Design After Trump: Is Viral American Design Over?

While news and social media buzzes with questions about the future under the Trump administration, I'm also wondering about something less anxiety-inducing: where design will go in the next four years. I like to think about designed spaces as social ways of managing desire and feeling. One of the most interesting design phenomenon this decade was watching one version of American style-- minimalist homestead-- rise and replicate itself across the world. The reclaimed wood style was about managing a rapid transformation to a tech-dominated lifestyle by decorating it in historical references to an iconic American authenticity hewn of rough planks, vintage trim, and farm-made products. As the style spread, the vintage Americana gloss became formulaic, until even the 'old wood' itself wasn't old, but mass-produced to look that way. 

When I saw a replica Ace Hotel in a rapidly developing part of Phnom Penh it seemed like another sign that the version of American style that the Ace helped popularize has become itself a mass production, no longer so much a way of managing contemporary feeling as a set of ready-made signifiers that can be bought off the shelf and installed anywhere, even in Phnom Penh. But this leaves the question: what kinds of spaces will Americans inhabit and propagate in the next four years? What emotions are we managing (despair and uncertainty come to mind) and how will we shape spaces to deal with them?

The problem with despair is that unlike many other emotions that inspire design, despair feels like it inspires very little. Even the iconically austere apartment buildings of Cold War East Germany seem like less of a potential design reference than a too-close reminder of the real austerity the U.S. faces as a country where starting wages haven't increased in decades. Likewise, the Trumpian gold-covered-elevator look won't be distant (or affordable) enough for the culture to creatively redeploy. And brutalism's authoritarian vibes might not feel so vibey in the face of actual authoritarian threats. What do you recycle when it feels like the end of history?

Rebar planter in Villahermosa, MX

Rebar planter in Villahermosa, MX

Is it possible, maybe, that the U.S. won't be driving the designs of the next half-decade? One of the most interesting places I visited in terms of design in 2016 was Mexico, and I was interested to find that it isn't just the high-craft minimalism of Oaxaca that has heavily influenced global design. Even postmodern-looking objets like planters made of rebar, which make up part of Robert Irwin's Getty Center garden, are actually municipal street design on the avenues in some Mexican cities. So I wonder: is Trump's wall, meant to keep people out, actually going to hem the country in and cut us off from the design innovations happening elsewhere? What design trends will the U.S. manufacture, especially given that the recycling of mid-century modernism has reached its peak? Will some weird and wistful version of 90s suburbia actually come back? McMansion chic? Maximalist clutter in place of minimalist emptiness? I guess one way we'll know how we are doing, emotionally and otherwise, is if people have the inspiration to create viral new design trends at all.

'Fake News', Authorship, and the Battle for Narrative Power

Throughout the 'Fake News' uproar of the post-election cycle I kept thinking back to this line that I wrote in The Boy Kings about the launch of News Feed in 2006. The story concerns a moment when a Facebook coworker tested a News Feed story by putting the two of us 'in a relationship' on Facebook. I found out about the story being published in News Feed because my instant messenger started pinging with questions about it. That's to say that this News Feed story went 'viral' in the local social network, and the fact that it wasn't true didn't make it any less viral. The great innovation of News Feed was that it can write and distribute a story without narration by any human. The algorithm becomes the author. And while this particular early instance of 'fake news' in News Feed was funny, it was also when I realized that "we don't even write our own stories anymore."

It's also why I wrote about this in long form, because if algorithms are going to author stories for us, it seems prudent to maintain the ability to author our own. In a world in which algorithms assert their narrative power over us, and entire farms of 'Fake News' write stories substituting one celebrity for another in hopes of generating clicks, human authorship remains an alternate and potentially resistant form of narrative production. While we may not be able to escape narration by algorithm, we can still publish our own narrative and analysis.

