On Vanity Fair’s “You Say You Want a Devolution?”

Cultural recycling, the future is the past, and disruptive design.

In January 2012, Kurt Andersen wrote an article titled “You Say You Want a Devolution?” for Vanity Fair. This rather long — but epically written — essay is about cultural recycling.

It depicts the current cultural landscape (of the US) as one of stagnation; one which, in contrast to the technological advancements, offers nothing new, just remakes of styles and recycled trends from the decades before.

“We seem to have trapped ourselves in a vicious cycle—economic progress and innovation stagnated, except in information technology; which leads us to embrace the past and turn the present into a pleasantly eclectic for-profit museum; which deprives the cultures of innovation of the fuel they need to conjure genuinely new ideas and forms; which deters radical change, reinforcing the economic (and political) stagnation.”

Anderson shows this (among others) by describing two paradoxes. The ‘First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History’ being that in the last two decades no new styles have emerged and everything is a remake of the past, or as he puts it:

“The past is a foreign country, but the recent past — the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s — looks almost identical to the present.”

That means, time travel back twenty years and nobody would notice you. (Now we probably know why Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap had such a great success at fitting in everywhere.)

The second paradox, he points out, is the obsession with style in the last decade, which completely contradicts the lack of innovation in the same field (‘hipsterism’) and ironically works in conjunction with new technology.

“Now that we have instant universal access to every old image and recorded sound, the future has arrived and it’s all about dreaming of the past.” – Kurt Anderson

He even goes so far and speculates that this may be evidence of a transition into a devolving — instead of evolving — society, as it happened in history before (decline of Egypt, Rome, etc.). But, psychologically speaking, he points out that this stylistic decline may also be reinforced or even caused by the rapid changes in other fields (like technology, economy and the awakening global awareness of politics), which disrupt people’s lives so much that they want to be comforted by traditional styles and by a world that at least still looks the same. We live in post-modernism, which, contrary to the times before, offers no direct moral guidelines, but overwhelming possibilities. And, as Anderson observes, this works in tandem with big capitalistic corporations which profit from this steady stylistic demands without fear of getting “creatively destroyed.”

This article struck a nerve with me, as I think of myself as having (most of the time) an individual style. But then again, I’m wearing plaid shirts with blue jeans and listen to Rock and Metal music from when I wasn’t even born. I think it’s an enriching experience to reflect on one’s own life after having read this. Because most of it certainly is true. The big question still remains though: What can we learn from this? What can we change?

This is where a second, intriguing article comes in, which was actually the reason I read “You Say You Want a Devolution?”.

“Fuck Design, Let’s Set The World On Fire” by Bobby Solomon refines the thoughts mentioned above and comes to a conclusion which should interest every designer: He blames design, which according to him, is the pixel-perfect, overly-pleasing and non-disrupting cousin of expressive and innovative art. His solution:

“We need to do things that seem fucked up and weird […] I know our generation can create radical change, we just have to hurt and bleed and fight and scream to make it happen.” – Bobby Solomon

(This review was written in January 2012.)