The Future of the Sun

The story of the biggest transformation of our time has a marketing problem: no one knows it’s happening.

There were many important events that happened in 2016. Some were deafening, trumpeting the seemingly inexplicable ascent of backwards-facing forces. But one event of great historical significance went largely unremarked upon.

In 2016 solar power became the cheapest form of new electricity on the planet and for the first time in history installed more new electric capacity than any other energy source.

Amid the sepia haze oozing from the past’s rusting, orange pipeline, humanity was placing a serious bet on a new kind of future. And you didn’t even know about it.

That’s a problem.


Powering Disruption

It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you’d be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate — history’s moving along.
Brian Eno

“The beginning of the end for fossil fuels,” according to Bloomberg, occurred in 2013. The world is now adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. And there’s no going back…. The shift will continue to accelerate, and by 2030 more than four times as much renewable capacity will be added.”

The International Energy Agency’s Executive Director, Fatih Birol, said, “We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables.”

“While solar was bound to fall below wind eventually, given its steeper price declines, few predicted it would happen this soon,” notes Bloomberg.

In the United States, as coal production fell an estimated 17% in 2016, continuing an 8 year decrease, the solar market nearly doubled, breaking all records and beating oil, coal, and natural gas as the country’s biggest source of new electric generating capacity. While it’s still just a tiny fraction of the domestic electricity mix, in 2016 40% of all new capacity additions came from solar. 2016 was also the 4th consecutive year that US solar jobs grew by more than 20%, according to the Solar Foundation. One out of every 50 new jobs added in the United States in 2016 was created by the solar industry, which now employs more people than oil, coal, and gas extraction combined.

“Solar investment has gone from nothing — literally nothing — like five years ago to quite a lot,” said Ethan Zindler, head of U.S. policy analysis at BNEF. “A huge part of this story is China, which has been rapidly deploying solar” and, Bloomberg notes, helping other countries finance their own projects.

Between 2008 and 2013, solar panel costs dropped by 80% worldwide thanks to the accelerant of Chinese manufacturing. As Scientific American writes:

China leapfrogged from nursing a tiny, rural-oriented solar program in the 1990s to become the globe’s leader in what may soon be the world’s largest renewable energy source.

According to DOE, the [Chinese] federal government was willing to chip in as much as $47 billion to help build its solar manufacturing into what it calls a “strategic industry.”

In building up the world’s largest solar manufacturing industry, one that became the price leader in most aspects of the world’s market — beginning with cheaper solar panels — China helped create a worldwide glut. [In 2013] there were roughly two panels being made for every one being ordered by an overseas customer.

By 2015, China’s domestic market bypassed Germany’s to be the largest in the world…. [Today] China dominates the solar market in PV installation as well as total installed capacity, with the United States a distant third and fourth, respectively.

“If there was ever a situation where the Chinese have put their whole governmental system behind manufacturing, it’s got to be solar modules,” [Ken] Zweibel [30-year veteran of the U.S. solar industry and DOE] said.

“They fundamentally changed the economics of solar all over the world,” said Amit Ronen, director of the Solar Institute of George Washington University.

The impact of cheap, abundant solar technology has begun to ripple out across a planet where, as Scientific American notes, “the mathematics have long shown that solar power is the most abundant energy resource.”

In 2016 Sweden announced it’s committing to becoming 100% renewable by 2040. India broke a world record with a 6 square mile-wide solar farm, and set its sights on doubling its solar power capacity. In January, Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest crude oil exporter, announced a plan to invest $163 billion in renewables to support 50% of the country’s energy needs by 2050. Although admittedly their goal is to free up more oil for export in the short term, the country’s fate, The Atlantic reports, “may now depend on its investment in renewable energy.”

Before 2016 came to a close, China announced plans to cancel over 100 coal plants in development and to create 13 million jobs in renewables over the next 4 years. (For context, the US clean energy industry is just over 3 million jobs. The entire US tech industry is 6.7 million jobs.)

