It ended up in my feed, retweeted by my business partner, (whose grandmother just so happens to own a bookstore), but I’d wager , at 2,200+ retweets, this may be among the most popular things Kleon has written.
Because, on January 2nd, Mark Zuckerberg announced that his annual challenge for 2015 is to read a new book every other week. Every year Zukerberg takes on a new challenge to broaden his perspective and learn something about the world beyond Facebook. Last year’s challenge was writing a daily thank-you note, and the year before it was meeting someone new every day. This year’s challenge was crowd-sourced, and resulted in something bigger than just Zuckerberg’s own personal growth — an open challenge to anyone interested in reading 26 books in 2015, and discussing them in the Facebook community A Year Of Books.
At the same time, before the new year was even a week old, Céline launched their Spring 2015 campaign with Joan Didion as its poster girl:
Let’s talk about Céline’s just-debuted ad campaign featuring none other than immortal intellectual-and-otherwise dream girl Joan Didion. Did you just feel the collective intake of breath shared by every cool girl you know? Did you feel the pulse-quickening vibrations of every recent college grad and literature fan? Did you sense the earth trembling beneath your feet? Do you have two eyes and a heart?
Of all the celebrity fashion campaign appearances, who better to represent Philo’s ideals—a certain ease of wear, simplicity of line, clothes that are assured, structured yet fluid, decidedly for the woman on the move—than Didion, the original chronicler of heartfelt experience, both her own and others’? One whose perpetually Tumblr’d and tweeted packing list famously includes “2 skirts, 2 jerseys or leotards [and] 1 pullover sweater,” (an ethos Philo, who proudly advertises her own reliance on a personal “uniform,” would clearly understand); who understood fashion while relying on clothes that didn’t draw attention as much as prepare her for the task at hand.
We’ll be buying whatever Joan’s wearing.
In this unusual twist, Facebook found a 15th-century medium to champion, and Vogue breathlessly embraced an 80-year old literary icon as the new fashion It girl — all as part of the same trend.
See also: Ikea’s 2015 catalog campaign extolling the virtues of an analog, “bookbook” (TM) like it’s the next breakthrough in touch technology:
Maybe it’s something we’re learning about our new reality — books are the last, tangible refuge in a hypermediated world. In an age when everything is accessible, books are the most exclusive place you can go: it’s un-Instagrammable. Outside of a dog, as Groucho Marx said, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read — or selfie, or tweet, or anything. Inside of a book, you are absolved of the ever-escalating rat race for self-individualization through self-broadcast. You’re on another planet. Beyond GPS. You’re unfindable, unreachable. And yet, we read to know we are not alone.
But it’s the selfies — mirrored or otherwise — that have been on my mind a lot lately.
Right now, there are 50 million images on Instagram with the hashtag #selfie, and nearly 140 million tagged #me.
“Selfies,” Elizabeth Day reports in the Guardian, “Have become a global phenomenon. Images tagged as #selfie began appearing on the photo-sharing website Flickr as early as 2004. But it was the introduction of smartphones – most crucially the iPhone 4, which came along in 2010 with a front-facing camera – that made the selfie go viral.”
A recent survey of more than 800 American teenagers by the Pew Research Centre found that 91% posted photos of themselves online – up from 79% in 2006.
But the selfie isn’t just a self-portrait, it is a self-object.
“Again and again, you offer yourself up for public consumption,” Day writes. “Your image is retweeted and tagged and shared. Your screen fills with thumbs-up signs and heart-shaped emoticons. Soon, you repeat the whole process, trying out a different pose.”
“The selfie is about continuously rewriting yourself,” says Dr. Mariann Hardey, a lecturer in marketing at Durham University who specializes in digital social networks. “It’s an extension of our natural construction of self.”
But what is it we are constructing our selves into?
Before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way: unless you are a teenager right now, you do not understand what it means to grow up in a world where porn and Facebook are equidistant — in case you don’t know, that proximity is one click away, and apart. If you’re curious to understand what, in fact, this experience is like — in teenagers’ own words — you should read Nancy Jo Sales’ recent Vanity Fair article, “Friends Without Benefits.” But not until after you’ve finished reading this one because I’ll be drawing on it quite a bit.
If you are, at this moment, older than at least your mid-20s, whatever it is that you think you can draw on to relate to 2013 from an analog adolescence frame of reference, just put that away, because it is not a parallel to what is happening right now. What is, according to Gail Dines, the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, is “a massive social experiment.” Here are some results from that experiment so far:
93% of boys and 62% of girls have seen internet porn
83% of boys and 57% of girls have seen group sex online
18% of boys and 10% of girls have seen rape or sexual violence
But that was five iPhone versions ago at this point, so, you do the math.
“In the absence of credible, long-term research, we simply don’t know where the age of insta-porn is taking us,” writes Peggy Drexler on TheDailyBeast, but that we are in it, and that it is pervasive, is undeniable.
“What does this do to teenagers,” Sales asks in Vanity Fair. “And to children? How does it affect boys’ attitudes toward girls? How does it affect girls’ self-esteem and feeling of well-being? And how is this affecting the way that children and teenagers are communicating on these new technologies?”
In the the Guardian, Day describes one typical answer to that last question: “The pouting mouth, the pressed-together cleavage, the rumpled bedclothes in the background hinting at opportunity — a lot of female selfie aficionados take their visual vernacular directly from pornography (unwittingly or otherwise).”
“Because of porn culture,” says Dines, “Women have internalised that image of themselves. They self-objectify.”
“The girls I interviewed,” says Sales, “Even if they’re not doing it themselves, it’s in their faces: their friends posting really provocative pictures of themselves on Facebook and Instagram, sending nude pictures on Snapchat. Why are they doing this? Is this sexual liberation? Is it good for them? Girls know the issues, and yet some of them still can’t resist objectifying themselves, as they even talk about [themselves]. As the girl I call ‘Greta’ says, ‘more provocative equals more likes.’ To be popular, which is what high school is all about, you have to get ‘likes’ on your social-media pics.”
