THE END OF HISTORICITY

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Dead Space, Finbarr Fallon

When I was in high school I was in a band with a scene queen. She had feathered hair and a bedroom full of Hello Kitty merchandise. She would listen to Mindless Self Indulgence in the car. Every week when I would show up to practice, her earlobes would be stretched yet larger. I was not cool enough to be active on MySpace, but I had no doubt that she was hugely popular there. Our guitarist was in love with her, and I was in love with him. I wanted to be her more than I wanted to be myself. I braided a blue extension into my hair and amassed a collection of Day-Glo American Apparel t-shirts in the hopes that maybe some of her magic would transfer to me if I classed myself as part of the same cargo cult.

This year, when I discovered what egirls are, I felt the exact same feeling I had about the drummer. An incandescent envy that other people were allowed to make a career out of being decorative and childlike, while I was clearly cut from a different material that had to grow up quickly and excel in school and work. But what concern does a twenty[REDACTED] year-old have with the teenagers who populate TikTok? Only that those teenagers look exactly like the teenagers I was jealous of when I was a teenager myself.

Everything old is seemingly new again. It only took ten years for the exact visual lexicon of MySpace-era decora-punk to come back into fashion. The sideswept bangs and Sharpie eyeliner are very much still in effect, as are the low-res selfies cluttered with glittering gifs. The difference is that this time, they’re entirely divorced from the images we painstakingly crafted on our parents’ Gateway desktops. Instagram lets you imitate the exact aesthetic of 2006 in an easy menu format, complete with glitchy, artifacted gifs to select from. Similarly, the glossy, futuristic aesthetics of the Y2K era have resurfaced and peaked a mere decade and a half after their genesis. Pop stars dress like shiny aliens again. We’re even getting an utterly improbable Matrix sequel (good luck with the whole redpill thing these days).

The thing about aesthetics that originated online is that it feels like they never truly die. They are omnipresences to us. If everything functions as it should, the internet acts as a cultural archive where nothing is forgotten as long as the servers stay running (of course, we know what happens when they don’t – and even then, the news cycle is so quick and enough of the archive is squirreled away in other corners of the internet that it doesn’t register as much of a loss). In this space, the artistic and cultural movements that found homes online endlessly sample each other in referential feedback loops, creating shorter and shorter recursive cycles of trends that capitalize on the nostalgias of recent history. Unless there is such a time where we enter a “great ravine” (à la Liu Cixin) that forces us to reckon with a loss of digital media altogether, I would posit that internet-based design movements will become so recycled and self-referential that we may well hit a wall, or an “end of historicity” – an eternal present of quasi-ironic self-sampling in which the broad descriptor of ‘internet culture’ is the whole of the culture itself, and the same nostalgia can pine for both 30 years ago and one week ago.

To see how we got here, it may be helpful to look at vaporwave, which functions both a musical genre and an aesthetic sensibility. The origins of vaporwave are arguably cemented in the mall culture of the early 1990s, particularly the blandly soothing consumerism of piped-in smooth jazz and frozen yogurt shops.  However, new generations of vaporwave composers, often in their teens, have very few malls of this style left to reference, as most have been buried under a few layers of remodels or have closed down altogether. These new composers have constructed a nostalgia removed from any physical basis, one which is only rooted in online archives and has taken on a cyberpunk-lite flavor in relation to its current surroundings. At this point in time, the music and graphics being produced by this subculture have very little to do with the actual sights and sounds of the era it purports to reference (note the anachronistic Greco-Roman busts and Arizona Iced Tea cans that dominate the imagery nowadays) and more to do with a nostalgia for only aesthetic precursors within the genre.

The thing about nostalgia for dead places is that it has to segue into a nostalgia for dead internet ecosystems, being that public spaces are increasingly just transitions between instances of being online. The aforementioned egirl is a mishmash of early Tumblr and MySpace tropes. Vaporwave aesthetics are closer kin to Geocities than they are to the actual, physical consumer spaces of the 1990s. However, our app ecosystem is much more stable than the ones that spawned these aesthetic subgroups. Interfaces are flat, minimal and uncustomizable, or users simply don’t see a need to customize them even if the option is available (I recently made a Tumblr post about how the website’s HTML themes have been largely forgotten by its users, and it racked up a solid 60,000 notes in agreement – on a similar note, when was the last time you saw one of your friends update their Facebook cover image?). As a whole, our current ecosystem is a series of clean, white spaces where content lives, but the space itself does not serve as content. To denote coolness or knowingness, users reference the aesthetics of past networks, as if to say “I was there.” In ten years, I imagine it will be difficult to find someone nostalgic for the aesthetics of 20-aughts Twitter or Facebook, because notably there aren’t any. The nostalgia will be for earlier design tropes, recycled in meme form to become present ones.

