@jordanmoore: A couple of weeks ago you discussed simulation technology and how we use it to simulate “all we have left: the past”. Do you think designers are harking back to an easier time, when their works were less transient – and that digital is a format where it is difficult to leave behind relics of our work, and provides no assuring sense of longevity?
This is an extremely complex matter that I have been thinking about for the last few months. I am not seeing clear enough to give you a short answer and this is not the place to answer in full, but I’ll give it a shot.
What I know is that this nostalgic trend a lot of people are talking and writing about these days has something to do with that the socio-economic change driven by the analog-to-digital transformation. The main progress that we have made in the last 30 years is not aesthetic or mechanical. What we have seen since the mid-90s is a progress in simulation technologies. Cars look more or less the same, music and fashion is also moving into a state of simulation of what is supposed to be authentic. And often the simulation outperforms the original.
A simulation or a copy that outperforms the original is the basic principle of evolution in design. Progress in design is never a big jump. It is always a processes of copy and improve. Big jumps, as in the advent of the iPhone, are only possible if a lot of that process of copy and improve is kept in the dark. Then it looks like a genius was at work, creating something completely new. But I have never seen any genius innovation out of the blue in technology. The more we learn about Apple’s design process through the Samsung court case, the more we see that in that regard Apple is no different from anybody else.
The absolute masters at copy and improve are the Japanese. And I’m not just talking about Japanese cameras, watches and electronics. A lot of French and Italian restaurants there out-cook authentic restaurants in France and Italy. Not only do they make better food – a good French restaurant in Tokyo tastes, looks and feels more French than most French restaurants in Paris. It is a funny experience. They simulate Frenchness so well, that you feel angry and insulted at first, then you feel sorry for the original. This is not just my romantic impression, Japanese pizza bakers often win pizza world championships. Tokyo has more Michelin stars than Paris. French and Italian tourists get confused when you show them some of these places. While you don’t fully trust this better copy to be really better (especially as a European), after a while you don’t care about original or simulation anymore.
Or take those incredible new old coffee shops in San Francisco. They are evoking an originality and a quality that has never existed before. Coffee in the 70s mostly tasted like shit. And I don’t think that coffee in the 20s was much better than in the 70s. Logistics simply didn’t allow that quality. We actually have much better product quality now than we used to have, but like our grandparents we imagine that once upon a time everything was more solid. We imagine this by looking at the really solid stuff that has survived.
To get back to the question: I believe that the traditionalist trends in music, fashion, and TV, as well as Apple’s use of old metaphors and Microsoft’s return to Swiss graphic design in Windows 8, is a sign of a creative process at its beginning. We are about to experience a back and forth from the digital to analogue that will eventually lead to a different understanding of reality. As different as this future reality is, it won’t necessarily look that ‘new’. It might look like the spoof of that Mad Men episode called The Carousel. When you first look at this, especially after watching the original, it feels ridiculous. You think “something is lost” or “there is no emotion”, but the more you watch the satire the less you will see a difference and realise that the old, analogue reality was as constructed as the digital one. There is no authentic reality and there never was.
As we can learn from that episode ‘new’ always was and always will be a good sales argument.
“The most important idea in advertising is ‘new’. It creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion.”
Advertising is not what it used to be. Classic advertising has become that weird thing from the past. It still kind of works, but it’s becoming more and more obvious how surreal advertisement is. What used to be advertising now is ‘The Web’. The web is how we now make buying choice; the web is where we get our product information. So the promise of ‘new’ doesn’t work that well any more, because:
- Online, things just get old really fast. After the 50th retweet, new is old. And with the right account it takes less than a second to get that 50th retweet.
- ‘New’ is very easy to say, but innovation is very hard to do. A lot of things that used to be sold as new, actually were just old things with a new package. If you promise ‘new’ and don’t deliver, your product will not be seen as “a kind of calamine lotion” but as snake oil.
- The appeal of ‘new’ is part of a modernist bias. That bias is about to become conscious.
I believe that culturally, we are about to witness a capitulation in front of the modern ideology that ‘new’ or technological ‘progress’ is generally better. The above cited same Mad Men clip goes on explaining nostalgia as a “deeper bond with the product”, calling it “delicate but potent”.
The nostalgic trend is not the next ad strategy. And I don’t think that it’s just an escape back to the past. It is as a sign of distrust against the supremacy of ‘new’, that technological progress does not necessarily equal improvement. Progress can mean ‘improvement’, but it can also mean ‘even more trouble’. Whether you ‘believe in’ or ‘accept’ global warming or not – you have probably learned that we cannot escape environmental entropy with more technology. Less, more intelligent technology is a smarter way, but we might fool ourselves there. We do not fool ourselves when we accept that less consumption will lead to less chaos, but that’s much harder to accept than the idea of a deus ex machina that will save us all from the mess we are heading into.
The entropy of the ‘new’ is not a mere technological problem; we witness the same entropy affecting information. The incredible access to information we have does not lead to an overflow of information. But it doesn’t lead lead to more clarity. It leads away from the ‘either or’ ideologies that claim to know for certain which principles human knowledge must follow. The nostalgic trend is in essence postmodern. That everything you say describes a human perspective, not a divine cosm. I used to make fun of the word postmodern; I still dislike it, because the essence of postmodernism is exactly that it is not an -ism, that it has no global belief. But I am quite certain that the nostalgic trend marks the end of modernity. Especially since it treats modernity as something of the past, something that in some ways is desirable, in others not. There is a lot to say here (for instance how hard it is to fool ourselves into our grandparents’ nostalgia of our past that the internet documents in detail), but let’s move on …