The New Aesthetic, The Destruction of the Expert, and Fake Grimlock

I just read Bruce Sterling’s essay on the New Aesthetic over at Wired.com. Needless to say, it is brilliant, full of concepts that immediately spark a thousand different thoughts in a thousand different directions. This is just one thought that occurred to me. I’m not sure it’s fully formed yet, but it would interesting to see what people think.

Constructing Is Better Than Critiquing 

Sterling discussed the notion of the New Aesthetic being constructive. As he says, “Most New Aesthetic icons carry a subtext about getting excited and making something similar”. I love the fact that Sterling goes on to point out that the New Aesthetic is beyond postmodernism. Again, like Docx, the notion that a new movement is coming into being.

This got me thinking again about Docx’s notion of an age of authenticity, and how perhaps the key element of this new age, more than the authentic, is in fact the desire to create and to construct. It’s not about critiquing the old. It’s about creating the new. Perhaps being constructive is entirely the point of a post-postmodern society. I think this would be a great thing.

And this thought reminded me of a couple of incidents from, I think, early last year. Primarily the PHD Worldwide “We Are The Future” video (if you don’t know, or can’t remember what I’m talking about, then google will have the answers). I remember feeling quite depressed about this at the time, not because of the PHD film itself, but because of the ridiculous levels of criticism that was levelled at it. All this talk of failing fast, of learning by doing, and yet any agency that tries doing is immediately targeted by all and sundry. It was depressing because it created an atmosphere that was genuinely opposed to learning by doing, to trying new things. Why try new things when, should you get it even the least bit wrong, you’re at the mercy of the interweb experts?

I remember the atmosphere felt bitter because it seemed to be rewarding those that simply critiqued. Which seems the opposite of what Sterling is talking about with the New Aesthetic. Good.

Creating Truth Through Being a Fake

And then I remembered a short interview that I read with the guy behind Fake Grimlock. I find this sort of thing interesting because the adoption of fake personas online is a good example of a lens through which we’re forced to experience a post-internet world. Just as machine autocorrect distorts the truth, as does a fake persona. At the beginning of the interview, he makes an interesting point:

“It’s a proof of concept, it’s to prove a theory. And it’s to prove that who you are doesn’t matter. In fact, truth requires that you aren’t anyone, because if you’re someone, whatever you say is always biased. It’s influenced by what you know about that person.

If you’re Eric Ries, I’m going to assume what you say is true. Because, oh my God! You’re Eric Ries. But if some nobody said what Eric Ries said, most people would say “Oh well it must be false because he’s nobody.” They’re the same words. Words should be true no matter who says them.”

Which is sort of an interesting concept. Fake personas – anyone can be anything on the internet – is nothing new. But the idea of pretending to be someone else is not usually related to ideas of truthfulness. What he’s saying is that by being a fake, what he’s saying becomes more truthful.

And I like the idea that internet anonymity is providing a greater truth, that words stripped of the symbolism and semiotics of who spoke them can provide you with a more truthful starting point. In this case, expert opinion is no longer needed and it could be argued that with it, the expert ceases to exist.

If Experts Don’t Exist, Then We Foster A More Creative Environment

In a way, the problem is that on the internet we’ve been taught that everyone’s an expert. Traditionally, an expert earned their status through practice and education, and were anointed thusly by their peers. Certain benefits came with being an expert, including that of publication.  And then along came the web, democratising publication and along with it, to an extent, the status of an expert.

The long tail nature of the web meant that suddenly everyone could be an expert; everyone could find a niche, no matter how small, which they could claim expertise over. Everyone could comment on everybody else’s work; we were all allowed to peer review. Suddenly we had a world where everyone had the right to an expert’s opinion.

There’s a difference between critiquing and creating, and I feel that the notion of learning by doing, of constructing, renders the expert obsolete. Creating something new is more important than commenting on something else. This is refreshing, because what I found depressing about “We Are The Future” was the litany of internet experts queuing up to criticise and offer suggestions of how it should be done differently, without ever having had to do it themselves. This doesn’t create an environment where new things can be created.

Perhaps what we can take from both the New Aesthetic and Fake Grimlock is the notion that that constructing the new is more important than having an opinion on the old. And that, in this new environment, expert opinion is less important than trying things, doing things and making things. Which I think would be a quite interesting place.

