An App For Love

By maximizing efficiency, technology has transformed dating into a routine for the acquisition of sex. Love has been, literally, written out of the code for a generation afraid to catch feelings.





The future, as per usual, arrived first in Japan.

Last year fewer babies were born in Japan than any year on record. Roughly 1.001 million babies were born, and 1.269 million people died, leaving the country with 268,000 fewer people. In U.S. terms, that’s like if everyone in Newark up and disappeared last year. 2014 was just the latest record-breaking drop in a sharp, downward trajectory that began pretty much exactly 40 years ago.

For decades, the Japanese Government kept misinterpreting this negative population growth as a temporary dip rather than an sustained trend. The Washington Post created a graph based on the data from a 2014 working paper from Tokyo’s Waseda University, showing the government projections compared against reality —



 — an eerie EKG of a dying body being repeatedly defibrillated with mounting futility and desperation.

In 2013, the year adult incontinence diapers outsold baby diapers in Japan for the first time, Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research released a projection that, based on current trends, by 2060 30% of Japanese people will be gone.

Birth rates are declining across the developed world, but exactly what kind of Children of Men style apocalypse is going on in Japan?

“Japan’s under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships,” Abigail Haworth wrote in The Guardian. “Millions aren’t even dating, and increasing numbers can’t be bothered with sex. For their government, “celibacy syndrome” [sekkusu shinai shokogun] is part of a looming national catastrophe:

A survey in 2011 found that 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18–34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship, a rise of almost 10% from five years earlier. Another study found that a third of people under 30 had never dated at all. A survey earlier this year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45% of women aged 16–24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact.” More than a quarter of men felt the same way. Japan’s Institute of Population and Social Security reports an astonishing 90% of young women believe that staying single is “preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like.”

“Both men and women say to me they don’t see the point of love,” says Ai Aoyama [a sex and relationship counsellor, and former professional dominatrix]. “They don’t believe it can lead anywhere.”


Mendokusai translates loosely as “Too troublesome” or “I can’t be bothered.” It’s the word I hear both sexes use most often when they talk about their relationship phobia. Romantic commitment seems to represent burden and drudgery. “I find some of my female friends attractive,” says Satoru Kishino, 31 “But I’ve learned to live without sex. Emotional entanglements are too complicated. I can’t be bothered.”

Eri Asada, 22, who studied economics, has no interest in love. “I gave up dating three years ago. I don’t miss boyfriends or sex. I don’t even like holding hands.”

“Gradually but relentlessly, Japan is evolving into a type of society whose contours and workings have only been contemplated in science fiction,” Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt wrote last year.

[But] aversion to marriage and intimacy in modern life is not unique to Japan. Many of the shifts there are occurring in other advanced nations, too. Is Japan providing a glimpse of all our futures?





“It’s a balmy night in Manhattan’s financial district,” writes Nancy Jo Sales in Vanity Fair, “And at a sports bar called Stout, everyone is Tindering. The tables are filled with young women and men who’ve been chasing money and deals on Wall Street all day, and now they’re out looking for hookups. Everyone is drinking, peering into their screens and swiping on the faces of strangers they may have sex with later that evening.”

Sales captures an essential ethnography of a world — told mostly through the words of its inhabitants themselves — where “an unprecedented phenomenon is taking place, in the realm of sex” as hookup culture collides with dating apps:

At a booth in the back, three handsome twentysomething guys in button-downs are having beers. They are Dan, Alex, and Marty, budding investment bankers at the same financial firm, which recruited Alex and Marty straight from an Ivy League campus. When asked if they’ve been arranging dates on the apps they’ve been swiping at, all say not one date, but two or three: “You can’t be stuck in one lane … There’s always something better.” “If you had a reservation somewhere and then a table at Per Se opened up, you’d want to go there,” Alex offers.

“Guys view everything as a competition. Who’s slept with the best, hottest girls?” With these dating apps, he says, “you’re always sort of prowling. You could talk to two or three girls at a bar and pick the best one, or you can swipe a couple hundred people a day — the sample size is so much larger. It’s setting up two or three Tinder dates a week and, chances are, sleeping with all of them, so you could rack up 100 girls you’ve slept with in a year.”

He says that he himself has slept with five different women he met on Tinder in the last eight days. Dan and Marty, also Alex’s roommates, can vouch for that. In fact, they can remember whom Alex has slept with in the past week more readily than he can.“Brittany, Morgan, Amber,” Marty says, counting on his fingers. “Oh, and the Russian — Ukrainian?”

“Ukrainian,” Alex confirms.

“I hooked up with three girls, thanks to the Internet, off of Tinder, in the course of four nights, and I spent a total of $80 on all three girls,” Nick relays proudly. He goes on to describe each date, one of which he says began with the young woman asking him on Tinder to “‘come over and smoke [weed] and watch a movie.’ I know what that means,” he says, grinning.

In his iPhone, has a list of more than 40 girls he has “had relations with, rated by [one to five] stars…. It empowers them,” he jokes. “It’s a mix of how good they are in bed and how attractive they are.”

They laugh.


Of the themes that emerge from Sales’ piece, one is efficiency:

At a table in the front, six young women have met up for an after-work drink. They’re seniors from Boston College, all in New York for summer internships. None of them are in relationships, they say.

“New York guys, from our experience, they’re not really looking for girlfriends,” says the blonde named Reese. “They’re just looking for hit-it-and-quit-it on Tinder. They start out with ‘Send me nudes.’ Or they say something like ‘I’m looking for something quick within the next 10 or 20 minutes — are you available?’ ‘O.K., you’re a mile away, tell me your location.’ It’s straight efficiency.”

“I’m on Tinder, Happn, Hinge, OkCupid,” Nick says. “It’s just a numbers game. Before, I could go out to a bar and talk to one girl, but now I can sit home on Tinder and talk to 15 girls — ”

“Without spending any money,” John chimes in.

“I’ve gotten numbers on Tinder just by sending emojis,” says John. “Without actually having a conversation — having a conversation via emojis.”

He holds up his phone, with its cracked screen, to show a Tinder conversation between him and a young woman who provided her number after he offered a series of emojis, including the ones for pizza and beer.“

“Now is that the kind of woman I potentially want to marry?” he asks, smiling. “Probably not.”

Neither Nick nor John has had a girlfriend in the last few years; Brian had one until recently but confesses, “I cheated…. She found out by looking at my phone — rookie mistake, not deleting everything.”

They all say they don’t want to be in relationships. “I don’t want one,” says Nick. “I don’t want to have to deal with all that — stuff.”

“You can’t be selfish in a relationship,” Brian says. “It feels good just to do what I want.”

I ask them if it ever feels like they lack a deeper connection with someone.

There’s a small silence. After a moment, John says, “I think at some points it does.”

“But that’s assuming that that’s something that I want, which I don’t,” Nick says, a trifle annoyed. “Does that mean that my life is lacking something? I’m perfectly happy. I have a good time. I go to work — I’m busy. And when I’m not, I go out with my friends.”

“Or you meet someone on Tinder,” offers John.

“Exactly,” Nick says. “Tinder is fast and easy, boom-boom-boom, swipe.”


Another theme is intimacy:

Asked what these women are like, he shrugs. “I could offer a résumé, but that’s about it … Works at J. Crew; senior at Parsons; junior at Pace; works in finance …”

“We don’t know what the girls are like,” Marty says.

“And they don’t know us,” says Alex.

Marty, who prefers Hinge to Tinder (“Hinge is my thing”), says he’s slept with 30 to 40 women in the last year: “I sort of play that I could be a boyfriend kind of guy,” in order to win them over, “but then they start wanting me to care more … and I just don’t.”

“Dude, that’s not cool,” Alex chides. “I always make a point of disclosing I’m not looking for anything serious. I just wanna hang out, be friends, see what happens … If I were ever in a court of law I could point to the transcript.” But something about the whole scenario seems to bother him. “I think to an extent it is, like, sinister,” he says.

“When it’s so easy, when it’s so available to you,” Brian says intensely, “and you can meet somebody and fuck them in 20 minutes, it’s very hard to contain yourself.”

“It’s rare for a woman of our generation to meet a man who treats her like a priority instead of an option,” wrote Erica Gordon on the Gen Y Web site Elite Daily, in 2014.

“I had sex with a guy and he ignored me as I got dressed and I saw he was back on Tinder.”

It is the very abundance of options provided by online dating which may be making men less inclined to treat any particular woman as a “priority,” according to David Buss, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in the evolution of human sexuality. “Apps like Tinder and OkCupid give people the impression that there are thousands or millions of potential mates out there,” Buss says. “One dimension of this is the impact it has on men’s psychology. When there is a surplus of women, or a perceived surplus of women, the whole mating system tends to shift. Men don’t have to commit, so they pursue a short-term mating strategy. Men are making that shift, and women are forced to go along with it in order to mate at all.”

