#148: Steady Diet of Nothing

Last week I linked to this piece by Molly Fischer about the “Millennial aesthetic” (published in March 2020 but new to me). You can probably conjure an immediate mental image of said aesthetic, but if not, the article describes it vividly. One of its basic qualities, embodied in its hard lines, bright colors, and sans-serif typography, is legibility. Fischer writes: “‘Instagrammable’ is a term that does not mean ‘beautiful’ or even quite ‘photogenic’; it means something more like ‘readable.’ The viewer could scroll past an image and still grasp its meaning, e.g., ‘I saw fireworks,’ ‘I am on vacation,’ or ‘I have friends.’” Obviously, the need for more of our environment to become Instagrammable follows from the fact that software increasingly filters our perception of that environment (especially during a pandemic). But Fischer’s description invokes another possibility: that the aesthetic’s true audience, for whom readability matters even more, is the software itself. Those brief descriptions—I saw fireworks, I’m on vacation—sound like tags for posts that a machine would have no trouble classifying. After more than a decade of digital brain-smoothing, it’s difficult to say who has more appetite for nuance, the users or the computers.

Every medium’s affordances exert a powerful, even inescapable, influence upon the content that the medium conveys. Platforms like Instagram feel reductive enough on their own, when they’re just mirroring the world around them, but even more so when they amass hundreds of millions of users and their logic actually starts shaping the design of meatspace. Twitter’s version of this, although verbal rather than visual, is no less powerful: not just the homogenization of language into modular phrases like “I don’t know who needs to hear this…” but the simplification of ideas into one-liners that get passed around and hardened into memes. The discourse around every complex issue that goes through the Twitter meat grinder eventually simplifies around a few Schelling points, which usually happen to be one-line ideas that fit within a single tweet (the current debate about crime in San Francisco, which has mutated into a referendum on the district attorney, is one recent example of that process). If this is merely how we talk today, it’s how we’ll think tomorrow. Finally, a situation that’s actually Orwellian. The more time I spend online, the more I feel my brain turning ocher and seafoam, with beveled edges and a sans-serif internal monologue.

As long as we’re spending unprecedented amounts of time homebound and online, we’re more likely than ever to see the world as a series of memes. Bruce Sterling wrote this week, “Mostly I stare, point and click at the tumult of the news, but since it's all filtered through a glass screen and I don't venture out physically to mix it up with the tenor of the times, it doesn't inspire me. I pay a lot of attention to the deeds of the world, and I annotate it, and I analyze it, but I don't much feel like writing about it, or, really, writing about much of anything.” As the stasis of January solidifies, I can relate to that. It’s been easy for me to find newsletter topics during the pandemic because my beat has always been our coexistence in physical and digital space, and this year has been rich with material, but the longer the outside world stands still, the more I feel like I’m only responding to the simulacrum, helping to pass the memes around, toiling away in the content mines. I’ve started to suspect that this feeling doesn’t have much to do with access to reality—do we ever really have that?—but instead is a vertigo induced by spending too much time online in designed environments (social media platforms). Sanford Kwinter has written that “we are hectored mercilessly by design, swathed in its miasma of artificial affectation, hyperstyle and micro-human-engineering that anticipates, like a subtle reflex arc, our every move and gesture. Design has now penetrated to, even threatens to replace, the existential density, the darkness, the slow intractable mystery of what was once the human social world…Design has become us; it is, alas, what we are.” Molly Fischer’s ultimate characterization of the Millennial aesthetic was that it too has become ubiquitous—that design legitimizes objects and makes us believe they’re real. We’ve been immersed in that milieu for so long that when we finally get out, everything else might be invisible.

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