At SXSWi this year, I attended a panel titled “The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices” that featured Aaron Cope of Stamen Design, Ben Terrett of the UK Government Digital Service design dept., James Bridle and Russell Davies of Really Interesting Group, and Joanne McNeill of Rhizome. The idea was simple — computers were reinventing our world with things like Google Maps. The program read: “We are becoming acquainted with new ways of seeing: the Gods-eye view of satellites, the Kinect’s inside-out sense of the living room, the elevated car-sight of Google Street View, the facial obsessions of CCTV.”
From that has sprung a manifestor of sorts from Bruce Sterling that was posted on Wired. Like all manifestos, this one is long, but Sterling outlines a series of criteria for “The New Aesthetic”:
Next, the New Aesthetic is culturally agnostic. Most anybody with a net connection ought to be able to see the New Aesthetic transpiring in real time. It is British in origin (more specifically, it’s part and parcel of a region of London seething with creative atelier “tech houses”). However, it exists wherever there is satellite surveillance, locative mapping, smartphone photos, wifi coverage and Photoshop.
The New Aesthetic is comprehensible. It’s easier to perceive than, for instance, the “surrealism” of a fur-covered teacup. Your Mom could get it. It’s funny. It’s pop. It’s transgressive and punk. Parts of it are cute.
It’s also deep. If you want to get into arcane matters such as interaction design, computational aesthetics, covert surveillance, military tech, there’s a lot of room for that activity in the New Aesthetic. The New Aesthetic carries a severe, involved air of Pynchonian erudition.
It’s contemporary. It’s temporal rather than atemporal. Atemporality is all about cerebral, postulated, time-refuting design-fictions. Atemporality is for Zenlike gray-eminence historian-futurist types. The New Aesthetic is very hands-on, immediate, grainy and evidence-based. Its core is a catalogue of visible glitches in the here-and-now, for the here and for the now.
It requires close attention. If you want to engage with the New Aesthetic, then you must become involved with some contemporary, fast-moving technical phenomena. The New Aesthetic is inherently modish because it is ferociously attached to modish, passing objects and services that have short shelf-lives. There is no steampunk New Aesthetic and no remote-future New Aesthetic. The New Aesthetic has no hyphen-post, hyphen-neo or hyphen-retro. They don’t go there, because that’s not what they want.
The New Aesthetic is constructive. Most New Aesthetic icons carry a subtext about getting excited and making something similar. The New Aesthetic doesn’t look, act, or feel postmodern. It’s not deconstructively analytical of a bourgeois order that’s been dead quite a while now. It’s built by and for working creatives.
It is generational. Most of the people in its network are too young to have been involved in postmodernity. The twentieth century’s Modernist Project is like their Greco-Roman antiquity. They want something of their own to happen, to be built, and to be seen on their networks. If that has little or nothing to do with their dusty analog heritage, so much the better for them.
Claims of novelty aside, every element of Sterling’s request screams games. In particular, this piece:
A sincere New Aesthetic would be a valiant, comprehensive effort to truly and sincerely engage with machine-generated imagery — not as a freak-show, a metaphor or a stimulus to the imagination — but *as it exists.* The real deal, down to the scraped-metal chip surface, if necessary.
For most of my life, I’ve been interpreting digital reality as a piece of my actual one through playing games and it’s nice to see the conversation has since coalesced into the beginnings of a generational identity. Read the entire thing here.