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Aesthetics Culture Politics

Day 1023 and Automatic Doors

A friend of mine grew up in communist dictatorship. I have learned a lot listening to their stories about what it was like to come of age in a centrally planned economy only to have the country collapse into war and corruption.

They recently shared an insight that floored me. As I mentioned recently, I’ve been rewatching a science fiction show “Man in the High Castle” based on a Philip K. Dick novel about an alternate history in which the Nazis won WW2 and split control of America with the Japanese. My friend decided to watch the show based on my recommendation.

In discussing the show, my friend was most interested in the socioeconomic differences between the technologically superior Reich and the Japanese Empire. It is 1962 the alternative history for context.

Did you notice that in Japanese territory the doors are always opened by people but in the Reich they have automatic doors?

There are no doormen in richer Reich. I had not noticed this detail. They thought it was telling that the Japanese had so many of their people working as unskilled labor. Meanwhile those jobs had been entirely eliminated by automation because of the technological development of the Reich.

Their theory is that this one detail symbolizes precisely why the Nazis had developed the atomic bomb but the Japanese had not in this alternative history.

Perhaps if the soldier had his time freed up by having his technically unnecessary doorman job eliminated by automation their history would have turned out differently. Perhaps the doorman would have found work in a physics lab instead of doing make-work for bureaucrats. If the Japanese had invested more into their technology in this universe perhaps they would have nuclear power too.

They pointed out to me that in America we’ve had automatic doors for decades while in their communist country this very simple technology only arrived when the regime fell.

Being a doorman was a good job after all. The kind of job you can put almost anyone into with little training. Putting people out of work isn’t politically popular for a reason. Automation has a cost. The doormen must find new work.

My friend’s observation was simple. It was potent symbolism. A government can choose what advances are made and what technology is changed or throttled for the greater good. Whether it’s a luxury like automatic doors we shrug it off. The doorman has a job so that’s got to be good right? When the progress being stymied is nuclear energy or artificial intelligence it’s a little more complicated.

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Emotional Work Politics

Day 1015 and Selfish

I think we are entering a selfish age. High trust societies are built from cooperation. When we get more through coordination than we do from conflict we have an incentive build more. Simple supply and demand can teach us a lot about improving the bargain of trusting each other.

Coordination suffers when trust goes down. But we can’t all maintain the same types of trust across all levels of our interactions. Some areas must remain high trust. Tight industries and clear lines of communication can help.

But we have to become intense skeptics to coordinate in otherwise hostile environments. Civilization has a thin veneer. To selfishly live your own life for your own good is often in conflict with others. The boundaries we tolerate are the rules for acceptable competition. This is how we civilize society. There are laws and then there is power.

Maintaining your own power in a crueler world is knowing when to be selfish to the benefit of other people’s coordination problems. Competition is good.

I am more careful in some interactions now because I see the fog of competing interests. Different rules apply to different people. Knowing when rules do and don’t apply can make you crazy. You’ve judged power and norms correctly when sympathy is with you.

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Aesthetics

Day 1007 and Half A Decade Past Premium Mediocrity

I recall somewhat fondly the era of capitalism in which moving your business online was an innovation. The direct to consumer phase of retail and packaged goods is forever tightly tied to interest rates in my mind. Direct to consumer failed as an ethos and a movement for better goods for consumers.

Facebook, Google and Apple are engaged in brutal turf warfare over who owns customer data and let me tell you it isn’t the brands or you as the buyer that benefit.

What was once efficient in reaching ever wider and more specific audiences, the consumer internet has smoothed your identity into some brand’s extremely specific Pyschographic. You know what I mean when I was Lululemon girl and Black Rifle Coffee guy. Don’t worry you think, I’m not a sucker. While typing this on an iPhone.

There was a vague optimism that merely by doing something like bypassing superfluous luxuries like brands (which only served to bamboozle with flash and expense) you could provide a better quality product at a lower cost to your ultimate customer. How naive that seems at the speed of global derivatives based financial products.

How fondly I remember thinking someone could design the Platonic ideal of the tee shirt or provide some basic ultimate end good without confusing merchandising tactics. I’ve never once in my life wanted to decide if the X or ultra version of something was better. Just sell me the one good thing damn it.

But they can’t. Markets compete. The differentiation gets competed away eventually. It began with the “one essential good thing” in a category and ended as a mess of optimization for margin & enshitification and selling new versions of the same audience to whatever sucker can pay the CPM. Remember when we used to pretend you could pay for performance in advertising? Sheryl Sandberg got us good.

