When you think about it, you really have to give Starbuck’s a hell of a lot of credit, whether you like their coffee and their business practices or not. Here’s why: Starbuck’s could easily fall down on the job, lean back a bit and sail on their complete global dominance in the coffee and café market, but they’re not. Case in point: their latest pumpkin spice latte campaign.

Laugh if you will, but my best friend from high school and I have this tradition of alerting each other when the first pumpkin spice lattes hit Starbuck’s. I think we’ve been doing this since we were 15. And what’s funny is, we’re not alone in this. This has become an annual tradition for people all around the world.

And this year’s campaign to promote the PSL’s official arrival is some of the most creative marketing I’ve seen in a while.

Here’s how it works:

On Twitter, I saw that Starbuck’s had promoted the Pumpkin Spice Latte account, @TheRealPSL.

No, I am not a follower of Starbuck’s OR the Pumpkin Spice Latte account on Twitter, but I saw the (paid) promotion in my Twitter feed:




Instantly, I thought about my friend and sent this to her in an email, feeling that sense of fun over our inside joke and the excitement that our favorite little commercial harbinger of Fall had arrived. Then I looked closer, and clicked on the link in the tweet. It brought me to the landing page for their campaign:


On the landing page you are told to solve a riddle relating to fall, and once you solve the riddle, you are given a secret code.

You are then told to bring this into a barista at your local Starbuck’s to unlock the PSL for everyone in that specific location, officially unleashing “fall’s favorite beverage.”


So, let’s go back and take some account of what’s happened just in the course of my following through with these steps, and let’s assume I go to the closest Starbuck’s and hand them this code.

This campaign has combined elements of social (Twitter), mobile (on my phone), gamification (solving riddles, getting there first), physical brick-and-mortar sales (bring the code to your closest/local store), has turned a product into an event, has combated the threat of a stale menu (promotion of a new, seasonally available item) and brand fatigue (so you don’t have to order the same vanilla latte yet again), and promotes values of community (you’re doing this for the people at your local Starbuck’s) and that ever-elusive aura of seasonality (only available in the Fall, a sign that Autumn has arrived) at the same time.

It’s relatively simple in execution, doesn’t require a lot of effort, but is seamless in its experience. It’s an excellent example of how companies can tie social promotion and social communities to web campaigns, and then to in-store sales or physical events. Quite an elegant and effective design, and a great example to anyone in marketing.

Thought it was worth sharing.



Coming out of my self-imposed blackout period. Apologies for being gone so long. Wasn’t feeling all that inspired by the general topics that were out there, but I’ve finally found a few that got my gears twisting again.

So today, let’s talk about this recent phenomenon of “triggering” and requested “trigger warnings.”

According to an excellent Guardian article on the movement, “Triggering” is a phrase you might see in the comments section of an online article that addresses racism, rape, war, anorexia or any number of subjects about which a discussion may not leave the reader with a care-free, fuzzy sort of feeling. It’s a phrase that’s been requested this semester by a number of college students to be applied to classic books — The Great Gatsby (for misogyny and violence), Huck Finn (for racism), Things Fall Apart (for colonialism and religious persecution), Mrs. Dalloway (for suicide), Shakespeare (for … you name it). These students are asking for what essentially constitute red-flag alerts to be placed, in some cases, upon the literature itself, or, at least, in class syllabuses, and invoked prior to lectures.”

Now, this brings a few thoughts to mind.

1)      A digital native generation that is entering or currently in college is essentially requesting that its required reading be thoroughly tagged with metadata. Not all that surprising, in theory.

2)      This must be the most massively traumatized generation in history, and all before they have reached college age no less, otherwise why is this happening?

3)      What type of current college student experiences trauma triggered by fictionalized accounts of “colonialism?”