Bring all of this up to young men, however, and they scoff. Women are just as responsible for “the shit show that dating has become,” according to one. “Romance is completely dead, and it’s the girls’ fault,” says Alex, 25, a New Yorker who works in the film industry.

“They act like all they want is to have sex with you and then they yell at you for not wanting to have a relationship. How are you gonna feel romantic about a girl like that? Oh, and by the way? I met you on Tinder.”

“Women do exactly the same things guys do,” said Matt, 26, who works in a New York art gallery. “I’ve had girls sleep with me off OkCupid and then just ghost me” — that is, disappear, in a digital sense, not returning texts. “They play the game the exact same way. They have a bunch of people going at the same time — they’re fielding their options. They’re always looking for somebody better, who has a better job or more money.” A few young women admitted to me that they use dating apps as a way to get free meals. “I call it Tinder food stamps,” one said.


And pleasure?

“What’s a real orgasm like,” says Courtney with a sigh. “I wouldn’t know. A lot of guys are lacking in that department.”

They all laugh knowingly.

“I know how to give one to myself,” says Courtney.

“Yeah, but men don’t know what to do,” says Jessica, texting.

“Without [a vibrator] I can’t have one,” Courtney says. “It’s never happened” with a guy. “It’s a huge problem.”

“It is a problem,” Jessica concurs.

According to multiple studies, women are more likely to have orgasms in the context of relationships than in uncommitted encounters. More than twice as likely, according to a study done by researchers at the Kinsey Institute and Binghamton University.

They talk about how it’s not uncommon for their hookups to lose their erections. It’s a curious medical phenomenon, the increased erectile dysfunction in young males, which has been attributed to everything from chemicals in processed foods to the lack of intimacy in hookup sex.

“I think men have a skewed view of the reality of sex through porn,” Jessica says, looking up from her phone. “Because sometimes I think porn sex is not always great — like pounding someone.” She makes a pounding motion with her hand, looking indignant.

“Yeah, it looks like it hurts,” Danielle says.

“Like porn sex,” says Jessica, “those women — that’s not, like, enjoyable, like having their hair pulled or being choked or slammed. I mean, whatever you’re into, but men just think” — bro voice — “ ‘I’m gonna fuck her,’ and sometimes that’s not great.”

“Yeah,” Danielle agrees. “Like last night I was having sex with this guy, and I’m a very submissive person — like, not aggressive at all — and this boy that came over last night, he was hurting me.”

They were quiet a moment.



“There have been two major transitions” in heterosexual mating “in the last four million years,” says Justin Garcia, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, quoted in Sales’ article. “The first was around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, in the agricultural revolution, when we became less migratory and more settled,” leading to the establishment of marriage as a cultural contract. “And the second major transition is with the rise of the Internet. It’s changing so much about the way we act both romantically and sexually.”

In February, 2015, Sales writes, “one study reported there were nearly 100 million people — perhaps 50 million on Tinder alone — using their phones as a sort of all-day, every-day, handheld singles club, where they might find a sex partner as easily as they’d find a cheap flight to Florida.”

“It is unprecedented from an evolutionary standpoint,” Garcia says. We are in “uncharted territory.”

But out here on the drought-ravaged, California desert frontier that’s spawned the iPhone and Tinder (not to mention Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Google, Facebook, etc., etc.), the humans creating the technology are drawing the maps.

In the Berkeley Journal of Sociology article, Morality and the Idea of Progress in Silicon Valley, Eric Gianella writes, “We’d like to be able to claim that making things more [efficient] is good. This justifies the countless products and services whose origins can be traced to someone noticing an opportunity for optimization. But there are many cases in which we need to question whether making activities more [efficient] is moral.”

And when it comes to romance, is efficiency even what we want?

I mean, if we do, we’re in luck. The Japanese have already figured out how to take that impulse to its ultimate conclusion. (Of course).

“In Japan today there’s a whole industry of relationship replacement services,” Ryan Duffy explained, in Vice’s 2013 travelogue through Japan’s Love Industry, “You can essentially replicate anything you’d get from a relationship, be it sexual, emotional, or otherwise, without actually having to have a boyfriend or girlfriend.” From the now globally famous Japanese host bars, where professionals simulate the companionship experience of a date (strictly conversation, not copulation) as-a-service — “Women are willing to affix a price for the experience,” a host who makes $800,000 a year casually explains, “It’s totally normal,” — to platonic “cuddle cafes,” where customers can order off a menu of services that includes getting to pet the cuddle hostess’s head, and gazing deeply into each others’ eyes for $80.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” Duffy asks Sakura Serizawa, his cuddle hostess, as he lies next to her, resting his head on her arm.

“Of course not,” she says, “Mendokusai. When I see happy couples during Christmas, I wish they would die. I don’t like seeing people being affectionate in public.”


“That’s interesting,” Duffy says, quietly horrified, “For someone who is affectionate with strangers for a living.”

“I have no emotional attachment to my customers,” Serizawa explains tonelessly, her artificially enlarged, anime-lensed eyes far away and hollow — like guacamole at Chipotle, eye contact with a human being in the land of efficiency costs extra.

“Nothing is weirder than this,” Duffy murmurs. “Profoundly, profoundly disturbing. We should stop this because it’s freaking me out.”

In voice-over Duffy later added, “I’ve seen a lot of perverse things in my life, but this pseudo-romance actually really got to me,” before culminating the Vice travel guide to Japan’s Love Industry at a Tokyo Hilton where a prostitute defecates in a bathtub and eats her own shit as a sexual service.

What the Japanese have realized is that why stop at sex? Every aspect of human contact can be commodified. Interaction without connection. What could be more efficient?

For Americans, that kind of streamlined optimization looks like this:

“Sex has become so easy,” says John, 26, a marketing executive quoted in Sales’ article. “I can go on my phone right now and no doubt I can find someone I can have sex with this evening, probably before midnight.”

“It’s like ordering Seamless,” says Dan, the investment banker, referring to the online food-delivery service. “But you’re ordering a person.”

But there’s a sense of absence in this paradise of frictionless efficiency. Some essential element’s gone missing in an invisible drought.

“When asked if there was anything about dating apps the young men I talked to didn’t like,” Sales writes, “’Too easy,’ ‘Too easy,’ ‘Too easy,’ I heard again and again.”

By reducing people to one-time-use bodies and sex to an on-demand exchange, dating apps have made what they yield us disposable and cheap. (Even Tinder is uneasy about its role in society being an orifice delivery service, disavowing it contributes to the very hookup culture its technology has not only branded but mainstreamed.)

“I call it the Dating Apocalypse,” a 29 year old New York woman tells Sales.

Or, in the vernacular of Silicon Valley: We have succeeded in disrupting love.

Enterprise Bridge, Lake Oroville, California


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If there’s one place where love is not dead, it’s the lab.

Anthropologist, Helen Fisher, and neuroscientist, Lucy Brown have been putting people who are madly in love into functional MRI brain scanners to find out what is going on up there, and they can tell you exactly where love lives in the brain:

This is your brain on love
This is your brain on love.

. .

[In] our study we found activity in a tiny, little factory near the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental area. We found activity in some cells called the A10 cells, cells that actually make dopamine, a natural stimulant, and spray it to many brain regions. Indeed, this part, the VTA, is part of the brain’s reward system. It’s way below your cognitive thinking process. It’s part of what we call the reptilian core of the brain, associated with wanting, with motivation, with focus and with craving. In fact, the same brain region where we found activity becomes active also when you feel the rush of cocaine.

There’s a very specific group of things that happen when you fall in love, and indeed, it has all of the characteristics of addiction. The first thing that happens is a person begins to take on what I call, “special meaning.” You focus on the person, you obsessively think about them, you crave them, you distort reality, your willingness to take enormous risks to win this person. It’s an obsession. As a truck driver once said to me, “The world had a new center, and that center was Mary Anne.”

In another lab, at Stony Brook University, the psychologist Arthur Aron and his colleagues succeeded in making two strangers fall in love as part of an experiment. The researchers wanted to know if they could create conditions that would make strangers quickly bond and form close friendships, even romantic relationships. They paired up random participants, seated them face to face, and gave them a sequence of 36 increasingly personal questions to ask one another and answer openly over an hour, including:

  • Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
  • What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
  • What do you value most in a friendship?
  • Would you be willing to have horrible nightmares for a year if you would be rewarded with extraordinary wealth?
  • While on a trip to another city, your spouse (or lover) meets and spends a night w/ an exciting stranger. Given they will never meet again, and you will not otherwise learn of the incident, would you want your partner to tell you about it?
  • What foreign country would you most like to visit? What attracts you to this place?

Even before the hour was up, participants typically identified strong feelings of closeness with their partner, often exchanging contact information and indicating a wish to meet up again. “In the original [1997] experiment we also tested an intense version of this with cross-sex couples,” Aron said in Wired in 2011. “And the first ones we tested fell in love and got married. And as of last year, when I last had contact with them, they were still together.”

The control group participants were paired up to engage in small-talk, never, obviously, to be heard from again.

