Idea strength, cringe, and the media environment

In “Belonging > Innovation”, I pointed out a shift in the quality of culture, which I described as “trending toward a sort of stable, vaguely satisfying mediocrity”. In the three years since, the trend has only intensified, and others have begun to notice.

At the time, I was only able to sketch out a handful of symptoms, but now I think I see the underlying dynamics a bit more clearly.

It should surprise no one to learn that the 2010s saw an inversion in the relationship between media providers and media consumers. The falling cost of tools and distribution led to a media explosion, while the amount of attention stayed comparatively flat. The result was a massive increase in competition among media providers.

Sounds great for consumers, right? More competition typically means more innovation — more strong ideas. But the exact opposite occurred. The shift in the attention economy caused an explosion of weak ideas.

To explain how, it’s necessary to define what I mean by idea strength.

Strong ideas are focused. They take risks, the results of which are high variance: more often very good or very bad. True artistic risk is also reputational risk, which makes it harder for the artist to deny they were trying hard to accomplish A as opposed to B, C, or D. Strong ideas are monopolistic. They attempt to hijack attention. They force you to choose between paying attention to them and paying attention to something else. Strong ideas have low context dependence, a property that makes structure-preserving transformations possible. In other words, “covers” of a strong idea are highly recognizable — their internal structure doesn’t disintegrate when their context is changed. Finally, strong ideas have a correspondingly strong empathy load. This may or may not mean that they attempt to communicate specific experiences or emotions, but it definitely means that they feel like the product of a mind with a point of view.

Weak ideas, on the other hand, are diffuse, risk-averse, and consequently much lower variance. The defining quality of weak ideas is their mediocrity. Weak ideas are “fine”. They carry low artistic and reputational risk, which lends plausible deniability to the artist’s intent. Weak ideas do not force any kind of attention commitment — the consumer misses nothing by “playing the field”. Weak ideas are highly context dependent. They fall apart like a deep sea creature when pulled out of their native context. Finally, weak ideas have a low empathy load. They feel as much like the product of an algorithm as they do the product of a mind.

Idea strength is moderated by its perceptual context: the environment in which people not only perceive media, but also perceive each other perceiving media.

Perceptual contexts behave like networks. Increasing the number of interconnections increases the sociality of the network — the ability of each “node” to monitor and respond to the others. A highly interconnected network exposes each participant to feedback about their consumption habits, the tribe they belong to (or would like to belong to), and their standing within it. In this scenario, anonymity is an imperfect defense. It may protect one’s reputation, but it does little to silence one’s inner model of what others think.

In this way, perceptual contexts contribute to preference falsification. The more one is socially rewarded for preferring X over Y — even anonymously — the more one “genuinely” prefers X. The price of preferring Y is derision, disapproval, and lowered status; not only for the artist, but also for the “stakeholders” — anyone who perceives their work, is in turn perceived, and so on.

Idea strength is a function of risk in context. So what is the price of a failed artistic bet? According to Sarah Perry, it’s cringe:

At its most general, cringe is the experience of witnessing failed emotional manipulation: a theater productions’s failure to induce suspension of disbelief, a joke followed by silence, a grandiose boast that fails to impress.

When artists become more socially connected to each other and to consumers, bold choices get riskier. Every mind in a perceptual network is a vector for cringe. As the network grows more interconnected, the potential for cringe increases. An artistic risk that might have been low in a less connected environment becomes high. The degree of complexity of a network is therefore the extent to which artistic risk within it is socialized. The result is a kind of aesthetic evolutionary pressure, limiting what consumers have an incentive to consume and what artists have an incentive to create.

If degree of connectedness plays such a large role in idea strength, how has it changed over time? Toby Shorin’s analysis is spot on:

The flow of cultural products in the pre-internet media environment was unidirectional: media channels (network hubs) broadcast toward consumers (terminal nodes in the network), and consumers could only receive visual media, not broadcast it themselves.

When Shorin refers to the “shape of the media environment”, he basically means the arrangement of the plumbing through which media flows.

Before the internet, media mostly flowed one way, from a few major producers to all consumers. Access to social feedback was minimal and almost entirely “IRL”. No TV or stereo had a comment section. If one never brought up one’s preferences in face to face conversation, it was possible to never learn what others thought about them. As a result, there were far fewer reasons for consumers to apply a procrustean filter to their inner life, and fewer opportunities to “take a side”. Artists, lacking fast audience feedback about their work, optimized for competition with their idols and peers, leading to more experimentation and consequently more variance. Because it was so hard to police each other’s reactions to a given work — not to mention establish aspects of that work as continuous markers of tribal identity — audiences were freer to enjoy the experience of being surprised without feeling pressured to interpret that surprise as a betrayal. Cringe was much less of a concern because the technology to “go viral” overnight did not yet exist, so downside of artistic risk was low. The experience of media was primarily illegible and personal.