Flattening the hierarchies that separate trash from art, porn from erotica, and moral justice from exploitation by any means necessary, Spring Breakers… embraces and elaborates upon the prevalent suspicion that nobody lives on the stable side of reality any more.
“Pretend you’re in a videogame,” says one of the film’s female anti-heroines as they begin their spree of rampant self-abuse and crime. That’s what Miley Cyrus does, trying on new aspects of performance and sexual self-expression in her new persona. It’s also how the vulnerable models that Robin Thicke ogles [in the music video for his song, Blurred Lines] make it through the gauntlet that the video’s scene creates.
The childlike goofiness Katy Perry expressed with California Gurlz in 2010, or the sweet hope of Carly Rae Jepsen’s smash of last year, Call Me Maybe, have intensified into something more unsettling. In this strange summer of too much heat, so many precariously excessive songs and videos now play on that line between healthy catharsis and chaos.
The summer would get stranger still. Punctuated in its final days by what may just be the most controversial MTV Video Music Awards performance of all time, featuring a duet by Cyrus and Thicke.
From its very first steps, Cyrus’s performance felt, unmistakably, like watching a GIF happen in real-time. The act was speaking the native tongue — stuck all the way out — of the digital age, its direct appeal to meme culture as blatant and aggressive as the display of sexuality. The source material and its inevitable meme-ification appeared to be happening simultaneously. The Internet was inherently integrated within the performance. It was no longer a “second” screen; it was the same damn screen. All the performances before it had been made for TV. This show changed that.
What I learned from the 2013 VMAs is that owning your sexuality is passé, but owning meme culture by exploiting your sexuality is now. Whatever you think of it, Cyrus’s performance was a deliberate reflection of where we are as culture.
A burner had been left blindly on. Something invisible and pervasive had accumulated. Watching the VMAs, a giant fireball exploded in our faces.
“Titstare” was the first presentation of the TechCrunch Disrupt 2013 hackathon. Created by Australians Jethro Batts and David Boulton, the joke app is based on the “science” of how sneaking a peek at cleavage helps men live healthier lives.
The opening salvo cast an ugly shadow over the event, reminding attendees that, just like at PyCon and other technology conferences, “brogrammer” culture is still the norm.
Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that Batts and Boulton presented immediately before Adria Richards, a programmer who rose to the national spotlight after she witnessed sexist jokes at PyCon 2013. Her gall to disapprove of the offensive jokes earned her death threats.
In the wake of the VMA article, I kept tweeting over and over, “Everything is changing….but into whatttttt?” By the early days of Fall, the culture had undeniably shifted. I kept kept seeing an escalating, atavistic gender warfare. Why is this happening, I thought.
That week I was approached to speak at a women’s startup conference and felt, reflexively, offended. The idea that there should be segregated events seemed insulting and damaging — to everyone. I began to feel self-conscious that I had an app startup with a male business partner. I texted him, “What is happening???” and “Can’t we all just get along?” We laughed, but we began to feel like an anomaly.
Pretend you’re in a videogame.
“When we listeners find ourselves taking pleasure in these familiar but enticingly refreshed acts of transgression,” Powers writes, “Echoing the Michael Jackson-style whoops that Pharrell makes in Blurred Lines, or nodding along to the stoned, melancholy chorus of Cyrus’s arrestingly sad party anthem, We Can’t Stop, are we compromising ourselves? Or is it okay, because after all, it’s just pretend?”
And when the technology that I, you, and everyone we know use on a daily basis gets developed to the sound of this same, blurry, pop culture soundtrack (figuratively or literally), what happens then? How are the creators of objectifying technology supposed to know it isn’t cool — if all of our technology is used for objectification?
In Vanity Fair, Sales talks to Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus co-directors of Sexy Baby, a documentary about girls and women in the age of porn. “We saw these girls embracing this idea that ‘If I want to be like a porn star, it’s so liberating,’” Gradus said. “We were skeptical. But it was such a broad concept. We asked, ‘What is this shift in our sexual attitudes, and how do we define this?’ I guess the common thread we saw that is creating this is technology. Technology being so available made every girl or woman capable of being a porn star, or thinking they’re a porn star. They’re objectifying themselves. The thinking is: ‘If I’m in control of it, then I’m not objectified.’”
In October, Sinead O’Connor — whose video for Nothing Compares 2 U inspired Cyrus’s look in her video for Wrecking Ball — wrote an “open letter” to Cyrus, beautifully capturing, “in the spirit of motherliness and with love,” the generational disconnect at the heart of the cultural shift. “The message you keep sending is that it’s somehow cool to be prostituted.. it’s so not cool Miley. Don’t let the music business make a prostitute out of you,” O’Connor wrote, not getting it.
The familiar, analog, 20th century relationship in between objectification and commercialization has eroded. In its place, a new, post-Empire dynamic has arrived, built on a natively digital experience that O’Connor and an entire population still able to remember and relate to a world before the internet and mobile technology, can’t wrap their heads around.
“The blurred messages Thicke, Cyrus and others are now sending fit a time when people think of themselves as products, more than ever before,” Powers writes.
In the attention economy, self-exploitation is self-empowerment. We are all objects. We are all products. We are all selfies.
And we can’t stop.
“Social media is destroying our lives,” Sales quotes a girl in Vanity Fair.
Like the girls in Sales’ article, who tell her that “presenting themselves in this way is making them anxious and depressed,” but continue to do it anyway, we do not self-objectify because we’re in control. We self-objectify because it is the norm.
We self-objectify to rationalize, to placebo-ize that we had control in the first place.
We Can’t Stop.
“Both young women and young men are seriously unhappy with the way things are,” says, Donna Freitas, a former professor at Hofstra and Boston Universities, who studies hook-up culture on college campuses in her new book, The End of Sex (which Sales suggests, “might as well be called The End of Love.”)
Much has been written about hook-up culture lately, notably Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men(2012) and a July New York Times article, “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game Too,” both of which attributed the trend to feminism and ambitious young women’s desire not to be tied down by relationships.