There’s a weird thing with scale, where the market can raise the threshold for crappiness and then a truly scaled company can positively exploit those dynamics to provide a genuinely superior good. Amazon can have pretty great basics in the same way gas station chains can have decent coffee. Costco’s hotdog will remain an icon if their standards hold up.

Rory Sutherland an advertising executor has a concept called the “threshold for crappiness” that suggested your local chain sometimes had to up its game to compete when a chain comes in. But markets push downwards as well as upwards.

Venkatash Rao first coined premium mediocrity. Private equity excels at this category. It’s global cosmopolitan striver megabrand. It’s the pretty decent but in a big packaged good sort of way item you get at Whole Foods. Imagine the dreaded diffusion line of a once great luxury brand. Or Michael Kors.

Rao put words to a phenomena that drove me a bit nuts during the height of premium mediocrity in 20117. That was the tipping point for me when the shrinkflation of frothy times body slammed the aesthetic soul of branding.

Now the most mass market experience that is still tasteful and good can compete globally. But sometimes you just long to discover where a local market is genuinely better.

My favorite aspect of being abroad is finding markets where it’s not yet occurred & enjoying a significantly better product for it. It’s my most toxic millennial trait.

Legacy local businesses in small towns or secondary markets simply set a different standard for themselves occasionally from the premium mediocrity of the global markets. But times change. Business models change. Now we have ghost kitchens. And you two have probably purchased a premium mediocre brand and been fine with it.

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Aesthetics Culture

Day 993 and Service Expectations

We are in a weird moment for transactional goods and services. As more people draw inwards towards themselves, the social contract is less clear. What do we expect when we pay someone to do something for us? Do we make small talk? Do we smile? Do we reach for connection?

I went to a nail salon today. I’d called ahead looking for a specific nail technician. I was really relying on having her as I treat pedicures as more of a medical grooming need than a strictly aesthetic one.

I get pedicures mostly because the bending over required for clipping, filing, and cuticle trimming is hard on my Ankylosing Spondylitis. I prefer to have someone handle that grooming for me to avoid the unnecessary discomfort.

Especially because an ingrown nail can be a significant infection for someone like me as I take immune suppressants for my autoimmune condition. A little nick or cut gone wrong can get me quite sick.

I like to know I’m working with a careful nail technician. I went through cosmetology school and am familiar with what is in a safe aesthetician environment.

So I was surprised to find myself trying to communicate via non verbal cues with a gentleman who seemed unclear about what tools to use for what job. The woman is scheduled the appointment with was busy with someone else. I said I’d wait but it got lost in translation.

I got more anxious as an acrylic nail drill got involved. I don’t use acrylics. And I really started to panic when a razor came out. I definitely didn’t want that used on my cuticles.

And I found myself unsure in the moment. Do I just trust this gentleman who cannot understand a word I am saying with razors and drills? Or do I just get up and go?

I stayed for too long. The drill was used on my big toe and cut down too far. I finally after some shock extricated myself and left cash on the table and drove home feeling scared and unsettled without letting him finish.

If we can’t figure out how to communicate with each it’s complicates your social expectations. I didn’t want to ruin a service or not trust the person in front of me. But I also have expectations for the experience and safety from knowing something about the job and it’s safety requirements.

I found myself unsettled by the whole experience. That my expectations are high trust and I find myself simply not being able to make the transactional moment work. I’d failed. I paid in full for a service I didn’t get what I needed. I left.

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Reading

Day 988 and Independent People

I prefer literature to non-fiction. My reading time is spent with stories. It so happens I’ve been immersed in a story about an Icelandic homesteader by Halldor Laxness.

Originally published in 1934 and out of print for decades, this book by the Nobel Prize-winning Icelandic author is a huge, skaldic treat filled with satire, humor, pathos, cold weather and sheep. Gudbjartur Jonsson becomes Bjartur of Summerhouses when, after 18 years of service to the Bailiff of Myri, he is able to buy his own croft.

Publisher’s Weekly.

It was described to me as social realism as it follows the harsh reality agrarian Iceland, debt bondage, and the things that are lost in the quest to be free of obligation to anyone. Set across multiple vignettes of Iceland’s history it trace’s the family’s arc from servitude to owners of a sheep farm during World War 1.