“The effect is based on gradually escalating reciprocal self-disclosure,” Aron and his colleagues explained in their paper, The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings. “So are we producing real closeness? Yes and no. We think that the closeness produced in these studies is experienced as similar in many important ways to felt closeness in naturally occurring relationships that develop over time. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that the procedure produces loyalty, dependence, commitment, or other relationship aspects that might take longer to develop.”

This maps to the distinct brain systems Fisher and her team have identified for mating and reproduction:

  1. The sex drive, which, as Fisher says, “evolved to get us out there looking for a whole range of partners. You can feel it when you’re just driving along in your car. It can be focused on nobody.”
  2. Romantic love, “that elation and obsession which evolved to enable us to focus our mating energy on just one individual at a time, thereby conserving mating time and energy.”
  3. Attachment, “that sense of calm and security you can feel for a long-term partner, evolved to enable you to tolerate this human being at least long enough to raise a child together as a team.”

Right now our “dating” technology is built for the very particular, accumulative drive of #1. Not surprising, perhaps, considering who is (stereo)typically doing the building, but this experience design choice has created a template for imitation.

Co-founder, Whitney Wolfe, left Tinder (under circumstances, outlined in a sexual harassment lawsuit, that read, in excruciating screencaps of text exchanges, like a self-fulfilling indictment of the kind of pathological culture the product encourages) and created…. Tinder. Actually, it’s called Bumble. The Sadie Hawkins of dating apps, on Bumble it’s only women who are able to initiate a conversation once both parties have opted in to a match. Which is pretty much a branding gimmick turned into a product feature. The main differentiator becomes the type of person who would self select to use an app brand that flaunts female agency. But beneath that surface distinction the basic product experience isn’t really a departure from the app its founder left.

“[We know] from our work that if you go and do something very novel with somebody,” Fisher says, “You can drive up the dopamine in the brain, and perhaps trigger this brain system for romantic love. Mystery is [also] important. You fall in love with somebody who’s somewhat mysterious, in part because mystery elevates dopamine in the brain, [which] probably pushes you over that threshold to fall in love.”

Love, as it turns out, can’t be automated. (Who knew?) It doesn’t result from meeting or sleeping with more people. In fact, just the opposite. Love is triggered in a moment when we are able to experience something special in one individual, as everyone else fades away. As Proust said, “It is our imagination that is responsible for love, not the other person.”

Love loves rarity, not surplus, and it might actually hate efficiency, hearting, as it does, the out of the ordinary and unexpected and novel and non-routine. But from swipe to sex, the relentless, grinding repetitiveness inherent in every aspect of the “swipe app” experience, sabotages the very mechanics that trigger the brain system for romantic love.

In 2013, I wrote that “our technology is turning all of us into objects.

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Season 21

The ubiquitousness of cameras and social platforms on which to share their output has made us all re-conceive ourselves and one another as media products. We are all selfies. We are all profiles. We are all hashtags. And we can’t stop. Now we swipe through thousands of instant people. We learn nothing of them and share nothing of ourselves to be known. We strip ourselves down to anatomy and stare at each other with hollow, cuddle-host eyes, and we become invisible. Independent contractors in the sharing economy of sex.

There’s obviously all kinds of reasons for why we fall in love with one person rather than another, but if the conditions for generating interpersonal closeness can be recreated in, of all places, a lab experiment, and if the neural mechanisms for how romantic love works can be understood, then perhaps the technological desert we currently find ourselves on is not only, as Sales says a “cultural problem,” it’s an innovation problem.

Love knows what it likes, and we could be building tech engineered for it — creating a match between the research and the product experience, as it were. But we aren’t.

In a time when it’s legal to marry whomever you love, love itself has become an alternative lifestyle.



“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer,” said Anaïs Nin.

In a 2014 survey by the American College Health Association, 54% of college students surveyed said that they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months. An increase of 5% from the same survey five years earlier. Nearly all of the campus mental-health directors surveyed in 2013 by the American College Counseling Association reported that the number of students with severe psychological problems had escalated at their schools.

In tandem, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write in The Atlantic, “A movement has been arising at America’s colleges and universities, driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense,” (emphasis added).

Unlike the political correctness movement of the 80’s and 90’s, which sought to restrict hate speech aimed at marginalized groups, “the current movement is largely about emotional well-being; turning campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.”

“Trigger warnings” — signaling that something potentially uncomfortable lies ahead — are now being “demanded for a long list of ideas and attitudes that some students find offensive. Books for which students have called publicly for trigger warnings within the past couple of years include Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart [for describing] racial violence, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby [for portraying] misogyny and physical abuse, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (at Rutgers, for ‘suicidal inclinations’), and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (at Columbia, for sexual assault). In an article published last year by Inside Higher Ed, seven humanities professors wrote that the trigger-warning movement was ‘already having a chilling effect on [their] teaching.’ They reported their colleagues’ receiving ‘phone calls from deans and other administrators investigating student complaints that they have included ‘triggering’ material in their courses, with or without warnings.’ A trigger warning, they wrote, ‘serves as a guarantee that students will not experience unexpected discomfort.’”

Shielding people from experiences that might cause them emotional discomfort, however, doesn’t help them actually overcome their anxiety. “According to the most-basic tenets of psychology,” Lukianoff and Haidt write, “The very idea of helping people with anxiety avoid the things they fear is misguided. A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.”

And if you want a generation to fear of intimacy, then help them avoid feeling anything uncomfortable. For what could be more fundamentally discomforting than love?

“You know, if you ask somebody to go to bed with you, and they say, ‘No, thank you,’ you certainly don’t kill yourself or slip into a clinical depression,” Fisher says. But people who are rejected in love do. “We live for love. We kill for love. We die for love. It is one of the most powerful brain systems on Earth for both great joy and great sorrow.”

Trigger warning: Love will make you feel.

It’s telling that amidst the 6,000+ words about the sex lives of 21st century 20-somethings in Sales’ article, “love” makes an appearance just once: “What about the still-flickering chance that somebody might fall in love?” she asks.

“Some people still catch feelings in hookup culture,” Sales quotes Meredith, a Bellarmine sophomore. “It’s not like just blind fucking for pleasure and it’s done; some people actually like the other person. Sometimes you actually catch feelings and that’s what sucks, because it’s one person thinking one thing and the other person thinking something completely different and someone gets their feelings hurt. It could be the boy or the girl.”

It’s an interesting turn of phrase, “catch feelings,” that has pervaded our contemporary conception of ourselves. It connotes that feelings are a contamination, a sickness you contract, a disease of some kind. An STD.

“People acquire their fears not just from their own past experiences,” Lukianoff and Haidt write, “But from social learning as well. If everyone around you acts as though something is dangerous — elevators, certain neighborhoods, novels depicting racism — “ feelings “ — then you are at risk of acquiring that fear too. “

In a sense, both the Japanese celibacy syndrome, and the west’s “psychosexual obesity” can be seen symptoms the same viral fear of our feeling selves. After all, if it makes you feel nothing either way, does it really matter how much sex you’re having, or any at all? You could practically hear the Americans in Sales’ article straining for the word mendokusai. Both cultures have convinced themselves that emotional necrosis is the cure; it’s too much trouble to feel.

“Love possesses you,” as Fisher says, “you lose your sense of self. You can’t stop thinking about another human being. Somebody is camping in your head.” That kind of insurgent invasion on our prized individualism has come to seem beyond trouble: it’s terror.

Ironically, it is through exposure and acclimation to that which we fear that we reduce anxiety. By confronting the things we’re scared of and realizing we can handle them, we rewire the brain to associate previously feared situations with normalcy. Anxiety is literally the inability to cope with what we feel. If all we’re trying to do is avoid catching feelings, never learning how to live with them, it’s no surprise anxiety would be on the rise.

What happens when a generation so terrified of even just reading something that might make them feel uncomfortable they’ll voluntarily censor classic literature rather than cope with the emotions art stirs up collides with technology that reduces us all to objects? And what happens when the people creating our technology have grown up in that same environment, mirroring its emotional bankruptcy back to us via the products they create?

“Keep playing,” Tinder encourages whenever a user gets a match. On this platform for finally, truly “gamifying” sex, there’s no room for feeling. People are prizes and bodies are points and feelings don’t accrue you anything, so what’s the point of having them? They are inefficient and invisible. (You can’t even post a photo; did they happen at all?)

Maybe one day in the future we’ll invent technology for that too. Botox the bugs in the brain that feel grief or sorrow or loss or love. Lobotomize ourselves into an Eternal Sunshine state of mind. But in the meantime, we are still human, feeling beings, who increasingly view their own feeling nature as a contamination.

Imagine a 13 year old today. Too young to have ever known how it’s like to to fall in love or go on a date or be in a relationship — but old enough to be on Tinder. What will coming of age in this environment be like for them? Porn is already how an entire generation learns how to have sex. What will being swallowed up into a ceaseless stream of swipe-able sex objects teach them about how to love?