But Freitas’s research, conducted over a year on seven college campuses, tells a different story.
She describes the sex life of the average college kid as “Mad Men sex, boring and ambivalent. Sex is something you’re not to care about. They drink to drown out what is really going on with them. The reason for hooking up is less about pleasure and fun than performance and gossip—it’s being able to update [on social media] about it. Social media is fostering a very unthinking and unfeeling culture.”
College kids, both male and female, also routinely rate each other’s sexual performance on social media, often derisively, causing anxiety for everyone.
And researchers are now seeing an increase in erectile dysfunction among college-age men—related, Freitas believes, to their performance anxiety from watching pornography: “The mainstreaming of porn is tremendously affecting what’s expected of them.”
Porn has killed our imaginations. We sit and try to fantasize. We shut our eyes tight and think, ‘Wait, what did I used to masturbate about before porn? What image is going to turn me on right now?” But your brain gets tired and your genitalia isn’t used to working this hard so you open your reliable go-to porno and get off in two minutes. Later, you have trouble maintaing an erection during actual sex because your partner doesn’t look like a blow up doll from the Valley.
Our sex lives are having less and less to do with actual sex. Intimacy has morphed into something entirely more narcissistic. What used to be about making each other feel good and connecting is now about validation.
When sex does happen, when we finally make it through the endless hoops of text messaging, planning a date and actually sticking to it and you discover that you like this person (or could like them for an evening), it feels like an old faded photograph that’s been sitting in a shoebox at the bottom of your closet. “This orgasm feels like a vintage ball gown! Is this how people used to do it in the olden days?!” It’s terrifying!
In 2013, our phones are getting to have all the fun. They’re getting laid constantly while we lay naked in the dark, rubbing our skin, trying pathetically to get turned on by the feel of our own touch. We scroll through our camera and see a buffet of anonymous naked photos we’ve collected over the last few months for us to jack off to. Somehow, this has become enough for us. Getting off has become like fast food. It’s accessible, cheap, and most likely going to make us feel like shit after.
We are actively participating in the things that keep us from what we want. Feel good now, feel bad forever later. Stomachache stomachache, junk food junk food.
In a pervasively mediated culture, where porn primes our perception of ourselves and others, and our technology reduces us to selfies, objectification is inevitable.
And the trouble is — it doesn’t matter how you treat objects…. It’s not like they’re people.
What people want today is “to hurt one another” and “get back at the people that hurt them,” Hunter Moore, the founder of IsAnyoneUp.com, told Rolling Stone last October.
And Moore ought to know. He’s one of the pioneers of revenge porn, the practice of posting nude photos to the web of a former lover in an attempt to embarrass, defame, and terrorize.
While minorities and homosexuals are often targeted, experts say no group is more abused online than women. Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland lays out some of the numbers in her upcoming book, Hatred 3.0. The US National Violence Against Women Survey reports 60% of cyberstalking victims are women. A group called Working to Halt Online Abuse studied 3,787 cases of cyberharassment, and found that 72.5% were female, 22.5% were male and 5% unknown. A study of Internet Relay Chat showed male users receive only four abusive or threatening messages for every 100 received by women.
Moore has sold his site but scores of wannabes are cropping up. A check of these sites shows that victims are almost always women. At Myex.com over 1,000 nude photos and new pictures are added nearly every day. Each post typically includes the name of the person photographed, their age, and the city they live in. The posts come with titles like, “Manipulative Bitch,” “Cheater,” “Has genital warts,” “Drunk,” “Meth User,” “This girl slept with so many other guys,” and “Filthy Pig.”
The Verge contacted several women found on some of these sites, including Myex.com. While all of them declined to be interviewed, they did acknowledge that the photos were posted without permission by an ex-boyfriend or lover. One woman said that she was trying to get the pictures pulled down and had successfully removed them from other sites because she was not yet 18 years old when they were taken (if her claim is accurate it would make the snapshots child pornography). She pleaded that we not use her name and asked that we not contact her again.
If the woman was upset and afraid, she has a right to be, says Holly Jacobs, 30, who has started a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending revenge porn and supporting its victims. Jacobs knows firsthand that these sites are killers of reputations and relationships. Three years ago, Jacobs was studying for her PhD in industrial organizational psychology and working as a consultant at a university when a former boyfriend began posting nude photos of her online. The embarrassment and terror was just the beginning. Jacobs’ ex sent copies of the photos to her boss and suggested she was sexually preying on students. Jacobs’ employers, fearing bad press, asked her to prove she didn’t upload the photos herself. She finally felt compelled to change her name (Jacobs is the new name).
In July The Washington Post published a story about men who post phony ads to make it appear as if their ex-wives or girlfriends are soliciting sex. One man, Michael Johnson II of Hyattsville, Maryland, published an ad titled “Rape Me and My Daughters” and included his ex-wife’s home address. More than 50 men showed up to the victim’s house. One man tried to break in and another tried to undress her daughter. Johnson was sentenced to 85 years in prison. His victim was physically unharmed but these ads can be lethal. In December 2009, a Wyoming woman was raped with a knife sharpener in her home after an ex-boyfriend assumed her identity and posted a Craigslist ad that read, “Need an aggressive man with no concern or regard for women.” Her ex and the man who raped her are both serving long prison sentences.
While people, trapped as we are by our digital avatars, are increasingly being reduced to objects, our technology seems to be benefitting from a transference of humanity.
Spike Jonze’s new movie, Her, due out in December, is being called “science fiction,” but the “future” depicted in the trailer looks essentially indistinguishable from the reality we all find ourselves in today. In it, a melancholy man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and a Turing test-approved virtual assistant program, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, fall in love.
“Unlike the science fiction of yesteryear,” writes David Plumb on Salon.com, “Her is not about the evolving relationship between humans and artificial intelligence. Instead, Samantha appears to be essentially a human being trapped in a computer. Her thus appears to be about programming the perfect woman who fits in your pocket, manages your life, doesn’t have a body (and thus free will), and has an off switch.”
