Algorithmic Tourism & How Magazines Lost Aspiration

Two new pieces that reflect how digital platforms changed culture.

A work update from me. I published 10,800 words today, representing many, many months of writing. Here they are:

My Own Private Iceland (Vox / The Goods):

My trip to report on “overtourism” in Iceland made me question how we define tourism, and what we think of as “authentic” when we travel. These days, the algorithms of social media and online travel agencies tell us where to go, making tourism more generic and more crowded. Featuring: digital Northern Lights, Viking reenactors turned Game of Thrones tour guides, a nice Airbnb, the Natural Wine Bar Theory of Conflict Prevention, and much more.

The condition of overtourism pressures places to become commodities in the global marketplace the same way we warp our lifestyles to attract Instagram “Likes.” “You have to compete as a brand,” Pálsdóttir tells me. Countries and cities must constantly perform their identities in order to maintain the flow of tourists.

The Transformation of Condé Nast (The New Republic):

A review-essay on a new biography of Condé Nast, the rich man of the early 20th century who launched the magazine empire. Nast used elitism as a business model, projecting an image of aspiration with his “class publications” like Vogue and Vanity Fair in order to sell ads. That business model was destroyed by Google, Facebook, and Instagram, which automated the kind of human tastemaking Nast made his fortune from.

Nast emerges as the first great connoisseur of editorial talent on an industrial scale. He was a curator of publications, editors, writers, photographers, and illustrators, picking up one creative after another and adding them to his collection, keeping them satisfied with promotions and ostentatious perks, which included paying off one editor’s mortgage.

I hope you’ll read one or both of these pieces and please do let me know what you think! More soon.

Algocult: Fragments of media, decentralized, accelerating

TV shows become screenshots become memes without context.

I’m writing weekly dispatches about technology reshaping the ways we create and consume culture. If you like this essay, please hit the heart button above! It helps me reach more readers on Substack. And subscribe below:

I’ve been editing bigger stories all week, which is exhausting, but they will actually come out soon, which is great.

Fragments of Media, Decentralized, Accelerating

In a previous newsletter I wrote about sharing photos of books on Instagram as a kind of communal practice, turning the offline page into a digital, social artifact. Another example of this came to mind: “No Context” or “Out of Context” screenshot accounts on Twitter and Instagram that aggregate shots of TV shows or movies but, obviously, with no other context. They’re just clipped images, appended with dialogue captions that seen on their own are dark, absurd, funny, or #relatable. They screenshots become currency in the online content economy.

Here’s one of Succession, the very popular show about rich people:

The Succession account tweets constantly — way too much, which is why I’ll probably unfollow it soon. But I find these fragments of media interesting as self-contained units. They move the paywalled, gated HBO show out of its home platform and into the wider internet, where the imagery circulates freely. The screenshots refer back to the show and depend on it for meaning — the moment above won’t make sense without knowing the narrative of the episode — but they also exist on their own, literally without context, or in a random context of other content.

While watching Terrace House (a Japanese reality show about domesticity and helping other people achieve their goals, also dating), I started taking my own No Context screenshots and putting them on Instagram.

December 21, 2018

Partly it’s to share the experience in real time with my fellow Terrace Heads, but also because the images make great one-liners. Since the dialogue isn’t Prestige Drama, they can often be hilarious or touching — totally sincere.

Sharing the screenshots is part of the fun of watching the show for me. I’ll pause and rewind repeatedly to catch a good sequence. But there are also Terrace House No Context accounts:

That account also retweets jokes and memes that people make out of the screenshots, adding captions to captions. Repurposing the content is a great game, and I think it’s partly why Terrace House is so appealing: The narrative is as neutral and ambivalent as real life, and so it can be freely applied in our own new contexts, unlike a brooding, moody Succession shot that can only be about billionaires or business or whatever.

As you might expect, there are two pieces of theoretical / critical writing I want to apply to the no-context accounts. The first is, fittingly, Within the Context of No Context by George W.S. Trow, a manic piece of media criticism that first ran in the New Yorker in 1980. In the essay, Trow describes mass-media television as a zone of “no context,” creating its own space in which the rabid, hedonistic, primal soul of America can fester, feeding on meaningless celebrities and scandals:

TELEVISION

Television is the force of no-history, and it holds the archives of the history of no-history. Television is a mystery. Certain of its properties are known, though. It has a scale. The scale does not vary. The trivial is raised up to the place where this scale has its home; the powerful is lowered there.