But this becomes the threat to the technologies themselves: if narration by human subjects is seen as a resistant act, then companies that desire total narrative power must deflect the threat that human narration poses. It is not even the content of the narration but the fact of the narration itself-- the product of an individual's human values rather than an algorithm's A/B tested ones-- that becomes existentially threatening. This explains why human narration in Silicon Valley is now being modelled, avant-la-lettre, as an outlaw act. For one thing, if you write your own story, it might not be the story the algorithm or the company would tell; but even more fundamentally, to write is to assert disagreement that centralized algorithmic narration is always an adequate substitute for human authorship.

The commitment to algorithmic narration is probably also why Fake News has posed such a conundrum to algorithmically-driven companies this year. If companies have come to feel ownership over the telling of stories, then what happens when distant entities flood the algorithm with 'Fake News', beating the house algorithms at their own news-creation and -distribution game? It isn't just human writers who pose a threat to the ownership of narrative, but other automated storytellers.

In essence what the Fake News wars are about is who gets to tell stories and create news at all-- about who (or what, if a machine) is authorized and who is not. Technology companies could very well end up banishing 'Fake News' by moving to publish only news they create and approve, which creates a new monopoly on news and story creation. It is for this reason that as we head into a world dominated increasingly by centralized power, maintaining the ability to tell and write our own stories remains critical.

Back to Nature

I wrote about the revival of plants in art and design and why they are taking over contemporary architecture, for Curbed.

The Ruins of Reclaimed Wood

In the combination Taco Bell and Urban Cabin [via Buzzfeed]

In the combination Taco Bell and Urban Cabin [via Buzzfeed]

Two years ago I wrote about what the reclaimed wood trend meant during its rise to popularity. I wrote about it because it was fascinating to see a rather unremarkable material develop so much resonance so fast, to the point that by 2014 wood was everywhere in any establishment that fancied itself “authentic” or "modern" or “independent”. And for the initial years of its rise, there was something about wood that did feel this way; wood lent a feeling of presence, weight, and style to public spaces that in previous years tended to be sterile or plastic in their design. Reclaimed wood was a sudden intrusion of texture that you could touch, a reference to the wilderness, to cozy spaces in the wilderness, to old-timey lumber bars with wood walls that felt like being in an old whiskey barrel. Wood felt nice to be around; tactile; solid; sheltering.

Now it’s 2016 and old wood has become spectacularly annoying as a design meme. I can’t recall ever being annoyed by a material and its ubiquity the way I am annoyed by the constant appearance of wood in commercial spaces in 2016. In the same way that wood once felt nice and comforting, it now feels the opposite, like a bad, boring pop song that gets stuck in your head that you can’t get out. Wood is the earworm of contemporary design; repetitive and relentless, cropping up again just when you thought you’d moved on.

Reclaimed Wood is like “millennial” in this way: it doesn’t really mean anything at all, just that there is a business that would like to sell you something based on an identification it hopes you will make with what it is selling.

Maybe because of its annoying repetitiveness, however, I am fascinated again with what wood signifies now that it is being adopted by every new hotel renovation and chain restaurant redesign. What this means is that we will be living with institutional Reclaimed Wood for another five years at least, or more, long after the new wave indie restaurants and their followers have moved on. In a year or two, when hip design spaces are well into some other decor, we’ll still be eating breakfast at business conferences in a chain hotel’s farm-cabin inspired cafe.

When I see businesses opening today that are decorated in old or quasi-old wood, it feels disorienting in that it feels like the store is referring back to a design trend that itself feels historical, like the cafe is referencing the old days of 2010 when Instagram was new and rusticity suddenly seemed modern. The rustic referent of the chain hotel’s wood walls has disappeared, replaced by a reference to capitalism and its swift appropriative movements itself. Reclaimed Wood is like “millennial” in this way: it doesn’t really mean anything at all, just that there is a business that would like to sell you something based on an identification it hopes you will make with what it is selling. 

Design crashes are interesting though, in that they necessitate change and design innovation. I wonder what interesting ways enterprising people will go about ‘fixing’ the wood which is now everywhere. The nice thing about wood is that it can altered easily, with sanding, painting, carving, etc. Maybe we’ll enter a maximalist, Ruined Wood phase where all the distressed wood becomes further distressed and de-natured beyond recognition. Maybe the remains of Reclaimed Wood will make it interesting again, as we live on in the apocalyptic ruins of what was the briefly imagined utopia of the urban cabin.