It is worth noting that I don’t see this culture-blending as a bad thing, but I do see it as the future of design. In my imagining, the only thing that could pull the plug on these recursions is a force strong enough to yank large swaths of humanity offline altogether. It could be electrical grids collapsing due to solar storms, pervasive wildfires, a failure of undersea fiber optics, or a worldwide shutdown due to political unrest or nuclear devastation. It could even be backlash against Singularity accelerationists should they somehow gain control of the zeitgeist. Whatever the case may be, in the 21st century, I don’t think that offline gets to be cool again. I think for it to be relevant, it has to be inevitable. In the end, I keep coming back to just two options for the aesthetics of the future: utopia, everything existing all at once, in perpetuity – or dystopia, mass deletion, a forced shutdown.

SCARCITY BIAS

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Boy there is just a whole lot going on here

I spend a lot of time looking at apartments for rent in my area. The architecture interests me, and looking for listings that are in my price point is perversely satisfying. I have no intention of moving at the moment, but in a city where dumpy older buildings like mine are often sold out from under their tenants, it’s good to have my eye on a few exit strategies anyway.

However, there is an issue. Specifically, in the newer studio builds, something seems to be missing.

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I call this carpet design ‘the snail trail’

Where are all the fucking closets?

Look, I know this is a standard tradeoff of studio living, but when you look at the history of architecture in Seattle it’s pretty obvious that something has changed. The studios from the 1910s and 1920s have closets, some so big I know people who opt to use them as bedrooms. Builds from the 1930s-1960s have big, beautiful built-ins. I’m in a 1980s building right now, and while the storage is impractical (the water heater lives in my closet), it does exist. But from then on, the storage starts disappearing.

I was talking about this with someone at a party, and they told me that per most zoning ordinances, any room that is classified as a bedroom must have a closet. I haven’t really been able to corroborate this in Seattle’s zoning code, but it makes sense that since a studio apartment is more of an all-in-one deal, you don’t technically have to zone for a closet at all (I recently saw a studio listing with the one-room floor plan divided into areas labeled ‘rest’, ‘relaxation’ and ‘relief’ as opposed to the less abstract concepts of bedroom, living room and bathroom). A closetless apartment is also going to be a cheaper and more space-efficient build. So, if you’re a greedy developer, you can line up all of your identical one-room apartments like shoeboxes on a shelf, without having to worry about purchasing doors or altering the floor plan so the closet entrance sits flush with the wall. This is disappointing behavior from a developer, but lazy builds are not at all surprising in a rapidly gentrifying city with a housing shortage.

However, there is definitely a more insidious explanation than cost-cutting.

Seattle used to be a city built for families. Most of the land here is zoned for single-family homes. Then the tech boom happened, and the local economy became almost entirely dependent on young contract workers at the local tech companies, specifically Amazon. These workers are wooed into the city with competitive salaries and subsidized moving costs, spend a year or so at their positions, and then move out of Seattle when their contracts are up (this has also created a booming market for secondhand, barely used West Elm furniture – insert joke about trickle-down economics here). This influx of new residents has resulted in a construction boom in the areas surrounding Amazon’s downtown hub.

The working conditions at Amazon are, of course, not great. Morale is low and recidivism is high. In fact, the company relies on a high turnover rate to keep their spending in line. So, what is the easiest way of getting a large subsection of the population to continually leave their jobs? Make sure they’re never allowed to get comfortable, at work or at home. Make them feel like they are constantly struggling to eke out a stable existence, and they will go of their own volition.

Let’s create a hypothetical tech worker. Jason, 29, is a white college graduate who has recently moved to Seattle from Iowa for a dev gig. He works in one of the new office towers in South Lake Union, which has an open floor plan that requires hotdesking. Each day, Jason shows up early so he doesn’t have to jockey for space with the other devs. It is loud in the office, and someone is always glancing at your screen or eavesdropping on your phone calls. What looked like a breezy agora in the architectural renderings is more of a cattle pen, where cramped, impersonal conditions and sensory overload are the norm.

After a long day of work in the code mines of South Lake Union, Jason returns to his Capitol Hill studio. He only has a minifridge, and the stove is in a shared common area, so he’ll probably just order in. He would love to cook, but he doesn’t have enough space to store food or cookware (Facebook keeps pushing him ads for Soylent, suggesting that he can optimize eating out of his life altogether). In fact, he doesn’t have enough space to store much of anything. By necessity his wardrobe has become minimal, consisting of t-shirts and packable windbreakers. He had a dresser but it took up too much space in his kitchen area. He got rid of his car when he moved to the city, because his building does not offer parking, and street parking is near impossible to find. He got rid of a lot of his leisure items too, as things like snowboards or guitars just aren’t priorities when there is nowhere to put them. Jared would like to feel as if he has a life outside of his job, but there is nowhere to put a life outside of his job. His existence is optimized for staring at screens in tight, shared spaces and utilizing the gig economy to rush-deliver his few creature comforts. If he meets a girl before his contract is up, he dreams of splitting the lease on one of those stately brick one-bedrooms. He might even jump the gun on an imperfect relationship just to do it. Otherwise, he’s worried he’ll get stuck living in what is essentially the company dorm until he leaves the city altogether.

