THIS. YES. THIS.
In Mona Awad’s novel Bunny, a satirical indictment of the absurdities inherent in MFA writing programs, protagonist Samantha Heather Mackey is a misfit until she’s not. Surrounded by wealth and splendour at the elite university she manages to attend by virtue of a scholarship, she’s besieged by a group of contrived, immaculate Basic Bitch caricatures – privately nicknamed Vignette, Creepy Doll, Cupcake and the Duchess, but they all call each other Bunny. The Bunnies are nearly always inseparable, seen frolicking together in a herd of flawless locks and cute dresses, eating and drinking at the same places while singing each others’ praises ad nauseum:
‘Can I have five thousand more pages of this, please?’
‘Can I just say I loved living in your lines and that’s where I want to live now forever?’
Like any typical social dynamic, Samantha abhors them yet wishes she could be like them, if only to make her outsider status feel less acute. When they extend her an invitation to attend their regular Smut Salon, she very nearly declines, then goes at the last minute – ostensibly out of curiosity, but driven more by a subconscious desire to belong. It’ll make Workshop easier, she tells herself. Gradually, Samantha gets caught up in a surreal netherworld where the distinctions between fact and fiction spin into a blur. The Bunnies (and Samantha herself, eventually) end up coalescing into one entity, their fears, desires and motivations melding into a complete whole. Their thoughts echo one another, their opinions a never-ending facsimile. We can’t tell them apart.
‘We’re undertaking a project that addresses this issue.’
‘A sort of…collaboration.’
‘Basically: a hybrid.’
‘This goes way beyond genre. It subverts the whole concept of genre.’
‘And gender narratives.’
‘And the patriarchy of language.’
‘It basically fucks the writing medium. Which is dead anyway, you know?’
‘Exactly. This is about the Body. Performing the Body. The Body performing in all its nuanced viscerality.’
‘The Body fucking.’
EXTREMELY MY SHIT.
Lately, looking through my Instagram feed, I find this coalescence manifesting itself in real life. One moment, I’m scrolling past a friend’s holiday update; the next minute, a similar photo from a travel agency. A #catstagram, until it’s an ad from a pet food store coveting the same level of attention. A shitposting meme, except upon closer inspection it’s a photo retouching app, its ur-likeness the equivalent of a cursed image. I can’t count the number of times I’ve paused to look at an image, only to find out it’s an ad – sometimes, I’ve even gone so far as to give it a like.
In these spaces, flesh experiences inform screen experiences and loop back again, forming a groundswell of aesthetic and taste.
This might very well prove to be a cognitive bias; the more you think about something, the more you tend to notice it around you. But a group of researchers at the University of Florida found in a 2018 study that traditional advertising on social media no longer works. Even as users were completely aware that they were being marketed to, it was important that they found the ad relatable. If they could compare themselves to the people or imagine themselves in the scenarios the ads presented, a more positive view of the brand emerged. The veneer of authenticity gives them a sense of credibility.
Within the algorithm, an uncanny valley presents itself: like the android which looks too much – but still not quite – like a human being, a restaurant ad looks almost identical to my friend’s documentation of their dinner. Users create content which gets fed back into the algorithm, providing a template for brands and companies to determine what works and what doesn’t. Menus are designed around what will look best on Instagram. The (often one-off) Experience takes pride of place, an indicator that you have Been There – Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms litter the digital landscape alongside selfies within the candy-coloured interior of the Sugar Republic. Elsewhere, art installations change their faces to accommodate these shareable experiences, utilising the potential for virality to drive a certain kind of popularity. Or, as The Guggenheim’s former digital marketing director Jia Jia Fei said in a 2015 TedxTalk, ‘I came, I saw, I selfied.’ In these spaces, flesh experiences inform screen experiences and loop back again, forming a groundswell of aesthetic and taste.
When Marc Augé coined the word ‘non-place’ in his 1995 essay-turned-book Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, it was to refer to the shopping centres, supermarkets, hotels and airports whose uniformity of design made them indistinguishable from one another, regardless of where you were in the world. It was a ‘supermodernism’ that had emerged out of globalisation, resulting in ‘places of memory’ that were essentially unbroken chains. According to Augé, a non-place would become so familiar that it would eventually become socially estranging.