“Who knows how to make love stay?” Tom Robbins asked in Still Life with Woodpecker:

1. Tell love you are going to Junior’s Deli on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to pick up a cheesecake, and if loves stays, it can have half. It will stay.

2. Tell love you want a momento of it and obtain a lock of its hair. Burn the hair in a dime-store incense burner with yin/yang symbols on three sides. Face southwest. Talk fast over the burning hair in a convincingly exotic language. Remove the ashes of the burnt hair and use them to paint a moustache on your face. Find love. Tell it you are someone new. It will stay.

3. Wake love up in the middle of the night. Tell it the world is on fire. Dash to the bedroom window and pee out of it. Casually return to bed and assure love that everything is going to be all right. Fall asleep. Love will be there in the morning.


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Engineers in the Mist

 5 Days & Nights With Startup Millennials in San Francisco.




THURSDAY MORNING: San Francisco’s Hottest Zip Code


“Our power was out this morning,” The text message from S, the 27-year-old CTO of a fashion startup in San Francisco reads, “And hopefully it is back on now but… ?”

In Los Angeles, I receive this information as I’m heading out the door to LAX on my way “upstairs” to San Francisco for the Chief Innovation Officer Summit and some meetings. The salient-seeming text arrives, and evaporates like rising steam, pushed into the abyss beyond my screen by more incoming iMessage bubbles of instructions about S’s street address, the lockbox code to get the keys to her apartment, how to locate her room, disclaimers about the room’s condition (Um, it’s a little bit of a disaster because basically every day I drop my clothes on the floor and grab new clothes to wear horizontal line mouth emoji), etc.

As I’m waiting to board one of Southwest’s hourly nerd bird flights from LA and SF, I see an article on the Verge titled, “Crashing the Casting Call For 94110, a Show About San Francisco’s Hottest Zip Code”:

Last month fliers began appearing on certain blocks of San Francisco advertising open auditions for a television pilot about “six leading technology executives living, learning, and loving together in San Francisco’s Mission District.” The shlocky concept was named 94110 after the neighborhood’s zip code, and was roundly ridiculed online. Nonetheless, nearly 100 hopefuls showed up for the casting call this weekend, which was held at SFAQ, a dinged-up, lived-in little art gallery in the Tenderloin.

94110 is S’s zip code.

At this moment my return flight is scheduled for 2 days from now. When I eventually leave, nearly a week later, the power in S’s apartment will still not be fixed.


THURSDAY EVENING: What Is My Mother No Longer Doing For Me?


I arrive just in time to catch the end of day 1 of the Chief Innovation Officer Summit. It’s at the Hyatt Regency in the Embarcadero and I can generally remember how to get there from the Mission even without the help of the Google Maps app.

The first time I came to San Francisco I was 12 and I fell in love. In high school, I’d visit every spring break, sitting on top of Nob Hill writing sprawling love poems to the gorgeous city, taking the 24 up Divisadero imagining which house the interview in Interview With The Vampire had taken place in, trying on hippie eyelet dresses in the stores on Haight, which still smelled of nag champa when I wore one to prom. The day after my last final freshman year of college I got on a plane and moved there. I was 18 and San Francisco was full of artists, musicians, dancers, and cultural rebels. It was a totally different city, peopled by totally different kinds of residents.

Watching my fellow riders on the inbound J train now, I am reminded of a census statistic I’d seen recently — between 1990 and 2010 San Francisco’s black population fell 35.7 percent.

In the evening, I meet up with a friend who is a data scientist at an on-demand meal delivery app (think: Tinder for dinner). He tells me he is working on optimizing the food display options for conversion — making sure users would be more likely to see meals they were going to want to order more quickly as soon as they opened the app.

“The tech industry used to think big,” Farhad Manjoo wrote in the New York Times:

As early as 1977, when personal computers were expensive and impractical mystery boxes with no apparent utility or business prospects, the young Bill Gates and Paul Allen were already working toward a future in which we would see “a computer on every desk and in every home.” And in the late 1990s, when it was far from clear that they would ever make a penny from their unusual search engine, the audacious founders of Google were planning to organize every bit of data on the planet — and make it available to everyone, free.

These were dreams of vast breadth: The founders of Microsoft, Google, Facebook and many of the rest of today’s tech giants were not content to win over just some people to their future. They weren’t going after simply the rich, or Americans or Westerners. They planned to radically alter how the world did business so the impossible became a reality for everyone.

We are once again living in a go-go time for tech, but there are few signs that the most consequential fruits of the boom have reached the masses. Instead, the boom is characterized by a rise in so-called on-demand services aimed at the wealthy and the young.

With a few taps on a phone, for a fee, today’s hottest start-ups will help people on the lowest rungs of the 1 percent live like their betters in the 0.1 percent. These services give the modestly wealthy a chance to enjoy the cooks, cleaners, drivers, personal assistants and all the other lavish appointments that have defined extravagant wealth. As one critic tweeted, San Francisco’s tech industry “is focused on solving one problem: What is my mother no longer doing for me?


During dinner, S texts me. Her roommate, R, has “Somehow acquired this awesome house for the night. So… I’m going to go there to hot tub. Come. It’s like $1,000/night but he got it for free, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. ALSO the power is still fucked.”

“Ooofff,” I text back. “Mostly cuz my phone.”

“Fortunately, I’m an engineer. So I connected the light in my room to an extension cord. So you can swap the light for your phone maybe?”

“I like how you’re like, ‘Power is fucked. Oh well. We’ll go to another house.

“I mean we flipped all the breakers in our house. And the apartment upstairs. It’s like, fuck it. The door doesn’t close unless you kick it hard. Landlord is coming tomorrow. We have to hide the cat.”


“If you want to stop by to say hi, it’s — “


FRIDAY MORNING: How Do We Adapt To Millennials?


At The CIO Summit Day 2, Debra Brackeen, the head of the Innovation Network at Citi is talking about biometric integration with financial data, and I’m sipping grapefruit juice and eating a muffin and thinking — who could have predicted the sci-fi future would be so mundane when it arrived, you know?

Everyone is dressed like they’re running for office. I am definitely feeling like a spy; witnessing the ghost of Christmas future. “How do we adapt to Millennials,” someone asks during Heather McGlinn, Wells Fargo’s SVP, Strategy’s, presentation, “Leveraging Disruptive Technologies to Enhance Competitive Advantages,” in the way that you talk about a group of people when they’re not in the room. And, I mean, they aren’t. At the moment, the Millennials are stumbling into their startups after partying all night at Airbnb mansions on drugs from Silk Road.

All roads lead to discussions of disruption. Tim Sutton, the Global Head of Innovation at Clear explains how companies now need to grow their business minimum 4% every year just to maintain market share. If you’re really just maintaining, you’re actually falling behind. A dilemma since, as he puts it, “There is no white space in a consumer’s wallet.” And meanwhile, somewhere beyond the Hyatt’s glass walls, out there in the fog of war of San Francisco, an army of barbarians wages daily assault on the gates of the establishment, gaining ground even if they lose, simply through chaos.

Citing the New York Times’ leaked 2014 Innovation Report, Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker:

Disruption is a predictable pattern across many industries in which fledgling companies use new technology to offer cheaper and inferior alternatives to products sold by established players (think Toyota taking on Detroit decades ago). Today, a pack of news startups are hoping to ‘disrupt’ our industry by attacking the strongest incumbent.”

A pack of attacking startups sounds something like a pack of ravenous hyenas, but, generally, the rhetoric of disruption—a language of panic, fear, asymmetry, and disorder—calls on the rhetoric of another kind of conflict, in which an upstart refuses to play by the established rules of engagement, and blows things up. Don’t think of Toyota taking on Detroit. Startups are ruthless and leaderless and unrestrained, and they seem so tiny and powerless, until you realize, but only after it’s too late, that they’re devastatingly dangerous: Bang! Ka-boom! Think of it this way: the Times is a nation-state; BuzzFeed is stateless. Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.

On a panel about “Strategy Vs Execution,” Pat Conway, the Chief Knowledge Officer for the U.S. Army, is heard saying, “In battle, your biggest obstacle, aside from the adversary, is terrain.”

What must it have been like to awake each morning to an ever-unchanging world? For the majority of humans through the majority of human history this was reality. Today we wake up each morning in a war zone; a disrupted terrorscape where everything has shifted out from under us during the night.


FRIDAY EVENING: You Still Use Skype?


I wake up from a nap at 8:30 to a text from S letting me know a car is coming for me and to be ready in 20 minutes. Half of the apartment is still without electricity but an on-demand chauffeur summoned by magic is coming to whisk me off to a secret speakeasy.

“Do you know where we’re going?” I say to the Lyft driver.

“Do you know?”

“Um….. No? I thought you did?”

“When I pick up the next person,” he says noncommittally.

A few minutes later the other passenger gets in. “Do you know where we’re going,” I ask him.

He’s baffled. “Are you going to the same place?”

For a few moments literally no one in this car knows what we’re doing here.

It’s 2015.