Postmodernism, Authenticity, the Internet and the New Aesthetic

This most may be a bit of a ramble, so bear with me.

I’ve been reading up on various talks from SXSW and the one that seems to have most interested me (as with many people) was the New Aesthetic, hosted by James Bridle. You can read his write-up, and then thoughts on their own blogs from Joanne McNeilBen TerrettAaron Straup Cope, and Russell Davies, each members of the panel.

John V Wiltshire put it best (as he often does) when he said “Following The New Aesthetic’s progress as an idea over the last few months has felt like a very vital thing to do, without perhaps knowing exactly why.”

Like John, I’ve been trying to understand why I find it interesting, and spent the morning in an internet rabbit hole, going from the New Aesthetic tumblr to this article on the rise of the fake authenticity of brands (and how they are even lauded for being so). From there, I read this brilliant article from Edward Docx in Prospect magazine from last year on the death of postmodernism and the potential birth of a new age – an age of authenticity.

So the below is a somewhat clumsy attempt to rationalise and understand why I’m interested in it all

The Internet and Postmodernism

From the Prospect Magazine article:

“… the notion of a single, overarching view of the world—a dominant narrative (or to use the jargon, meta-narrative)—vanishes. There is no single narrative, no privileged standpoint, no system or theory that overlays all others. Hence, Lyotard argued, all narratives exist together, side by side, with none dominating. This confluence of narratives is the essence of postmodernism.”

I wrote an article for AdMap recently around the notion of hyperlocal culture, and how the internet causes a constant fragmentation of culture as ever more niche interest groups can find like-minded people and form cultures around what they believe. The postmodernist addition to this is to say that all of these cultures are of equal importance – the internet doesn’t allow for a dominant narrative.

The problem with postmodernism is that by removing the concept of a meta-narrative we also remove remove the ability to judge value. Or as Docx puts it, “If we de-privilege all positions, we can assert no position, we cannot therefore participate in society or the collective …”

This means the only remaining value system, the only means by which we can judge success, is the capitalist market itself. The question becomes simply, “how much money did you make?”

So, if postmodernist society is marked by the removal of all narrative except for the market (all that is left after the removal of everything else) then online, this manifests itself in simple volume of membership. The constant obsession of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, the size of the online group to which you belong are all examples of a need to place some kind meaning on a system bereft of any dominant narrative. But what if society is changing to reflect a growing discontent with this?

The Internet and Authenticity

Again, from Prospect Magazine:

“If we tune in carefully, we can detect this growing desire for authenticity all around us. We can see it in the specificity of the local food movement or the repeated use of the word ‘proper’ on gastropub menus. We can hear it in the use of the word ‘legend’ as applied to anyone who has actually achieved something in the real world.”

In general, I feel that we’re beginning to move towards a new narrative defined by the authentic. I’ve been talking to people for a while about a desire to shrink the number of Facebook friends I have, in the belief that if they were all closer friends, I would use the platform more. The emerging popularity of social networks such as Path, which actually limits the maximum number of friends you can have, is further example of a move away from a market-led numbers game online. It’s a search for authenticity, for wanting your digital life to more closely reflect the social structures you have in your real life.

But there is a wider question here – how can we communicate authentically over a medium where machines are in charge of the communication? Where the machines we use do things like this (from Damn You, Autocorrect):

Disney or Divorce

Authenticity and the New Aesthetic

In the context of an age of authenticity, New Aesthetic becomes an exploration of what constitutes ‘authentic’ in a time of machines. When machines are drawing, painting and talking, often in ways that are indistinguishable from humans, our concept of authenticity is going to be challenged. In a world full of auto-correct, we need to reevaluate what it means to all of us.

So, if we really are moving out of the Postmodern Age, and into the Authentic Age, what’s interesting is how we begin to resolve the dissonance created by trying to be authentic via postmodernism’s greatest creation, the internet. To me, that is what is interesting about the New Aesthetic – the meaning of authenticity in the age in which we now live.

Why I Don’t Trust Data.

Dilbert Cartoon

I’m a moron. Why? Because I prefer manipulative anecdotes to data.