Before I get web-slapped for being insensitive to those who have experience severe, deep, or even shallow trauma- allow me to assure you dear readers that I am not without a soul, and I am not without empathy. I am terribly sorry that people experience pain in their lifetimes. I am sorry that most often it is inflicted completely without any reason or cause. I understand that some of this trauma is so bone-shakingly deep that medication and years of therapy only scratch the surface of the underlying fear or suffering that pools in the soul of its sufferers like a dark, swelling ocean with no horizon.

But I have to say I don’t believe that never addressing, acknowledging, or facing the elements in life that may ever remind you of the trauma or the perpetrator is the solution to managing it. Here I’d like to insert an analogy: antibacterial hand soap. No, no, stick with me here. I promise there will be dividends…

The United States fears germs, bacteria and sickness in a very real way. And so we were ready pawns when the soap and personal hygiene industry began to flood the market with the daddy of all soaps- “antibacterial”- presented as the solution to killing all the tiny creepy crawlies we couldn’t even imagine. And yet. And yet and yet. As it turns out, antibacterial hand soap may also kill good bacteria, and reduce our body’s innate ability to fight off germs and viruses. In fact, the proliferation of triclosan, a leading ingredient in over 75% of antibacterial hand soaps might be a contributing factor in the rise of “antibiotic resistant superbugs” to such an extent that the FDA has issued an order for further investigation into whether it should be allowed in consumer products, and Minnesota has voted to ban it outright.

What does this longwinded analogy have to do with these proposed trigger warnings on literature?

Self-censorship, or insisting everyone else in the world draw a wide circle around anything remotely related to your trauma, or trying to eliminate all signs or reminders of that trauma in your life is like bathing in antibacterial hand soap. By avoiding the trauma itself, or using a carefully constructed virtual reality of “all happiness- no trouble” all the time people empower the trauma that ails them, converting it into a super-trauma that is apt to rear its ugly head at any moment. “The push for trigger warnings surely comes from a good place, but it’s nonetheless troubling” says the Guardian article. Yes, like antibacterial hand soap. In theory, all good. In reality, not so good. When you block your body’s ability to handle and build up a resistance to what is reaching out to ail you, essentially you’re disabling yourself.

And this is all tangentially related to this phenomenon of helicopter parenting and over-protective parenting. Oh yes it is. How else to explain this generation of children who are reaching adulthood with no capacity to defend themselves from the pain that life can (does) bring? If parents have been preventing their kids from ever making mistakes, getting hurt, getting dirty, or relieving them of the burden of having to pull themselves out of a period of discomfort, sadness, or frustration, then those kids have developed absolutely no capacity to work through adult and life setbacks of any variety.

Listen- I don’t have kids, but I do have a life. That said, I understand the sentiment behind wanting to protect my someday-children from any pain, but I do not understand the desire to prevent my children from actually experiencing life. From actually living and experiencing life. Life is often pain, life is often disappointment, life is often loneliness, and heartache, and trauma. Life must be lived, and living is often the act of working through pain.

It’s ironic, I just finished reading a novel suggested to me by a friend called “The Sparrow.” If these students had their way, this book’s cover would be slapped full of trigger warning metadata like religion, rape, aliens, cultural inequity. And there are horrifying events at the center of this book which are difficult to read about. But the very principle at the core center of this book is that when something terrible happens you have to face it and talk about that very thing to acknowledge that it happened, to face its effects on you, in order to release its hold on your past. At times the whole book reads like a parable for the power of confession, but it also intricately illustrates the pain of having to go through the process of discussing a trauma. And for that, the book is pretty effective.

All of which brings me back full circle- because the first thing I thought when I read about these requests for “trigger warnings” was the recent study conducted by the New School in NYC which received wide media attention, that “found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling.” That, in fact, reading about other people going through emotional experiences helps to develop our own brains’ ability to process, file, and produce appropriate reactions and interactions to emotional situations. In essence, it helps our EQ, our emotional intelligence quotient, which can play a huge role in our success in life.