Now, in the internet era, media can flow from anywhere to anywhere. Shorin continues:

The internet has enabled a truly distributed and multidirectional network, in which any node can be a content creator, broadcaster, and consumer. 

Attention has not scaled with media. Instead, attention is mostly conserved, but spread across multiple streams of media at once, with the most social stream — the form of media that allows people to see and be seen — in the foreground. Creative choices are therefore governed by what the artist believes about their chances of supplanting that foreground stream with their own work. A successful bid for the foreground means one’s idea is truly strong. A mistaken belief that one’s idea is truly strong is likely to end up causing cringe, and thereby a total failure to capture sustained, positive attention — perhaps even earning widespread derision. A successful bid for the background means only that one’s appetite for risk was low; one risks less cringe but gains less attention. As Perry puts it: “A strong cringe reaction may be a good sign, compared to mere boredom.” An artist with a high tolerance for embarrassment (or a savvy audience) may capture sustained attention by intentionally optimizing their work for cringe. Herein we see the rise of layered irony, and the concept of “irony levels”.

The contemporary experience of media is primarily legible and social. To effectively compete with the social stream, one’s work has to be more powerful than the experience of belonging to a tribe in a time of great intertribal conflict. It’s much more strategic to cooperate with the social stream instead, which explains the rise of fandoms-as-culture and the popularity of MMO games like Fortnite. Social media incentivizes making all inner experience legible so it can be shared. But it’s often impossible to resolve the urge to affiliate and the urge to accurately portray one’s inner experience, so the urge to affiliate usually wins. 

What I’ve been thinking about

Sorry for the absence. I’ve been busy for the past year and I expect to be busy until 2019. When I finally have free time, here is some of what I hope to write about:

  • The main theme of these ideas is stagnation: bad things are catching up with good things, but good things aren’t getting any better. In some cases they’re even getting worse. Is aesthetic stagnation real? If so, is it caused by a cultural shift away from exploration and risk-taking, or are we simply running out of things to explore and risks to take?
  • While impressive, progress in media synthesis AI seems focused on creating ersatz versions of things that already exist. The optimistic view is that AI will democratize access to visual effects, leading to a creative renaissance. But is the limiting factor for a renaissance really a lack of access to expensive rendering tools, or a dearth of original ideas? Have cheaper tools always led to great works by unknown artists, or merely a handful of great works in a vast sea of banal hobbyism? Is the ratio getting worse over time?
  • South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have cleverly pointed out the “rule of replacing ands with either buts or therefores, a maxim of attention manipulation that as recently as the last decade would have seemed like artistic common sense. Lately, however, there seems to be a trend away from such contours and toward a kind of miasmic, ambient vibeyness. In general, works have fewer “buts per minute”. They’re less likely to subvert themselves or utilize overt surprise. I’ve noticed it in music as well as storytelling — contemporary pop feels more like riding a train than a rollercoaster. Is the vibe trend real? Is it a deliberate rebellion against the tyranny of narrative? A backlash against previous generations’ irreverence and distrust of religious ecstasy? Mere risk aversion? Or is viable innovation so scarce, artists have been reduced to doing things wrong on purpose to stand out, like an engineer responding to technological stagnation by making machines less efficient on purpose.
  • What defines the boundary of an idea? To be clear, I’m not talking about intellectual property (though IP law may be instructive). Idea units in narrative are something more like macro-arcs and micro-arcs. Think “premise, but twist” but at multiple levels. What makes these fractal twists weaker or stronger? Can artist/audience symbiosis develop to the point that all pretend to not notice when a twist is weak?
  • In theory, noticing cliches should act to move production away from those cliches. But in practice, the cliches are “kosherized” by noticing them and nothing changes. Why?
  • I’m a fan of the explorable explanations scene. I’m excited because they have the potential to deliberately optimize art’s ability to make you think. In this sense, they seem to reside on a continuum with network narratives like The Wire — a continuum I hope will be filled in with new tools of varying intellectual “expense” as it undergoes market segmentation. Since one of their primary features is the opportunity to expose oneself to complexity, and people react to complexity in different ways, how will the artists and technologists who create these tools handle user reactions to it? With regard to political complexity, what if they just spread apathy? What if spreading apathy is actually good?
  • I’m fascinated by the border between what can and can’t be measured. Are more things becoming measurable over time? What kind of power does measurement give us, and what kind does abstaining from measurement give us? Are measurable things seen as less “sacred” than unmeasurable things? The Two Cultures seem to be made of quantitative thinkers and qualitative thinkers. Each are sensitive to a different kind of nuance and rigor, but the qualitative thinkers are the de facto guardians of the (temporarily) unmeasurable. Will they perform the necessary sacrifice of nuance that measurability requires, even if it means jeopardizing their jobs as gatekeepers?
  • Fandom, fetishism, and nerdism are all essentially the same belief: that the local optimum is the global optimum. They may value noticing that one is in a system, but they don’t value jumping out of it. How does the prevalence of cultural patterns such as these interfere with aesthetic innovation?
  • I’ve noticed two fundamentally different attitudes toward aesthetic experiences. One is primarily focused on recording, collecting, and “respecting” one’s own experiences, as well as the experiences of others. The other is primarily focused on the design and optimization of experiences for widespread consumption. The two have an odd symbiosis. Without designer/optimizers, collector/respecters would have nothing to collect and respect. Conversely, it’s hard to optimize without some form of customer feedback. When and how does “respect” interfere with optimization?
  • Every day, millions of people have the same deliberately designed experiences for almost exactly the same reasons. Despite this, many still believe subjectivity is sacred, unknowable, and infinitely diverse. Why? What might become possible if they didn’t?
  • When people use the word “representation”, they’re usually referring to one of two things: an abstraction technique or an individual who serves the interests of a larger group. Nowadays, concerns about the latter seem to be outcompeting concerns about the former. Has the technological progress of portrayal itself slowed so much that the only progress left is in who gets to be portrayed?
  • Civilization advances according to what it makes optional. This process has two major trade-offs: it depletes the meaning generated by having no choice, and it forces people to be responsible for their own connoisseurship. Are recommendation engines and algorithmic content really the best way to cope? If machines only give us what we’re capable of articulating precisely, will we get better at identifying and expressing our desires?

