Digital living, and the control it gives each of us to shape a media in our own private image, is going to give vent to our deepest desires and basest interests. Valerie Jacobs and Bryan Goodpaster try to keep it decent.
THROUGH A SCREEN DARKLY
The cultural mirror has shattered. As our private practices and desires are tendered and quantified on the altars of big data, the pyramid of influence has flipped. The tastemakers, once the pinnacle of cultural hierarchy, have lost their foothold as gatekeepers of the zeitgeist. In the recent past they have wielded near-complete control of the societal narrative, feeding us a steady stream of softcore, bubblegum culture, pruned neatly at the edges—a bonsai of contrived rhetoric. As the trickle-down establishment crumbled, we thought the future might hold a truly “democratized” new world, which in theory connoted equality and implied potential for a more intellectual and considered discourse—the many, looking out for their own peers. What has emerged is more surprising and perhaps a more telling purview.
Our almighty algorithm, named ‘the technium’ by author Kevin Kelly, will soon whisk us from the safe cradle of mass media. We will move from the spoon-fed security, in which a few tastemakers determine the appetites of the many, to a state of perpetually incubating media. It will be a state in which the personal choices of individuals combine to form a larger picture of itself—a movement from a media monarchy to the sentient hive mind. Unleashed for the first time, this pseudo collective unconscious will allow us to pull back the curtain of our projected selves, and to more fully embrace our darker desires. Ultimately, we may realize that they are shared, and that everyone else has been hiding behind a candy shell as thin as our own.
Our tendencies and taboos, tabulated by almighty algorithms, fill the void as the pulse takers of our preferences. Technology-aggregated data has exposed a harsh new reflection and a narrative that is at once deeply dark, cynical and fractured. A high-resolution visualization of our unfiltered desires is derived from every drop of data and then coalesced by bit and byte. As we have become unshackled from the spin doctors, media sentinels and visible elite, we are unleashing our true passions, propensities and kinks, which are then unveiled on the canvas of radical transparency. As this new narrative self-assembles, we realize that we may be at the precipice of both possibility and perversion.
This shift in how our future media will be assembled represents an undoing the age-old philosophical question: does life imitate art or does art imitate life? Great thinkers from Plato to Aristotle have argued how our memes take form and how imitation forms our cultural DNA. Oscar Wilde contended that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” Today, the arresting reality may be that art is life manifested, a calculable creation of our instincts and impulses instantly plucked from our collective consciousness.
Consider the wildly popular Netflix series House of Cards, a drama thematically wrought with ethical corruption and moral malaise. Netflix drew from user data to determine the recipe for adapting the original BBC miniseries for American audiences. Big data determined the right mix of ingredients, from the actors and directors to our appetite for skin and scandal. The resulting concoction was data-derived darkness, a manifestation of the base potential of unfiltered popular culture.
Our gluttonous appetite for visceral drama is more akin to Shakespearian tragedy or theatre of the absurd than any silver-lined romantic comedy. This emergent penchant for poisonous depictions of daily life presents a new paradigm of modern media and a glimpse into our most animalistic nature. Netflix addressed our piggish media thirst by serving up House of Cards in one prodigious stream, enabling audiences to binge on its content. A shining example of the new paradigm, House of Cards was built from the ground up to telepathically satiate our most private desires and anticipate what we’re swiftly becoming less ashamed to ask for.
We are captivated by the themes of corruption and exploitation that dominate our media, from drama to news. More deeply disturbing is how our penchant for increasingly debased media informs the media menu. The searches, preferences and digital events popularized by the collective narrow and determine the choice set of the individual. Clay Johnson, author of ‘The Information Diet, describes our poor consumptive hygiene as ‘not just a press problem. It is a public health problem.’
It seems as if there is no last bastion of decency, as if all paragons of goodness are suspect and all ethical guardrails are situational. Consider Escape from Tomorrow, a fantasy-horror film released in 2013, which used guerrilla filmmaking techniques to paint a terrifying picture of “the happiest place on earth.” Secretly shot with iPhones and handheld video cameras, the film paints a surreal and sinister picture of Walt Disney World and Disneyland, complete with Disney Princesses who serve as escorts and brainwashing facilities under Epcot’s Spaceship Earth. These long-standing icons of American optimism are perverted to reveal a profoundly corrupted subculture. Just as surreal is Desiney’s conspicuous silence on the project.
Nihilism seems to be the new normal, an incognizant assimilation to our most base banalities. From 4chan to Silk Road, we find ourselves prying into online platforms that are characterized by an overt lack any inherent principles or governing values. Online forums such as Reddit allow user-aggregated content, much of it unsettlingly dark and mordant to be popularized and voted up. Above the Game: A Guide to Getting Awesome with Women is a Kickstarter-funded puplication authored by the founder of Reddit’s 130,000-strong Seduction message board. Above the Game is being described on some internet groups as a “rape manual.” Although removed from Kickstarter, the book managed to raise $16,000, well above the author’s $2,000 goal.