All of which the Guardian article on this subject states very well in its last paragraph: “In The Giver, the main character finds there is something more important than a society that’s free from pain. It’s a society in which we feel. That, of course, is the intention of art itself: it’s not meant to shield us from pain so much as offer a vessel through which we can cope, grow and even move past tragedy. If we warn people with a flashing red light that inside great works of literature they are likely to find pain, we do a disservice to the conversations, and the healing, meant to come through the act of reading itself.” Bingo.

For more reading on these “triggers” and their “warnings:”






For more reading on literary fiction as an empathy-builder:






For more reading on Antibacterial Hand Soap:




There’s a lot of talk these days about the value or opportunity represented by the new movement toward informational design, or data visualization; that is, the visual representation of data in an effort to elicit a bigger impact. The most basic every day example used to be taking data from a table in a spreadsheet and converting it into a graph to make the trends inherent in the data more meaningful on a meta level.

Internet pundits, social media evangelists, educators, and modern day doomsday theorists are all offering their own reasons for why informational design is important, but the generally accepted, underlying argument goes something like this: there’s too much information available to us all these days. Therefore, our ability to invest attention in data has declined even as the rates of information available to us have increased. This leads everyone to believe that if we convert information into images, we can more easily consume, digest and use that information. In other words, we need to dumb down the data with pictures and bright colors and arrows in order to comprehend it all.

(Care of http://www.customermagnetism.com/seoblog/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/infographicmarketing1.png)

We can blame the recently meteoric rise of infographic popularity on a few likely sources: it’s an election year, a chance to inform and educate the American people on issues that run the gamut, but in a digestible, simplified way that they can take straight to the polls. For most broadcasters, pollsters, PACs and lobbyists, that means stunning visuals and new media toys. On the tech trends side, blame the sale of social photo app Instagram to Facebook for an unheard of sum earlier this year, or the fact that visual scrapbook site Pinterest hit 10 million monthly unique visitors faster than any other social platform in history. If you look at all of this from a very shallow level, the sign seems to point (with a big red, shiny, pulsating arrow) toward a need to make everything visual.

(Care of http://tctechcrunch2011.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/pinterest-blow-dryer-done-52.png?w=540)

As with most new media movements and trends, I recommend slipping one toe very carefully into the waters here. I think there is merit to making some data more visual. There are thousands of examples where informational design is transcendent and deeply effective. However, as if often the case with the execution of a newly trendy web phenomenon, there are more than twice as many examples of infographic abuse (bless you, Tumblr, you’re always there for me).

(Care of http://terribleinfographics.tumblr.com/image/9965956069)

So when I saw NYTimes food writer Mark Bittman getting in on the infographic action I approached his take with some skepticism. And yet, and yet, (and here’s where we relate back to the fact that this is an election year and I’ve done my share of political studying) Bittman did something novel here.

Bittman approached the topics of food labels in a recent column in an interesting way, especially for Californians who, in November, will vote on whether to require any food made with genetically modified material to be explicitly labeled as such. In his post, Bittman designed his own recommendation for what the future of food labels should look like in the U.S.

Image(Care of NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/14/opinion/sunday/bittman-my-dream-food-label.html)

In my humble opinion (as a person with absolutely no design background) I think this is a really good start for a simplified look at food labels.  I worry about “foodness” and “welfare” as names for those values, I don’t think Bittman has done a great job with naming on those.  That said, I think he hits on the right measurements, as what most folks do want to know about their food is a) if it’s good for them and has nutrients, b) if it contains unprocessed, whole foods, and c) what its relative impact on the environment is. I also think the color coding system is a great way of distilling the info down for those who just want a very general guidance for their purchases.

All that said, whether or not I agree with his proposal, I love this example of data design because it represents a visualization that people would be using to make decisions every single day, and because it’s important to get these things right since they will impact everyone in California (and possibly, some day, everyone in the U.S.). Given nutrition data’s links to helping to stem the tide of the obesity epidemic we currently face in the U.S., getting this labeling design right has the potential to be one of the most important health initiatives that our generation faces. And that’s when infographics and data design become invaluable for policy and life choices that we make day in and day out.