According to the Mayan calendar — as translated by new-age hippies I used to know, and depicted by Roland Emmerich — the year 2012 is alleged to herald the apocalypse. Perhaps this collective unconscious sense of mass destruction is what’s driving the popularity of turn-of-the-millennium musings about the end of the world. In June 2008, Adbusters’ cover story was, literally, titled, “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization.” Three and a half years later, Vanity Fair’s first issue of 2012 asks, “You Say You Want a Devolution? From Fashion to Housewares, Are We in a Decades-Long Design Rut?” While these two publications could arguably not be further apart on the target audience spectrum, they’re singing the same doomsday tune. As Kurt Andersen writes in the Vanity Fair piece, “The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present.” The last line of the article concludes, “I worry some days, this is the way that Western civilization declines, not with a bang but with a long, nostalgic whimper.” But has cultural evolution really come to a grinding halt in the 21st century, or are we simply looking in all the old places, not realizing it’s moved on?
In Adbusters, Douglas Haddow sets up the alleged apocalypse like so:
Ever since the Allies bombed the Axis into submission, Western civilization has had a succession of counter-culture movements that have energetically challenged the status quo. Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society. But after punk was plasticized and hip hop lost its impetus for social change, all of the formerly dominant streams of “counter-culture” have merged together. Now, one mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior has come to define the generally indefinable idea of the ‘Hipster.’
Echoing that sentiment in Vanity Fair, Andersen writes:
Think about it. Picture it. Rewind any other 20-year chunk of 20th-century time. There’s no chance you would mistake a photograph or movie of Americans or an American city from 1972—giant sideburns, collars, and bell-bottoms, leisure suits and cigarettes, AMC Javelins and Matadors and Gremlins alongside Dodge Demons, Swingers, Plymouth Dusters, and Scamps—with images from 1992. Time-travel back another 20 years, before rock ’n’ roll and the Pill and Vietnam, when both sexes wore hats and cars were big and bulbous with late-moderne fenders and fins—again, unmistakably different, 1952 from 1972. You can keep doing it and see that the characteristic surfaces and sounds of each historical moment are absolutely distinct from those of 20 years earlier or later: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the advertising—all of it. It’s even true of the 19th century: practically no respectable American man wore a beard before the 1850s, for instance, but beards were almost obligatory in the 1870s, and then disappeared again by 1900.
Writing about the Adbusters piece in 2008, I pointed to a central flaw in the premise: the emergence of what Chris Anderson, in his 2006 book of the same name, calls, The Long Tail. Digital technology, Anderson writes, has ushered in “An evolution from an ‘Or’ era of hits or niches (mainstream culture vs. subcultures) to an ‘AND’ era.” In this new, rebalanced equation, “Mass culture will not fall, it will simply get less mass. And niche culture will get less obscure.” What Adbusters saw as the end of Western civilization was actually the end of mass culture; a transition to a confederacy of niches. So, if mass culture, as the construct we, and Adbusters, had known it to be was over, what was there to be “counter” to anymore? (While, more recently, Occupy Wall Street has thrown its hat into the ring, it’s not so much anti-mass culture as it is pro-redefining the concept: the 99%, through the movement’s message — let alone mathematics — is not the counterculture. It IS the culture.)
Unlike Haddow, Andersen doesn’t blame the purported cultural stagnation on any one group of perpetrators. Rather, the “decades-long design rut” has descended upon us all, he suggests, like an aesthetic recession, the result of some unregulated force originating in the 1960′s and depreciating steadily until it simply collapsed, and none of us noticed until it was too late. “Look at people on the street and in malls,” Andersen writes, “Jeans and sneakers remain the standard uniform for all ages, as they were in 2002, 1992, and 1982. Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new.” And yet, “during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. This is the First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History.”
Or is it?
In a 2003 New York Times article titled, The Guts of a new Machine, the design prophet of the 21st century revealed his philosophy on the subject: “People think it’s this veneer,” said the late Steve Jobs, “That the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Think about it. Picture it. Those big, bulbous cars Andersen describes, with their late-moderne fenders and fins, so unmistakably different from 1952 to 1977, just how different were they, really, in how they worked? Not that much. In the 20th century you could pop open the hood of a car and with some modicum of mechanics know what it was you were looking at. Now, the guy in the wifebeater working on the Camaro in his garage is an anachronism. You’ll never see that guy leaning over the guts of a post-Transformers, 2012 Camaro. Let alone a hybrid or an electric vehicle. “With rare exceptions,” Andersen argues, “cars from the early 90s (and even the late 80s) don’t seem dated.” And yet, there’s no way anyone would confuse a Chevy Volt with anything GM was making 10 years ago, or a Toyota Prius with what was on the road in the early 90s, or voice recognition capability, completely common in a 2012 model, as anything but a science fiction conceit in a show starring David Hasselhoff, in 80s. While it’s debatable that exterior automotive styling hasn’t changed in the past 30 years (remember the Tercel? The station wagon? The Hummer? A time before the SUV?) it’s indisputable that the way a 2012 automobile works has changed.
For the majority of human history the style shifts between eras were pretty much entirely cosmetic. From the Greeks to the Romans, from the Elizabethans to the Victorians, what fluctuated most was the exterior. It wasn’t until the pace of technological innovation began to accelerate in the 20th century that design became concerned with what lay beneath the surface. In the 1930s, industrial designer Raymond Loewy forged a new design concept, called Streamlining. One of the first and most widespread design concepts to draw its rationale from technology, Streamlining was characterized by stripping Art Deco, its flamboyant 1920’s predecessor, of all nonessential ornamentation in favor a smooth, pure-line concept of motion and speed. Under the austerity of the Depression era, the superficial flourishes of Art Deco became fraudulent, falsely modern. Loewy’s vision of a modern world was minimalist, frictionless, developed from aerodynamics and other scientific concepts. By the 1960’s Loewy’s streamlined designs for thousands of consumer goods — everything from toasters and refrigerators to automobiles and spacecrafts — had radically changed the look of American life.