Is this simply the downside of radically democratized media or sign of a future of likemindlessness that comes with simply opting in to the supposed wisdom of the crowd? At a time when a revolution can be instigated on a platform such as Twitter, we should seriously question the principles and motivations that fuel this new groupthink. Our opt-in culture swiftly adopts popular number-one hits like Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines and objects to Miley Cyrus ‘twerking’ during her MTV VMA performance, rather than to the lyrics “I know you want it,” and “no doesn’t always mean no.” Cultural critique is now spoonfed by the swarm as we unwittingly lap it up. The undermining of the pyramid of influence begs us to now question the fidelity of the swarm and our own motivations.
Further, what happens when our tolerance of shock and appetite for increased exposure becomes so high that we can no longer get enough? As our unfiltered voyeurism informs our broader view of the world around us, there’s no doubt that the memes popularized by the technological age will inform new values and mores. Consider the site makelovenotporn.com, a sex-ed platform created to address the fact that children are exposed to hard-core pornography at an ever-younger age. The site highlights the issue that our widely Puritanical approach to sexual discourse has positioned the Internet’s number one category—pornography—as the defacto resource for sex education. This has resulted in the assimilation of even the most extreme of the medium’s memes into our real-world sex lives—a porno-mimicry of sorts.
The extent of the tech-fueled culmination isn’t limited to the formulation of our values, memes and mores. The calibre of influence wielded by the Technium extends far beyond behavior to our very nature. It’s now well-accepted science that our brains are evolving in relationship to digital life, causing us to scan paragraphs more quickly and draw conclusions more readily. As we coevolve with technology, we’re also building up a tolerance to its negative content. We are arguably becoming less and less satisfied with things that would have previously served as a spectacle. We are also building up a tolerance for stimulation, leading us to pursue new extremes and high drama.
If there is a bright side to the inevitabilities of this shift, it may be that we are, like it or not, more willing to let our guard down and own our part of the human experience. Perhaps the revelation unveiled by our unwitting digital disclosures goes well beyond the outing of our private desires. More telling is our unraveling sense of discretion and decorum as influenced by the digital realm. We will likely experience a shift from “curated selves” to an online/offline culture that has reestablished social norms and accepted values. In a future state, our digitally-revealed commonalities may spur a healthier dialogue where we will find we are more comfortable owning the scarlet letters we now demonise.
It’s no secret that we are in constant contradiction with our desires. In fact, Young and Rubicam’s 2013 study Secrets & Lies found that not only do we ‘hold views that are opposite of what (we) say’ but we actually accept this contradiction. One example cited by Chip Walker, director of the study, was Heineken’s “Give Yourself a Good Name” campaign. From behind the one-way glass, it seemed to test outstandingly well with Millennialsl who claimed to value “being a good person” and to despise status. However, the campaign bombed in the market. When Heineken responded with a campaign that more traditionally targeted status, it met with huge success. This trajectory of this conflict of duality is evidenced in an era where public and private identities are increasingly influenced by social media. It’s a time where our internalized and externalized selves compete less and are more blurred.
If the exposure of our inner desires tells us anything, it is that we are evermore at odds with the capacity of our freedom and with the visage of our humanity, warts and all. Since ancient Greek literature we have identified with the hamartia or tragic flaw, and that is again where we find ourselves. The democratization of big data has led us into the adolescence of our psyches and we realize that our darkest inhibitions are even deeper indications of our ubiquitous social connection. With that secret evidenced, we peek behind the curtain, but we want the ability to draw the blinds and know that we can always control, constrain and individualize our identity.
However, the inevitability technology presents us with is a state of radicalized transparency, where the blinds cannot be drawn, where we have no myth or social construct to cloak our commonalities. The inescapable truth is that we are soon to face the potential depths of the lowest common denominator. As it takes on a life of its own, we will be beholden to it as our partner in coevolution, ever mindful that it is a beast of our own creation.
This article originally appeared under the title, Through a Screen Darkly, in Viewpoint No. 33: Old Age, No. 33, Autumn/Winter 2013, pp. 98–99. This is just one of Jacobs’ and Goodpaster’s contributions to Viewpoint Magazine, others include: “Bitches, Barbarians and Narcissists,” “Generation Why” and “Preparing for Human 2.0.”
LPK Vice President and Group Director of Trends Valerie Jacobs isn’t just a forecaster of design, she’s a seasoned storm chaser. Her trend work is grounded in a strategic approach that incorporates research, analysis and translation of data into actionable strategies for consumer brands with the nerve to keep up. Follow Val on Twitter at @futureglimmer or email her at email@example.com.
Bryan Goodpaster is a creative director at LPK, where he is often called upon for his non-traditional approach and strategic consultancy—helping crack wicked brand problems and strategic conundrums for many category-leading brands. Follow Bryan on Twitter at @bryangoodpaster or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.