Yes, this is slightly dramatized. It’s also entirely likely.

The battle for fair housing in Seattle has been a long and brutal one. Outdated single-family zoning means that the majority of land in the city can’t be used for high-density builds. The areas that can accommodate new apartments are typically in commercial districts with transportation hubs, and many complain that all the new, cheaply-produced buildings have destroyed the historical character of their districts. In addition, many of these new buildings are financed by hedge funds and shadow investors (once even caught blackmailing the city council!), which has lead not only to the drudgery of identical, unergonomic microapartments that stifle the growth and security of their residents by design, but also to some legal corner cutting. The great irony is that many of these new units sit vacant because the rent is simply too high. This is how investments work in Seattle now – these buildings will be decent liquid assets, and in about 40  years when they have depreciated just enough to be worthless they will be sold, razed and redeveloped again. They are built just long enough to store money, not to provide stable housing on which to build the future of the city.

I’ve been thinking about the apartment a friend of mine once rented in a sparkling, much-lauded LEED-certified building. It was maybe 75 square feet at most, clearly not the legally required 150. There was enough room for two stools and a foam pad that would get leaned against the wall during the daytime. The floor plan was a series of tight, zigzagging corners that opened into a 5’x5′ room, which indicated that this unit was likely sandwiched into the negative space between two regular-sized, humane units. It was clearly illegal, and also a steal. And in 50 years it will probably be gone.

THE MILLENNIAL WHO REFUSED TO DIE

 

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Kevin Lucbert, Méditation #3, 2019

I fired my therapist. I have been informed that because I am a Capricorn, I describe my life as a series of business transactions. I did not cancel my next appointment. I fired her. I dismissed her from her post.

The reason for the firing is as follows: I had just finished telling her a wild story. It wasn’t a heartbreaking story, or a story that would make you concerned for my wellbeing. It was the kind of story you might divulge to someone in a hushed voice as you lean over your drinks conspiratorially, a can you believe this shit?? kind of story. When I finished, she paused, as she often would, and then asked, “have you considered killing yourself?” Before I could splutter much more than a hearty “NO?” she pulled out her day planner and did the sigh-and-resettle-in-her-seat which invariably means: session over. See you in two weeks.

I never expected this therapist to be great. I had opted for a sliding-scale plan that paired me with someone with a fresh PhD and unpolished skills. Her neutral expression was like gazing into the blank eyes of a sheep. She often hit me with long, police interrogator pauses to get me to volunteer more information, even though I’m a forthcoming patient (I have a blog; I’m not exactly the reticent type). None of this was ideal, but I wanted a therapist more as a sounding board than an analyst so I was willing to let it slide. But this question about suicidality felt like she might as well have hit me with her car. Not only was it completely tone-deaf, it also hinted at a dangerous precedent.

What do we do with the millennial who doesn’t have a death wish?

The timing of her question was telling. Suicidality didn’t come up significantly in my intake interview (in fact, I’m sure I must have said that I don’t experience suicidal thoughts), nor did it come up in any of my previous sessions, which had spanned several months. No, instead it came up when I talked about something larger than life, something full of baffling but salacious details. The message, then, was “situations that you do not understand – situations that seem bigger than you and that are functioning on precepts that you have not internalized – should make you want to die.” That message in that moment might be a trigger. If I was someone more impressionable I might then wonder, is something wrong with me that this doesn’t make me want to die? Should I learn to want to die?

I don’t have any big inspirational thoughts about not wanting to die. I’m just not the type. I’m plenty sad, but I’m also hardheaded, and I live with a chronic health condition that gives my self-preservation instinct a solid boost. My father and his siblings are like this too, so much so that I’ve joked about how Too Stubborn To Die should be the family crest. One of my primary motivations might be spite.

But look, I get it! Millennials are depressed. That’s the joke! We make the shitposts! We have student loan debt! We’ve bankrupted ourselves on avocados and Juul pods and it’s all a very tired routine. If you’re looking at memes alone, of course it’s going to look like we’re all in the midst of some mass psychogenic dysphoria. But clearly, my ex-therapist wasn’t looking at memes alone. She was speaking to millennials all day, as the clientele at this office were overwhelmingly young and queer. I’m sure a significant number of her other patients do deal with suicidal ideation. But for the ones that don’t, I believe that she was leaning so hard into the Millennial As Archetype that those of us who didn’t fit her pattern of young-gay-wants-to-die were seen as aberrant. I suspect that if I continued those sessions, she would have no idea how to treat me. Clearly, her burning need to ask that question in that moment signaled that, despite many sessions, she still had no working metric for my average emotional state, and never would.