What began in the 20th century as a design concept has, in the 21st, become THE design concept. Technological innovation — the impact of which Andersen breezes past — has become the driving force behind aesthetic innovation. Design is how it works. Aerodynamics has paved the way for modern considerations like efficiency, performance, usability, sustainability, and more. But unlike fluctuating trends in men’s facial hair or collar size, technology moves in one direction. It does not vacillate, it iterates, improving on what came before, building incrementally. The biggest aesthetic distinctions, therefore, have become increasingly smaller.
Consider, for example, this optical illusion:
What, exactly, is the difference between the two things above? Rewind twenty years, and it’s already unlikely most people would have been able to really tell a difference in any meaningful way. Go back even further in time, and these things become pretty much identical to everyone. Yet we, the inhabitants of 2012, would never, ever, mistake one for the other. The most minute, subtlest of details are huge universes of difference to us now. We have become obsessives, no longer just consumers but connoisseurs, fanatics with post-industrial palates altered by exposure to a higher resolution. And it’s not just about circuitry. In fashion, too, significant signifiers have become more subtle.
Fifteen hard-to-find, premium brands of jeans—most based in Japan, a country known for its quality denim—line the walls. Prices range from the low three figures all the way up to four figures for a pair by Kyuten, embedded with ground pearl and strips of rare vintage kimono. Warehouse’s Duckdigger jeans are sandblasted in Japan with grains shipped from Nevada and finished with mismatched vintage hardware and twenties-style suspender buttons. Most jeans are raw, so clients can produce their own fade, and the few that are pre-distressed are never airbrushed; free hemming is available in-house on a rare Union Special chain-stitcher from an original Levi’s factory.
“Our massively scaled-up new style industry naturally seeks stability and predictability,” Andersen argues. “Rapid and radical shifts in taste make it more expensive to do business and can even threaten the existence of an enterprise.” But in fact, when it comes to fashion, quite the opposite is true. To keep us buying new clothes — and we do: according to the Daily Mail, women have four times as many clothes in their wardrobe today as they did in 1980, buying, and discarding half their body weight in clothes per year — styles have to keep changing. Rapid and radical shifts in taste are the foundation of the fashion business; a phenomenon the industry exploits, not fears. And the churn rate has only accelerated. “Fast Fashion,” a term coined in the mid-2000′s, means more frequent replacement of cheaper clothes that become outdated more quickly.
“The modern sensibility has been defined by brief stylistic shelf lives,” Andersen writes, “Our minds trained to register the recent past as old-fashioned.” But what has truly become old-fashioned in the 21st century, whether we’ve realized it or not, is the idea of a style being able to define a decade at all. It’s as old-fashioned as a TV with a radial dial or retail limitations dictated by brick and mortar. As Andersen himself writes, “For the first time, anyone anywhere with any arcane cultural taste can now indulge it easily and fully online, clicking themselves deep into whatever curious little niche (punk bossa nova, Nigerian noir cinema, pre-war Hummel figurines) they wish.” And primarily what we wish for, as Andersen sees it, is what’s come before. “Now that we have instant universal access to every old image and recorded sound, the future has arrived and it’s all about dreaming of the past.” To be fair, there is a deep nostalgic undercurrent to our pop culture, but to look at the decentralization of cultural distribution and see only “a cover version of something we’ve seen or heard before” is to miss the bigger picture of our present, and our future. The long tail has dismantled the kind of aesthetic uniformity that could have once come to represent a decade’s singular style. In a confederacy of niches there is no longer a media source mass enough to define and disseminate a unified look or sound.
Here’s a thought experiment. Take a typical man on the street from the year 1900 and drop him into the 1950s. Then take someone from the 1950s and move him Austin Powers-style into the present day. Who would experience the greater change?
On the basis of big, obvious technological changes alone, surely the 1900-to-1950s traveler would experience the greater shift, while the other might easily conclude that we’d spent the second half of the twentieth century doing little more than tweaking the great waves of the ﬁrst half.
But the longer they stayed in their new homes, the more each time-traveler would become aware of subtler dimensions of change. Once the glare of technology had dimmed, each would begin to notice their respective society’s changed norms and values, and the ways in which everyday people live and work. And here the tables would be turned. In terms of adjusting to the social structures and the rhythms and patterns of daily life, our second time-traveler would be much more disoriented.
Someone from the early 1900s would ﬁnd the social world of the 1950s remarkably similar to his own. If he worked in a factory, he might find much the same divisions of labor, the same hierarchical systems of control. If he worked in an ofﬁce, he would be immersed in the same bureaucracy, the same climb up the corporate ladder. He would come to work at 8 or 9 each morning and leave promptly at 5, his life neatly segmented into compartments of home and work. He would wear a suit and tie. Most of his business associates would be white and male. Their values and ofﬁce politics would hardly have changed. He would seldom see women in the work-place, except as secretaries, and almost never interact professionally with someone of another race. He would marry young, have children quickly thereafter, stay married to the same person and probably work for the same company for the rest of his life. He would join the clubs and civic groups beﬁtting his socioeconomic class, observe the same social distinctions, and fully expect his children to do likewise. The tempo of his life would be structured by the values and norms of organizations. He would ﬁnd himself living the life of the “company man” so aptly chronicled by writers from Sinclair Lewis and John Kenneth Galbraith to William Whyte and C.Wright Mills.
Our second time-traveler, however, would be quite unnerved by the dizzying social and cultural changes that had accumulated between the 1950s and today. At work he would ﬁnd a new dress code, a new schedule, and new rules. He would see ofﬁce workers dressed like folks relaxing on the weekend, in jeans and open-necked shirts, and be shocked to learn they occupy positions of authority. People at the ofﬁce would seemingly come and go as they pleased. The younger ones might sport bizarre piercings and tattoos. Women and even nonwhites would be managers. Individuality and self-expression would be valued over conformity to organizational norms — and yet these people would seem strangely puritanical to this time-traveler. His ethnic jokes would fall embarrassingly ﬂat. His smoking would get him banished to the parking lot, and his two-martini lunches would raise genuine concern. Attitudes and expressions he had never thought about would cause repeated offense. He would continually suffer the painful feeling of not knowing how to behave.