This chain would continue. Following in Augé’s footsteps, writer Kyle Chayka came up with ‘Airspace’ in 2016, a term to describe an ‘Airbnb aesthetic’ that has influenced the architecture and design of many spaces – cafes, art galleries, homes. Three years on, this character shows no sign of abating; in fact it continues to relentlessly regurgitate itself across the world, its existence pointing at a well-heeled way of life, a sense of left-leaning ‘cool’ derived from minimalism, warm lighting, indoor plants and exposed brick. I can be in Hanoi but just as easily feel as if I’m in Melbourne, the safety of my tastes ensconcing me in a familiar embrace.
It follows that Airspace is shorthand for gentrification gone viral. When taste-making is subject to the tastes of those who see themselves as connoisseurs, it goes without saying that some people will get shut out. As Chayka writes, ‘you either belong to the Airspace class or you don’t.’ In a recent interview with BBC Radio 4, he further makes plain the seamlessness of this gentrification-as-virality: ‘If the image of a very stark space with minimalist furniture works very well on Airbnb the internet platform, then the more people who see your house…the more people are going to rent it out…the more popular it will be…the more Airbnb will then promote your house. The aesthetic rewards the people who adopt it, and then even more people adopt it.’
Like a barbed-wire fence (or a linked meme, depending on how you see it), these mimetic reflections extend, unyielding. As travel becomes more widespread for the western creative classes, it’s not enough that Airbnbs and coffee shops look like the ones back home, but workspaces do too. Consequently, as ‘digital nomad’-ism become more and more appealing for these same moneyed ranks in a time of start-ups and remote work facilitated by the internet, the idea of leaving home to be at home transcends even more borders.
In a time of start-ups and remote work facilitated by the internet, the idea of leaving home to be at home transcends even more borders.
Roam, a ‘global community of co-working and co-living spaces’ with franchises in Miami, Tokyo and Bali, is seeing that this lifestyle is running more rampant as affluent creatives flock to exotic locations to embark on Instagram-worthy working holidays. In Bali, this is leading to devastating effects as housing shortages and labour exploitation work hand-in-hand to evict locals from the places they’ve lived in their entire lives. Workers working in co-working spaces and cafes are quoted as ‘living on the edge’ while the ‘digital nomads’ they serve live in gated bubbles made possible by the start-up and gig economies. Wake up in a Roam, take an Uber to an artisanal cafe for breakfast, meet someone on Tinder, go to a luxury spa next to the Roam, eat dinner at an ‘authentic’ vegetarian restaurant in the vicinity, go back to the Roam.
Further afield, this kind of redlining amounts to spatial apartheid. The residents of Woodstock and Bo-Kaap – two Cape Town suburbs which survived forced removals during apartheid – are seeing themselves gradually displaced as tourists and start-ups flock to the area. Rents and housing prices rise to astronomical heights. Urbanism researcher Sarita Pillay calls this an ‘aesthetic of exclusivity’ and a ‘violent aesthetic’. This is no different from the displacement that has occurred and is continuing to occur in so-called Australia: on the stolen lands themselves, then in suburbs like Redfern, Footscray, Fitzroy, West End and others. When places of memory gain value, it must be asked whose memories they are.
SHOOT IT INTO MY VEINS.
What’s next? Perhaps it seems like text has escaped the clutches of aestheticisation. But as I spend more and more time online, the homogeneity that now firmly makes up an Instagram experience continues to creep into the many interfaces that make up my digital landscapes. Loud websites and customisable (think MySpace or Geocities) pages are now, more often than not, considered kitsch; instead a stark minimalism appears to reign supreme. One can only imagine that these templates were designed by a user experience architect in a well-lit Brooklyn loft, or a cushy WeWork in some corner of the world.
On these interfaces, fonts like Helvetica are used to denote a sense of casual chic, while Garamond gives off an air of professionalism. I’m drafting this essay in Comic Sans but will file it in Times New Roman. Dark-coloured text on light-coloured backgrounds, large images, strong typography – Apple’s website looks like Forbes’ looks like VICE’s looks like Monocle’s looks like The Cut’s looks like Frieze’s looks like Medium’s. Art and literary magazines like Granta and Artforum trail the breadcrumbs.
