I still remember the first time I held an iPod. I was 11 or 12, around the age where an identity emerges. My family liked music but nobody lived their life through it. No epic vinyl collection or “you gotta listen to this," just a modest combination of car radio, Beatles, the odd musical, and some orchestral albums that felt like church clothes. The iPod, in contrast, was a revelation.
That Christmas my sister unboxed a relic from the future. I felt it's unexpected heft and learned what the word "luxury" meant. I stared at myself in the mirrored aluminum casing, which conducted my body heat back to me as I held it. There was an enigmatic apple with a suggestive bite in the side, and when my fingerprints smudged the surface, I wiped them away with some small relish, “polishing" it. Then there was the click-wheel. I’d never reckoned with something so novel yet intuitive. Scrolling through menus it gave off a satisfying *click* at a rate that synched with my thumb’s movements flawlessly. I thought, "How could a screen know what was happening on this physical surface?"
Again, I was young, hadn't ever owned a walkman or anything like this. It didn't matter that the iPod was full of my dad's oldies and church music. All that mattered was that I could scroll through a near-infinite number of songs—click, click, click, *tap*—and be dropped into a mood. In an instant, the headphones soaked my mind in sound and gave my living room this rich, cinematic backdrop. It was magical. I could manipulate reality with my thumb.
20 years later and that iPod has matured into a dense and teeming knot in our pockets. Our personal portals to the pandemic, post-truth reality; where software eats the world, the future's disappeared, and our home-is-work lives have forced us to brood ever-inward.
We need to release our anxiety valves. And not just hedonistic escapes—that seems too rash at a time like this—but something more wholesome, something that Comforts or Soothes or Satisfies.
While the "oddly satisfying" niche has existed on reddit since the early 2010's, it was 2016's inflection point that commodified it. Now we feel gentle taps from our smartwatches reminding us to breathe. We doomscroll past Instagram ads for calming therapy apps. Grow flowers on our Nintendo Switch. Watch people bite softly into pickles in their bedroom studio. Marie Kondo-ize our apartments into centers of domestic zen. Buy Lincolns from a crooning, smirking, meandering Matthew McConaughey.
Or why not skip reality altogether and just stare at abstract pastel shapes squish, slice, plop, bounce, build up, break down—don't bother with a narrative, just throw us into a vapor-wave factory for toddlers and wake us up when it's over.
Aldous Huxley was right in predicting the
but he had no idea just how weird it'd get. The smartphone, with all it's color-coded swiping, pinging, and buzzing, has trained us all to be synesthetic. We **feel** the agitated glare of headlines and outrage, and we must retreat to the maternal comforts of muted pink gradients and
-inspired digital interfaces.
Rose Gold to Cheeto Orange
More than enough has been written about the millennial aesthetic, but Molly Fischer's examination stands out for its style and wit. Looking at our interior and digital design trends, she breaks down the "tasteful design" of our 2010's and points out the follies of escapism, naiveté, and cookie-cutter Bauhaus as a substitute for innovation. She doesn't blame millennials. To her these traits seem inevitable for a generation who entered adulthood under-employed, over-stimulated, and armed with a magical sense-amplification device for seeing and being seen.
“It kind of feels like a binky,” Deborah Needleman, the former editor of T, WSJ., and Domino, says of millennial interiors. (Boob-print pillows and bath mats are perhaps the most literal expression of a general tendency toward the comforts of babyhood.) Needleman sees not a trip to Greece but something more like childproofing. “It’s like it has no edge or sense of humor or sense of mystery,” she says. “There’s no weirdness. There’s nothing that clashes. It is very controlled.”
It is a constantly self-conscious sensibility, that of someone who is always performing, always watching themselves be watched: Maybe that was once primarily the condition of women, but it seems increasingly to apply to us all.
While the early-aughts flooded us with brands trying to imitate the sheen of Apple's aspirational design minimalism (e.g. HOPE in bold Gotham type), the Trump-Netflix-Covid America calls for something more intimate, cluttered, populist, meme-worthy. Twitch channels' messy maximalism scoffs at Insta's tidy boxes of brunch. Tik-Tok kids point phones directly at their desperate faces—a literal 180° shift from the 30-somethings' filtered vacation pics. It's as if the glare of the social media stage has caused us all to implode into sincerity. Even "high-brow" cultural commentary is moving from the town halls of MSM/Twitter/Facebook to privately branded chats and newsletters.
Venkatesh Rao coined some useful phrases for this shift. The term "premium mediocrity," describes the posturing of our WeWorks, Kardashian-wannabes, and venture-backed bland-brands. They've become blasé and try-hard. Looking to the future, he describes "domestic cozy" as our retreat from this trend. Explaining:
It finds its best expression in privacy, among friends, rather than in public, among strangers. It prioritizes the needs of the actor rather than the expectations of the spectator. It seeks to predictably control a small, closed environment rather than gamble in a large, open one. It presents a WYSIWYG facade to those granted access rather than performing in a theater of optics.