Out on the street, this time-traveler would see different ethnic groups in greater numbers than he ever could have imagined — Asian-, Indian-, and Latin-Americans and others — all mingling in ways he found strange and perhaps inappropriate. There would be mixed-race couples, and same-sex couples carrying the upbeat-sounding moniker “gay.” While some of these people would be acting in familiar ways — a woman shopping while pushing a stroller, an ofﬁce worker having lunch at a counter — others, such as grown men clad in form-ﬁtting gear whizzing by on high-tech bicycles, or women on strange new roller skates with their torsos covered only by “brassieres” — would appear to be engaged in alien activities.
People would seem to be always working and yet never working when they were supposed to. They would strike him as lazy and yet obsessed with exercise. They would seem career-conscious yet ﬁckle — doesn’t anybody stay with the company more than three years? — and caring yet antisocial: What happened to the ladies’ clubs, Moose Lodges and bowling leagues? While the physical surroundings would be relatively familiar, the feel of the place would be bewilderingly different.
Thus, although the ﬁrst time-traveler had to adjust to some drastic technological changes, it is the second who experiences the deeper, more pervasive transformation. It is the second who has been thrust into a time when lifestyles and worldviews are most assuredly changing — a time when the old order has broken down, when flux and uncertainty themselves seem to be part of the everyday norm.
It’s the end of the world as we’ve known it. And I feel fine.
On September 8,2011, Nike announced they would be releasing a limited number of pairs of a new product. As the shoe’s official site explains:
In 1989, Nike designer Tinker Hatfield was asked to design a shoe for the second chapter in the Back to the Future series. He created the power-lacing, self-illuminating, Nike MAG. Riding on a pink hoverboard, Michael J. Fox made them the most famous shoe never made.
Over 15 years later in 2005, Tinker’s attention was caught by an online petition asking that the shoes come back. With no mold and nothing but an original prop shoe from the film, Tinker and footwear innovator Tiffany Beers began rebuilding the MAG from scratch. It would take six years, three restarts and many thousands of hours. But when it was all said and done, the shoe was a perfect replication of the original and the true predecessor to the 2015 power-lacing Nike MAG.
It would only make sense that the shoes be auctioned to benefit the foundation of the man who made them famous.
And with your help, the proceeds of these shoes will help erase Parkinson’s from existence.”
As Fox himself adds:
That something which has previously only existed in the realm of fiction is becoming real, that Nike is actually making a shoe it predicted would exist in the future, that a franchise about a time traveler is being leveraged towards changing the future both by and for the actor who embodied him, as well as for others who suffer from Parkinson’s disease…. basically everything about this is totally fucking awesome in a uniquely 21st century kind of way.
Back in March I wrote about another celebrity who came up in the 80’s and has recently been doing his part to blur the lines between “real” and “not real.” Charlie Sheen has gone a long way towards making that distinction irrelevant by transforming his life into an existential performance. In a Daily Beast article titled, “Notes on Charlie Sheen and the End of Empire,” author Bret Easton Ellis (also a pop culture staple spawned from the same decade as Sheen, Fox, and McFly), called Sheen, “The most fascinating person wandering through the culture.” Ellis’s concept of “Empire” and “Post-Empire,” is based on Gore Vidal’s definition of global American hegemony, a period Ellis dates from 1945 until 2005: the era that defined the 20th century. As Ellis sees it, Empire was a lie, a self delusion the global west lived for 60 years while it kept up appearances and didn’t think about the future; post-Empire, on the other hand, is where we are now, a world 10 years after 9/11, seeming to teeter perpetually on the verge of economic collapse and endless other global crises. If Empire was binary (truth vs. lie; real vs. counterfeit), then post-Empire is meta. As Sheen has shown, he is both real and not real at once. And so are the Nike MAGs, sneakerheads’ long unattainable holy grail, “the most famous shoes never made”…. until they were.
“It’s like in Terminator when John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time so that he can be his father,” says Simon, from the British TV show Misfits, a character who sends himself back in time to die so that he can live in the future. (Side note: Five years before Marty McFly, Kyle Reese also wore Nikes in 1984’s Terminator. Hopefully those don’t come back to the future.)
“In 1981, I was a futurist,” said William Gibson, author of the seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, in an interview with New York Magazine’s, The Vulture Blog last year, “Or at least I was a guy who put on a futurist hat occasionally and I wrote about the 21st century. Now I’m here in the 21st century and if I write about it, I think it makes me a literary naturalist.” Gibson’s three latest books have all been set not in a dystopic, sci-fi future world but contemporaneously with the one we all inhabit. A recurring character throughout this trilogy is Hubertus Bigend, the charismatic founder of an alternative marketing agency, whom Gibson describes like a 21st-century Cheshire Cat as CEO (“He smiles, a version of Tom Cruise with too many teeth, and longer, but still very white;” “An overly wealthy, dangerously curious fiddler with the world’s hidden architectures.”) So fitting is Bigend as an antihero for a post-binary, meta reality, this fictional character’s actual Wikipedia entry cites a passage from his fictional Wikipedia entry. (Your head hurt yet?)
I thought that writing about the world today as I perceive it would probably be more challenging, in the real sense of science fiction, than continuing just to make things up. And I found that to absolutely be the case. If I’m going to write fiction set in an imaginary future now, I’m going to need a yardstick that gives me some accurate sense of how weird things are now. ‘Cause I’m going to have to go beyond that. In the ’80s and ’90s–as strange as it may seem to say this–we had such luxury of stability. Things weren’t changing quite so quickly in the ’80s and ’90s. And when things are changing too quickly you don’t have any place to stand from which to imagine a very elaborate future.