Halldor Laxness’s Independent People

It’s a sad story. The protagonist experiences loss after loss in pursuit of his independence. The dream of being indebted to no man comes up against the hypocritical fantasies of the upper classes and their own views of what constitutes a free life.

I am by no means living the kind of homesteading life of the rural agrarian Icelandic people. But the tragic losses that come as part of seeking to be less reliant on systems that enrich others (the church and local landed gentry feature) resonates. It is not easy to be independent people.

The cycles of nature and life come as they wish with little thought to one’s philosophies. Independence and dependence are just ideas that must face reality. I thought of Bjartur as we buried the dead laying hen in the back pasture.

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Aesthetics Culture

Day 981 and American Sportswear

I was doing some fall shopping today. I’ve got upcoming trips for work in the next two months for which I am excited to dress.

In my past life I worked in fashion. While I mostly worked with luxury brands, I did a stint in-house at one of the heritage American sportswear brands Ann Taylor.

American Sportswear or the American Look doesn’t refer to athletic or athleisure wear. Rather it’s specific historical movement in which American fashion designers freed themselves from British and Parisian norms of Saville Row custom suiting and haute couture

Sportswear is an American fashion term originally used to describe separates, but which since the 1930s demonstrates a specific relaxed approach to design, while remaining appropriate for a wide range of social occasions. The American Look included garments whose modesty, comparative simplicity, and wearability treated fashion as a “pragmatic art” which was lived in.

Sportswear was designed to be easy to look after and an expression of various aspects of American culture, including health ideals, democracy, comfort and function, and innovative design.

Extractions from Wikipedia

You probably think isn’t this just how clothing is made? Not until the Americans democratized fashion. Easy to wear and simple to look after separates (as opposed to matched suits & evening gowns) which could be mixed and matched into many outfits was it’s hallmark. It includes items like dresses designed to be easy to put on and wear in many social situations

A 1950s era Time Magazine honoring Claire McCardell’s pioneering American sportswear.

American Sportswear was a unique style born out of burgeoning middle class wealth and a desire for more active independent lifestyles that included leisure time, a concept previously reserved for the upper classes. No ladies maids or butlers are required for a Claire McCardell popover dress.

Ann Taylor become a dominant best selling brand in the American Sportswear style beginning in 1954 and rose to prominence in the 70s and 80s. Unlike other designer who went for a slightly pricier market like Donna Karen, Calvin Klein, or Ralph Lauren, Ann Taylor stayed true to the history of The American look by serving the aspiring middle class throughout.

It began by offering tailored dresses in its first store in New Haven. It’s name comes from the Ann dress which was its best seller. It eventually grew to become the choice for women balancing office jobs and home life.

When I worked there in house, Ann prided itself on quality fabrics in quality cuts. You could get fully lined wool suit jackets and silk blouses for under $250. A leather kitten heel could be had for $150. Those prices now recall fast fashion brands likes Zara and certainly wouldn’t involve cashmere or Italian leather.

But the great bifurcation of American classes had already begun. In 2010 when I was there a dwindling vestige of working girls and upward mobility demanded versatile clothing that still put quality fabric, pattern work, and cuts at the forefront.

There was demand for looking professional and not simply just being “trendy” as there were still professional women & financially secure housewives looking for polish over flash and seasonal novelty. Instagram was only just stirring and yes I was the one who put the brand on Facebook, Instagram and blogs.

I left for greener pastures. The pioneering brand president dedicated to revitalizing the brand was fired . Eventually Ann Taylor was bought by a private equity firm which just a few years later went bankrupt. The middle market of middle class women was dwindling. And hollowing out the margins for PE didn’t help much.

Now if you are looking for clothing in that price point of $150-$350 you will struggle. A suit jacket from other middle market brands like Theory now $850 for something with poor fit and no lining. You can pull off something that looks like a suit jacket from a fast fashion retailer but if you want natural fabrics like cotton, silk or cashmere the chances are good you have to trade up into the luxury market.

Fashion has bifurcated in the social media fast fashion age. And what constitutes a luxury brand isn’t particularly luxurious in its fabrics or patterns. Just it’s price points. You can go cheap or you can go for pricey but the struggle to find something that is actually a decent garment meant to last has become much worse.

