In the New Aesthetic, the digital is inescapable

The digital is inescapable. We are physically pierced by invisible data streams from expanding wi-fi networks, cell phone signals, and a steady pulse of electromagnetic radiation thousands of time per day. A typical workday would be impossible without an Internet connection. Let’s face it; this is a digital world; we just live in it.

Digital CherryBryan Ochalla

A painting of pixelated cherries from the game Pac-Man.

On/Trac

Robert Jackson: The Banality of the New Aesthetic 

Off/Trac

Bruce Sterling: An Essay on the New Aesthetic  

And in a rare twist, art imitates life.

The New Aesthetic is a London-inspired corralling of trends in design, art, and the visual around a new rubric characterized by a blurring of the “digital” and the “real,” the physical/tactile and the virtual/streamed. Think of pixelated water flowing from exposed pipes; splinter camouflage on jet fighters; or Autotuned singers. Having so thoroughly permeated the everyday, the “digital” is telling us now what art is. What is displayed and created by the machine is now perceived and consumed by the human.

For the New Aesthetic triumphalists, this is a glorious new future. The New Aesthetic is a real, tangible, and inescapable metaphor of our collective appreciation for the deep, historical shifts in the way human society interacts with and engages in technological labor.

Perhaps the greatest expression of the New Aesthetic will be the (practically inevitable) coming pervasiveness of Google Glasses that will — in many ways, literally — blur the lines between the “real” and the “digital.”

The biggest claim that the New Aesthetic seems to make is that it is somehow “culturally agnostic,” something akin to a universality, approachable and approached by all. Its champions cite the ubiquity of the digital in the real. We — the collective, human “we” — supposedly all experience the blurring of the lines with equal force, with equal impact.

This is complacent in two major regards.

While global digital consumption is a rising trend, exactly how one experiences the digital is uneven. The New Aesthetic assumes that the visualizations of data the West has championed will somehow instill a new aesthetic ethos around the world. This misreads the global patterns of digital use and habits.

The Internet has in many ways failed to establish itself as the Global Commons. While it has definitely become far easier to get in touch with people across the world, it’s also become just as easy to ignore them. Aside from the few dominant portals and the cookie-cutter template sites of multinationals where the world begrudgingly congregates, the global citizenry self-segregates along linguistic and, frequently, national lines. Entire thriving communities can exist bit-to-bit with each other and yet have very little cross-cultural communication. There have been no new flowerings of tightly-bonded, mutually-appreciative communities like those envisioned by political scientist Karl Deutsch. While the facility to communicate is there, the desire to do so is often lacking.

The New Aesthetic movement also boldly claims that, thanks to that same cultural agnosticism, “anybody with a net connection ought to be able to see the New Aesthetic transpiring in real time,” as though the technological means by which one participates in the Aesthetic is, somehow, objective and neutral.

But it is impossible to imagine a technology that is not already cultural. Especially with computers, technology is cultural. The visual cues, memes, and activating connections we interact with in virtually every electronic context presuppose an already-existing cultural mode.

While certain aspects of the digital world function cross-culturally, how the digital is subsequently interpreted and repurposed belies cross-cultural differences. Compare the seeming clutter of a Korean portal to the austerity of a similar American site.

The New Aesthetic wants to hypothesize an essentialized human, bounding off the technological, as if the confluence of the digital and physical is somehow novel. This is particularly outrageous and artificial given that the human is always technological in relation to her tools — where there are people, there will inevitably be some means by which that person interacts with the “natural” through an external object.

This is not to say that the New Aesthetic might not eventually become universal. (And, perhaps, not in the canonical Western-derived fashion it seems to be reliant upon right now. Can it not be imagined that, say, an Indian-dominated digital commons might depend on and communicate via a series of Indian-generated memes and cues?)

A New Aesthetic might be culturally agnostic in that a new culture, possibly more inclusive, is rising to complement (or displace) the one individuals are born into. After all, there are no immediate barriers to joining after the first technological one is overcome.

Yet as it stands, there is a history one must learn to participate in the New Aesthetic. The current obsession for the authenticity of 8-bit graphics, a nostalgic glimpse at “the way things used to be,” might be culturally alien to the technological leap-froggers of the Rising World — why would the tech-savvy global citizen of the industrializing powers recognize Pong or Space Invaders when the first computer they will ever use features a quad core?

The currently-defined New Aesthetic is only available and accessible to individuals who have participated in this history or are at least aware of it. It is agnostic in that it's easier to get into this — given that the information can be translated instantly by Google or viralized through Facebook — than it is for the global citizen to understand the minutiae of Bhutanese ritual or Scottish idioms.

It's also agnostic in the sense that the global citizen can, theoretically and eventually, choose to participate in it. There are no identifiable barriers that completely restrict one from, say, taking part in the development of the Chinese-web driven vernacular. That the New Aesthetic is, for now, driven by a Western-centric baseline culture does not preclude it from adopting a new face as the digital comes to mean different things to different people.

But exactly what view of the digital life art will imitate has yet to be decided.

Aaron Wee is a policy analyst in the green energy industry and an editor at Radio Open Source. He holds a master’s in political science from Brown University. He was formerly an editorial intern at Partisans.