Why does data escape labeling? The reason I guess is that most people think that data is telling the truth, that looking at raw data is someone a window into the soul. I think data is more manipulative than any anecdote I’ve ever heard, and far more dangerous given that so many people regard it as simple truth.

There are two ways I think data is manipulated, and why it can’t always be trusted.

1. Data is mis-represented. Take a look at this piece of research from Think With Google. Have a look at the top stat:

39% of smartphone shoppers user videos while researching and shopping.

39%? That certainly seems like a reasonably high number of people – we should all probably start filling YouTube with product videos and paying Google to promote them for us, right?

Well, on slide 3 of the actual presentation, they explain how the data was collected, and who qualified for the survey:

1186 respondents who qualified for the survey after indicating they had both a) shopped / purchased a tablet/TV/smartphone and b) watched some form of online video in the past 6 months

So hang on a sec. What we’re talking about here isn’t actually smartphone shoppers, but smartphone shoppers who have already watched some form of online video in the past 6 months; shoppers who have already exhibited the behaviour of watching online videos. Tapping into existing behaviour is much easier than forming new behaviours, so it’s absolutely no surprise to see this number up at almost 40%. But this isn’t actually justification to pursue product video as a strategy for our product, because we don’t know what percentage of our product’s consumers do this.

So what do we know? All we know is that 39% of people who check online video already also do it when researching smartphones. Which is potentially quite a different claim to the one that is actually made. Note as well that by presenting it this way, it makes the number seem much smaller – “wow, only 39% of people who watch online video bother to watch product demos”, rather than “wow, 39% of smartphone shoppers watch product videos”.

Suddenly the context has shifted, and with it so has what the data is appearing to tell you.

And this problem is not just in the presentation of this data, but also in the way this data is then used. It may be that smartphone shoppers are a tech-savvy bunch where almost none of them do not watch online video. But you can’t just take this statistic and apply it to other categories and sectors. Laundry detergent buyers won’t have the same profile as smartphone buyers. If you’re in the laundry detergent business, then this data is useless to you. But, statistics probably don’t exist for laundry detergent shoppers, so people use what they can find. And what the can find is wrong.

2. Data is mis-collected. Our behaviour sometimes leaves direct trails of data. For example, as we browse our way around a website, data is collected on what pages we visit, how long we spend on each page, what we click on each page and so on. No-one has to ask us to tell them how long we spent on a page. Other data however is collected by asking people directly what they think or do – we’re asked what we think about something, and if enough of us answer in the same way as to be statistically significant, it becomes ‘truth’.

To me, this seems to ignore the whole field of behavioural economics, and the fact that human beings rarely behave like rational creatures. There are a myriad of ways that people could misrepresent themselves when asked to provide data, but below are just two that occur to me right now

1. We answer questionnaires from the point of view of the ‘perfect me’. When you answer a questionnaire, you’re not answering from the point of view of who you actually are, but from who you’d like to be seen to be. Often these are very similar, but are usually different enough to create potentially interesting results. When I fill in a survey on recycling, for example, am I filling it in as the true me, or the me I’d like to present to the world? And how different are those two points of view? Many people say the environment is important, and when surveyed say that they use ‘green’ goods. And yet the numbers rarely correspond with the actual check-out data. The numbers who actually buy ‘green’ goods are lower than the numbers who say they do.  Needless to say, if people aren’t answering the questions honestly in the first place, trusting your data is going to be a little tricky.

2. We want to please. Most people are quite keen to please others, particularly those who are rewarding us to do something. So if people who completed the survey were persuaded to do so through some form of reward mechanism, whether actual payment or competition opportunity or whatever, then the results you get back will be influenced by their desire to please. You won’t be looking at real results, but at the results the people completing the survey thought you wanted to see. You’ve just accidentally hired a bunch of ‘yes’ men.

It’s important to note that I’m not saying ‘all data is therefore pointless’, but that by presenting data as ‘truth’ we’re encouraging people to accept it wholesale, which leaves them open to more manipulation than any anecdote could ever cause. We need to be thorough in our interpretation of the numbers and not just blindly accept that just because we call it data it is somehow indisputable truth.

Madeiran Steak Sandwich

I could be writing about hyperlocal culture, but instead I have written a blog post about a steak sandwich. An infinately better idea.