The internet has even less context, thus perhaps it is even more trivial, or the trivial is given even greater grandeur. This is true, but social media also gives us users more access to the scale of television, allowing us to compete with it by making our own content, taking back control. I also enjoy the match of name: Within the Context of No-Context Accounts.

The other bit is the artist and writer Hito Steyerl’s concept of the “poor image,” as defined in her essay “In Defense of the Poor Image”:

The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.

Steyerl’s essay was published in 2009; in the meantime, the internet has become full of much higher-quality images — digital aesthetics have gentrified, becoming smoother and cleaner, since the days of dial-up piracy. But we still appreciate the Poor Image: screenshots of screenshots, filtered or watermarked memes, shaky smartphone videos.

The no-context accounts are poor images, too, removed from their sources, uploaded to other platforms, captioned and recaptioned, experienced not at all in the way that the original was meant to be. I often think of Steyerl’s dictum, “As it accelerates, it deteriorates,” like a law of digital distribution. Deterioration doesn’t just happen in resolution, it happens in information and contextualization, and the faster it’s spreading, the more loss occurs. The images lose their meaning but gain the opportunity for new meaning in the process.

April 20, 2019

There’s no conclusion here, just something to think about. As we consume media we also make media.

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Algocult: Identifying with the Algorithm

How much does the internet tell you who you are?

I’m writing weekly dispatches about technology reshaping the ways we create and consume culture. If you like this essay, please hit the heart button above! It helps me reach more readers. And subscribe below:

Source

The writer, editor, actress, and onetime fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, one of the few people who actually deserve the title of online influencer, wrote a cover story for New York Magazine about Instagram’s impact on her life. She wouldn’t be who she is without it — social media has brought her fame, income, a sponsored Brooklyn apartment, and a need to carefully regulate her public and private personae. 

What was interesting to me about this essay was the way that Gevinson talked about Instagram, the language with which she described it. She didn’t depict it as a tool that she used or a space in which she published, but instead a kind of world in itself, that mirrored, imperfectly, the her daily reality, or at least her perception of herself. 

Instagram, which gets conflated with “the algorithm” that controls which content gets surfaced most often and becomes most popular, is inseparable from her sense of self. She presents the non-digital self as pure, organic, while the online self is some combination of human and technological, a chimaera: “I can try to imagine an alternate universe where I’ve always roamed free and Instagram-less in pastures untouched by the algorithm. But I can’t imagine who that person is inside,” she wrote.

Part of Gevinson’s solution is to insulate herself from social media, putting a layer between herself and its distortions (I sound like Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, which Gevinson also cites) by having an assistant do the Instagram posting for her. That sounds great, actually! Participate in the digital world, maintain your presence in it, without having to actually interact or invest energy. Maybe we could all just have robots post for us, and then other robots would automate our likes and tell us if there’s anything really important — if someone got a puppy, for example.

Some of the essay’s arguments fall into the category of “digital dualism,” the term Nathan Jurgenson coined in 2011 to denote the (misguided) idea that there is a distinct separation between life online and IRL. The cliche digital dualist complaint is that online interactions aren’t that meaningful, that we can’t have actual friendships or discussions through our screens. 

Gevinson positions her online life and the way that The Algorithm filters both what she publishes and what she consumes as something overly mediated, a reflection she came to not recognize. She’s plenty self-aware enough to realize that she has contributed to this problem, but most people can’t escape it so neatly. If Gevinson is using the essay to claim some of her real self back from the internet, the vast majority of us have no recourse; we are — or are at least treated as if we are — what The Algorithm sees us as.

* * *

One concrete example of the division between the digitized self and the blood-and-guts version: A Chinese woman got plastic surgery that made her unrecognizable to face-recognition software. She immediately had trouble shopping online, checking into her job, and boarding trains, because the systems depended on her pre-surgery digitized identity. This is more drastic than Instagram ennui.

* * *

A viral art project further underlined this point. Kate Crawford and Trevor Paglen’s ImageNet Roulette (you might recognize the green square from… everywhere online this week) was built on an authoritative database of tagged images, ImageNet, that was begun in 2009 to train AI to recognize objects. Its origins are human — its creators hired Amazon Mechanical Turk workers to tag straightforward images with terms like “apple” but also, apparently, images of people with “debtor,” “snob,” “swinger,” and “slav,” among many other offenses. 