“The question is now no longer if the world will transition to cleaner energy,” FastCompany writes, “but how long it will take.”

According to the International Energy Agency, while solar makes up less than 1% of the electricity market today it could be the world’s biggest single source by 2050

Already, The Wall Street Journal reports, energy companies are beginning to confront the “crude reality… that some fossil-fuel resources will remain in the ground indefinitely.”

“A Goldman Sachs report last year forecast solar and wind will generate more new energy capacity in the next five years than the shale-oil revolution did in the last five,” writes David Bank, of ImpactAlpha.

Bloomberg predicts peak fossil-fuel use for electricity may be reached within the next decade. Peak gasoline demand by 2021.

For over 100 years, the oil industry and its stakeholders have believed that the market for their products will continue to grow ad infinitum without competitive challenges,” energy economist, Peter Tertzakian wrote last month. “Never in my 35-year career following energy markets has there been so much widespread disagreement about future demand for oil.”

From the water’s edge of 2017 we can see out onto the horizon. When the future history books are written, 2016 will be the year the tide turned.

Why didn’t we realize it?


Powering Denial

“For as I detest the doorways of Death, I detest that man, who hides one thing in the depths of his heart, and speaks forth another.”
— Achilles, The Iliad

“We live in the Stone Age in regard to renewable power,” Florida state Rep. Dwight Dudley, said last year in Rolling Stone’s expose on the war entrenched utilities are waging on solar energy. “The power companies hold sway here, and the consumers are at their mercy.”

Rate hikes and punishing fees for homeowners who turn to solar power [have] darkened green-energy prospects in could-be solar superpowers like Arizona and Nevada. But nowhere has the solar industry been more eclipsed than in Florida, where the utilities’ powers of obstruction are unrivaled… .The solar industry in Florida has been boxed out by investor-owned utilities (IOUs) that reap massive profits from natural gas and coal… .These IOUs wield outsize political power in the state capital of Tallahassee, and flex it to protect their absolute monopoly on electricity sales.

The rise of distributed solar power poses a triple threat to these monopol[ies]. First: When homeowners install their own solar panels it means the utilities build fewer power plants, and investors miss out on a chance to profit. Second: Solar homes buy less electricity from the grid; utilities lose out on recurring profits from power sales. Third: Under “net metering” laws, most utilities have to pay rooftop solar producers for the excess power they feed onto the grid. In short, rooftop solar transforms a utility’s traditional consumers into business rivals.

The utility trade group Edison Electric Institute (EEI) warns that rooftop solar could do to the utility industry what digital photography did to Kodak, bringing potentially “irreparable damages to revenues and growth prospects.”

Few industries are worse equipped to deal with disruption than power utilities. Their profits depend on infrastructure investments that pay off over a generation or more. “Utilities are structured to be in stasis,” says Zach Lyman, partner at Reluminati, an energy consultancy in Washington, D.C. “When you get fully disrupted, you’ve got to find a new model. But utilities are not designed to move to new models; they never were. So they play an obstructionist role.”

Obstruction plays out in the State Houses, but it also plays out in hearts and minds. Here’s what obstruction looks like as a messaging strategy:


Bills percolating through state legislatures across the U.S. are giving the education fight a new flavor, by encompassing climate change denial and serving it up as academic freedom.





And so on.

But behind the petroleum-jellied lens of blurry obstructionism “Freedom” is just a marketing gimmick when you’ve got nothing left to lose except your entire whale blubber fortune.

As futurist Alex Steffen explains:

There is no long game in high-carbon industries. Their owners know this. They don’t need a long game, though… . All they need is the perception of the inevitability of future profit, today. That’s what keeps valuations high… .The Carbon Bubble will pop not when high-carbon practices become impossible, but when their profits cease to be seen as reliable.