What do you think of Bittman’s proposed design for food labeling? Too much data? Wrong data? Not well designed?


Aside  —  Posted: October 22, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,



Klout Comes Out

Posted: August 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

Ah, Klout. My personal vicissitude on your legitimacy knows no bounds. If you’re unfamiliar, Klout is a site that calculates your overall social influence score. In its own terms, “People have always had the power to influence others, and that power is being democratized with new social media tools. Klout’s mission is to provide insights into everyone’s influence.”

ImageWhich, you know, works in the beginning because frankly who ISN’T narcissistic enough to want to know how they measure up against everyone else? Klout’s appeal acts upon the same impulse that inspires us to “Google ourselves,” or to constantly update Facebook or Instagram with new and fabulous pictures of our selves and our lives. It’s the basic human desire for amplified attention- ego.

When I first heard about Klout my initial reaction was one that I find quite common for tech startups. Sort of a “well, isn’t that an interesting concept (that no one will ever pick up on)”. To be honest, I have been miserably wrong on that front before. I thought that about Twitter. Boy was I wrong on that one.

Right away, I thought to myself that Klout was/is a pretty interesting proposition, at least academically, on a few different levels:

1) The gall required to introduce a new “score” into our lives that will assess how powerful we are. I mean, really, think about it: How many different numbers can we really each be weighed against? Tax bracket, credit score, Facebook friends, LinkedIn contacts, Twitter followers, etc. To introduce a whole new metric that will encapsulate our worth to society takes some cojones. Klout came in swinging and made a strong argument that their score was not only powerful, it was accurate and useful for evaluating people.

2) Klout capitalizes on social graph theory which assesses interactions and relative positioning of nodes (people) in networks and attempts to assign a value to our networked interactions for commercial benefit.  But Klout was initially only measuring the relative values of our networked connections on social, web-based networks, which can be inherently artificial.
But then I came upon an article in Wired that began by positing a future in which each of us will have to proffer our Klout scores as part of the standard candidate evaluation when applying for a job. In other words, how influential we are in Klout’s eyes could help determine how hirable we are. I felt that was a frightening proposition, but in the end it’s neither here nor there because the Wired article ended by concluding that, in general, most people feel that one correlation still holds true: the higher the Klout score, the more unbearable the person.

At that point, I thought we could all rest easily and watch Klout disappear down the startup drain while we get on with our lives. However, now Klout has changed how it calculates its score to include aspects of our offline lives in their influence scores. As a recent Mashable article pointed out,

“Klout also now takes into account more of your real-world influence, and takes into account how important you are at your company -– the CEO will earn more Klout than the mail guy –- and if you’re important enough to have your own Wikipedia page. ‘We had to figure out how to balance the real-world influence with the online influence,’ says (Klout CEO Joe) Fernandez. ‘We still lean more toward the online influence but now your real-world influence is coming more and more into play.’”

ImageSo now Klout is not only measuring how few people actually listen to or care about a word I say online, but they’re also realizing that my official work title isn’t very awe-inspiring. The hits just keep on coming.

More specifically, “We went from about 100 variables that we were looking at to over 400,” Joe Fernandez, founder and CEO of Klout told Mashable. “We’re looking at a bunch of new stuff.”

That Mashable article lists that “The service is looking at 12 billion data points per day across the seven social networks it looks at — 12 times more than it did previously.” So you’d think that everyone Klout scores may have been artificially inflated before, and as a result of that, after this new change our scores may all take a hit.

Not so. Mine increased 10 points out of nowhere. Can’t account for that at all, but then my math skills have never been overly strong. I guess we’ll just have to see how this develops! In the mean time, go out there, make friends, and above all- INFLUENCE PEOPLE.