ImageNet Roulette allows you to upload a photo of yourself and have the AI judge you, tagging the image with the terms that it thinks apply. The terms also come with elaborate definitions that sound either poetic or grammatically suspect, drawn from the similar database WordNet. I put in a selfie and got: “face: a part of a person that is used to refer to a person — person, individual, someone, somebody, mortal, soul.” My (bearded) friend Mark got “beard: a person who diverts suspicion from someone (especially a woman who accompanies a male homosexual in order to conceal his homosexuality).” 

Somewhere in the dataset this definition was lurking, brought illogically (we think) to the surface. But it had to be put there first. The digital reflection is not neutral: “The whole endeavor of collecting images, categorizing them, and labeling them is itself a form of politics, filled with questions about who gets to decide what images mean and what kinds of social and political work those representations perform,” as Crawford and Paglen write

ImageNet Roulette went viral because it was funny. We’re amused by how The Algorithm fails to recognize us, mistaking people for objects and vice versa. In the moment of laughing at the labels, we’re secure in our humanity, assuaged that we’re still smarter than the machines. Even if online is just as valid as off, there still isn’t a 1:1 relationship between the two. 

But then again, is the self so real in the first place? The more time we spend in algorithmic spaces, the more we come to identify with their distortions.

Other Algocult News

— Amazon’s search function also prioritized its own products, another strike against any perception of neutrality.

— “Free resource of 100k diverse faces generated by AI”: startup guy generates fake people so either you can mimic diversity on your ‘About Us’ page or, do as he plans to and create an “AI model agency.” The faces are mostly uncanny valley nightmares but the dystopia is real.

— Podcast tool Descript comes with Overdub, a feature that lets you synthesize your own voice reading words that you only type. It’s kind of like the autotune of speech but could also easily be very dystopian! I am interested in this kind of “faked” art or media.

— Charlie XCX on how the structure of streaming platforms changes songwriting. There’s “no difference between a mixtape and an album” and fewer gatekeepers, but optimizing for streaming revenue means a very specific style of song: immediate chorus, no introduction, hook at the top.

If you like this essay, please hit the heart button below! It helps me reach more readers. Email me any thoughts or things you’d like me to look into and subscribe here.

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Revealing my book on minimalism

The Longing for Less will be published by Bloomsbury on January 21, 2020

Dear subscribers, 

My book, The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism will be published by Bloomsbury on January 21, 2020. It would be really awesome if you preordered it through any of these websites: 

Bloomsbury / Amazon / Indiebound / Barnes and Noble / Books-a-Million

(It’s currently $17.74 to preorder the hardcover on Amazon and I won’t blame you for taking advantage.)

As you probably know, the more preorders I get, the more the Internet Giants and The Algorithm will pay attention! Advance copies are out now in paperback, but the real fun will come with the hardcover edition, which has a secret you can see in this animation: 

The book’s half-jacket will come off and printed directly on the hardcover is the second half of the abstract shape that Bloomsbury designed in this beautiful muted palette. I really like this because it allows the book to be an ambiguous physical object, something like Minimalist art. Also I always take book jackets off and then lose them, so now you don’t even need to keep it! 

If you’re not convinced by the opportunity to Instagram it, the book’s actual words are very good too, IMO. Rather than a linear history, the book is thematic, split up into four chapters that reflect different aspects of minimalism: Reduction, Emptiness, Silence, and Shadow. On the table of contents you can see how they all relate to one another as parts of a whole: 

I also really like the page spreads between chapters, which each have an image that relates to the text: 

The chapters explore minimalism as a lifestyle of simplicity, an austere visual aesthetic, a way of escaping from overwhelming sensation, and an embrace of ambiguity and uncertainty, respectively. Minimalism isn’t just a style but a way of being in the world. In each chapter there are characters that emerge and recur, including artists like Agnes Martin and Donald Judd; composers John Cage and Julius Eastman; and writers Junichiro Tanizaki and Kuki Shuzo. Both through their work and the way they lived their lives, these people can teach us about what minimalism means and what role it can play today.

It’s also part travelogue through the landscape of minimalism. In the book, I visit Donald Judd’s epic warehouse homes in Marfa, Texas; experiment with sensory deprivation; listen to terrible music at the Guggenheim; and travel through Tokyo and Kyoto, snooping in cemeteries and rock gardens.

Again, it would be amazing if you pre-ordered it. You can also reach out to Sara Mercurio at Bloomsbury, sara.mercurio@bloomsbury.com,  if you’re planning to cover it or make other inquiries. But also feel free to email me with any questions. I tweeted about it here, so you could always RT?