Two types of maps

Different types of maps have different uses. What they make legible is what they make possible. A map that emphasizes bike paths is useful to a cyclist, but its lack of topographic information makes it useless to a civil engineer, even though both refer to the same territory.

Similarly, maps as I define them have multiple uses, two of which I’d like to name. Both “describe what exists” by prioritizing the faithful abstraction of particular patches of reality, and both emphasize patches of reality that consist of hard, seemingly unsolvable problems. Yet these two maps differ significantly in their treatment of such problems.

Sympathy-oriented maps:

  • Show things are they are. Improvement usually looks like an increase in the fidelity of an existing map. The more ambitious tackle territory that is relatively unmapped. Buffy the Vampire Slayer articulates the experiences of adolescence and early adulthood with notorious precision, but it’s in season six’s portrayal of post-high-school aimlessness that the show really ventures into Parts Unknown.
  • Focus on the internal. This is usually accomplished via metaphor: “internal transformation writ large” is a common narrative technique. On Buffy, battles with adolescent “demons” like conformity, sexuality, and authority become battles with literal demons. The audience enjoys recognizing the structural similarity of the conflict in the story to their own remembered internal conflict.
  • Provide validation. Sympathy is what you do when you can’t solve somebody else’s problem, or shouldn’t try to. Instead, you confirm the reality of their problem. Weirdly, this makes them feel better even though nothing else has changed. We probably enjoy sympathy because for most of human history, nearly all problems were unsolvable. In the ancestral environment, cooperative anesthesia was likely a helpful adaptation. Since so many of the problems of growing up seem unsolvable, it makes sense that Buffy’s accuracy provides much-needed succor.
  • Are diverse and abundant. Anybody can make a sympathy map because we all have more or less the same spectrum of emotions. But only novelists and playwrights can make good ones, right? Wrong. The internet has become a planet-sized, crowdsourced map factory, generating memes, gifs, and TFWs for nearly every conceivable aspect of the human experience, no matter how subtle. That’s quite a market for validations.
  • Are implicitly pessimistic. Sympathy maps take human nature for granted. This is admittedly a bit like saying music takes the human range of hearing for granted, but the assumption that no aspect of human nature might be a problem to solve amounts to a window of legitimate complaint. Which is sad. You don’t have to be a diehard transhumanist to enjoy speculating about what would happen if “growing up” were solved. What other problems would arise instead? (There’d be no Buffy, for one.)
  • Are NOT: Cliches. Someone who sees your reality in a fresh way will be  more skilled at confirming it. Cliches are stale abstractions, so they are only weakly effective as validations.