I’d tell you where I did my shopping but I’m afraid the brand might not be long for this world just like Ann Taylor. It’s eponymous designer is in her seventies. And she prefers a technical fabric to a natural fabric so has been able to maintains her price points. If you DM in private I’ll tell you. If I needed a decent suit jacket I don’t think I could find one at a middle class price point anymore. The bifurcation is here with us to stay.

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Aesthetics Culture

Day 979 and Signal Season

I’m enjoying watching the fall social season kick into high gear. It’s much more enjoyable to take some many events remotely as so much signaling is done in real time. Between actual live feeds and television coverage and social media feeds you can take a lot in without exhausting yourself.

Burning Man and the U.S Open are the end of summer staples in Yuppieland though very different types of yuppies. And both events are showing us a lot about the current moment.

I’m sure Burners would insist that the experience is about the in person but so many social media influencers burn for content that you’ve got more visibility on the aesthetics and the vibes than ever before.

Tennis is more about strictly about the sport than Burning Man is about the art. But you learn as much from player style, who is sitting where, and what is being covered in the media. The stories behind the event are as important as the event. An outfit can dominate headlines for years becoming iconic.

And then of course we have New York fashion week. It’s an event that used to dominate my life. There was a time before social media at the tents. Women’s Wear Daily claims I’m the first person to have live-blogged a show. I’m skeptical it’s true but I do have the receipts. I snuck in with a photographer and made a whole business of making fashion shows a live social media spectacle before some of these influencers were out of Gap Kids.

So naturally as I age and race to exit my thirties into middle age I’m thrilled I don’t need to be at the shows to know what’s happening in fashion. We may no longer pour of Style.com shots the next day but we’ve got an infinite complex that has emerged to show you every kind of style that’s been imagined.

I’m grateful I didn’t need to go to any of these events. I keep my one on one time for founders and my investors. If I had the spare energy for any of these events I’d probably prefer to use it on one one time with folks. In the past I’d be missing out on all of it. Now there is no fear of missing out. Only deciding what signals you want to separate from the noise.

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Aesthetics Culture

Day 961 and Repeating 2003

Greetings, citizens
We are living
In the age
In which the pursuit of all values
Other than
Money success fame glamour
Has either been discredited
Or destroyed
Money success fame glamour
For we are living in the age of the thing

Felix da Housecat for the 2003 film “Party Animal”

I wasn’t a club kid in the Iraq War era. I had not yet rebelled. Like all class jumpers I was safely ensconced at a private university where I studied great books. I was however a club kid in the era of indie sleeze which arrived at an even more bleak sociopolitical nadir.

The Global Financial Crisis imploded expectations for how middle class millennials might pay off loans for expensive educations while we redeployed our working class to Afghanistan. But we’d elected Obama so like our politics were a little weird. Yes, we can’t? It’s was a dissonant age.

The remnant aesthetics from that era are somewhat shameful (as is all true youth culture) and yet here we are repeating them as the twenty year cycles of cultural remixing arrive to demand their due from my youth. 2003 is reappearing in 2023.

Logan Paul cannot marry a slut just as Britney Spears should never have given it up to Justin Timberlake. Elite social mores are not for the Bourgeoisie to emulate.

Perhaps we should call this tendency for aesthetic return the “‘70s Show’ Show” effect as the nostalgia for our youth by the middle aged is always more consumer friendly than the culture was at its birth.

I get to enjoy feeling like I was cool when I was 22 and Zoomers pick over our wardrobes at theme parties. It’s a fair trade.

I encourage you to revisit an artifact from the 2003 called Party Monster to explore this aesthetics original form. It stars Chloe Sevigny, Seth Green (remember him) and McCauley Caulkin. The music video for the big hit from the soundtrack is titled “Money, Success, Fame, Glamour”. I quoted it at the top.

With lyrics that rooted so deeply in modernist materialism I’m tempted to yell “Eat your heart out Walter Benjamin!” The Marxist continental philosopher was a sexy club kid. Consider the engraving on tombstone in Portugal where he died fleeing the Nazis.

There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism

Theses on the Philosophy of History

Benjamin was a great historian of German romanticism and it’s impact on fascist political aestheticism. So consider that history and ponder it’s relationship to the 2003 era counter cultural artifact.

The “Money, Success, Fame, Glamour” lyrics are materialism distilled and reflective of the nihilism of the Bush era. Forever wars and inflationary spending on empire was harder to smooth over with propaganda as the internet fought back. But in the aughts we still hadn’t quite realized we’d never be rid of our elites after the shocks of reactionary terrorism.