It's interesting that Rao called out "domestic cozy" in 2019, the year before Covid hit a giant refresh button on our domestic lives. Now everyone must re-think Home. Now the well-heeled urban professional is fleeing the city—like some concrete, gentrified carapace—leaving poorer [ethnic] groups to fight over the scraps. Now families, once cushioned by the bumpers of school and friends and work, live hermetically-sealed under one roof. Covid has pressurized our relationships to the point of welding together jagged-wise or breaking away into solo pieces of shrapnel.
Public interiors don't exist in 2020, so "wholesome outdoorsy" stuff is about all we can do to escape the home-work-internet complex. National parks—usually filled with international tourists and Asian tour-buses—are now filled exclusively with Americans, all of us scrambling around the country's homeland in search of summer truths before an ominous November reckoning. Since then the symbolism's only gotten clearer: Labor Day saw the West in flames (sparked by some combination of climate change, incompetence, and a gender-reveal cannon) painting our sky the color of a Cheeto spray-tan.
Big tech faces more scrutiny than ever. With physical reality shrinking, our digital ecosystems have flourished in the gaps. The workplace faces a permanent redesign, as we gag on phrases like "zoom town" and "pandemic pod" to describe the reshuffling. Every financial news headline is about unemployment, dumb plebeian Robinhood investors, or which tech mogul's net worth leaped over the others' today.
Douglas Rushkoff, author of books with titles like "Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus," unleashed a trendy rant about privileged techies getting into their escape pods and "pulling up the ladders." He connects the physical privileges afforded by wealth (i.e. the ability to isolate) with the digital escapes these techies built in order to pay for this privilege.
But Rushkoff misses the real pivot that's happening. He still sees a person staring into a phone as a person cut off from society, as opposed to what it really is: a person connecting to society by different vectors. He writes: "The more advanced the tech, the more cocooned insularity it affords....After all, it’s an iPad, not an usPad." Which makes you wonder how many of his readers came across his essay on an iPad.
After all, "the future is here, it's just unevenly distributed," and I would argue that it's not even that unevenly distributed anymore. All the "digital escapes" he speaks of are quite affordable to anyone. Jeff Bezos and I have the exact same access to music, movies, books, podcasts, prestige TV, ideas, games, and the myriad of internet communities sprouting up everywhere. Our current
is a populist's dream, and we're so focused on what we lack (status, time, attention), that we forget the infinite riches at our fingertips.
Rushkoff sources a useful metaphor from 70's psychedelic guru Timothy Leary:
“They want to recreate the womb.” As Leary the psychologist saw it, the boys building our digital future were developing technology to simulate the ideal woman — the one their mothers could never be. Unlike their human mothers, a predictive algorithm could anticipate their every need in advance and deliver it directly, removing every trace of friction and longing. These guys would be able to float in their virtual bubbles — what the Media Lab called “artificial ecology” — and never have to face the messy, harsh reality demanded of people living in a real world with women and people of color and even those with differing views.
But his analysis only tells one side of the story. To say technology has helped us avoid the reality of marginalized groups is to ignore the gigantic tonal shift of social media this summer. The image of a cop kneeling on George Floyd's neck has jolted the national conscience around the issues of police brutality, social inequality, and the flaws of white-run capitalism. These tough conversations are happening because every citizen has an iPhone camera.
Of course information silos exist (they always have and always will). Online bullies exist. Liars exist. Digital escapism exists. Meme presidents. Meme-demics. Meme warfare. But in times like these, some truths bear repeating: 1. the tech is already out of the bag, it can't go back in and 2. these tools are only as moral as the people using them. It's unfortunate that the first president to "get" social media happens to be Trump, but now that we all know the playing field, we can play the game better.
So let's lean into the good, obviously. Go ahead and design those cozy and calming connections. Perhaps this trend of "satisfying" is a sign of maturity on an internet whose early years never saw an adjective so tame. Let's bond with people outside our physical vicinity and ordinary social circles, explore any and all curiosities we have about the world, and dive deeper into our collective imaginations.
We are designing a digital womb. But is it an escape, or a rebirth?
“A creature that hides and “withdraws into its shell,” is preparing a “way out.” This is true of the entire scale of metaphors, from the resurrection of a man in his grave, to the sudden outburst of one who has long been silent. If we remain at the heart of the image under consideration, we have the impression that, by staying in the motionlessness of its shell, the creature is preparing temporal explosions, not to say whirlwinds, of being.”
Banner GIF: Paul Esteves
Images: Blade Runner 2049; directed by Denis Villeneuve, cinematography by Roger Deakins
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