Originality And Conformity

Originality and Conformity #

As Tennyson put it, “we are part of all we have met”, and all people through the ages are products of their conditioning – we are cultural constructs.

E.S. Turner in The Shocking History of Advertising (1968)

“A bride is not a young woman on the edge of a great adventure; she is a conditioned consumer, who by buying the right cosmetics and the right brassiere has captured her man, and who, when she returns from her honeymoon, will go into the grocer’s and automatically recite those branded names that have been dinned into her ears for the last twenty years”.

Vance Palmer in The Hidden Persuaders, advances the possibility that the future citizen will be a helpless victim of campaigns of persuasion guided by mass psychoanalysis.

Professor Marshall McLuhan writes: “Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object now. And to generate heat, not light, is the intention.”

Kyle Chayka writing in Racked claims that today’s styles are influenced by Algorithms;

“No one is original anymore, not even you”. It is getting much worse with social media determining our lifestyles.

The Echo Look won’t tell you why it’s making its decisions. And yet it purports to show us our ideal style, just as algorithms like Netflix recommendations, Spotify Discover, and Facebook and YouTube feeds promise us an ideal version of cultural consumption tailored to our personal desires. In fact, this promise is inherent in the technology itself: Algorithms, as I’ll loosely define them, are sets of equations that work through machine learning to customize the delivery of content to individuals, prioritizing what they think we want, and evolving over time based on what we engage with.

Further evidence of the artificial and hierarchical nature of style in the past can be found in that scene from the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, in which Meryl Streep (as magazine editor and Anna Wintour facsimile Miranda Priestly) tells her assistant played by Anne Hathaway that the chunky blue sweater she is wearing was, in essence, chosen for her.

“That blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs, and it’s sort of comical how you think you made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff,” Streep says.

The message of many things in America is “Like this or die.”

“Collapsing Dominant” #

When modes of tastes change, there is a certain fear: Am I in or out? Do I understand the new or am I stuck in the old? George Trow coined the “collapsing dominant” to describe a situation in which an older,established mode of cultural authority, or a taste regime, is fading and being replaced by a newer one. These regimes have two parts: the subjects of taste and the way taste is communicated.

Today we are seeing the collapse of the dominant regime that Trow originally observed emerging, mass-media television, which had previously replaced the moralistic mid-century novels of New England WASPs. Now, we have Instagram likes, Twitter hashtags, and Google-distributed display advertising spreading taste values. Instead of the maximalist, celebrity-driven, intoxicant culture of ‘70s television — Nixon, Star Wars, shag rugs, cocaine, nuclear bombs — we now have the flattened, participatory, somehow salutary aesthetic of avocado toast, Outdoor Voices leggings, reclaimed wood, Sky Ting yoga classes, and succulents in ceramic planters.

That we are in the midst of this shift in taste might help explain our larger mood of instability and paranoia (or is it just me?). We can’t figure out what might be sustainable to identify with, to orient our taste on. The algorithm suggests that we trust it, but we don’t entirely want to. We crave a more “authentic,” lasting form of meaning.

It’s up to us whether or not we care about the shades of distinction between human and machine choice, or indeed if we care about fashion at all. Maybe taste is the last thing separating us from the Singularity; maybe it’s the first thing we should get rid of. “I don’t think the consumer cares, as long as it works,” one Stitch Fix executive said of its algorithmically designed clothes.

But if we do want to avoid displacing or reassigning our desires and creativity to machines, we can decide to become a little more analog. I imagine a future in which our clothes, music, film, art, books come with stickers like organic farmstand produce: Algorithm Free.

Echo, Echo, Echo

“Echo” is a good name for Amazon’s device because it creates an algorithmic feedback loop in which nothing original emerges.

Alexa, how do I look?

You look derivative, Kyle.

Kyle Chayka is a writer living in Brooklyn. From Racked Copy editor: Laura Bullard