Case in point: Gibson’s most recent book, Zero History, which came out last year, has characters using silent, hovering, iPhone-controlled surveillance drones. Less than a year after Gibson wrote it into his book, it’s a thing that’s now on the market. In fact, it’s a toy:
Pattern Recognition is the first of Gibson’s “present tense” trilogy, and the first of his books I ever read. It was given to me by an acquaintance in 2004. The book follows Cayce Pollard, a marketing consultant with an intuitive sensitivity for branding so acute its anaphylactic. Her clients hire her to research street culture in search of the next new trend. “She’s met the very Mexican who first wore his baseball cap backward,” Gibson writes. “She’s that good.” The person who gave me the book told me, “This is you.” At the time, barely a year out of college, where I’d been a film major, I’d never really considered I’d be working in marketing. And yet, it’s where I ended up. Two novels and seven years later, Cayce Pollard makes an anonymous cameo near the end of Zero History. Her name is never mentioned, but if you’ve been following along, you know it’s her even before she says, “I’d been a sort of coolhunter, before that had a name, but now it’s difficult to find anyone who isn’t.”
The Nike MAG exists now not because it’s where 21st century sneaker trends were naturally headed but because a vision of footwear future (which Nike itself created) 20 years ago predicted it would. If Charlie Sheen’s contribution to Post-Empire has been to embody the now indistinguishable nature of real and fictional, Nike has taken it one step further and shown us that the future is no longer strictly linear. In our new century the future is recursive. It is a future we have sent back in time, to become itself.
Jewelry-makers and hairstylists have been snatching up the premium chicken feathers used in standby trout-fly patterns, creating a sudden run on a market that’s ill-prepared for significant fluctuations of demand.
“Supplies are just decimated,” said Jim Cox, co-owner of the Kingfisher fly shop in Missoula, [Montana]. “We just can’t get the premium feathers. Even the (sales) reps for the suppliers can’t get them for themselves.”
What began a couple of years ago as a scattered interest in feather jewelry has erupted into a full-on fad for hair extensions made out of long, slender feathers — the exact same feathers used in the vast majority of traditional dry-fly patterns.
The feathers most valued both by fly-tiers and, lately, fashion mavens come from specific types of roosters that are selectively bred to produce long, slender feathers. Such chickens typically take almost a full year to raise before slaughter. What’s more, they’re rare: Only a few dozen commercial breeders exist in America, and most are small operations.
The situation’s getting so dire, American Public Radio’s Marketplace reports, the American Fly Fishing Trade Association is lobbying lawmakers about conservation. Tom Whiting, owner of Whiting Farms in western Colorado, one of the world’s largest producers of fly tying feathers, a third of whose sales now go to fashion, says, “We have orders far in excess of what we have in our system.” With the demand, the prices are skyrocketing. Last week the Oregonian reported a rooster neck of feathers that would have normally cost $29.95, is now selling for $360. A 300% – 700% jump in rooster saddle feather price is now typical.
In fashion parlance, feathers are in. Steven Tyler has been wearing the avian accessories as he judges American Idol contestants. Pop singer, Kesha, rocks feathers, too, even sticking one in Conan Obrien’s hair during a recent appearance on his show. Between Los Angeles’s mercantile meccas of Melrose Ave. and the Beverly Center you can get feather hair extensions, earrings, necklaces; feathers on boots, shoes, tops, skirts, hats, bras, anything. In the summer of 2011, feathers have become a staple of every sartorial and tonsorial aspect imaginable.
The other day I was asked my opinion as to where this current ubiquity of feathers has come from. But as it turns out, I happen to have something better than an opinion: I have an explanation.
Our story begins almost 12 years ago, in a little town in Oregon, by the name of Ashland, where a group of kids came together to start a circus performance troupe called, El Circo. The group would gain recognition within the Burning Man culture for the extravagant parties they threw at the festival, featuring lavish fire performances, a large, geodesic dome venue, and a top-notch sound system that attracted world-renowned music acts to perform there. In a 2005 San Francisco Bay Guardian article on the effect that the various groups within the Burning Man community have had on San Francisco nightlife — an impact which now extends to the entire west coast’s, and arguably global, dance culture — the writer paid particular attention to the influence of El Circo:
El Circo has fused a musical style and a fashion sense that are major departures from the old rave scene. [They are credited] with creating the postapocalyptic fashions that many now associate with Burning Man. Most of the original El Circo fashions, which convey both tribalism and a sense of whimsy, were designed by member Tiffa Novoa.”
Here are some of the El Circo costumes from their 2005 shows:
Traditional forms of the tribe, like the village, have almost completely disappeared. Fewer and fewer people live in small communities where their daily interactions bring them in contact with the people they are deeply connected to, either spiritually or economically. Workers in modern corporations are replaceable and no longer bound to each other by the experience of a shared interdependence. The modern individual is preoccupied simultaneously by isolating, immediate concerns of personal survival and the larger, often intangible concerns of war, terror and economic change as transmitted by a now-seamless global media network. The intermediate space of community is not easily reached.
Not by accident, many of the newer, emergent forms of culture include a specifically tribal aspect. A return to tattooing, sacrification, fire performance and drumming, as well as a renewed interest in ritual, has occurred side-by-side with the formation of intentional (if temporary) communities such as the Rainbow Family gatherings and Burning Man festival.
It was at these kinds of festivals, in clubs and at underground raves, that alternative circus acts began appearing in the early 90′s. The performers were young, crazy “freaks” without any formal training who used circus costumes, skills or themes as performative means for expressing their own exaggerated personalities. Many went on to gain formal training or to study the history of the genre, but essentially their relationship to conventional circuses resembled that of outsider art to mainstream art circles. They didn’t really relate to the modern-day circus. They took their cues from something much, much older: the caravan-pulling gypsies.
The phenomenon of alternative circus performance can be seen as the theatrical dimension to one generation’s wholesale rediscovery of the concept of tribe.
And the inexorable feather trend is inextricably linked with this trajectory.