In order to survive in the modern era, companies must grasp a strong understanding of psychology, or at least of the type of pseudo-psychology that Edward Bernays, immortalized as the father of PR, made widely available to marketers and advertisers. Bernays was an Austrian American who wove the ideas of Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter on crowd psychology with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, and ultimately asked, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”

Historically companies have leveraged a number of psychological devices and theories to generate desire within their target demographics and audiences in order to sell more. Advertising seeks to simultaneously engender strong positive feelings about a product or company while simultaneously leaving the audience feeling emptier for not owning the advertised product. The ability to pull this off is intensely powerful, and yet not as powerful as the ability to affect this reaction within the target demographic, autonomously, spontaneously.

This is the accomplishment of the new realm of mobile technologies and apps such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. In effect, their breakthrough in psycho-marketing is the ability to make their product habit-forming, even addictive. On Merriam Webster addiction is defined as: compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (or we could say product) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal. Addiction is the new marketing goal precisely because its inherently dangerous, cyclical nature is exactly what embodies both the need and the fulfillment- all encapsulated in one.

Compulsion and habit are the key words here. Marketers and advertisers drool when they see those words, because they are truly the Holy Grail of advertising. If they can create a condition in their target audience where the deprivation of the product creates a state near-pain for the user/consumer, they are guaranteed a captive customer, possibly for life.

This is precisely what Nir Eyal describes in his TechCrunch article, “The Billion Dollar Mind Trick.”  Eyal outlines a couple of critical concepts; namely “internal triggers” and “desire engines,”

“When a product is able to become tightly coupled with a thought, an emotion, or a pre-existing habit, it creates an ‘internal trigger.’ Unlike external triggers, which are sensory stimuli, like a phone ringing or an ad online telling us to “click here now!” you can’t see, touch, or hear an internal trigger. Internal triggers manifest automatically in the mind and creating them is the brass ring of consumer technology.”

As Eyal points out, “We check Twitter when we feel boredom. We pull up Facebook when we’re lonesome. The impulse to use these services is cued by emotions.” He enumerates the current approach to create internal triggers, labeling it the manufacturing of desires.”

  • “Addictive technology creates “internal triggers” which cue users without the need for marketing, messaging or any other external stimuli.  It becomes a user’s own intrinsic desire.”
  • Creating internal triggers comes from mastering the “desire engine” and its four components: trigger, action, variable reward, and commitment.”

The “desire engine” Eyal refers to is merely a phrase that describes the pre-determined “series of experiences designed to create habits…the more often users run through them, the more likely they are to self-trigger.” All of this is to say that, increasingly, and especially when it comes to mobile consumer technologies and apps, companies increasingly find that their economic and social value is a function of the strength of the habits they create within their user/customer base.

Interesting, yes, but perhaps not entirely new. Michel Foucault (yes, I know I talk about him a lot here, but his work is endlessly relevant to the types of communications discussions we constantly engage in nowadays) discussed this same concept in his investigation of the concept of “technologies of the self,” whereby his objective was:

 “to sketch out a history of the different ways in our culture that humans develop knowledge about themselves: economics, biology, psychiatry, medicine, and penology. The main point is not to accept this knowledge at face value but to analyze these so-called sciences as very specific ‘truth games’ related to specific techniques that human beings use to understand themselves.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

Yet the concept dates back to the Greeks, “constituted in Greek as epimelesthai sautou, ‘to take care of yourself’ ‘the concern with self,’ ‘to be concerned, to take care of yourself.’

Foucault posited that there were four main “technologies:”

“(I) technologies of production, (2) technologies of sign systems, (3) technologies of power, and (4) technologies of the self” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

Clearly in this case what we’re focusing on is the technology of the self, “which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

You would be hard-pressed to convince me that the bulk of apps available to us all on our mobile devices these days are not, in some way, designed to fulfill some narcissistic desire to know ourselves better. Whether it’s for fitness (calorie counters, pedometers, diet analyses, jogging analyses) or for social edification (how many people who you know are around you, how many “friends” do you have [Facebook], what are you doing right now [Twitter], how often do you visit a place [FourSquare or Yelp]) many of these tools are intended to display a mirror image of ourselves and project it onto a social web and out to others. (Hell, iPhones now include a standard photo feature that allows you to use the phone as a literal mirror by using the front-end camera as you stare into it.) But they are also intended to help us transform ourselves and make ourselves happier by making us skinnier, healthier, more social, more aware, more productive, etc.