Solution-oriented maps:

  • Show things as they might be. If sympathy maps traffic in recognition, solution maps traffic in implications. For now, human nature is stable, so sympathy maps can always refer to it. Unfortunately, this means sympathy mapmakers are less likely to investigate the effects of technology and institutions on human nature, and all the weird, unexpected stuff (good and bad) that happens when a major technological or institutional shift occurs. Solution maps create intuition pumps for the consequences of such a change, especially the unintended consequences. The Wire is an unusually solution-oriented take on the drug war. Notably, the third season’s Hamsterdam subplot features a fed-up police major who creates a free zone for drugs and prostitution, to mixed results.
  • Focus on the external. A good street map doesn’t lavish detail on individual trees. Similarly, solution maps trade nuanced depictions of internal experiences for nuanced depictions of the interlocking systems that cause them. The Wire juggles dozens of characters at every level of policing and the drug trade, but we seldom learn more than a first or last name and minor identifying detail about each. More would only be a distraction.
  • Improve discourse. A good map reduces the time you spend being lost. By moving conversations away from misleading framings, solution maps make it harder to get stuck in motivated reasoning, which ideally also improves large-scale coordination. The Wire is no fan of the drug war, but nor does it argue legalization would be without costs. Major Colvin’s free zone sharply reduces violent crime, but unrestricted access to drugs causes some addicts to go into freefall. The Wire helps push the conversation toward cushioning that freefall.
  • Are rare and ghettoized. Most current solution maps are hard science fiction. I’d like to see more dramas with hard sci-fi’s rigor, but I understand why I haven’t. To make a solution map, it’s not enough to know the human heart. You need some domain knowledge too. David Simon and Ed Burns, the creators of The Wire, have a combined 33 years of experience in journalism and law enforcement, all in Baltimore. That’s a high bar.
  • Are implicitly optimistic. Good solution maps reveal interesting new problems. Bad ones punish hubris. The Greeks were wrong, there are no gods to punish us for flying. This doesn’t mean flying won’t create new problems, it’s just better to not run from the challenges they present. Like Stewart Brand said, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” By replacing intractable gods with maybe-tractable institutions made of people, The Wire turns Greek tragedy into one of the best solution maps ever.
  • Are NOT: Covert sympathy maps, specifically those that hide behind metaphor and allegory. If a work is criticized because it’s supposedly realistic but doesn’t handle consequences well, one can claim it’s just metaphor/allegory, and therefore exempt from rigor. But if no one criticizes it on that basis, it’s a deeply thought-provoking meditation on reality. Ultimately it’s only taken seriously to the extent that no one probes. Beware increases in the complexity of pointing devices without any proportional increase in the complexity of the things they point at.

The burden of connoisseurship

Take a look at David Chapman’s gigantic chart that explains absolutely everything. We’re in the atomized mode, which is characterized by “senseless kaleidoscopic, hypnotic reconfigurations, with no context or coherence”. Old structures all blown to bits, the components floating around, able to be combined however you want.

The trend away from choicelessness has its pros and cons. It’s good that many possible combinations of meaning exist, but it’s bad, or at least burdensome, that responsibility for putting them together falls on the individual. After all, individuals vary in their ability to notice, articulate, and ultimately deliberately implement a way of interacting with the world that truly works for them.

Compare systems of meaning to clothing. In the past, one size had to fit all*. But it didn’t, not really. Many were secretly uncomfortable in too-tight or too-loose outfits. Now selection is almost infinitely varied, but you have to go shopping, which is a chore to some (not to mention expensive).

It can also be alarming when the satisfaction of coarse-grained needs consistently reveals finer ones. Though it’s pretty easy to not care about being a wine snob, it’s much harder to ignore the intangible-but-totally-necessary qualities lacking in a prospective mate. This is apparent to anyone who has ever tried online dating — it quickly becomes clear that, for any given social milieu, nearly everyone uses the same basic menu of uniqueness markers, creating a new baseline. Hitting every legible target exposes the illegible ones, and communicating the illegible is hard work.

What does the atomization of meaning have to do with aesthetics? Most obviously, thin meaning like connoisseurship (food, movies, TV, and so on) is palliative in the absence of thick meaning, such as social standing and relationships to family and friends. Less obviously, both thin and thick meanings are subject to obsolescence as coarse needs give way to fine, leaving it to the individual to isolate and describe the missing-but-essential elements.

People react to this challenge in different ways. I can think of at least two fairly common attitudes, often compartmentalized:

  1. Nuance is unknowable, sacred, and profaned by tradeoffs – Denies and/or works against atomization by sacralizing already-atomized structures that are too late to preserve; focuses on harms of global cultural exchange and discounts benefits; zero-sum — widespread use of particular element is believed to dilute its “magic” for the “original” users; reflexively opposed to mass produced items.
  2. Nuance doesn’t exist or is unimportant – Assumes connoisseurship is a treadmill, and that everyone more discerning is just being pretentious; reflexively opposed to artisanal/bespoke items.