Eventually the Lyft driver gets my destination coordinates and drops me off on a street corner in North Beach before driving off to deposit the other Lyft Line passenger. A few moments later S, R, and their respective dates appear. S has Uber (for them), Lyft (for me), and Luxe, an on-demand valet service (for her brother) all running on her phone at the same time.

At the speakeasy I’m telling a story about getting a Skype call on a Virgin flight a couple of years ago. “I was so bewildered I hit the green button without even thinking. And then immediately felt like an asshole and hung up.”

“You still use Skype?” R’s date, a Yale grad who works at Google, deadpans.

This is San Francisco now. Fueled by so much one-upmanship and relentless competitiveness and insecurity. It’s a social world designed, literally, by people who came up playing Dungeons and Dragons, who relish intensely complex systems and arcane rules. The trick to enjoying yourself in San Francisco is not to have very much at stake.

In case you’re curious, 300 million people still use Skype, but the coolest girl you know probably uses a flip phone so.


SATURDAY MORNING: Leaving San Francisco. 


Saturday morning everyone is going to Napa and although this was not originally part of the plan, apparently, so am I.

R shows up at the apartment in the morning after You Still Use Skype’s place and while we are waiting for the Luxe valet to bring S’s brother’s car, he tells us a great app idea he’s just thought of: “So it’d basically be Tinder, but just for me. Like that’s all you can do. Is just swipe right on me.” He pauses his rapid-fire delivery to let the concept sink in. “TechCrunch would be all over that. I’d get wifed so fast.”

“Is that what you want, though,” I say.

He considers. “No.”

We spend a while drifting aimlessly as the wait for the Luxe valet lingers on and no one is exactly sure why. Since S ordered the service from her phone she’s the only one who knows the status of what is or might be going on, but S is already in Napa by this point and details are intermittent and sketchy at best. We wonder if perhaps the valet is driving the car out to Napa; is he following her GPS dot around from winery to winery?

The doorbell rings. An electrician arrives to inspect the power outage. A 20th century service while we wait for the 21st century one. Eventually information is absorbed in some kind of vaporous way that the Luxe valet has confused our address with one in San Mateo and after this gets resolved eventually the car arrives and R, S’s brother, and I go to Napa.


SATURDAY EVENING: The Human Centipede Economy.


“The Luxe valets use your car to be Lyft drivers,” S says.

“It’s The Human Centipede Economy,” I declare.

R jumps on this and proceeds to map out a full workflow diagram. “Let’s say you start with Airbnb at the top, right? Then below that you’ve got all the property management companies who then all use Homejoy to clean the houses, and Washio for laundry, and Lyft to get around,” and so on and on.

In Napa some people leave our group and new people appear. All day I am the only one who isn’t an engineer. R later explains the difference between engineers, programmers, and developers, but at the moment it’s all the same and we are LOLing and lolling around bucolic winery grounds, wasted on champagne.

“What class of drug is GHB?” Someone asks.

“Drano,” T answers. T is a new addition to our crew. He’s just moved to San Francisco from New York to start a job at a $500-million startup literally the day before. By the second winery he is explaining why he never engages with “torsos” — profiles of headless, chiseled, abdomen selfies — on Grindr, because one time he did, and quickly realized why the guy didn’t include his face.

“I’m actually bi,” he tells me when we go out into the vineyard to take drunken photos amid the leaves.

“Oh, you are?” I say, fiddling with photo filters. “But do you ever just feel like…. you know, paralysis of choice?”

He laughs and I realize this isn’t what he thought I was going to say.

Eventually it becomes evident that I am clearly not heading back to San Francisco tonight and somewhere between Napa and Sacramento I am calling Southwest and changing my return flight.


SUNDAY MORNING: Career Scoping.


We wake up in a Mongolian yurt. It’s sunny and warm out here in Colfax, and we are sitting by a pool waiting for breakfast as hawks fly overhead.

People are talking about working at pre / post IPO companies as different career strategies; “making money off the speculation;” “upside.” People are talking about deciding whether to work at Stripe, Slack, Reddit. People are talking about strategically deciding to work at a series B company; “career scoping.”

This is how people talk. And oddly it already feels less grotesque than it did yesterday. We become accustomed to things. These are just the elements of their actual lives. They can’t help it any more than you or I can help the inevitable echo chambers of our lives. We are all stuck in our own myopias.

“Where do you want to work in 25 years?” I ask.

Everyone goes quiet.

S shakes her head. “Oh, that’s not the plan.”

At some point someone says that they don’t really have to work at all.

“But I’m still interested in the power and the money,” R admits. “That’s an optimization scenario I have defined for myself.”

R says this phrase a lot. Life is all an endless string of “optimization scenarios” for maximizing happiness. I suggest that we all generally have a default happiness set point that we can’t really fux with too much; a personal baseline we’d return to eventually no matter if we win the lottery or become paralyzed.

“So, it might not even matter what I do?” He shrugs, grinning, his pink-tinted Aviators reflecting the aquamarine.




“Oh, you’re from LA?” a friend of a friend is saying to me at dinner. I’m back in San Francisco now. It’s cold and dark and the weather feels like the city is spitting at you. “I’m so sorry. LA is terrible.”

“Yup,” I say. “Totally is. You should definitely NOT go there.”

The SF / LA relationship is like a bad breakup where one side never quite got over it. A strangely persistent, one-directional antagonism going back decades in California’s cultural history. “San Francisco is too smug and self-centered for LA,” Ellen Sanders wrote in Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties, “The worst implication you could put on something in or from San Francisco is to call it an LA trip.” Frank Zappa neatly summarized this tension in his autobiography: “No matter how ‘peace-love’ the San Francisco bands might try to make themselves, they eventually had to come south to evil ‘ol Hollywood to get a record deal.”

At dinner I mention a Berkeley Journal of Sociology article by Eric Giannella I’d read recently titled, Silicon Valley’s Amorality Problem, to an ex-Googler:

Silicon Valley’s amorality problem arises from the blind faith many place in progress. The narrative of progress provides moral cover to the tech industry and lulls people into thinking they no longer need to exercise moral judgment.

The progress narrative has a strong hold on Silicon Valley for business and cultural reasons. The successes of science and technology give rise to a faith that rationality itself tends to be a force for good.[4] This faith makes business easier because companies claim to be contributing to progress. Most investors would rather not see their firms get mired in the fraught issue of [morality]; they prefer objective benefits, measured via return on investment. Progress, as we think of it, invites us to cannibalize our moral aspirations with rationality. It leads us to rely on efficiency as a proxy for morality.

There are alternatives to the progress narrative. Many people find meaning in their work through a narrative about making a contribution. Rather than thinking about contribution in a historic sense (i.e., progress), contribution can be thought in terms of specific groups of people.

My dinner companions tell me a story of a recent Airbnb adventure as support of new tech’s contribution. And I understand. I, myself, have just come back from a wonderful Airbnb adventure to a yurt, so, “I get it,” I say. “Airbnb is fun.”

“No, it’s not just fun,” ex-Googler insists. It’s bigger than that.

Downstairs our major cultural contribution is superhero movies. No one producing Avengers 17 or whatever thinks they’re “changing the world.” And that’s OK. Fun is OK. But upstairs it’s different. There is a palpable, existential need for innovation to be righteousness.

“One of the great triumphs of Silicon Valley is its success in framing its companies’ objectives as missions,” John Herman wrote on The Awl in Notes on the Surrender At Menlo Park:

There is a toxic mindset that permeates discussions about most accelerating, inevitable-seeming tech companies. It conflates criticism with denial and nostalgia. Why do people complain about Uber so much? Is it loyalty to yellow cabs and their corrupt nonsense industry? A word of caution about Facebook is not a wish to return to some non-existent ideal time. Worrying about the details of the coming future is merely taking that future seriously. People who insist otherwise? They have their reasons.

Anyway, what were we talking about? This is all going to seem so insane in twenty years. Or two years.



Monday Morning: Engineering Sex.

This particular Monday it’s Memorial Day, so no one is at work, and S is telling me while blowdrying her hair in the part of the apartment with power, “I have this thing that I do on first dates, where I tell them to meet me at this bar that I know is closed on Mondays, to see how they’ll react. Will they freak out? How will we solve problems together?”

And I’m partly horrified and partly fascinated and partly jealous. Some vital optimization scenario I feel I would have thought of if I was an engineer: how will we solve problems together? It’s like a job interview. “What do you want the reaction to be?” I ask. “Do you want them to pick a new place? Do you want them to ask you to pick?”

“I don’t really care,” S says, “So long as they don’t just freak out.”

I recall the Army’s Chief Knowledge Officer at the CIO Summit talking about “Mission Change;” being able to adapt when the objective suddenly shifts. “Get comfortable with uncomfortableness.” he said; a military zen koan.

R, who is 6’4″, has his own strategy. “My type is really tall girls. Like over 6 feet,” he says, because he knows up there he’s got way less competition.