'Satoshi' and the Fantasy of Anonymity

The mystery of ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ is among other things an exercise in the ritual way in which anonymity functions online. The ‘Satoshi’ mystery demonstrates how the anonymity of a creator, whether of Bitcoin or anything else, is a feature of the work-- a part of the product. That is, Bitcoin could be Bitcoin without Satoshi, but the story of a mysterious, benevolent Satoshi attracts a set of flattering assumptions fueled by anonymity that enrich Bitcoin as a brand.

The initial way that anonymity benefits a creation is by automatically generating interest, and not just interest as such, but positive, even reverent interest. Anonymity allows for reverence by shrouding the creator in a veil of alluring modesty: who is this person, who has piqued my interest by not declaring their identity? What deity would deign not to take credit for their work? The creator's apparent lack of ego attracts us by its initial appearance of rarity and saintliness, the sense that we are in the presence of an anonymous higher being, who gifts us with something of value without expecting material attention in return. For example, the anonymously published tech fiction Iterating Grace plays on this logic quite literally by announcing itself as a beatific critique handed down from on high by some mysterious holy man, smoothing its acceptance in a tech environment where even the mildest critiques can be received as unbearably harsh.

But maybe most critically, anonymity allows for positive attention by removing the barriers to fantasy about who the creator 'is'. A person with a known identity cannot be fantasized about and fashioned into one's platonic ideal the way that an anonymous creator can. Thus, Satoshi Nakamoto is beloved to the point of godliness-- absent any details, the public filled in their desired identity for Satoshi Nakamoto. 'He' is eccentric, unthreatening via his reticence, but also cool and dark, inhabiting the shadows, happy to be the giver of the gift of untraceable digital currency. The figure of Nakamoto is a synecdoche for his currency: by buying into Bitcoin you are buying a bit of Nakamoto's mystique, his egolessness, his untraceability. 

The theory that Satoshi-contender Craig Wright ultimately doxxed himself is in line with the logic of anonymity as an amplifier of value that never quite becomes the property of the creator. That is, the more successful and beloved Satoshi became, the more the gulf between Satoshi and his creator grew: Satoshi was famous, mythic, obsessed over, while his creator (or hoaxer-- it doesn't really matter, since Craig Wright either imagines himself or desires to imagine himself the creator of Bitcoin) remained, in the tweeted words of journalist Adrian Chen, a "random-ass man in Australia with tax issues". Wright, like any creator eventually desirous of the love his product generates, grew unhappy with a lack of public recognition.

But Wright's dismay at seeing 'his' fantasy identity far outstrip the world's capacity to love him, as well as his audience's dismay at finding out who 'Satoshi' really 'is', is another inevitable phase in the anonymity trajectory. That is, the anonymous identities that creators create, much like zany corporate Twitter brands, are by definition more lovable than any particular individual, due to the way that anonymity enables everyone's individual or collective fantasies about the creator of a work. Anonymity is the absence that creates the possibility of a deified presence. Conversely, if an identified person decides they want to be beloved and mythical, it is harder to do so because a known identity eliminates the narrative potential for the audience to both fantasize about you and "discover who you are". There is nothing for the reader to dream about and then, in a fit of desire to make the fantasy real, to doxx. 

Anonymity, then, is the authorial decision to add valuable mystique to one's creation by packaging it with an alluring, demure, but eventually doxxable figure: someone whose absence of known identity both makes them seem impossibly cool (via fantasy that fills in the mystery with what is desired) and also discoverable, in time. Anonymity becomes a compelling, parallel story to the product story itself-- a mysterious, suspenseful story about when and if the creator's identity, however less beatific than imagined, will be found. 

All this is to say that Bitcoin didn't need 'Satoshi Nakamoto' to succeed, but whomever developed 'Satoshi Nakamoto' knew that by doing so they were adding an automatically lovable face to the Bitcoin brand, even if in doing so they condemned themselves to being Satoshi's perpetually inadequate shadow.