Related: https://meaningness.com/purpose-schematic-overview

 

*Not actually true. Just a metaphor.

Belonging > innovation

For the past 3-5 years, I’ve been noticing a shift in the quality of culture. I wouldn’t say everything has gotten worse; rather, there seem to be fewer peaks and troughs. Movies, TV shows, and music are all trending toward a sort of stable, vaguely satisfying mediocrity. Probably books too, but I pay less attention to them.

I have a foggy, pre-verbal sense of why this is happening, but I can’t quite see the big picture. The primary drivers seem to be stagnating innovation — likely due to a dearth of aesthetic problems that require new, innovative solutions — combined with an explosion of new ways to belong.

Here are some of the symptoms I’ve noticed:

Fake experimentation – Going through the motions of experimentation, but without a failure condition. The veneer of “being experimental” is itself more important than success — that is, whether or not a new, widely useful artistic invention is discovered — in part because it is harder than ever to invent anything truly new. Luckily, the aesthetic of experimentation enables membership in a similarly-minded group. This is easy to find at any basement show in America.

Recycling – If the need to use cultural objects for social differentiation exceeds the number of unclaimed cultural objects, and creating new things is too hard (because they lack built-in brand recognition or because there simply isn’t anything to invent), it becomes necessary to “purify” existing objects so they can be reused. One way this is done is by adding irony to cliches, a la Rick and Morty. It’s also a component of fake experimentation. By “fixing what ain’t broke,” resources are stretched by making them ugly so they’re undesirable to outsiders.

Unbundling –  Elements formerly only available as part of a unitary object are now sold separately, like nutritional supplements instead of food. Those who only want the competence porn aspect of science fiction (without, say, the romance or character development) can get it from The Martian. Unbundling is evidence of stagnation because “new” demand is for partial versions of already-existing works. It isn’t really new at all. Nonetheless, each unbundled interest equals a new form of belonging in the form of subcultures and fandoms.

Downsides of better sorting – Before the Internet, the luminaries of a geographically local “scene” might remain in that scene longer, strengthening it by inspiring peers. Now talent has no place to hide, and usually prefers not to anyway. Instead, it is snapped up early and put to use by larger entities, leaving the dregs behind to engage in…

Mutually reinforced hobbyism – Easier access to tools (via plummeting cost of gear and software) plus way less low-hanging fruit (no clear path to originality) means almost everybody wants to go through the motions of creativity just enough to be part of a community where they have a defined role. So most cultural abundance looks like “I won’t point out your weak shit if you don’t point out mine.” Socially stable but more ritualized than innovative, it’s the less hip version of fake experimentation.

Tight feedback loops – The Internet doesn’t just connect big fish to bigger ponds, it also connects everything to everything else. This means more community (and consequently closer competition around more specific targets) but less random tinkering in isolation. It also grants access to anything anybody ever made, including a much better version of that thing you’re working on. As it turns out, this is somewhat discouraging.

Voice > exit – There has been a cultural shift away from exit as a response to aesthetic dissatisfaction. It remains to be seen whether this change is due to a lack of aesthetic real estate to exit to, or a broader trend in conflict resolution, or both. Regardless, the trend is toward appealing to existing institutions for desired changes (“Thor should be a woman now”) rather than leaving to do one’s own thing.

Nuance and trade-offs

“You insist that there is something a machine cannot do. If you will tell me precisely what it is that a machine cannot do, then I can always make a machine which will do just that!”

— John Von Neumann

Many aesthetic complaints are about missing nuance. A show about crime scene investigation fails to capture what the job is really like. A fast food burger doesn’t taste like a burger from home.

But the elements that make a particular experience useful on a local scale don’t necessarily make it useful on a global scale. CSI might contain the same basic premise as the real thing — forensic analysis of trace evidence — but it trades veracity for coolness and compelling drama. The writers have to balance the audience’s suspension of disbelief against its attention span. The fast food burger might contain the same beef patty, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, and bun as the home-cooked version, but it trades complexity and freshness — not to mention the one of a kind context of one’s own kitchen and family — for consistency and affordability.

Kitchens make bad assembly lines. The territory doesn’t fit into a glove compartment. To mass produce a representation of reality or a complex sensory experience, some elements have to go. To make chords and maps widely useful, trade-offs are necessary.

