engineering one’s own Instagram face, ranging from simple selfie filters and photo-editing apps like FaceTune to actual plastic surgery, which has also gained popularity. “People are absolutely getting prettier,” a celebrity makeup artist tells Tolentino—but that qualitative improvement requires the mass-market homogenization that only a totalizing incentive structure can encourage. As the internet terraforms culture, not even our faces and bodies can withstand its influence.

Whether faces on Instagram or music on Spotify, the platforms’ incentives and the shape of the market they establish both have a curious effect on the content we produce for them (if our faces are content). It’s increasingly apparent that a cultural flattening has accompanied the technological changes of the past century, a transition sometimes described as the decline of formerly unavoidable regionalism or weirdness. We usually attribute that flattening to pure connectivity—infrastructure ranging from interstate highways to television to the internet put us all in contact with the same information, thus standardizing the world. But that’s only the consumption side, and doesn’t fully explain why cultural production should also become standardized (except to the extent that the producers themselves are influenced by what they consume). Tolentino’s piece implies a more fundamental dynamic at work: Instagram has massively expanded the population who can monetize their beauty, even if only modestly, in addition to providing a much larger group with a non-monetary form of positive reinforcement for attractiveness. Twenty years ago, most of us only had to look good for people we saw in person, and continuously improving our appearance had diminishing marginal returns. The local spaces we inhabited fully comprised the marketplace for that particular quality, and there were fewer opportunities to cash in. Now, in a way, there is more room at the top, but everything is the same when you get there.

Reads:

  • Who’s Watching Your Porch? Ring doorbells and how they reframe another part of meatspace as digital content. “Webcams first showed us one another’s computer rooms, and smartphones showed us the world’s faces. Ring cameras show us the world as seen from the front door.” (thanks Dan)

  • Your online activity is now effectively a social credit score. A report on new tools being developed by AirBnb describes how “traits such as “neuroticism and involvement in crimes” and “narcissism, Machiavellianism, or psychopathy” are “perceived as untrustworthy.”

  • Evan Collins documents “a strange wave of corporate cyber-cubist/surrealist-collage imagery in the 1990s” that I definitely remember. Worth a follow for all the obscure aesthetics he catalogs, and he’s also got some great Are.na channels.