Back in the car there was a lot of time to kill from Colfax to San Francisco, and we spent it user testing T’s updates to his various dating profiles, which he was retooling from a New York persona to a San Francisco look and feel with the methodical grind of coding. Photos of black Jack Spade jackets overwritten by green zip-up-hoodies.

Everyone was on Tinder of course. S mostly used Hinge. They knew of the League but no one was on it. R said recently he’d been meeting girls offline. “It just works better,” he said, “Cause in real life you get my personality, and that compensates.”

“Do you guys use Snapchat?” I asked.

“I use it to send dick pics to the girls I’m seeing,” R said.

“Do you include the face,” T wanted to know.

“Yeah. I’ve got a go-to angle,” R said, sliding down in the backseat, positioning his hand between his legs. “It makes my dick look huge.”

In Sacramento we saw the Capitol building and R and T took a selfie and sent it to a mutual ex who is a professional dominatrix. At one point she used to be T’s sexcam show partner.

She texted back: “:)”

When we came back to San Francisco, R was telling me a story about a girl he’d started seeing recently. It was nearly midnight and I’d plugged an electric kettle into an overflowing power strip in a part of the apartment with electricity and made some hot chocolate and we sat by the fireplace in the living room and tried to stay warm.

“She asked me, ‘What’s your favorite porn site?’ And I said, no, you write down yours on a piece of paper and then I’ll do the same, and when we swapped, it turned out we’d both written down the same one.”

“One night, we’re having sex and she says, ‘I think you’re bleeding.’ And I turn on the lights and I realize I’ve got a nosebleed and it’s bad. There’s blood everywhere. On the walls, pooled in the sheets. It’s in her hair, all over her face, her tits” — as he’s describing what I can only picture as a murder scene I realize he’s titillated. “We both came harder than we ever had before. She has this framed poster of the Black Dahlia on her wall and some blood got on that and she just never cleaned it off and when I come over it’s still there.”

“But you know,” he went on, “There is one girl…. I’ve known her a long time. She’s the sister of my best friend growing up. I’ve been in love with her my whole life. She’s not even super tall or anything. But she’s just got this look about her, you know? I’d ask her to marry me tomorrow if I thought that she would say yes. But I know she won’t. We still hook up sometimes when we see each other. But she’s, you know, dating some other guy, and she’s in LA…”

Then he got a text from one of the girls he was sleeping with and disappeared into that strange netherworld between the Lyft there and the Lyft back.


MONDAY EVENING: Mission Change.


On the flight back to LA I’m watching a Keeping Up With the Kardashians special about Bruce, pre-Caitlyn, Jenner, play silently on the iPad of the girl to my left. On my right, a woman is coordinating logistics for some kind of shoot tomorrow morning. “Get the releases for them,” she’s saying. “They’re in the second drawer. I have to go. We’re about to land.”

I guess this is what we do now. We talk on the phone on airplanes.

She is not using Skype.

San Francisco is like one of those ancient cities now — the kind that has an entirely new city built right on top of it. The people I knew in San Francisco as a teenager and in my 20s all moved out. And in their place, a new and different generation has moved in like fog, obscuring what was there before and transforming the analog into the Cloud. You have to abandon your memory, if you have it, of San Francisco the way it was, and approach it as a totally new American city that now exists on the map. A city with its own new set of social dynamics and value systems, peopled by systems nerds concerned with optimization scenarios not only for the products they create but, by extension, everything else: from dating to careers to transportation to dinner. This is their contribution to our culture (for better or worse).

As we descend into LAX I think about watching the hawks flying overhead on Sunday morning out at the yurt, as we stared up at the sky, looking up from the pool and being blinded by the sun. They circled us like prey as we ate poached eggs. Someone recited trivia about how hawks fly. They catch pockets of hot air, and glide. Predators don’t even flap their wings. They just rise.


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The Possibly Real Trend of Possibly Real Trends

What’s current when nothing is certain.


Health Goth.


“Somewhere in between normcore, cyberpunk, goth, and sportswear chic exists the possibly real trend known as “Health Goth,” wrote Allison P Davis in New York Magazine’s The Cut blog back in October. “It’s been kicking around since spring, actually, but it seems to have entered the mainstream this week.”

The source for this possibly-real trend’s possibly real tipping point was an article in Marie Claire the week prior, titled, likewise dubiously, “Health Goth: The Latest Trend You’ve Never Heard Of.”

After which “came the inevitable cavalcade of follow-on articles,” wrote Jay Owens in the Hautepop post, The Week That Health Goth Broke. “Rather poetically,” Owens added, “many trend pieces are declaring it stillborn, dead before it arrived”:

Meanwhile, Health Goth may or may not be the new “Street Goth.” Which itself is not to be confused with “Goth Ninja.” And there are also the lesser-known, possibly-real trends, dubbed, Pastel Goth, and Beach Goth. Because goth, apparently, never dies:






Ushered in by appropriately uncertain headlines like, “Are you a Lumbersexual?” (Gawker); “Are you dating a Lumbersexual?” (Cosmopolitan); “Who Is the Lumbersexual and Is Anything About Him Real?” (Jezebel), another possibly-real trend arrived in November. As Tom Puzak explained in Gear Junkie:

Today, the metrosexual is a disappearing breed being quickly replaced by men more concerned with existing in the outdoors, or the pseudo-outdoors, than meticulous grooming habits.

He is bar-hopping, but he looks like he could fell a Norway Pine.

Seen in New York, LA and everywhere in between, the Lumbersexual is bringing the outdoor industry’s clothing and accessories into the mainstream.

Whether the roots of the lumbersexual are a cultural shift toward environmentalism, rebellion against the grind of 9-5 office jobs, or simply recognition that outdoor gear is just more comfortable, functional and durable, the Lumbersexual is on the rise.


“20 years ago, Mark Simpson coined the term ‘metrosexual,'” reads the Telegraph headline from June 2014. “But now a new, more extreme, sex- and body-obsessed version has emerged.” Simpson calls it the “Spornosexual.”


The term is a portmanteau to describe “these pumped-up offspring of those Ronaldo and Beckham lunch-box ads, where sport got into bed with porn while Mr Armani took pictures,” Simpson explains. “But unlike Beckham’s metrosexual ads of old, in which his attributes were possibly artificially enhanced, today’s spornosexuals have photoshopped themselves in real life. Glossy magazines cultivated early metrosexuality. Celebrity culture then sent it into orbit. But for today’s generation, social media, selfies and porn are the major vectors of the male desire to be desired. They want to be wanted for their bodies, not their wardrobe. And certainly not their minds.”

“Spornosexual” didn’t take off in the zeitgeist quite the way Lumbersexual has. Perhaps for being a little bit too foreign-sounding. And perhaps for being a little bit way too real to be possibly-real.

While I was writing this post, “Highsexual” happened. “What spawned the new psuedo-identity,” Michael D’Alimonte writes on MTL Blog, “was a slightly scandalous question posed to the reddit community, which basically can be summed up by a guy asking: I’m straight when I’m sober, but when I’m super high, I wanna bang guys, is this normal? And that is the crux of “highsexual,” a guy (or girl) that only ponders/enacts in gay sexual activity when stoned.”

While it’s true, as D’Alimonte notes, “You can apparently tack on -sexual to any word and create a new stratum of society,” (Goth too, evidently), in this particular case, the term pertains to sexuality directly rather than a fashion or aesthetic trend. Nevertheless, it’s still worth asking, as D’Alimonte does, “Is being a highsexual a real thing?” The answer? “Well, now that it’s an internet-used term, it kind of is.”



Perhaps the most notorious of 2014’s possibly-real trends, and no longer an anomaly so much as a harbinger, is Normcore. I wrote about it at the beginning of last year. The jury never really came back on whether Normcore is a real fashion movement or an Internet meme that the mass media fell for and self-fulfilled into becoming real. As Alex Williams put it in The New York Times:

A style revolution? A giant in-joke? At this point, it hardly seems to matter. After a month-plus blizzard of commentary, normcore may be a hypothetical movement that turns into a real movement through the power of sheer momentum.

Even so, the fundamental question — is normcore real? — remains a matter of debate, even among the people who foisted the term upon the world.

The catchy neologism was coined by K-Hole, a New York-based group of theoretically minded brand consultants in their 20s, as part of a recent trend-forecasting report, “Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom.” Written in the academic language of an art manifesto, the report was conceived in part as a work of conceptual art produced for a London gallery, not a corporate client.

As envisioned by its creators, “normcore” was not a fashion trend, but a broader sociological attitude. The basic idea is that young alternative types had devoted so much energy to trying to define themselves as individuals, through ever-quirkier style flourishes like handlebar mustaches or esoteric pursuits like artisanal pickling, that they had lost the joy of belonging that comes with being part of the group. Normcore was about dropping the pretense and learning to throw themselves into, without detachment, whatever subcultures or activities they stumbled into, even if they were mainstream. “You might not understand the rules of football, but you can still get a thrill from the roar of the crowd at the World Cup,” the report read. The term remained little more than a conversation starter for art-world cocktail parties until New York magazine published a splashy trend story on Feb. 24 titled “Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion.” The writer, Fiona Duncan, chronicled the emergence of “the kind of dad-brand non-style you might have once associated with Jerry Seinfeld, but transposed on a Cooper Union student with William Gibson glasses.” An accompanying fashion spread dug up real-life L-train denizens rocking mall-ready Nike baseball caps and stonewashed boyfriend jeans without apparent shame.