Thanks for everything,

Kyle 

PS: I updated my website with book information and also a long-overdue archive of my writing. Maybe there are a few things you haven’t seen before.

Streaming Television & Nonlinear Viewing

On Netflix, you can start a show wherever you want to, even in the middle of the plot.

If you like this essay, please hit the like button above! It helps me reach more readers.

As I do more of this writing about technology, I’m contemplating renaming the newsletter “Algorithmic Culture” or maybe algocult for short, since everything needs a name. It’ll probably still be under my name, and I’ll promote my book and stories etc (watch out for that newsletter next week) but that is to say, you can subscribe for weekly columns on the ways technology shapes how we create and consume culture. 


Nonlinear Viewing 

There came a moment when Succession, an HBO series about a rich and dysfunctional family competing over the control of a Fox-like media empire, was mentioned so often on my Twitter timeline by so many people whose taste I trust that I had to watch it. It’s not that the show looked bad or I was consciously avoiding it; I was just busy, and definitely conflated it in my head with Billions (one word titles?), which I watched one episode of on a plane and did not enjoy.

So when I had a spare evening, I opened HBO Now and started streaming. But I didn’t begin at season one, episode one. No, I jumped in at the first episode of season two, which is right after the tumultuous conclusion of the first season’s story arc. (I will not spoil it for you, but if you watch season two you will immediately know.) I really liked the show! I went on to watch the other extant episodes of season two, and now I’m watching it in real time with everyone else. I’ve also watched… episodes 7, 8, and 9 of the first season, because the titles or synopses looked good. I still haven’t seen the beginning. 

This nonlinear viewing is a nice thing that streaming lets you do; rather than the old preprogrammed cable channels, you can just choose which show and which part of a show you want to watch. (Linear refers to the real-time nature of old-school TV, the kind you couldn’t pause or skip.) No need to wait for reruns, marathons, or DVDs. Nonlinear viewing disrupts the writer or director’s control over the consumer in an interesting way, leaving us more in command of the story. 

I jumped in at the middle partly because I just wanted to join the social-media conversation immediately, to know what other people were talking about. But it’s also a habit of mine. I pick up books my girlfriend is reading and just proceed from wherever she is. I love watching snippets of movies on other people’s airplane seatback screens, and when I’m watching one on my own, I fast-forward and rewind constantly, turning the story into a messy abstraction. 

I think I do this because I usually appreciate moods and textures more than climactic storytelling or character development. If you flip open a book or start watching a random episode, you might not understand the story, but you will certainly get a glimpse of the pure aesthetic or mood of a thing, removed from all other context. And that’s definitely my favorite part.

I started talking to friends about my newfound Succession obsession, admitting that I hadn’t watched season one. “But Kyle!” they screamed in agony. “Then how would you know about XYZ subtle foreshadowing / precipitating event / great line?” The answer is I don’t, and I don’t care. Plot and suspense are stressful to me and to be avoided in any circumstance. Plot makes me squirm even while watching Big Little Lies, which, to many other viewers, might seem aimless and ambient. Plot apathy is why I love watching Terrace House, a very slow Japanese reality show about almost nothing.

By starting in the middle, I can avoid getting caught in the trap of trying to anticipate what’s coming next (which to some people is the point of TV, I guess). It spares me a bunch of exposition but provides the puzzle of figuring out what did already happen. When I feel like it, I can go through the back catalog and have everything explained. 

Succession also suits this way of watching because it’s not a show with a ton of subtlety. It has lots of detail, but subtlety, maybe not. The action is pretty literal. The characters constantly reiterate to the viewer what’s going on. (“Roman is trying to do what??”) Its joy is in its textures, the sharp jabs of dialogue, theater-like blocking of scenes, and sumptuous sets — whatever mansion they’re in this week. I prefer focusing on those pleasures rather than the inevitable question of who’s going to take over the family business. 

We should embrace nonlinear viewing as a form of resistance to the automated Content Funnel. Netflix wants you to just start at the beginning, like a normal person. But other worlds are possible! 


Other Algocult News 

— The search algorithm in Apple’s app store privileges its own products. So much for being unbiased.

— Google decides to make its Google News surfacing algorithm emphasize original reporting, like the sources of scoops, rather than aggregation or commentary. 

— Universities are admitting students and giving out financial aid “using sophisticated predictive algorithms, of what the student is worth to the college and what the college is worth to the student.”

— The clothing retailer Stitch Fix automates personal style, offering “algorithmically generated outfits” for the clothes you buy. (See also my essay Style Is an Algorithm.)

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