The importance of this is that we have been fooled into thinking we are using these apps to learn more about ourselves, but the social sharing functionality proves that this is performative- we wouldn’t be doing it repeatedly unless there was a performance aspect built-in, an audience waiting to view and comment on the information, providing continuous gratification. In other words, learning more about ourselves, then amplifying that knowledge out to an audience has become habit-forming. We have become addicted to the performance of ourselves.

 “These four types of technologies hardly ever function separately, although each one of them is associated with a certain type of domination. Each implies certain modes of training and modification of individuals, not only in the obvious sense of acquiring certain skills but also in the sense of acquiring certain attitudes.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

In this case, though Foucault was often very careful in his diction and a master of semiotics, what if we replace the word “attitudes” with “habits?” After all, Foucault is referring to these technologies of self as dominating, as techniques which train and modify individuals, and a habit formed is demonstrably a tangible and acquired modification of human behavior. Later he continues to elaborate and speaks of “individual domination,”

”I am more and more interested in the interaction between oneself and others and in the technologies of individual domination, the history of how an individual acts upon himself, in the technology of self.”

I know quite a few people who would willingly and openly admit to the individual act of domination upon themselves that they perform on a compulsive basis by updating their Twitter feeds, updating the status on their Facebook accounts, uploading their latest photos to Instagram, and checking in on FourSquare. There is a reason that Googling “Is technology the new opiate of the masses?” garners page upon page of thoughtfully written and panicky editorials and blog posts. This is a newly acknowledged and little resisted truth of our times- we are willing slaves to the ongoing performance of our selves.

I go through the occasional bout of nostalgia, I admit it. Sometimes I muse that it would have been much more fun to be alive during the Wild West, or during the American Revolutionary War. Mostly this is clearly symptomatic of the fact that I feel disconnected and I want to feel a part of a movement, something significant that is taking hold of history and making it sit up and pay attention.

While I lived in Paris I was privileged to see the works of infamous, modern-era, groundbreaking schools of art such as the Blau Reiter, the Futurists, Alexander Calder and the mobile sculptors, Impressionists, Fauvists, Surrealists, Cubists, Pointillists, you name it. As I browsed the carefully curated collections of work and imagined what it would be like to exist in a time of such intense creation, innovation and turn-the-world-on-its-head thinking, I remember thinking: does anyone really ever know when they’re living smack-dab in one of those eras?

Now that I’m back in the U.S. working, and no longer have the luxury of wandering the streets of Paris, being a flaneur and contemplating my navel, those questions have gone mostly by the wayside in favor of, oh, I dunno, buying toilet paper and writing corporate emails again. Sigh. However, they don’t have to because it may actually be true that we are in the middle of a cohesive burgeoning artistic, cultural and technological movement! It even has a name, folks, which is huge, because without a name it will be hard to reference it: The New Aesthetic.

What is it about? Well, significantly it’s pretty all-encompassing, which it has to be in this era of multimedia, consolidated and integrated channels, myriad communication modes and access. In a nutshell (though that is a depressingly analog expression to use in this context) it’s about taking the time to understand how technology is affecting and has already impacted the way we see the world, how we see everything. The movement focuses on the presumption that most of the world increasingly now experiences the world not directly through their eyeballs, but through the eyes of a technological device- whether it’s a camera, a smartphone, GPS, a tablet, an e-reader, a computer screen, etc.

This opportunity for reflection is significant first because the pace of technology and its adoption simply hasn’t historically allowed us to do this- we adopt a technology, learn it, deploy it and then we’re off and running with barely a glance backward. In the super-charged modern era of technology have we really reflected on its impact on how we see things? Yes, the visionary artists, influencers and politicians of our time have, in small numbers. But this movement finally has identified certain themes about how we have all been shaped by new technologies and it’s just so interesting.