The particular sandwich in question is photographed for you below.

Steak Sandwich

There are some key points about this sandwich that are important to know.

The bread is made in a traditional Madeiran way that involves using sweet potato. Yep, that’s two types of carbs in the same foodstuff. An excellent way to start a sandwich.

You’ll also notice that the bottom 5mm or so of the top slice of bread seems to be green. This is because it has been used to soak up a large amount garlic butter. The bottom slice has also met the same fate. So, to be clear, we’re starting this sandwich with bread that is made with potato and then soaked in garlic butter.

Then you can see the steak. Looks pretty good. I ordered it medium, which I think this pretty much is, and means that you have quite a lot of bloody steak juice also mingling in with the garlic butter. Impressive. It’s also incredibly tender, meaning it’s easy to bite through with just teeth. Important in a steak sandwich.

Those things that look a bit like they might be chips are in fact some of the largest tomatoes you’ll ever see. I mean in the overall scheme of things, tomatoes are fairly insignificant, but if they’re going to hang around, then they might as well be really fucking huge.

Then there’s some lettuce. I’m not going to lie to you; this is entirely inconsequential.

Finally, we finish with the second slice of bread. As already mentioned, this is soaked in garlic butter too, because, you know, one slice of bread soaked in garlicy goodness just wasn’t enough. Epic.

What a sandwich.

Also, if anyone was in any doubt that Madeirans really know how to do bread, the below photo is a picture of a side-roll (one of those rolls you get at the beginning of a meal whilst you wait for your starter) from a restaurant. Those lumps you can see on top of it are bacon. Bacon.

Bacon Bread

The fiasco of privatised rail

Ah, rail ticket price hikes. Seems like once a year, rail companies like to get together and collectively fuck commuters up the arse for an extra few million in bonuses comically disguised as “required for ongoing modernisation”.

And the thing is, it’s every year, like Christmas. In fact, for the bosses of the rail firms, it’s probably better than Christmas (what do you get for the Southern Railways CEO who has everything?)

The real problem of course is that the very idea of privatised rail is fundamentally flawed. Privatisation is a bastion of capitalism, built around the idea that private competition will trim bloated ex-public sector bodies and result in a better service.

The problem is that in order for capitalism to work effectively you need competition. It’s sort of fundamental to the concept. Competition provides choice, which allows me as the consumer to vote with my feet. Charge too much, or provide too shoddy a product, and the consumer will go to your competitor. If enough consumers move, you’re forced to lower your price, or improve your product, to win customers back. Thus the market self-regulates; it is the concept of competition and the choice that competition provides that forces individual companies to behave in a way that is pro-consumer.

Now back to the railways. If you want to, or have to, travel by rail you effectively have NO choice as to the supplier of your service. Each rail company has an effective monopoly on the routes that they serve. If I want to get a train from London Victoria to Orpington (for example) I HAVE to use Southeastern. There is no realistic choice, which is as good as no choice at all.

At this point then, the company can behave as they wish. There is no competition to regulate the market, so poor service and high prices are the inevitable results for any business primarily driven by the need to make profits. Without competition, there is no pressure on the business to lower prices (thereby earning less money and lowering profits) or improve service (thereby spending more money and lowering profits).

I realise that rail contracts are regularly put out to tender (every 5 years?), and thus this should provide an element of competition, with individual companies bidding to provide the best service. However, the problem with this is that it still doesn’t provide consumer choice. There maybe competition to win the tender, but the consumer has no direct say in what the ‘best’ bid is, not any ability to influence the decision, or future decisions, post-awarding of the contract.

You need more than just competition to regulate capitalist industry.You need the consumer to have the ability to choose from a variety of competitors. Unless consumers as a group have the ability to threaten the bottom-line profits of business, then the business is not obligated to consider them or respond to their criticism.

In effect therefore, the privatisation of railways was nothing more than a license to print money. And unless by some miracle we re-nationalise them, then terrible customer service and ongoing fare hikes are likely to be the reality for many years to come.