For high-carbon industries to continue to be attractive investments, they must spin a tale of future growth. As it becomes clear that these assets will not produce profit in the future, their valuations will drop — even if the businesses that own them continue to function for years. The value of oil companies will collapse long before the last barrel of oil is burned.

Put another way: The pop comes when people understand that growth in these industries is over and that, in fact, these industries are now going to contract. That’s when investors start pulling out and looking for safer bets. As investors begin to flee these companies, others realize more devaluation is on the way, so they want to get out before the drop: a trickle of divestment becomes a flood and the price collapses. What triggers the drop is investors ceasing to believe the company has a strong future.

“Gridlock is the greatest friend a global warming skeptic has,” a spokesman for an Oklahoma senator says in Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. “That’s all you really want. There’s no legislation we’re championing. We’re the negative force. We are just trying to stop stuff.”

The energy generated by the obstruction force of the most powerful industry that has ever existed on the face of the Earth has created such friction it has ground our sense of the future a halt. The lights keep dimming on us and we don’t know why. The gears of culture groan precariously against grinding, backwards momentum. The crude, snake oil slogans peddling past glory are so bleakly recursive they erase the very idea of future. And that is no coincidence. Carbon has a stake in wiping the future out of our imaginations. Because in the Future the world pivots.


Powering Destiny

One of these mornings
It won’t be very long
They will look for me
And I’ll be gone.
— Patti LaBelle

This past October, Liu Zhenya, the former chairman of China’s state-owned power company, State Grid Corp., came to the United Nations to present a vision for what a post-carbon Future would look like. He described a global power grid that could transmit 80% renewable energy by 2050, Scientific American reports.

His speech invited U.N. support for a new international group to plan and build the grid. It’s called the Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDCO), and China has named Liu its chairman. [This] global grid would transmit solar, wind and hydroelectric-generated power from places on Earth where they are abundant to major population centers, where they are often not.

His grid’s development would take shape in three phases. First, Liu explained, individual nations would redesign their own power electric grids. He noted that China’s effort is already underway, generating 140 GW of wind power and 70 GW of solar power, “more than that of any country of the world.” By completing a network of long-distance, high-voltage direct-current power lines to move renewable power from the north to the south and from the east to the west, China could finish its new grid by 2025, he predicted.

The second phase, Liu described, would be an international effort to build regional grids that would be able to transmit substantially more power across national borders in Northeast and Southeast Asia, between Africa and Eurasia, and between nations in both North and South America. The third phase would build power lines and undersea cables that would connect the regional grids. The upshot would create what he called a “win-win situation.”

There would be plenty of work for “all global players” to coordinate the effort, to share and innovate new technology, and to develop global standards and rules for cooperation, Liu promised. He closed his U.N. presentation with a glimpse of a future world where a combination of renewable energy, a network of high-voltage direct-current transmission lines and “smart grid” operating systems can serve the planet the way the human “blood-vascular system” serves the human body.

When the global grid is completed, “the world will turn into a peaceful and harmonious global village with sufficient energy, green lands and blue sky,” he predicted.

Is it kooky that the Chinese would be talking about World Peace on the eve of 2017? Sure. But the thing is — that could have been us.

In the 1960’s, American architect and systems theorist, Buckminster Fuller created the World Game project. An alternative take on the war game simulations that dominated the Cold War era, the World Game requires participants to solve the following problem: “Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone.”

“The global energy grid is the World Game’s highest priority objective,” Fuller wrote.

Half a century after this idea of a distributed energy Future first emerged out of the American counterculture, a representative from the world’s second largest economy just presented it at the United Nations as the vision for his country’s energy ambitions.

“We argue so much about the silly politics of climate change and fail to recognize the gargantuan economic opportunity that this presents,” says Gregory Wilson, co-director of DOE’s National Center for Photovoltaics. “The energy system is going to get re-engineered, and someone is going to do it. The Chinese seem to have recognized the significance of this opportunity.”