Of course, when content management systems (CMS) such as WordPress and Squarespace act as the backbone of many modern websites, it seems more practical and cost-efficient to lean on what’s already available. But as Chayka points out, CMSes ‘increasingly influence not just how stories look but how they are produced, discovered, read or monetised.’ In other words, not only are stories or images jonesing for eyeballs, the software is too. Meanwhile, you can carry a luxury handbag that screams this sophistication.
When places of memory gain value, it must be asked whose memories they are.
Does flooding our attention with a certain aesthetic pave the way for taste-making? After all, all desire is mimetic; we like things because we see others liking them too. Walter Benjamin observed in 1938 that taste is established only when commodity production outpaces other kinds of production:
As the expertness of the customer declines, the importance of his taste increases proportionately – both for him and the manufacturer. For the consumer, it serves as a more or less elaborate masking of his lack of expertness. For the manufacturer, it serves as a fresh stimulus to consumption.
In a dystopia driven by clicks and metrics, it seems almost certain that the content that trends the hardest are the ones that float to the top, inspiring the ones below to aspire to spin offs. As op-eds and news media jostle for our attention, diversity suffers. To use digital media conglomerate BuzzFeed as an example, it published 914 posts in April 2012, with the number rising to 6,365 posts in April 2016. They are not an outlier; other outlets have reported similar statistics.
The thought of producing that much content in a month sounds ludicrous, even more so as reporters and staff writers struggle to keep their jobs amid layoffs. Unsurprisingly, this creates a feedback loop not unlike Airspace or Instagram posts: when media influencers are plugged in to the same streams (be that via the algorithm or simply out of overwork or convenience), the pieces of content that get churned out start to resemble each other. At its worst, this can create a standard that others in the field then aspire to.
As the attention economy continues to thrust content at us, populist ideas and imagery end up wielding an inordinate amount of power.
At this, we might look to other platforms, hoping that user-generated media can buck this trend. But on Tumblr and Twitter, people are using similar figures of speech to communicate online, creating a certain voice and lexicon that – while it can act like an insider language (‘I’m baby’) – can end up being misunderstood, appropriated or weaponised. Already, we are seeing instances of this happening: in the hackneyed uses of AAVE and queer lingo (‘bae’, ‘lit’, ‘daddy’, ‘yas queen’, et al), as well as in the incorrect interpretation of terms like ‘emotional labour’ and ‘intersectionality’. Even if the latter’s broader presence outside of academia is giving way to new understandings of selfhood, conservatives turn certain words like ‘triggered’ or ‘gaslighting’, on their heads, mutating their meanings. Otherwise, they are chewed up and spat out by the culture machine as corporate brands lean into these shibboleths, in the hopes of affiliating themselves with some semblance of contemporaneity. But like dad jokes, the machine looks just as quickly to move on, as soon as these usages reach their saturation points.
Indeed, as the attention economy continues to thrust content – and, implicitly, our (refracted) tastes – at us, populist ideas and imagery end up wielding an inordinate amount of power. There’s a vague sense of disrupting the status quo, but like the Spotify ‘Discover’ playlist, old epiphanies get re-marketed as new. As cultural critic Soraya Roberts notes in an essay on the dangers of virality-as-resonance on Longreads, ‘We shift around the same ideas, and we shift around the same people, creating an over-recognised few and an under-recognised many.’
If we relate to the things that become more familiar if only due to its repetition, it slowly becomes difficult to differentiate what is ‘relatable’ to what is projection or conveniently applied. Why are we all writing like this now? It was the way the portal wrote. And if relatability gets assigned more value, it only follows that there will be others who get left behind. The social becomes obsessed with itself; through this auto-information, this permanent autointoxication, it becomes its own vice, its own perversion. Or, like Awad’s protagonist Samantha, they will aspire not to be abandoned:
But I look at Vignette, at Creepy Doll, at Cupcake, the Duchess. All of them staring at me now with shy smiles. ‘I think I’d like to see more of the soup too,’ I hear myself say.
Content and knowledge are not the same thing. When there is no continuity of context, we will keep reinventing the wheel. And the wheel will keep spinning until it glitches out.