Another great facet of the New Aesthetic is in how it is playing out. This is not a genre that is reserved for the intellectual or artistic elite. So far the movement has invited everyone to participate, thereby furthering the impact that the act of reflecting has. It begs questions of its members-How is the world different from how I saw it before? Can we actually evaluate if things were better or worse before this technology/gadget/access/knowledge? Show us what you see and how you see it. Can you find us other examples of where this is playing out?

From Bruce Sterling‘s Wired piece on the topic:

“The “New Aesthetic” is a native product of modern network culture…it was born digital, on the Internet. The New Aesthetic is a “theory object” and a “shareable concept.”

The New Aesthetic is “collectively intelligent.” It’s diffuse, crowdsourcey, and made of many small pieces loosely joined. It is rhizomatic, as the people at Rhizome would likely tell you. It’s open-sourced, and triumph-of-amateurs. It’s like its logo, a bright cluster of balloons tied to some huge, dark and lethal weight.” (http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2012/04/an-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic/)

It should come as no surprise that this discussion largely began at the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas. Here is the description of the panel discussion:

“Slowly, but increasingly definitively, our technologies and our devices are learning to see, to hear, to place themselves in the world. Phones know their location by GPS. Financial algorithms read the news and feed that knowledge back into the market. Everything has a camera in it. We are becoming acquainted with new ways of seeing: the Gods-eye view of satellites, the Kinect’s inside-out sense of the living room, the elevated car-sight of Google Street View, the facial obsessions of CCTV.

As a result, these new styles and senses recur in our art, our designs, and our products. The pixelation of low-resolution images, the rough yet distinct edges of 3D printing, the shifting layers of digital maps. In this session, the participants will give examples of these effects, products and artworks, and discuss the ways in which ways of seeing are increasingly transforming ways of making and doing.” (http://schedule.sxsw.com/2012/events/event_IAP11102)

James Bridle is sort of the figurehead of the discourse around the New Aesthetic and he has done an excellent job of laying out what it means to him and helping to provide spaces for the conversation about it to unfold. In fact, he’s downright poetic in some of his descriptions:

And what of the render ghosts, those friends who live in our unbuilt spaces, the first harbingers of our collective future? How do we understand and befriend them, so that we may shape the future not as passive actors but as collaborators? (I don’t have much truck with the “don’t complain, build” / “make stuff or shut up” school, but I do believe in informed consent. Because a line has been crossed, technology/software/code is in and of the world and there’s no getting out of it. ” (http://booktwo.org/notebook/sxaesthetic/)

“My point is, all our metaphors are broken. The network is not a space (notional, cyber or otherwise) and it’s not time (while it is embedded in it at an odd angle) it is some other kind of dimension entirely.

BUT meaning is emergent in the network, it is the apophatic silence at the heart of everything, that-which-can-be-pointed-to. And that is what the New Aesthetic, in part, is an attempt to do, maybe, possibly, contingently, to point at these things and go but what does it mean?” (http://booktwo.org/notebook/sxaesthetic/)

That’s good stuff, right? I think so.

But let’s take a step back from the philosophical implications of the movement and do some of our own shell collecting in the sand. Where do we see the New Aesthetic playing out?

Here’s a few that I found:

1) My latest favorite Tumblr: ScreenshotsofDespair. Apart from appealing to that deep and sinister Schadenfreude bone that I have, this Tumblr is a perfect example of the New Aesthetic. We take photos, of screens, which we see delivering ambiguous and subtly insulting messages that seem to mirror our own loneliness, unpopularity, failure,- despair. So good.