Novoa co-founded El Circo along with Marisa Youlden, a jewelry designer whose pieces accompanied Novoa’s costumes from the beginning. Youlden first used feathers in her pieces in 2000 and recalls this was when Novoa began creating elaborate feather headdresses for the performers. “At first, this was all costuming,” The 2005 Bay Guardian article quoted Matty Dowlen, El Circo’s operations manager, and performer, “but now it’s who I am.” The aesthetic Novoa first envisioned for the El Circo performers evolved into the prêt-à-porter of the circus subculture and became its signature style. Feathers, which had come to define El Circo costumes, became an integral component of the subculture’s street fashion:
Yup, that last one is me. You can’t see the feather in this shot, but trust me, it was there. In the early to mid-aughts (when the photos above were taken) the feather was as de rigueur a cultural signifier within the circus scene as the safety pin was for punks in the late 1970s and early 80s. In fact, back before it was so commonplace as to lose meaning (or induce a national feather shortage), condescending terms for those sporting the look sprang up within the subculture: “Feather mafia,” was one I heard thrown around; “Trustafarian peacock” even made it into UrbanDictionary.com. And then, something else began to happen.
In 2005, Mötley Crüe picked circus as the concept for their comeback tour:
The next year, Panic! At the Disco won an MTV Video Music Award for their circus-themed, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” video:
A theme they then extended into their “Nothing Rhymes With Circus” tour:
And in 2008, the reigning queen of pop herself at the time, Britney Spears, came out with an album titled, Circus, and ensuing tour of the same theme:
Throughout pop culture, traces of circus’s influence would keep surfacing. The same year as Britney’s Circus album, this was the ad for that season’s America’s Next Top Model:
Or take this ad for the launch of Microsoft’s short-lived Kin mobile device from last year:
The proliferation of circus within pop culture has been directly tied to its growth in underground culture, and being in an underground circus troupe during the height of this infiltration offered backstage access to the proceedings. For example: The circus featured in the Kin ad is March Fourth Marching Band. The circus performers in the Panic! At the Disco music video and tour were members of the troupe I managed. The performers who went on tour with Mötley Crüe would become Lucent Dossier members, as well. Last year, Miley Cyrus’s “Can’t be Tamed” music video featured a winged Cyrus alongside a troupe of be-feathered backup dancers inside a giant birdcage:
In 2005, Haley went on to form a new label, Skingraft Designs, with Jonny Cota, and later Katie Kay, who was a partner from 2007 – 2010. All three had circus pedigree. Cota and Haley had performed with El Circo, and Kay was one of the original members in Lucent Dossier, for which Haley and Cota would occasionally moonlight. Some of Skingraft’s early work is pictured below.
Over the years since Tiffa first put feathers on the bodies of circus performers, inspiring others to follow suit, hundreds of thousands, if not millions have been exposed to the style at Burning Man, and the E3 gaming convention where El Circo would perform; at Coachella, and the Grammy’s afterparty, where Lucent Dossier performed; at countless night clubs stretching from the depths of Downtown L.A. up the length of the Pacific coast. Hollywood stylists partying on Saturday night woke up on Monday with new inspiration. And circus costumers became famed fashion designers. In the end, this cross-pollination laid the foundation for the exact kind of tipping point Malcolm Gladwell describes in his seminal, 2000 book exploring the social mechanics that lead trends to “tip” into mass, cultural phenomena. The Tipping Point begins with the words:
For Hush Puppies — the classic American brushed-suede shoes with the lightweight crepe sole — the Tipping Point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995. The brand had been all but dead until that point. Sales were down to 30,000 pairs a year, mostly to backwoods outlets and small-town family stores. Wolverine, the company that makes Hush Puppies, was thinking of phasing out the shoes that made them famous. But then something strange happened. At a fashion shoot, two Hush Puppies executives — Owen Baxter and Geoffrey Lewis — ran into a stylist from New York who told them that the classic Hush Puppies had suddenly become hip in the clubs and bars of downtown Manhattan. “We were being told,” Baxter recalls, “that there were resale shops in the Village, in Soho, where the shoes were being sold. People were going to the Ma and Pa stores, the little stores that still carried them, and buying them up.” Baxter and Lewis were baffled at first. It made no sense to them that shoes that were so obviously out of fashion could make a comeback. “We were told that Isaac Mizrahi was wearing the shoes himself,” Lewis says. “I think it’s fair to say that at the time we had no idea who Isaac Mizrahi was.”
By the fall of 1995, things began to happen in a rush. First the designer John Bartlett called. He wanted to use Hush Puppies in his spring collection. Then another Manhattan deisgner, Anna Sui called, wanting shoes for her show as well. In Los Angeles, the designer Joel Fitzgerald put a twenty-five-foot inflatable basset hound — the symbol of the Hush Puppies brand — on the roof of his Hollywood store and gutted an adjoining art gallery to turn it into a Hush Puppies boutique. While he was still painting and putting up shelves, the actor Pee-wee Herman walked in and asked for a couple pairs. “It was total word of mouth,” Fitzgerald remembers.
In 1995, the company sold 430,000 pairs of the classic Hush Puppies, and the next year it sold four times that, and the year after that, still more, until Hush Puppies were once again a staple of the wardrobe of the young American male. In 1996, Hush Puppies won the prize for best accessory at the Council of Fashion Designers awards dinner at Lincoln Center, and the president of the firm stood up on the stage with Calvin Klein and Donna Karan and accepted an award for an achievement that — as he would be the first to admit — his company had almost nothing to do with. Hush Puppies had suddenly exploded, and it all started with a handful of kids in the East Village and Soho.
How did this happen? Those first few kids, whoever they were, weren’t deliberately trying to promote Hush Puppies. They were wearing them precisely because no one else would wear them. Then the fad spread to two fashion designers who used to shoes to peddle something else — haute couture. The shoes were an incidental touch. No one was trying to make Hush Puppies a trend. Yet, somehow, that’s exactly what happened. The shoes passed a certain point in popularity and they tipped. How does a thirty-dollar pair of shoes go from a handful of downtown Manhattan hipsters to every mall in America in the space of two years?
Right now, the roosters know, but they’re not telling.