One might assume elements that didn’t scale, can’t scale. But the given trade-off is not necessarily the best one possible. That an element is missing may only be an artifact of the technological moment. For example, the fast food of the 1960s was subject to a very different trade-off window than the fast food of now, both in terms of quality and variety. Furthermore, the tendency of television audiences to tolerate — or even prefer — psychological realism and technical details has steadily risen since the advent of police procedurals.

Knowledge of better trade-offs — ones that hold on to as many desired elements as possible — is not centrally or evenly distributed. When presented with a chord or map, I might notice it lacks what I believe to be an essential element. It feels wrong because I believe the trade-off was unnecessary. This assumes I know the conditions of the trade — the window the elements must fit through. Here is an opportunity for aesthetic vigilantism.

True, nuances are hard to articulate — but that’s the challenge. In doing so, the shape of the trade-off window must be respected. Specifying it might cause me to retract my complaint, once I see how it isn’t actionable. Or, if it still seems like an oversight, I can use whatever platform available to me to identify what is missing.

Unfortunately, nuance can feel sacred to some people, effectively blocking better trade-offs. The complainant may want others to have the better experience they envision while simultaneously resisting the sacrifices necessary to mass produce it.

Sometimes nuance provides only very marginal value. Consuming it anyway can act as a costly (and entirely symbolic) display of respect. In these cases, trying to efficiently “get the gist” is a sacredness violation. This tendency is evident in the belief that there are essential subtleties in fictional stories (and other types of art, such as poetry) that cannot be summarized or compressed. Thus the tendency to frown on reading the Cliff’s Notes versions. But, somewhat ironically, knowledge of facts and concepts can be obtained from summaries without shame.

What is the ideal result of absorbing every single nicety? One possibility is magical thinking: if the nuances in question are a particularly good illustration of an underrepresented aspect of the human experience (or of an ignored or oppressed group), then submitting to them fully may be considered a form of tribute — regardless of whether anyone who has had that experience or is from that group ever learns that the full submission took place.

Seeing stagnation, part 2: chords

This post is more unfinished than usual. Here’s what I’m wrestling with:

  • Pizza is a good example of a chord. Pizza is comprised of elements that combine appealingly but don’t describe reality, an excellent conveyance for superstimuli like fat and salt, and clearly bounded by its crust.
  • Pizza is an excellent solution to “many simultaneous complex problems.” Pizza facilitates social bonding by being a communal, handheld food, as well as an uncontroversial preference that nearly everyone can converge on. Pizza is also cheap to produce and, unlike many other forms of fast food (McDonald’s, Chinese) is good hot or cold.
  • Yet this and this seem like evidence that nobody knows how to vertically innovate on pizza. In other words, pizza is stagnant. Yet nobody seems bothered.
  • What would it take for pizza to become obsolete? Obsolescence doesn’t mean low quality — most pizza is already pretty bad. Nor does it mean substitutions that only partially cut into pizza’s territory, such as burritos. Obsolescence means a change in available options that causes everybody to collectively realize pizza is something they’ve been settling for, and don’t have to anymore. So they stop consuming it altogether. Obsolescence is automatic elevators instead of elevator operators, or electric light instead of oil lamps.
  • But how does that apply to pizza? The only unambiguous vertical leap I can imagine for pizza is if humans transcend biological form and food-based sustenance becomes optional.
  • Why should anyone care? The use of gimmicks to distract from disappointing quality (such as the pizza box made of pizza) is a phenomenon that occurs in all aesthetic domains. Does it make sense to call it stagnation? I’m not sure.

Seeing stagnation, part 1

In The Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen argues that certain types of progress have slowed because the low-hanging fruit is gone. For example, the flush toilet led to substantial improvements in quality of life for the first generation to use it, but subsequent generations have gained comparatively less. Toilets that flush faster and use less water don’t measure up to the original leap from the outhouse.

What should we call innovation that feels substantial? According to Peter Thiel:

Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things — going from 0 to 1. Vertical progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done. If you take one typewriter and build 100, you have made horizontal progress. If you have a typewriter and build a word processor, you have made vertical progress.

Vertical progress is what happens when a problem is transcended rather than solved — that is, when an entire solution context is made irrelevant by a form of “superfit.” Stagnation is what happens when this stops happening. In Cowen’s words:

It would make my life a lot better to have a teleportation machine. It makes my life only slightly better to have a larger refrigerator that makes ice in cubed or crushed form.

If it existed, teleportation would revolutionize transportation by unbundling time and distance from travel. Suddenly, concerns about fuel, roads, and collision safety would be optional, freeing millions of man-hours for more important tasks. In comparison, ice choices seem pretty weak.