Links of the Day

Love this idea. Do something nice for the student who was initially helped up from the ground by looters, before they went through his bag and helped themselves to his stuff. An ugly, embarrassing moment, but this helps to make it better:

http://somethingniceforashraf.tumblr.com/

Anonymous foretell of the end of Facebook, which personally I wouldn’t mind too much, if only because it would demonstrate how much power these people wield:

http://www.zdnet.com/blog/violetblue/anonymous-vows-destruction-of-facebook-on-guy-fawkes-day/601

(side note: anyone else notice the similarities of language between the riot reporting and that Anonymous piece? Anonymous are also mainly teenage youths right? The geek equivalent of leveling your own neighbourhood perhaps)

“The problem lies with the people, not with the tools” – good slideshow defending the use of social media during the riots. Just to clarify – it’s not Twitter’s fault:

http://www.slideshare.net/mobileyouth/the-london-riots-wtf-graham-brown-mobileyouth

 

Riots and hacking don’t really matter anyway, because one day soon the US really will default on its debts and then the whole world will be fucked. Good explanation of why this might be true:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jjv-MtGpj2U&feature=youtu.be

And finally, lovely piece of teacher vs former student banter on Facebook. DOUBLE BURN!

http://twitpic.com/5xdzoc

Automatic Audience Interest

“As automatic audience interest declines,
our only currency is to be interesting”

I really dislike statements like this. Not because I want to encourage people to be boring, but because it suggests that perhaps there was a time in the past where we could afford to be boring. Like the idea of being interesting is somehow new.

It also implies that at some stage before this decline, we the audience were just slaves to the ITV ad break, waiting like dribbling zombies to senselessly consume whatever was served up to us.

Yet perhaps kettle spikes at half-time of the FA Cup final suggests otherwise. Perhaps we’ve always been able to find something to do other than sit through the ads.

When I was a kid, I used to race my brother to the toilet during ad breaks in Star Wars. Later at university, I used to smoke a quick cigarette during the ad break in Babylon 5. There has NEVER been such a thing as Automatic Audience Interest, and interesting has ALWAYS been the only currency of any value.

There are certain ads that I always remember, that work so well I still talk about them today – the Audi ad with the dislikeable yuppi, the Levi’s ads that sent one-hit-wonders to the top of the charts, the Heineken Water in Majorca ad. Good ads worked. And good ads still work – think the Cadbury’s Gorilla or the Old Spice ad (which people forget worked pretty well as a TV ad before working pretty well as a social media campaign).

The point is that lines like this are often used as a criticism of advertising, to suggest the old world is dead, and build up a hype-fear to drive whatever the latest buzzword consultants and experts are trying to push. It doesn’t actually help move the industry forwards. Sometimes I think we need to acknowledge that advertising has always been interesting; has always needed to be interesting.

The question really is why? Why is some advertising, or any other form of communication, interesting? And I think the answer lies in an understanding of culture. Understanding culture lets you understand how to make something that resonates with that culture. Something that people want to talk about, pass on, be part of. And good advertising has always managed to do this.

So if we understand the culture we’re creating for, we can begin to produce something that’s interesting. Something that people will talk about, will call up radio shows to debate, will chat to colleagues about whilst they’re waiting for the kettle to boil in the morning.

But like I say, that’s not a new idea. That’s always been the case. In the rush to embrace all things new and shiny, we should be careful not to forget some of the things that came before them.

Risks consign nativity to be bewitched.

The comments on this blog always get pretty good spam, and I have comments set to need manual approval for exactly this reason. Sometimes when I log in to check (particularly after a long time, sorry about that) I find some pretty awesome nonsense. But, nothing compares to this piece of absolute genius.

Well-paying, they request to be taught that filing lawsuits is not the line of performance to strand foetid piracy. Exceedingly than, it’s to row-boat something in the most castigate beaten path than piracy. Like concord of use. It’s indubitably a cyclopean numbers easier to utter iTunes than to search the Internet with imperil of malware and then crappy bestow make an exhibit, but if people are expected to redress turn behind from loads and splatter all together seeing that ages, it’s not fruitful to work. They lone be subjected to a lop value once you can remodel about people work out software and Noose sites that short it ridiculously tranquilly to infringer, and up the quality. If that happens, then there compel be no stopping piracy. But they’re too energetic and appalled of losing. Risks consign nativity to to be bewitched!

Almost reads like a Burroughs novel.