Maybe in our twenties we thought eventually we might take over and do things differently. I’m turning forty this year, and well, Joe Biden is president.

So here we are revisiting the past that won’t leave. RuPaul has a remix challenge of Party Monster soundtrack’s hits released this year and it’s worth seeing how ugly the refinements are compared to the original.

The most you can hope for now is that some millennial will turn your influencer work into a Netflix comedy in which you show off your cultural savvy by going to a queer club party themed 2003 in Bushwick. No the Kim Cattrall vehicle Glamorous is not very good.

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Community Internet Culture

Day 957 and Will It Blend?

We are deep in the dog days of summer. I ran a fever and found myself dead asleep till nearly 1pm as my body valiantly struggled to process deluge of stress hormones I’d let pile up. I missed recording a podcast but the fever broke. I’ll catch up.

Meanwhile, on the website formerly known as Twitter, an epic battle of meaning was waged. The group mind egregore known as “this particular corner of Twitter” asked you to take a pill and/or hit a button.

A classic “my child said” poast with a twist on Newcomb’s Problem and Nash Equilibrium

And thousands of jacked in minds, from neu-fascism-IQers-must-speciate-eugenicists & red-rose transhumanist-luxury-space-communists to normie-Dad-banger-poasters, all raced to decide the meaning of the ultimate symbol.

Who lives and who dies when we can no longer coordinate exclusively within our ingroup?

Absolute fucking chaos. The collective of our shared internet went into a frenzy of consensus making.

Would you walk away from Omelas? Or would you save yourself? Would the gods of rationalism betray your soul with the knowledge that the good of the one can and does outweigh the good of the many?

In which selective phrasing has me deciding I shouldn’t jump into a blender but because I am me I also must immediately counter signal

Are you willing to step into a blender to save the normies? No? Yes? Fuck! Roko (of Basilik fame) redefined the problem space.

And then because we all must troll, we all stepped into a blender for the good of our species. Well, I wanted to annoy Roko. So I said I would when I voted that I wouldn’t. Because all serious social question can and should be trolled.

The choice is yours and yours alone

In the space of a day, we all leapt into the proverbial blender to save the naive, the kind, and the fucking stupid. It’s what Spock have done for us. Pro-social is the logical choice. Or is it? Is it better to be red than dead? None of us know.

I personally hope we all continue to create an eternal refinement culture of love and hope across all cycles of time to come.

I found it to be a privilege to be a member of the hive mind. We are all the alignment. Our consensus efforts inside the plutocrats toy is more likely to bring about the singularity than almost any other activity I can imagine.

It is a privilege to be in the egregore. My smol sensemaker syncretic smooth brain being hooked up into the wider hive for “Red vs Blue Walk Away From Omelas Boogaloo” is quite literally divine. To retweet each others bangers is to see the face of God. Just try and remember the truth. There is no blender.

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Aesthetics Internet Culture Media

Day 954 and Frame Jacking

It’s a war of all against all on the internet. And I don’t recall being conscripted into any kind of war but here I am up to my neck in ontological shock and crisis of meanings as I read the news.

Language is a virus. And we are all infected. I’ll let Ben Hunt of Epsilon Theory illustrate.

It’s our autonomy of mind that is threatened by this unholy troika of smartphones, social media and linguistic weaponization, and there is no more important struggle today than to defend ourselves against that threat.

Humans have nervous systems that are easily hijacked. You give us something to imitate and within a few weeks we’ve learned a new way to get a social advantage. And so we have massive social cataclysms as the rules change. And the rules are changing fast.

This TikTok about a woman accepting an engagement proposal because the vision of the future scares her? It might actually be an anti-natalist campaign by degrowthers or maybe even Chinese propaganda? Who knows.

It’s not as if America gives a shit about maternal health or women but hey here is a podcast about a porn star who specializes in anime’s less savory fetishes. Is your teenage boy an Andrew Tate fan? It’s time to enjoy a reactionary period.

Obviously this has anyone older than forty asking if the western world under attack. Is questioning liberalism actually the psy-op? Are we fighting amongst ourselves? Do you even know what memetic agents you are infected by?

I sure don’t what brain works in carrying but I don’t think animated porn is for me. But I also got taken in by lots of questionable narratives on modern medicine, fertility and children too. Untangling yourself from the desires you were given is exhausting. Good luck unpacking who jacked your frame!