Last year China invested a record $32 billion in overseas renewable energy projects. A 60% increase from the year before. Over the next 4 years the Chinese plan to to invest $360 billion in renewables domestically to boost capacity by 500%. The rapidly accelerating innovation that this kind of financing unleashes creates global market forces that may have their own momentum. From radically reimagined (and profoundly cheaper) battery technologies to printable solar panels that could transform “nearly any surface into a power generator” to electric busses that can go 350 miles on a single charge, new pieces of this vast puzzle seem to be emerging almost daily.

“Eventually,” Vox’s David Roberts writes, “power generation and storage will become ambient, something that simply happens, throughout the urban infrastructure. With that will come more and more sophisticated software for managing, sharing, and economizing all that power. [This] will one day change the world as much as the internet has.”

Indeed, as TechCrunch writes: Energy is the new Internet.

An undeniable, distributed energy Future powered by solar and other renewable sources is emerging. Perhaps the only Future on offer in the 21st century thus far that presents a bright vision worth striving for.

And yet — from a consumer perspective, solar energy seems to have no idea what it’s really selling.


Powering Desire

“If you don’t like what is being said, then change the conversation.”
— Don Draper

“In 2008, when fracking was still just a tiny thing, Davos was crowning it as the start of a new world order,” clean energy entrepreneur, Jigar Shah said recently on the Energy Gang Podcast. Yet solar is still considered “just a tech thing,” he lamented. “We’re not Earth shattering.”

Where does the momentum for a movement come from, Shah wondered? Why is solar perceived as just some sort of… appliance? Why, despite breaking records and reshaping trend-lines the world over in 2016, isn’t solar getting the kind of buzz befitting one of the biggest stories of our time?

Because messaging.

Here is how SolarCity, the largest residential solar installer, positions its product:

“Our solar panels not only generate energy on your roof, they can also generate cash in your pocket. That’s because when you go solar you can save on your monthly utility bill and secure lower fixed energy rates for years to come. The savings over time add up and allow you to plan for your future. See how quality, savings and affordability make going solar the right choice.”

Solar is the Future but you’d never know it from the way it’s marketed. And this commoditized framing is reflective of the industry as a whole. The retail model for solar hasn’t changed from what it was a decade ago. But the world has. The internet is on our doorstep but solar is still selling people on the value prop of word processors.

Compounding the messaging problem, solar is still positioned as an “alternative.” Droga5’s campaign for NRG Home Solar still presents renewable energy as an option relative fossil fuels. (Perhaps inevitable given the nature of NRG’s legacy-fuel masters.)

Both of these misguided approaches are a drag on the industry’s true potential. Solar isn’t a gadget, or an alternative lifestyle — it is an entry point to the new Future. In 2017, the territory of a desirable Future is totally unclaimed white space in consumer consciousness and the solar industry is uniquely positioned to own it.

Here’s how:


– Industry-level Messaging Platform –

In the 1990’s the Got Milk? campaign gave a commoditized product the status of a cultural icon. Executed at a trade level by the American dairy farmers, the industry-wide platform created a bigger impact than could have been possible for any dairy producer individually.

Like milk, energy is not a sphere with recognizable consumer brands that are part of the larger cultural conversation. The one notable exception, of course, is Tesla, which dropped the “Motors” from its name when it acquired SolarCity at the end of 2016. Analysts insisted that this acquisition is an “unneeded distraction,” and that Tesla ought to be “singularly focused on becoming a mass automobile manufacturer,” but that is a shortsighted view for a company that now makes solar panels and energy storage products. When it comes to Tesla’s true ambitions, as CEO, Elon Musk puts it, “We need a revolt against the fossil fuel industry.”

Everything Tesla does unequivocally insists, desirable Future, but there is enough shine for the entire industry to own. At the end of the day, it’s solar itself that consumers have an affinity for — 

Even among the majority of all political affiliations, no less—

It doesn’t take a moonshot PR campaign to capitalize on this abundance of positive consumer sentiment. Just a cohesive voice with which to claim the message and consistently speak it into the culture.