Even so, it was difficult to tell if anyone actually believed the hype. For one thing, the normcore brain trust started to circle the wagons. Christopher Glazek, a journalist and friend of the K-Hole founders took to Facebook to blow holes in the “trend.” “It doesn’t really make sense to identify normcore as a fashion trend,” he wrote. “The point of normcore is that you could dress like a Nascar mascot for a big race and then switch to raver ware for a long druggie night at the club.”



The Trends They Are A-changin’.

Last year, some friends of mine accidentally became health goths. They didn’t mean to. It just happened. They were goths who grew up and got too old to keep going out to clubs the way they once had, so they got into crossfit, and that was that. Unbeknownst to them, they’d become classified into a whole new, possibly-real style.

This is something that didn’t used to happen. You didn’t just accidentally become hiphop. You didn’t one day trip over yourself to discover you were unwittingly wearing 30-inch bottom raver pants. Your clothes weren’t punked out and ripped to shreds for no particular reason that you were aware of until you read a New York Magazine trend piece about it. Now, a lifestyle neologism goes viral and you discover you’ve contracted a trend.

Alternative fashion trends used to be representative of a larger lifestyle or subculture emergence. The fashion brands that defined these aesthetics were often overtly and inextricably linked to these cultures.

“I was messianic about punk,” Vivienne Westwood, the High Priestess of Punk fashion said, in 2002.

The Kikwear brand’s history reads: In 1993, one of our key accounts in San Francisco asked us to make them a 23″ bottom for their store because the Rave scene was beginning to emerge in Northern California and the kids were walking into the store with their homemade “wide leg” pants. We moved on this tip and sure enough those denim pant sold out immediately! We quickly realized that this Rave Movement was starting to come on strong throughout Southern California and we started launching wider leg pants known today as “phatties.”

The late designer, Tiffa Novoa, was one of the founders of the seminal, circus subculture performance troupe, El Circo. In designing the troupe’s costumes she also created the postapocalyptic fashions that became associated with the Burning Man style, and carried over into an aesthetic that spanned west coast underground dance culture of the mid aughts. In a 2005 SF-Bay Guardian article, Steven T. Jones describes the personally transformative effect the fashion aesthetic Novoa defined had on its adherents, changing the way they conceived of themselves. “At first, this was all costuming,” The article quoted, Matty Dowlen, El Circo’s head of operations. “But now it’s who I am.”

Meanwhile, aggregating the de riguer health goth brands for the requisite The New York Times article on the subject, Meirav Devash listed: “Mainstream brands like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, or gothic streetwear from Hood by Air, Cottweiler, Whatever 21, Nvrmnd Clothing, Adyn and Skingraft.”

When I asked Jonny Cota, the owner of Skingraft, about health goth, last year, his response was skeptical amusement. Like everyone else’s.

Perhaps that is what makes possibly-real trends so dubious: the lack of intentionality. Fashion choices used to have specific and unironic meanings. Hippies, punks, ravers, goths — these were cultural philosophies that spread through adoption, not (solely) aesthetic replication. Now, we don’t claim participation, we are simply colonized by memes, unwitting bystanders, just sort of swept up in cultural trend redistricting.

In the days of slow-moving, 20th century media, emergent cultural expressions had time to incubate below the radar before they tipped into mass awareness. Pre-Tumblr, the only way to find out about a new cultural emergence was through the unassailably real channel of one of its actual practitioners. There was no need to wonder about veracity. Now, a nascent trend doesn’t really have the time to mature into something legitimate before the trendhunting hyenas descend upon it, exposing it to a sudden burst of scrutiny. What remains becomes neither niche enough to be authentic nor mass enough to be indisputable. Maybe no new trend seems quite real because it hasn’t had the chance to become real before we’re looking it up on urban dictionary and just as swiftly are click-baited on to the next dubious dopamine hit of meme culture.

Or perhaps, this is what happens now that subculture doesn’t exist. Back in analog days, you wore the clothes you did to express your identity as a participant in the lifestyle they represented. Now that there’s simply no unimpeachable way to really know what is or isn’t “real” at all anymore, possibly-real trends are the reflection of this new, post-certainty reality.

Then again, maybe it’s all just Pizza.



The Chicest New Trend Is Pizza” (New York Magazine, September, 2014):


Much like any other “It” girl, pizza’s popularity was ignited by internet fascination and possibly endorsed by the Illuminati.

Tumblr and Twitter memes dedicated to pizza’s power appeared, among them the Twitter account Pizzaminati.

Loyal followers still carry on the work via usage of #Pizzaminati on Twitter and Instagram. As such, “pizza” quickly took on new meaning — for example, pizza as a substitute in romantic relationship. The phrase “touch her butt and give her pizza” became a widely accepted way to keep your bae happy and “Pizza Is My Boyfriend” the new “Single Ladies” rally cry.

Then came the various pithy pizza message tees at clothing retailers like Forever 21 and Asos and Urban Outfitters.

However, almost as quickly as the Pizzaminati emerged, it disappeared. This, a screenshot of a funny tweet — “shots fired in the club over the last slice of pizza” — is all that remains. Where did you go, Pizzaminati? Were you really a sect of the Illuminati, destroyed once the pizza takeover was initiated? Yes, probably.


Or, you know… possibly.



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Hardcore Norm

Because dressing different is such a cliché.



art by Curtis Mead


“The kids are doing the normcore,” my friend Quang said, trying out the new phrase with a deliberate, old fart dialect.

Only a few moments earlier I had tossed off the word like common parlance.

“‘Normcore?’” he had repeated, making sure he’d heard correctly.

“Yeah,” I explained, “It’s exactly what you think it is. It’s us, now.”

A shockingly pleasant March afternoon had arrived in Boston that day, on the heels of a cold that had felt like osteoporosis. A decade in LA had turned me into a wimp. I had forgotten how I’d ever managed to live through this in my youth.

I had grown up here. In high school I discovered raves. By college I was throwing them in 20,000 square foot warehouses in Dumbo. After that, I moved out to the west coast and managed a vaudeville circus troupeproduced electronic music festivals, and worked with a bunch of bands, among other things. In the span of the past decade I saw the niche “electronica” genre evolve into mainstream “EDM;” I saw the circus subculture infiltrate pop performance acts, and the signature, post-apocalyptic, tribal fashion aesthetic originated within the Burning Man community become a major fashion trend.

But that day in Boston, in 2014, hanging out with friends who had come up through the rave, circus, and goth subcultures, you could hardly tell where any of us had been. What we wore now was nondescript. Non-affiliated. Normal.

The week before, at a craft beer tasting party at an indie advertising agency in Silver Lake, a sculpture artist was remarking about recently looking through photos of style choices from the aughts. “What was I thinking,” she said in bewilderment. That evening she was wearing a black tank top, and, like, pants. Maybe three quarter length? Or not? Maybe black jeans? Or not-jean pants? I couldn’t recall. Perhaps, I thought, this was just a symptom of getting older. There was some kind of sartorial giving a shit phase that we had all grown out of. But it turned out this, too, was a trend. Kids, too young to have grown out of anything, were dressing this way.

“By late 2013, it wasn’t uncommon to spot the Downtown chicks you’d expect to have closets full of Acne and Isabel Marant wearing nondescript half-zip pullovers and anonymous denim,” wrote Fiona Duncan, in a February New York Magazine article titled, “Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Realize They’re One in 7 Billion:”

I realized that, from behind, I could no longer tell if my fellow Soho pedestrians were art kids or middle-aged, middle-American tourists. Clad in stonewash jeans, fleece, and comfortable sneakers, both types looked like they might’ve just stepped off an R-train after shopping in Times Square. When I texted my friend Brad (an artist whose summer uniform consisted of Adidas barefoot trainers, mesh shorts and plain cotton tees) for his take on the latest urban camouflage, I got an immediate reply: “lol normcore.”

Normcore—it was funny, but it also effectively captured the self-aware, stylized blandness I’d been noticing. Brad’s source for the term was the trend forecasting collective (and fellow artists) K-Hole. They had been using it in a slightly different sense, not to describe a particular look but a general attitude: embracing sameness deliberately as a new way of being cool, rather than striving for “difference” or “authenticity.”

Oh my god, I thought reading this: this is me.

In Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, published in 2004, cultural critics, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter examined the inherent contradiction in the idea that counterculture was an opposition to  mass consumer culture. Not only were they not opposed, Heath and Potter explained, they weren’t even separate. Alternative culture’s obsession with being different — expressing that difference through prescribed fashion products and subcultural artifacts — had, in fact, helped to create the very mass consumer society the counterculture believed itself to be the alternative to.

