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The ongoing attack on Gaza is an atrocity and a humanitarian crisis. I wish it could go without saying but, as the casualties continue to pile up, affirming this using the small platform I have feels like the absolute least I can do. This is a complex situation but one aspect of it is simple: mass civilian death—on either side—is intolerable. A multitude of innocent Gazans will die today, tomorrow, and next week in response to Hamas’s vile act of terrorism. As Naomi Klein wrote last week, “Side with the child over the gun every single time, no matter whose gun and no matter whose child.”
Now back to regularly scheduled programming.
Yesterday, someone tweeted about a phone conversation in which his dad asked “What happened to movies where people look like shit? We used to have more of those!” (Apparently Leonardo DiCaprio looks like shit in Killers of the Flower Moon.) It’s not just movies. In countless domains—architecture, food, clothing, consumer products, advertising—much of the world looks less shitty than it used to, which is not the same as looking better, or being more interesting or useful. Pillars of the monoculture ranging from IKEA to A24 to minimalist AirSpace coffee shops and retail stores all present a consistent, pleasant face that too often masks an underlying mediocrity or flimsiness. Design has infused the contemporary environment, and we are increasingly immersed in that design’s “miasma of artificial affectation, hyperstyle, and micro-human-engineering,” as Sanford Kwinter once described it. Last year, an n+1 essay about present-day New York and similar global cities characterized their visual style as “drab sublime.” At the time, I wrote that this environment “isn’t exactly ugly—it is usually visually coherent and rarely bereft of aesthetic intention—but insubstantial, flat, and gray.” Instagram begets Instagram face; people and places grow more photogenic and refined but purged of the personality that emerges when something is just left alone. The alignment of everything via a global media infrastructure creates optimization opportunities that our ancestors couldn’t have imagined, and we seek the Un-Grammable Hang Zone as a relief from this visual sameness.
Image production has been one of the great beneficiaries of technological progress in recent decades. Our ability to represent and simulate reality has never been better—we can create any visual content we want—but the richness of our fantasy worlds seems increasingly decoupled from our agency in the material realm. Too often, our images don’t even satisfy our visual appetites. A formative moment in my youth was the 1997 rerelease of the original Star Wars trilogy, which added new CGI scenes to supplement the original films’ dated but beloved ‘70s special effects. My friends and I recoiled at the CGI’s obvious fakeness, which clashed with the equally obvious but more familiar fakeness of the puppets, costumes, and models that underpinned the earlier versions of the movies. Not only did we realize then that every canonical work we loved might be subject to indefinite revision (often for the worse), but we also learned that suspension of disbelief has different levels and that newer ways of doing so take time to assimilate. Twenty-five years later, we are so accustomed to CGI that it barely reads as artificial when it appears in movies, and one can probably get through an entire Pixar film without ever consciously acknowledging that it’s animated. This subliminal but all-encompassing surfeit of digital faux-realism induces a sense of vertigo—perhaps not because it’s fake but because it’s too real, its fidelity is too high, the informational throughput too excessive relative to what our brains demand. We could use some good old-fashioned puppets to cut the sensory onslaught.
The apparent premise of recent developments like the metaverse and Apple Vision Pro is that the digital environments we have aren’t immersive or realistic enough. There’s more evidence, however, that suspending disbelief is one of our innate abilities, and that we’ll find a way to do it regardless of the technology available. Hardware, in fact, is a bottleneck: Image resolution has improved but the probability that we view those images on small smartphone screens has increased accordingly, and we’ll clearly settle for the latter if it means we can stay engaged with our physical surroundings (rather than withdrawing behind a VR headset). Large swathes of the internet have inherited the laissez-faire vulgarity that we’ve ironed out of so many other domains: deep-fried memes, Reddit threads, junkified Amazon search results, pop-up ads, grotesque TikTok maximalism. Our audio consumption has followed a similar trend, with better production technology offset by the earbuds and laptop speakers on which we frequently listen. Having recognized these preferences in 2009, Hito Steyerl’s essay “In Defense of the Poor Image” affirms the functional value of low resolution: “The poor image is a copy in motion…As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.” High quality only slows you down. It’s better to be mobile than beautiful.
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The last issue was about creeping automation culture and how convenience stores that lock their merchandise behind glass—and also RoboCop—represent the future of the city.
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Brian Sholis interviewed me on his podcast recently. We discussed how digital technology has affected our relationship to the physical city, how cities have struggled to adapt, and what makes good public space. It’s short—less than 30 minutes. Check it out.
Kyle Chayka on why the internet isn’t fun anymore.
Venkatesh Rao on “oozification” in technology, or the replacement of complex systems with simpler elements, “thereby increasing the number of evolutionary possibilities and lowering the number of evolutionary certainties.”
Tens of thousands of people are currently living out of their cars in the United States and parking lots have begun opening to accommodate them.