– Expand the Target Audience –

Everyone in solar is targeting the same homeowner and business audience. A vastly unexplored area is strategic ways to engage literally everyone else.

In 2008 I wrote about Toyota’s integration with Whyville, an online virtual world for tweens:

Pretty much the coolest thing you can buy in Whyville is a Scion, and its added bonus is that then you can drive all your other friends around in it in the game. The most fascinating thing about this whole strategy, however, is that the Tween demographic is between 8–12 years old. It’s gonna be a while before they even have a driver’s license, let alone be in a position to be buying a car in the real world, but when they are, they will already have a virtual experience to draw on when making the purchase decision.

As the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center shows with its Clean Energy Activity Day program for elementary and middle school students, this approach doesn’t need to just be virtual.

From group purchasing at a community level to modular options for renters to innovative uses for incentive programs and student grants, and more, what are the actionable and scalable strategies for expanding the target audience and the bottom line across the solar industry?


– Sell the Experience –

Most people don’t really want to think about energy. We flip a switch and the electricity is just there. We interact with electricity literally all day, and never think about it. The narrative of distributed, storable, smart-gridded, clean energy is so profoundly different from what most people know, or know how to think about, for them to understand it — or even want to — requires a transformative shift in the way it is communicated.

When Apple first marketed the iPod, it didn’t sell the product, they sold its end result — the experience of music:

Later campaigns for the iPhone didn’t even show the product at all:

The product became the conduit to the experience. And the experience that solar has to sell is Future.


– Claim the Narrative of Future –

Two decades ago — back when it was still possible to talk about the future as anything but dystopia — a series of ads painted a striking vision of how that future was going to unfold. “Have you ever borrowed a book from thousands of miles away,” asked the ad voice. “Crossed the country without stopping to ask for directions? Or watched the movie you wanted to, the minute you wanted to?”

“You will,” said the voice, “and the company that will bring it to you: AT&T.”

Today I use a device to do basically 90% of what those ads predicted. (OK, I’ve never sent a fax from the beach, or tucked a baby in from a phone-booth, but you can’t get the Future 100% right). All of these things are so obvious and mundane now we barely even remember — some of us never knew — there was a time before. But, indeed, there was a point when this fantastical world was the future, and the future still seemed like a fantastical world.

There are no grand visions for the future now, no scenarios for humanity that don’t fill us with dread. A dying oligarchy tells us dissolution is freedom; regression is hope. It has disfigured our understanding of what’s happening in our world. The result is a gaping void in our collective vision when we look ahead. 17 years in to our new century there is a desperate hunger for a bright vision for the future, and at the moment arguably no one outside the world of clean energy has a legitimate claim to one. In the end, it’s not about utility bills or net metering laws or even solar panels for that matter. It’s about a vision of a Future worth demanding. Solar has the opportunity to be the voice of that vision for decades to come with a simple, cohesive, culture-focused messaging strategy.


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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


. .


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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UX Cruelty

Don’t blame it on the algorithm — assuming you’re designing experiences for “happy, upbeat, good-life users” might make you a terrible person.


My friend is going through a divorce. Like nearly 5 million other Americans. And recently Facebook greeted her with this careless user experience:


When this UX intrusion happened to her, it reminded me of a similar, psychological violation I’d read about four months earlier. That post, by Eric Meyer, had begun:

I didn’t go looking for grief this afternoon, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for it. In this case, the designers and programmers are somewhere at Facebook.

I know they’re probably pretty proud of the work that went into the “Year in Review” app they designed and developed, and deservedly so—a lot of people have used it to share the highlights of their years. Knowing what kind of year I’d had, though, I avoided making one of my own. I kept seeing them pop up in my feed, created by others, almost all of them with the default caption, “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.”  Which was, by itself, jarring enough, the idea that any year I was part of could be described as great.