“To me, Nike’s famous swoosh logo had long been the mark of the manipulated,” wrote Rob Walker, author of  2008′s Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy And Who We Are, ”A symbol for suckers who take its ‘Just Do It’ bullying at face value. It’s long been, in my view, a brand for followers. On the other hand, the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star had been a mainstay sneaker for me since I was a teenager back in the 1980′s, and I stuck with it well into my thirties. Converse was the no-bullshit yin to Nike’s all-style-and-image yang. It’s what my outsider heroes from Joey Ramone to Kurt Combain wore. So I found [Nike’s] buyout [of Converse] disheartening…. but why, really, did I feel so strongly about a brand of sneaker–any brand of sneaker?”

In response to Buying In, I’d written, “Whether we’re choosing to wear Nikes, Converse, Timberlands, Doc Martens, or some obscure Japanese brand that doesn’t even exist in the US, we’re deliberately saying something about ourselves with the choice. And regardless of how “counter” to whatever culture we think we are, getting to express that differentiation about our selves requires buying something.”

But that was five years ago. A funny thing happened on the way to the mid twenty-teens. The digital era ushered in an unprecedented flood of availability — of both information and products. This constant, ubiquitous access to everything — what Chris Anderson dubbed the “Long  Tail” in his 2006 book of the same name – had changed the cultural equation. We had evolved, as Anderson predicted, “from an ‘Or’ era of hits or niches (mainstream culture vs. subcultures) to an ‘AND’ era.” With the widespread proliferation of internet access, mass culture got less mass, and niche culture got less obscure. We became what Anderson called  a  “massively parallel culture: millions of microcultures coexisting and interacting in a baffling array of ways.” On this new, flattened landscape, what was there to be counter to?

“Jeremy Lewis, the founder/editor of Garmento and a freelance stylist and fashion writer, calls normcore ‘one facet of a growing anti-fashion sentiment,’” Duncan writes in New York  Magazine. “His personal style is (in the words of Andre Walker, a designer Lewis featured in the magazine’s last issue) ‘exhaustingly plain’—this winter, that’s meant a North Face fleece, khakis, and New Balances. Lewis says his ‘look of nothing’ is about absolving oneself from fashion.”

That is how normcore happened to me, too. When I quit the circus, leaving behind its sartorial regulations, I realized that difference wasn’t an expression of identity: it was a rat race.

“Fashion has become very overwhelming and popular,” Lewis explains in New York Magazine. “Right now a lot of people use fashion as a means to buy rather than discover an identity and they end up obscured and defeated. I’m getting cues from people like Steve Jobs and Jerry Seinfeld. It’s a very flat look, conspicuously unpretentious, maybe even endearingly awkward. It’s a lot of cliché style taboos, but it’s not the irony I love, it’s rather practical and no-nonsense, which to me, right now, seems sexy. I like the idea that one doesn’t need their clothes to make a statement.”

“Magazines, too,” Duncan writes, “have picked up the look:”

The enduring appeal of the Patagonia fleece [was] displayed on Patrik Ervell and Marc Jacobs’s runways. Edie Campbell slid into Birkenstocks (or the Céline version thereof) in Vogue Paris. Adidas trackies layered under Louis Vuitton cashmere in Self Service. A bucket hat and Nike slippers framed an Alexander McQueen coveralls in Twin. Smaller, younger magazines like London’s Hot and Cool and New York’s Sex, were interested in even more genuinely average ensembles, skipping high-low blends for the purity of head-to-toe normcore.

One of the first stylists I started bookmarking for her normcore looks was the London-based Alice Goddard. She was assembling this new mainstream minimalism in the magazine she co-founded, Hot and Cool, as early as 2011. For Goddard, the appeal of normal clothes was the latest thing. One standout editorial from Hot and Cool no. 5 (Spring 2013) was composed entirely of screenshots of people from Google Map’s Street View app. Goddard had stumbled upon “this tiny town in America” on Map sand thought the plainly-dressed people there looked amazing. The editorial she designed was a parody of contemporary street style photography—“the main point of difference,” she says, “being that people who are photographed by street style photographers are generally people who have made a huge effort with their clothing, and the resulting images often feel a bit over fussed and over precious—the subject is completely aware of the outcome; whereas the people we were finding on Google Maps obviously had no idea they were being photographed, and yet their outfits were, to me, more interesting.”

New media has changed our relation to information, and, with it, fashion. Reverse Google Image Search and tools like Polyvore make discovering the source of any garment as simple as a few clicks. Online shopping—from eBay through the Outnet—makes each season available for resale almost as soon as it goes on sale. As Natasha Stagg, the Online Editor of V Magazine and a regular contributor at DIS (where she recently wrote a normcore-esque essay about the queer appropriation of mall favorite Abercrombie & Fitch), put it: “Everyone is a researcher and a statistician now, knowing accidentally the popularity of every image they are presented with, and what gets its own life as a trend or meme.” The cycles of fashion are so fast and so vast, it’s impossible to stay current; in fact, there is no one current.

Emily Segal of K-HOLE insists that normcore isn’t about one specific aesthetic. “It’s not about being simple or forfeiting individuality to become a bland, uniform mass,” she explains. Rather, it’s about welcoming the possibility of being recognizable, of looking like other people—and “seeing that as an opportunity for connection.”

K-HOLE describes normcore as a theory rather than a look; but in practice, the contemporary normcore styles I’ve seen have their clear aesthetic precedent in the nineties. The editorials in Hot and Cool look a lot like Corinne Day styling newcomer Kate Moss in Birkenstocks in 1990, or like Art Club 2000′s appropriation of madras from the Gap, like grunge-lite and Calvin Klein minimalism. But while (in their original incarnation) those styles reflected anxiety around “selling out,” today’s version is more ambivalent toward its market reality.

In a post Hot-Topic world, where Forever21 serves up fast fashion in processed flavors like, Occupy:

and Burning Man:

Screenshot-2014-03-10-15.20.59 Screenshot-2014-03-10-15.20.48

we’re realizing that alternativeness, as a means for authentic self expression, is futile.“Normcore isn’t about rebelling against or giving into the status quo,” Duncan concludes, “It’s about letting go of the need to look distinctive.”

In our all-access, always connected, globalized world, obscurity is scarce. When everything is accessible, nothing is alternative.

“In the 21st century,”  Rob Walker wrote back in 2008, not recognizing the quickly approaching end of counterculture, “We still grapple with the eternal dilemma of wanting to feel like individuals and to feel as though we’re apart of something bigger than ourselves. We all seek ways to resolve this fundamental tension of modern life.”

In 2014, normcore is one solution we’ve found to resolve it.


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Plan To Fail



This month’s Harvard Business review cover story, Strategy for Turbulent Times, explains how the pace of competitive change has reached an “inflection point.” Up until now the business world has been obsessed with the notion of building a sustainable competitive advantage — it is the idea at the core of strategy textbooks, of Warren Buffett’s investment strategy, and the successes many 20th century companies. But we are now living in a time where competitive advantage often evaporates in less than a year. As the article proclaims: “Sustainable competitive advantage is now the exception, not the rule. Transient advantage is the new normal.”

I was thinking about this article last Thursday when Instagram released a new update that now supports 15-second video sharing, a direct assault on Vine, Twitter’s app which came out just six months ago, and defined six-second video as a new content format. By Sunday there was already blood in the water.

Vine had dropped from No.2 to No.7 on the U.S. iPhone download chart of free apps in the wake of the new Instagram video update. Sunday was the first day since March 27th that Vine did not place in the top-5 most popular American iPhone apps. In another stronghold, Mexico, Vine dropped from No.3 to No.10 in three days. In its biggest European market, the United Kingdom, Vine dropped from No.5 to No.12. Globally, Vine placed in the top-10 iPhone downloads in 11 countries on Sunday. Down sharply from 34 countries last Thursday, and 29 countries just two weeks ago.

It all sort of begs the question: If Twitter had gone in with the assumption that Instagram would replicate this concept at the first opportunity, how would they have made Vine differently?

Would they have integrated the Vine functionality into the Twitter mobile experience directly rather than try to establish a new, external platform around a single utility? That, after all, is what Instagram did. Admittedly the jumble of video and photo content in the same feed is a bit foreign right now, but we acclimated to images and video in our Twitter feeds, and we’ll get accustomed to this all too quickly, too.

Twitter released a new product that introduced a novel content format disconnected from the mothership. Instagram said, thanks for doing the market testing for us, we’ll take it from here, and wove Insta-video into what they are as an app now.

It was either Benjamin Franklin or Winston Churchill who remarked in a prior century, “Plan to fail and fail to plan.” In the 21st century, the truism is now more accurately something like “Fail to plan to fail, and fail to plan….AND plan to  fail.”

What would you do differently today, if you knew your competitive advantage wouldn’t last tomorrow?



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