The Problem With Perpetual Newness

First published on the Creator’s Project blog, April 2012. See notes below.

Isoland (sketch, 2015, geometry generated using isosurface algorithm)

My take on the New Aesthetic? On immediate reflection I’d say “good job” and “go easy on the drones”. But inevitably there is the jaded voice in the back of my head wanting to snarkily ask “What took you so long?” Not “you” as in the particular group of people who curate and promote the New Aesthetic meme, but “you” as in (Western) society at large, the technology-addicted masses who want their Facebook (MTV, not so much) and smartphone bliss, yet manage to be continually surprised by the not-always-pleasant byproducts of their addiction.

There really is no excuse for being technoculture illiterate if you’re under 40 and living in the Western world. You can plead ignorance of the technological specifics, but not of the cultural effects produced by the gadgets and interfaces that have invaded your life. Technology is not something that happens to other people, nor can you escape it by hiding out in “the humanities”. To be human is to be technological.

Lacking a ubiquitous and intuitive understanding of the complex interactions between technology and human culture, sources like the New Aesthetic (NA) become golden. NA is an attempt at diagnosis of the most recent mutations of the human condition, a difficult task best attacked obliquely and from the flank, with subtle observations rather than head on with manifestos (which are not very New Aesthetic, by the way).

NA is part meme, part techno-ethnography and part Tumblr serendipity. Its art is juxtaposition: If we put this next to that and this other thing, surely a new understanding will emerge.

NA is part meme, part techno-ethnography and part Tumblr serendipity. Its art is juxtaposition: If we put this next to that and this other thing, surely a new understanding will emerge. And you know what, it works surprisingly well. Whether that success is the product of brilliant curation or the result of feverishly sign-deciphering minds scanning image after image for clues that might not be there is academic. If it works it works.

The “New” part is deceptive, however. Most of what NA offers up for examination is not all that new. Technologies like machine vision and geolocation are old by most standards, what is new is their integration into our lives to the point where we are bringing them to bed. Smartphone habituees will think nothing of installing a sleep-tracking app and putting their phone on the mattress, where accelerometers will presumably make sage observations about your quality of sleep. This is the new Aesthetic — human behavior augmented by technology as often as it is disrupted. The New Aesthetic is a sign saying “Translation Server Error” rather than “Post Office”. The New Aesthetic is faces glowing ominously as people walk down the street at night staring at their phones — or worse, their iPads.

We need NA like we need weather vanes warning us of oncoming storms, because tech-driven cultural innovations have a nasty habit of becoming an inevitability with little regard for personal preference or even legal precedence. Once conceived of or even just scribbled on a napkin during a drunken startup crawl, it is as though they might as well always have existed.

Yes, GPS will come storming out of the wilderness survival gear catalogue and give your mother an incredibly increased action radius. Yes, computer GUI elements will sprout legs and appear lounging around your neighbourhood as though they had always been there. Yes, digital glitch is as much of a cultural artifact as the graininess of film or the bad colors of Polaroids.

And that guy on the corner with the World of Warcraft battleaxe replica [1] instantly looks at home the moment that he appears. Yes, you think, now that I see it, it makes perfect sense.

[1] That would be the artist Aram Bartholl, performing his “1H” intervention.

Marius Watz, April 2012

Marius Watz is an artist and sometime curator who spends most of his time in the future, drawing with machines.


Notes & comments

Julia Kaganskiy of The Creators Project asked me to comment on Bruce Sterling’s “Essay On The New Aesthetic” (itself a response to James Bridle’s New Aesthtic Tumblr slash conceptual provovation) along with 5 other art & tech writers (Kyle Chayka, Jonathan Minard, Greg Borenstein, James George and Kyle McDonald). You can find the original texts on Creators Project.

If you missed the 30-day hype cycle that was the New Aesthetic and don’t understand what all the fuss was about, you kinda had to be there. But check http://new-aesthetic.tumblr.com, anyway.