Still, they were easy enough to pass over, and I did.  Until today, when I got this in my feed, exhorting me to create one of my own.  “Eric, here’s what your year looked like!”


A picture of my daughter, who is dead.  Who died this year.

Yes, my year looked like that.  True enough.  My year looked like the now-absent face of my little girl.  It was still unkind to remind me so forcefully.

I remember first reading this post the day it was published, Christmas eve 2014. When I went to look it up after my friend’s own violation by a Facebook app module I was surprised to (re)discover that it had been titled, generously, “Inadvertent algorithmic cruelty:”

And I know, of course, that this is not a deliberate assault.  This inadvertent algorithmic cruelty is the result of code that works in the overwhelming majority of cases, reminding people of the awesomeness of their years, showing them selfies at a party or whale spouts from sailing boats or the marina outside their vacation house.

But for those of us who lived through the death of loved ones, or spent extended time in the hospital, or were hit by divorce or losing a job or any one of a hundred crises, we might not want another look at this past year.

To show me Rebecca’s face and say “Here’s what your year looked like!” is jarring.  It feels wrong, and coming from an actual person, it would be wrong. Coming from code, it’s just unfortunate.


But of course, it did come from an actual person. “[The app] was awesome for a lot of people,” the product manager for Facebook’s Year in Review app, Jonathan Gheller, later told The Washington Post. Like all the digital experiences with, and within, which we all increasingly live our lives, an actual person — in fact a whole team of people — was responsible for concepting, designing, building, testing, and iterating this experience. No doubt, the responsibility for the rollout of this particular app featured prominently in a number of Facebook employees’ job performance reviews. From start to finish, this experience was crafted by people (not code). Calling its end result “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty” is like describing a drunk driving accident as “inadvertent gasoline cruelty.” For sure, it could have been avoided with an empty gas tank, but is that really the most accurate way to ascribe accountability in this situation? (Don’t blame it on the algohol).

“In creating this Year in Review app, there wasn’t enough thought given to cases like mine, or anyone who had a bad year,” Meyer wrote. “If I could fix one thing about our industry, just one thing, it would be that: to increase awareness of and consideration for the failure modes, the edge cases, the worst-case scenarios.”

If I could fix one thing about our industry, it would be to destroy the idea that these scenarios are edge cases.

Last year in the US, 2.6 million people died, leaving behind untold numbers of Facebook users who mourn the absence of their loved ones.

Right now 8.5 million people can’t find a job;

14.5 million people have cancer;

16 million people suffer from depression;

23.5 million people are addicted to alcohol and drugs;

45 million people live below the poverty line (including 16 million children)

These are not “edge cases.” These are not “worst case scenarios.” These are all people who use Facebook. And that’s not even counting your run of the mill disappointments, broken hearts, and inevitable wrongs and slights and meannesses that are, basically, life.

“The design [of the Year in Review app] is for the ideal user, the happy, upbeat, good-life user,” Meyer wrote. But if you are a product manager or UX designer creating experiences that will afflict affect hundreds of millions of people and you are only designing for an “ideal user”… at best that’s just lazy, and at worst — it’s creating LITERAL suffering.

Put another way:

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 7.40.34 PM

As Oliver Burkeman writes in The Guardian:

The world, obviously, is a manifestly unjust place: people are always meeting fates they didn’t deserve, or not receiving rewards they did deserve for hard work or virtuous behaviour. Yet several decades of research have established that our need to believe otherwise runs deep.

Confronted with an atrocity they otherwise can’t explain, people become slightly more likely, on average, to believe that the victims must have brought it on themselves. Hence the finding, in a 2009 study, that Holocaust memorials can increase antisemitism. Or that reading about the eye-popping state of economic inequality could make you less likely to support politicians who want to do something about it. These are among numerous unsettling implications of the “just-world hypothesis”, a psychological bias explored in a new essay by Nicholas Hune-Brown at Hazlitt.