Admittedly, this shift in perspective feels inappropriate. Whether cubed or crushed, ice that is conveniently dispensed is preferable to ice that must be pried out of trays (which must then be refilled). Comparing dispensed ice to teleportation may seem unrealistically demanding or even ungrateful. Nevertheless, such comparisons are sometimes the best way to express what feels wrong.

If we choose to see it, the same comparative unambitiousness is easy to find in aesthetic experience. Over the next two posts, I will attempt to make it apparent.

Two types of misfit

Imagine a nearly complete jigsaw puzzle. Only one piece is missing, but oddly there are three pieces left to try. The first doesn’t fit. Examining it, you realize it belongs to a different puzzle. Of the two remaining pieces, the first looks like it will fit perfectly, but no luck. Comparing these last two, you find they are nearly identical, except one is a defective copy of the other. You use the non-defective piece to complete the puzzle, leaving only the misfit. This last piece doesn’t fit in its intended spot, or anywhere else. It’s just bad.

A jigsaw puzzle is the ultimate tangible instance of a “solution context”*. The edges of unfilled-in areas provide immediate feedback to the rapid testing of multiple candidate pieces. Different types of misfit are also easy to distinguish. While one might lack an explanation for the defective piece, it’s at least clear that it fails to fit for a different reason than the piece from a different puzzle. It’s also clear that the one of two pieces fits somewhere, while the other does not.

Misfit is easy to detect when it’s as obvious as an ill-fitting puzzle piece, but such obviousness is rare. As the constraints of fit become more complex and abstract, the “edges” of the “gap” in the “puzzle” become increasingly illegible. In many contexts, it can be hard to tell whether misfit has occurred at all, let alone which type.

Consider chairs. To “fit” in a familiar context, a chair must satisfy (at minimum) the following conditions: affordable, easily moved, seat not too high or low off the ground, back support, accommodates human size and weight up to a few standard deviations. Because the solution context of a chair is still pretty concrete, both types of misfit are still fairly obvious. An ornate golden throne fulfills many of the conditions but is not affordable or easily moved. Yet a throne neatly solves the problem of king needing an impressive place to sit and receive subjects — it fits in a different context. A spindly-legged chair made from balsa wood might at first appear to fit, but instead breaks easily, crashing its occupant to the floor. One might argue this chair fits in a comedy context as a breakaway stool for pratfalls, but it’s too obviously flimsy to trick an unsuspecting sitter. It fits nowhere.

Clothing is trickier than chairs. Consider the ironic thrift store t-shirt. Candidate shirts must be broken in but not tattered. They should also fit in the literal sense — baggy can be stylish, but too baggy is bad. More saliently, they should feature text and/or design elements that can be amusingly recontextualized. For example, a shirt commemorating a 1993 insurance company employee picnic, featuring a cartoon hot dog wearing sunglasses and sunning itself. A plain black tee won’t work because it’s devoid of ostentation, yet it’s perfect for bussers and stage crew who need to not stick out — it fits in a different context. But a brand new, oversized shirt with uninteresting colors and patterns, or with bland text that’s impossible to “flip”? These are left on the rack until they finally go wherever thrift store dregs go in the end, unwanted by all.

Finally, a highly abstract problem: the evocation of a subtle (but universal) human experience, specifically the sinking feeling of reality battering against delusional confidence. A good solution should produce a nearly identical experience for every user: cringing relief at not being in the aforementioned position mixed with spontaneous recollection of times when the user was in that position. One famous example is Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. Any one of Daffy Duck’s numerous instances of punished hubris might seem to fit, but are too painless. However, they fit in their own context like a mild but still flavorful version of spicy dish. An abstract metal sculpture titled “The Sinking Feeling of Reality Battering Against Delusional Confidence” stretches the definition of “evoke”. The abstract nature of the solution context makes failure plausibly deniable. If one stands to gain socially from claiming the sculpture evokes the target feeling, then there is incentive to lie about one’s reaction. This sort of dodge would be a lot harder to get away with if it were as concrete as a flimsy chair.

Solution contexts can be ambiguous. If you’re trying to solve A, a great solution to B may seem worthless. But that doesn’t mean that every bad solution to A is actually a perfect solution to a different problem. Some solutions are just bad.

*Thanks to Sarah Perry for this term.

Taste is sensitivity to fit

YOUR TASTE IS BAD AND YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD

Alice and Bob decide to check out a new restaurant. Alice orders the signature burger, which is topped with a fried egg and served on a toasted English muffin. Bob, accustomed to plain patties on a bun with ketchup, is disgusted. To him, the combined textures of slimy egg and crunchy English muffin seem cacophonous. In fact, everything on the menu strikes him as ostentatiously “creative”. He grumpily orders only a side of fries. Noticing this, Alice teases Bob for having bad taste, which he quietly resents. Bob likes what he likes. How can his taste be “bad” if it reliably predicts what will and won’t give him pleasure?

