The Soft Focus How data overload has led to the trading of one delusion (authenticity) for another (aesthetic cohesion)

When I was younger, I looked to music for difference. I walked the halls of my high school with either ubiquitous Apple earbuds in or bulky AKG closed-ear headphones clamped over my head, the springy, coiled cord wadded up and tucked into my back pocket, insulated by the poignant narrative of whatever song I was listening to.

My favorite artist to listen to at school was Elliott Smith, and at the time, this was a ritual that made me feel unique. Smith’s song structures were deceptive, not quite making sense the first time I heard them, then sounding like old friends once I became familiar with the shape of the chord progressions. It felt like a necessary deception, after which there came the reward of a truth — I believed there was some magic particle in the songs, perhaps facilitated by Smith’s exceptional level of “honesty” or “genuineness” that processed his words through the equation of the chords and melody, and thereby elevated them to the level of a universal, but somehow singular, truth.

In 2009, I graduated high school and left my extremely insular Midwestern city for a liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota. The college was only 1.5 times bigger than my high school, but there was something eerie about the population there. Rather than being the lone “individual” walking around campus, exempt from the sheepish masses via the cathartic aura of Elliott Smith, I was surrounded by a sea of former hallway-gazers, all simultaneously witnessing the uncanny reproduction of their own “individuality” before their very eyes.

Being the types of kids who weren’t exactly quick to surrender the idea of individuality, though, most people adapted — some ran with the times, as former mid-aughts indie devotees became UK dubstep specialists, while some clung to their preferences even harder, making a case for the ongoing relevance of whatever they liked. While I was studying there, this sort of environmentally encouraged hipster escalation frustrated me and forced me into an identity crisis: I felt my options were either to play the game and begin to specialize in something uncharted, which felt disingenuous, or to concede my uniqueness and simply recede into the comfort of my old favorites, which felt like a personal failure.

Today, one liberal arts degree, several crash-courses in postmodernism, and three internet genres later, I know what happened at college at the start of freshman year — the race to uniqueness through the absorption and mastery of information — is not a phenomenon unique to the populations of liberal arts colleges, but part of a timeless and inevitable process that in some ways describes the general movement of culture itself: to create, arrange, and regulate the dispersal of information.

Hypersaturation: prosumption and gradual homogenization

In 2014, the continuum by which music is produced, shared, and appreciated has grown infinitely smooth due to the now-pervasive eminence of digital technologies for the production and consumption (or prosumption) of music. This causes aesthetic cycles to compress into such momentary units that the movement of trends appears to be less a series of disparate yet interconnected phenomena and more a single, contiguous thread, like a master computer hidden away in the fabric of the universe, absorbing every imaginable line of data into its perpetually sharpening algorithm and recalculating every instant the precise direction it is headed in.

Some talk about the massively traceable movement of aesthetics in our era as if it were a collapse of the boundary between underground and mainstream. For me, the glycerin smoothness of information in our era has a more revelatory function: that the dichotomies we have imposed on culture as part of a historicized art narrative have always been arbitrary and fallacious, that the development of aesthetic preferences and trends has been more or less out of our control from the very beginning.

Online platforms like SoundCloud allow for users to publish, consume, and endorse music in one continuous stream

It has been written about exhaustively how new digital technologies have lowered the barriers to entry in the prosumption of media, but the effects of this shift are just beginning to be explored. One of the impacts I’ve observed is how this oversaturation of content has exposed the basic impossibility of an aesthetic that is capable of truly “breaking” the status quo, for as soon as something is shared with the masses, it is effectively subsumed into the greater arc of aesthetics before anyone can entertain the notion of it somehow challenging the larger media narrative. Recent developments like the effective death of Net Neutrality just approved by the US Government and the collusion deal inked between broadband oligarch Comcast and media production/distribution giant Netflix paint a picture of a not-so-distant internet wherein users exist within a series of increasingly narrow yet infinitely easy-to-access channels. The potential for a legitimate “fringe” outlet to short-circuit the closed loop of online media channels is becoming increasingly nonexistent, and therefore so is the potential of a work of art to subvert the dominant narrative.

[Even] if we are just trading in one delusion for another — the myth of the songwriter’s narrative truth for the myth of aesthetic cohesion in mass culture — it’s a necessary lie that allows us to continue operating as if our conversation hasn’t devolved into unintelligible empty signifiers. Or, put more simply, to keep on living.

Even if global corporations didn’t exert this high level of control over the movement of shared information, the phenomenon described above would still occur: gradual homogenization is a salient tendency of diverse media exposed to one another in an equal environment. As in biological evolution, difference exists to strengthen the lasting power of the eventual dominant sameness. The same is true for the evolution of information: it doesn’t matter how intuitively an individual artist in our era understands the movement of trends; it is an environmental reality that no one these days is “ahead of the curve,” because the curve moves on a trajectory outside the thinking realm of any conscious individual. It moves through a network with billions of nodes, irrespective of the individual desires and motivations of those nodes.

Hyperassimilation: Normcore and the post-humanization of aesthetics

The surface ripples of this phenomenon have been bubbling up in a lot of different aesthetic realms, but none in a more timely way than the “Normcore” fashion trend, the subject of a much buzzed-about piece by Fiona Duncan recently published in New York Magazine. Advocates of the style of sport clothes Duncan describes as “ardently ordinary,” thereby “embracing sameness deliberately as a new way of being cool, rather than striving for ‘difference’ or ‘authenticity’.” Based on this description, it would seem Normcore is more a theory of media than a fashion trend, as its precise function is decidedly anti-trend, or at least accepting of the fact that trends are imminently ethereal.

Similar to the claims I raised about today’s hyperaccelerated state of music prosumption, the genesis of Normcore is rooted in the environmental situation of contemporary media. Quoting Natasha Bragg, Duncan’s essay observes: “‘Everyone is a researcher and a statistician now, knowing accidentally the popularity of every image they are presented with, and what gets its own life as a trend or meme.’” When we decide what music to listen to or what clothes to wear, we are influenced unconsciously by the “research” our minds are constantly conducting while we consume media.

Musician Dean Blunt sporting a cheeky Normcore lookMusician Dean Blunt sporting a cheeky Normcore look

This might seem like an obvious claim, but this sort of accidental yet automatic calculation on the part of the aesthetic prosumer is crucial to understanding the position of today’s music enthusiast. Through this lens, it is possible to conceive of Normcore as a response to information overload and the post-humanization of aesthetics (which we also can think of as the retroactive post-humanization of aesthetics throughout all of time, simply revealed to us by the transparently “virtual” nature of our current medium). Normcore’s concession of control over aesthetics is a gesture of hyperassimilation, or, the radical calibration of the self to a culture that is by its very nature impossible to fully embody at any given point in time. The only way to follow the culture is to resist its permeation, to disengage from its daily fluctuations in lieu of a more stable sense of self. This is one of the possible reactions to a hypersaturated economy of information, closer to the idea of conscientious objection than to “dropping out” of the trend economy altogether, because it allows for the subject to keep an eye on aesthetic developments without being forced into a perpetual crisis of identity.

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