The ‘New Aesthetic’ and what it Reveals About the Nature of Technology

18-09-2012, 14:00

This article is a reaction to Will Wiles’ recent investigation into the ‘New Aesthetic’, an idea that was begun by technologist James Bridle and perpetuated through a series of images posted to his blog. This phenomenon, as examined by Wiles, explores the boundaries between the real, physical world and the digital world – particularly how the digital world is exposed in the real world (and vice-versa) and how the two combine to mediate experience to us on an everyday basis.

The New Aesthetic is not, as Wiles is at pains to clarify, a movement. Its boundaries are too ill-defined, and its aims (if there are any at all) are not set in stone. Some suggestions as to what the New Aesthetic is include “an eruption of the digital into the physical”, a project “setting out to ‘map reactions’ to new technology” and an attempt “in part… to point at these things and go ‘but what does it mean?'”

Wiles himself highlights the way in which the New Aesthetic acts as a warning about modernity: he draws attention to how instances of the New Aesthetic so quickly turn from a shockingly new experience to a banal one, and the fact that “instances of the New Aesthetic are often places where a glitch has exposed the underlying structure”. In this sense, the effect of the New Aesthetic is to make obvious this collision between physical and digital – a collision which designers usually attempt to conceal. He says “in making these connections invisible and silent, the status quo is hard-wired into place, consent is bypassed and alternatives are deleted.” This reading posits the New Aesthetic as a kind of warning system for what Wiles calls the “New Anaesthetic”.

Primarily, it is this final point which I would like to address. After reading the article, I had an idea that was exactly 140 characters long and tweeted it to Will Wiles. Based on the idea of glitches exposing underlying structure, it read:

“@WillWiles so if I’ve got this right… where a ‘marble’ countertop wears away to reveal the chipboard beneath would be ‘Old #NewAesthetic’?”

To which he replied (in 130 characters):

“@StottR The NA isn’t a very useful name. But yeah, the marble veneer says something useful about the culture that produced it, no?”

That such a simple analogy, devoid of any ‘digital world’ baggage can be so reminiscent of the New Aesthetic surely demonstrates the fact that not only has this happened before, but it is an entirely commonplace process; it is the process by which new technology has always been assimilated into everyday use.

The first stage of this process consists of the arrival of the new technology. Inevitably, it will be cheaper, faster or in some other way more ‘efficient’ than existing technologies. Next it is put to use to replicate, as close as possible, the previous technologies – this early stage is what the New Aesthetic highlights, particularly with regard to its ‘revealing glitches’. At this point, there is usually some resistance to the new technology, a reaction against what is missing and the value that is seen as lost. Stage three is an exploration into the advantages of the new technology over the old, where the new technology acquires a visual language of its own. For many minor technologies, this completes their assimilation. However, for truly ground shifting changes, there is more – particularly when there are advantages beyond cost effectiveness, the new technology will launch into stage four: a movement, filled with the symbolic celebration of man’s invention, a vigourous, joyous acceptance of the new technology. By this stage, the reactionaries of stage two are thoroughly unfashionable opponents of progress, and their eventual decline leads to the final stage, that of ubiquitous acceptance.

For example, this arc is seen quite clearly when it comes to the acceptance of technologies such as steel frame construction and curtain glass in architecture: the possibilities afforded by frame construction lead to the somewhat traditional Sainte-Geneviève library by Henri Labrouste, and Joseph Paxton’s incredibly progressive Crystal Palace was first seen as an engineering project rather than an architectural one – so much so that in its second incarnation it was redesigned to be more ‘architectural’. These methods of construction invited a number of big-name detractors such as William Morris, who launched an energetic counter-movement to something that was yet to become a movement itself. Nevertheless, stage three emerged in the early 20th Century with architects such as Behrens, Taut and Gropius. This paved the way for the full blown movement of Architectural Modernism, which over the years lost much of its original meaningful content (first at the hands of Philip Johnson’s ‘International Style’ exhibition and later at the hands of other less capable architects) until the technologies involved were stripped of artistic meaning and simply became the status quo of building design.

Another perhaps more relevant example is communications technology; communications was the key driving force behind the digital revolution and its most important technology, the internet. As such, it may be the only technology related to the New Aesthetic that could be seen as already undergoing the full five-stage integration: after the invention of the internet, one of its first uses was to secure a replacement for the traditional letter. Later the internet’s obvious advantages of instantaneousness and interconnectivity were explored with instant messaging and online forums, which encouraged a more conversational style. Facebook (and to some extent its predecessors like Myspace) was a movement in itself, fetishising instant communication, constant sharing and the systematic shortening of communication, in some cases to a simple button (‘like’ or ‘poke’). Now, these applications have made internet communication so ubiquitous that most young people would struggle to maintain any social life without it, and if one wants to, say, communicate an idea to Will Wiles about his recent article, that idea had better be under 140 characters.

It may be too late for internet communication, but some other aspects charted by the New Aesthetic reveal, as discussed, technologies in the early stages of integration. What’s more, the New Aesthetic highlights what are often rather worrying power relationships between those implementing new technologies and the people who, often unknowingly, are subjected to them. James Bridle, in exposing this idea as an aesthetic and choosing to articulate it as a series of images, runs the risk of glorifying these new aspects of technology even as there is an undercurrent of skepticism. Another peculiarity of internet communication is its propensity to discourage critical or negative thought – and irony, so often misconstrued in face to face communication, stands almost no chance on this platform. Already it seems to have been acknowledged that the New Aesthetic needs to be “differentiated from mere neophilia”.

So, whilst the New Aesthetic may be reluctant to be labelled as a movement (and contrary to extensive elaboration by myself and Wiles, large portions of it are hard to pin down), there is truth to the assertion that “there’s a vacuum for the movement people think it is”. As a matter of fact, there is space for two movements: one unintentionally celebrating Wiles’ “New Anaesthetic” as the future of digital media – progressive, optimistic but arguably unjust and unequal; the other perhaps anti-progressive, perhaps negative, but critical of those aspects which seem to worry Wiles in his article. The latter could well be the movement that tempers the speed of acceptance, allows time to work out the kinks and pushes for something which is fair to all.

Currently, the New Aesthetic phenomenon contains seeds of both movements. If Bridle continues along his current path, the ‘progressive’ movement will – as easily happens in the online community – snowball by itself, stripped of any critical content and strongly biased towards the ‘mere neophilia’ that it often tends towards. By doing nothing, the New Aesthetic could do a lot of unwanted damage.

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One response

  1. Hi Rory, Will here. I’m glad you found the essay stimulating and yours is an interesting response. One thing to say right away is that I don’t consider my essay to be the last word on the subject by any means.

    What shape the New Aesthetic could take next is anyone’s guess, but there might be more polemical approaches to it, manifestos or programmes. A NA equivalent of Ornament and Crime or something. I think it’s worth emphasising that the first thinking and writing about the NA is coming out of design communities; BERG in particular are quietly producing work that articulates NA concerns. They raise the concerns about seamlessness that I mention, and their own strategy is to work on “beautiful seams”, which could be an interesting starting point fr a design strategy that steers between Anaesthetic, uncritical digital design and reactionary pessimism. And could create a more enriching digital experience. (I’m tempted to get carried away and talk about “digital modernism” by I think that would probably be hyperbole and invite more unhelpful historical analogies.)

    September 22, 2012 at 3:01 pm

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