Later, at Alice’s apartment, Alice and Bob argue about what to watch on TV. Alice wants to watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory, which to Bob seems beyond the pale. He derides her bad taste and demands they torrent the latest episode of Nathan For You. Alice grudgingly relents, then squirms and winces throughout. She can’t help wondering if Bob is pretending to enjoy himself in order to seem cool and different. If good taste means preferring discomfort to comfort, how “good” can it possibly be?

Alice and Bob are friends, but sometimes they don’t understand each other’s taste, and this causes conflict. Why?

TASTE IS SENSITIVITY TO FIT

Sarah Perry, once again:

The concept of beauty in diverse domains has a unifying, definitive feature: it reflects the detection of fit between parts of a system. Beauty presents to us as a mystical quale; this is because a beautiful form is a solution to many simultaneous complex problems. Beauty in nature, art, music, architecture, mathematics, and even human faces is a response to the detection of fit.

Ability varies. Just as some people are better at hearing when a musical instrument is properly tuned, some are better at sensing whether a given solution to an aesthetic problem is correct. Just as the phenomenon of fit exists, so does variation in the ability to detect it.

Sensitivity to fit is:

  • Unequally distributed. Those with high sensitivity are often artists, curators, or critics. Those with above-average sensitivity may simply be good cooks and natty dressers. Those with average sensitivity tend to default to whatever solves social problems for them, such as increasing their status. They are unlikely to notice if an aesthetic experience doesn’t work in other ways.
  • Expressed as selection or creation. Most aesthetic problem-solving is just picking the best option from existing choices. But sometimes the best option isn’t good enough, and this may compel those with exceptionally high sensitivity to create something new. Too many subpar burgers might push Alice into operating a food truck that sells her unique recipe. A lack of good TV comedy might propel Bob into writing and producing his own YouTube series.
  • Socially motivated. Lack of interest in a problem can indicate that one is unlikely to benefit socially from solving it. Alice cares about burgers and Bob cares about comedy because both have subconsciously figured out their aesthetic comparative advantage — the stuff they feel valued for knowing better than others in their “tribe”. This advantage can be superficial or even illusory, but it doesn’t have to be. The pursuit of new aesthetic experiences can be like hunting for a new “food” source for the tribe.
  • Not necessarily domain-general. Sensitivity in one area does not guarantee it in other areas. Alice knows burgers, but she may dress functionally and without flair. Bob on the other hand may have generally high sensitivity, leading him to subtly manipulate the aesthetic quality of his environment by surrounding himself with particular objects, colors, even odors. But his choice of burgers belies this.
  • Not the same as understanding. When someone feels strongly about something, but can’t explain why, fights happen. Alice and Bob’s mutual teasing can be interpreted as an attempt to put the other party on the defensive. This way they can avoid the responsibility of arguing for their view.
  • Testable. Those with high sensitivity know the difference between “this works for me” and “this just plain works.”  If Alice and Bob are both employed as burger testers for a large corporation, Alice will consistently output better judgments than Bob about which burger recipes will be popular among a particular demographic. As members of a test audience, Bob will be better than Alice at predicting which TV comedies will be most prestigious.

CLARIFYING TASTE DISPUTES

Now that we see the problem-solving underlying aesthetic experience, taste disputes become less muddy. There seem to be two primary types:

  • “Your problem doesn’t matter.” Problems can be ranked according to different values. For example, if A is closer to being solved than B, then B may be more important. Bob’s preferred burgers are in every supermarket and are therefore easily accessible, while Alice’s preferred burgers are comparatively rare. There may be a way to cheaply mass produce the burger experience she prefers. It follows that attracting attention to the problem is a good idea. Instead of seeing things this way, Alice and Bob dismiss the other’s disinterest as mere bad taste.
  • “My solution will work better than your solution.” Shared problems can have contested solutions. For example, Alice and Bob are in a band together. Alice may not care about comedy and Bob may not care about burgers, but both care about music. Their preferences are pretty similar, so songwriting usually flows naturally. However, they occasionally argue about whether a particular chord progression or lyric will achieve a particular effect. They could A/B test different versions with a select group of fans. Instead the decision is usually made by whoever is more forceful.

Because Alice and Bob don’t see taste disputes in terms of sensitivity to fit, they’re unable to see when their respective sensitivities are similarly sophisticated, if pointed in different directions.  Don’t be like Alice and Bob! Don’t ignore opportunities to find each other interesting.