If we didn’t all believe that [things happen for a reason] to some degree, life would be an intolerably chaotic and terrifying nightmare in which effort and payback were utterly unrelated, and there was no point planning for the future, saving money for retirement or doing anything else in hope of eventual reward. We’d go mad.

Yet, ironically, this desire to believe that things happen for a reason leads to the kinds of positions that help entrench injustice instead of reducing it.

Much in the same way that the “just world” cognitive bias can actually lead us to make crueler decisions, designing product features with the “happy, upbeat, good-life” ideal user bias can lead us to create crueler user experiences.

“To shield ourselves psychologically from the terrifying thought that the world is full of innocent people suffering,” Burkeman writes, we, as humans, “endorse policies more likely to make that suffering worse.” And by denying the full spectrum of the realities of people’s lives, awesome and tragic, we, as experience designers, do the same. Except we’re the ones with the power to actually do something about it.

“Just to pick two obvious fixes,” Meyer wrote at the end of his post, “First, don’t pre-fill a picture until you’re sure the user actually wants to see pictures from their year.  And second, instead of pushing the app at people, maybe ask them if they’d like to try a preview—just a simple yes or no.  If they say no, ask if they want to be asked again later, or never again. And then, of course, honor their choices. This is… designing for crisis, or maybe a better term is empathetic design.”

Or how about just, you know, design.

In the wake of Meyer’s post, the product manager for Facebook’s Year in Review app told The Washington Post. “We can do better.”

But four months later, Facebook’s photo collage assault on my friend suggests perhaps they don’t really think they can.

“Faced with evidence of injustice, we’ll certainly try to alleviate it if we can,” Burkeman wrote, “But, if we feel powerless to make things right, we’ll do the next best thing, psychologically speaking: we’ll convince ourselves that the world isn’t so unjust after all.”


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Hello, SparkMode!

Created by The Glitch Mob’s Justin Boreta, and BRIGHT, Inc., SparkMode is the first artist-owned app that lets you create, edit, & share digital art and design your own custom art products, from prints to decor, and beyond…



Get the free app.



You may have noticed the crickets here at Social-Creature for most of 2014 (eeesh 160x160x85-see-no-evil-monkey.png.pagespeed.ic.dCoZ8IyrSj). I was a little bit busy. Justin Boreta and I were cooking up a new creative project, called SparkMode.

If you haven’t been to a music festival recently, Boreta is —


We’ve made some things together before that you’ve watched and clicked and played with. SparkMode is the next step in the evolution of Mirrorgram, an app we launched in the Fall of 2012. More than 2.5 million people created 10 million pieces of digital art with the app, igniting a pop aesthetic that took over music, fashion, and advertising for a bit.

But since those early days when the idea for Mirrorgram was first conceived (on the Glitch Mob tour bus; rock ‘n roll \m/), a lot has changed….


The iPhone has completely revolutionized how we make art.

You and I take this for granted now, but it’s become insanely easy to make art. It used to require really complicated image editing software, and the whole learning curve that came with it. And before computers, you needed years of training and practice to get your creative skills to match your artistic intent.

Now, you can get an app that’ll let you create cool stuff with a few taps in seconds. It’s a totally new relationship to the process of making art. It’s simple, it’s effortless, it’s fun. It’s an instant jump from inspiration to execution.

But why stop at the screen?

As Boreta says, “I love the feeling of getting art made into tangible things you can feel with your hands.”


SparkMode allows you to create art with app simplicity in a new medium — physical space.

In SparkMode you can layer multiple image effects to create kaleidoscopic patterns, trippy, abstract art, and beautifully symmetrical photo edits; and you can design physical art to make your offline world more beautiful, too. Order your creations through the app, and get them shipped to you anywhere in the world. We’re starting with canvas art, stickerbooks, and prints, and plan to expand into new creative mediums in 2015.


BRIGHT, Inc. makes products, experiences, and brands people love. Find out more:


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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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