The hold music at this office was the Mii channel music, which I suppose is telling. Appeal to your clientele. Speak their language. Fit their mold. I didn’t book a session with another therapist there for lack of motivation, but I have idly wondered if they are running some kind of millennial suicidality industrial complex back there. Welcome to therapy! Want to die! No? We can fix that! Please come up with a list of reasons you’d like to die by your next session, and we’ll get to work… Jokes aside, even if it’s not the entire staff, even if it’s just one therapist seeing a handful of clients, the damage is done. It’s not analysis. It’s just wholesale stereotyping and it’s doing the entire field a disservice.

REBRANDING FOR THE END OF THE WORLD

“Hyperobjects…refer to things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans. A hyperobject could be a black hole. A hyperobject could be the Lago Agrio oil field in Ecuador, or the Florida Everglades. A hyperobject could be the biosphere, or the Solar System. A hyperobject could be the sum total of all the nuclear materials on Earth…

“According to hyperobjects themselves, who seem to act a little bit like the gigantic boot at the end of the Monty Python credits, outer space is a figment of our imagination: we are always inside an object.” – Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World by Timothy Morton


The word ‘blog’ makes me cringe. That wide-open baby bird’s mouth of an O, with consonants big enough to choke on. It’s unbridled pre-recession internet twee, from the era that brought you other unpleasant collections of plosives like ‘dongle’. It also seems like a tired ecosystem, relegated to groan-inducing retrospectives about teenagers roleplaying vampires and suburban mothers running casual pyramid schemes for Tupperware. Remember when Facebook tried to make their blogging framework, called Notes, an integral part of the site’s infrastructure but then subsequently buried them when they realized blogging was out? In an age where everyone and no one is an influencer, and everyone and no one has something important to say as long as it fits into a screenshot of a tweet, the blog is an internet dinosaur.

Blogging also makes me cringe because at one point in time I utterly failed to realize how it could trap me in a network of bullshit that I would be unable to remove myself from.

Per Timothy Morton, we are always inside an object.

I gave blogging a go when I was in my early 20s, and was hanging out in subcultural spaces that employed rigidly codified visual tropes as social currency. Interactions were encoded in your clothing, your haircut. As much as I enjoyed the idea of belonging to a community, my failure to adhere to certain visual expectations, particularly regarding gender roles, could earn me subtle social punishments from the in-group. So I decided to write about it. Filtering groupthink in cultural spaces through psychology and symbology frameworks seemed like a useful thing to do. Moreover, I was young and trying to cultivate my aesthetics for the first time. I thought I would throw up a few outfit posts, talk about presentation and sense of self, and learn how I wanted to be seen by the world.

Shockingly, putting your face on the internet while simultaneously intellectualizing a profoundly anti-intellectual subculture is an easy way to make people very angry with you.

Predictably, the hate poured in. It came from around the world and also from people I most likely knew. They crept through my social media accounts, digging up morsels that inexorably proved how much of an attention whore, a poser, and a crazy bitch I was. I closed down the blog, and put IP trackers on everything else. For years after that, one of those IP addresses would refresh my Tumblr a couple of times a day, waiting for me to do something damning. Even now, when I’m engaging in some pointless online debate, as one does, someone from that era will often step in and say: “We remember you. You’re a vain hypocrite and nothing you say can be trusted.”

In the years since, I’ve made a point of not having very much to say. The internet is an organism that has little short-term memory but endless cold storage (something I’ll be writing about later on), and to navigate it I made myself into a safe commodity, a crowd-pleaser. I’ve barely written anything and I’ve gotten bored. And now it’s 2019, the world is going to hell, and anyone who uses the internet is inexorably webbed into hundreds of interlocking networks of influence and confluence, all of them complicit in the end of the world. So, I thought, I might as well have something to say about it. My goal is to keep this space as a running catalog of Anthropocene design movements, social engineering and communication trends. I may also review an occasional album or book, if it’s on-theme.

It’s not that deep! I can hear you thinking. But that’s the thing. Nothing is deep on its own, but it’s all a part of some other immensity.

The internet barely qualifies as a hyperobject, given its relatively recent invention and a need for upkeep that relies entirely on human infrastructure. However, I like to think that it qualifies on a tiny, controlled scale, sort of like a hyperobject you can keep in a petri dish. In here, I’m just one blip in a huge expanse. Maybe I’ll enrich my little patch. Maybe I’ll get stuck in some other firestorm, but at least there’s some security in knowing that it will never be as big as the one we’re already engulfed in.


“Perhaps this is the most fundamental issue—hyperobjects seem to force something on us, something that affects some core ideas of what it means to exist, what Earth is, what society is.”