From "Screenshots of Despair"

2) Where am I?: Google Maps and StreetView. The fact that we now actively use archived and ongoing screenshots of satellite maps and digital photography to represent to us what the world looks like, rather than having to travel there physically. I know what my friend Anna’s house looks like in Berlin without ever having been there, but I only know what it looks like on a sunny day-  April 2nd, 2009.

3) Tweet-note: I’m coining this term (unless it has been coined before) to mean seeing a live event happen through the lens of what is being said about it by the Twitter-verse. See my piece onsentiment analysis for a more nuanced examination of the implications of this, but it’s pretty crazy that these days (especially at ANY high-tech conference) you can sit in a room of thousands of people, listeningto/watching the same keynote, and yet about 98% of the audience is simultaneously tracking what is being said about that event via Twitter on their smartphones, thereby allowing the rest of the audience to largely color their opinion in real time.

4) Art: This is obvious, but the emergence of re-pixellating and bringing digital back to analog, and a nostalgia for real film is all playing out in the art world. The pixellation movement really interests me because it’s such a blatant reversion to pointillism, but it represents more of a re-education for a younger generation on how the greater whole is amassed as the result of millions and millions of tiny components. It’s also a throwback to so many other modernist movements- Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and Picasso’s Cubism comes to mind, especially here, when we talk about the New Aesthetic in terms of trying to represent the everywhere-at-once nature of things today. You can look at a book, just a simple book with your own eyes. But you can also look up reviews of the book on Amazon or Goodreads, you can research Google images of the book, how much people will pay for the book on eBay, you can read reviews of the book on the NYTimes, you can take a weathered antique-y snapshot of the book with Hipstamatic, text message your friend about the book with its photo attached, and many other options that I can’t even think of right now. All of that is a more than 360 degree representation of that book: what it is, what it looks like, what it represents, where it is, and how it is. Just like in Cubism, the object ends up being transformed, rendered nearly unrecognizable to its original form by having been taken apart and conveyed based on its components, then re-constructed on more planes than the naked eye can fully behold. The same is true of my next example…

5) Does This Photoshop Make Me Look Fat?: We are no longer satisfied with truthful representations of human bodies. In fact, we might not even really believe the truth any more if it were given to us. We have been carried away- in the beginning unaware, later blissfully aware- by the movement to re-architect human anatomy through Photoshop. I admit I have visited blogs and websites that show the blunders of graphic artists and I often STILL can’t see that anything is wrong with the images. It is that nefarious. We are more content to see human bodies through the lens of Photoshop than through reality.

6) Branded Space: this is an old feature, the fact that we see in everything a chance to advertise or place products, but one recent example was so blatant I can’t fail to mention it here. It was very recently announced that in his next movie, James Bond will be sipping not a martini, but aHeineken. That’s right, 007’s drink of choice has received the ouster in favor of product placement. Needless to say, the reaction has not been, er, positive. But it is yet another example of the New Aesthetic- not only do we see even everyday objects and products through new physical lenses, we continue to see them through figurative lenses that are colored according to which advertiser has the most money to spend that day. So the object is not permitted to exist alone for us any more. Its meaning is always stamped across its face.

In fact, Maybe the weirdest aspect of this movement is how eminently consumable it is. It’s practically Warhol-esque in its commercial viability. A perfect example being how Facebook just gobbled up Instagram, the popular hipster-making photog app for $1B. But there are thousands more examples on the official New Aesthetic Tumblr. Let the New Aesthetic binge begin.

One last expression for you: Analog Recidivism: Actually, I’m just hoping this will somehow emerge as a reaction to the New Aesthetic. I think one of the next evolutions of the movement will be to feature in art, culture, social customs, etc. what we just don’t see any more as a result of our attachment to viewing the world through the lens of our gadgets and technology. Instead of showing us how our views have changed and been modified, somehow we will be shown what we just didn’t see as a result of staring at a phone, a computer, a tablet, etc. The little things we no longer notice or take note of will be featured as once again novel by virtue of the fact that we, physically, are no longer trained to see or look for them. Did I just blow your mind?

To read more on the New Aesthetic: