It’s amazing how much talk an ill-thought-out concept can generate when it comes in the form of a PowerPoint lecture. That’s part of the appeal of “The New Aesthetic,” a term coined by designer James Bridle and discussed by thousands of internet nerds over the last month. Ever since SXSW hosted a panel on the subject and Bruce Sterling produced a 5,000-word response for Wired, a day’s hardly passed when I haven’t seen mention of this so-called burgeoning movement.
The New Aesthetic, as Bridle tells it, is the new merging of physical and digital, a kind of cybernetic vision with the sudden confidence to throw out all this nostalgia we’ve been trucking around for the past few decades. It isn’t so much a movement as it is a tumblr paired with a lecture circuit. I mean that literally: Bridle’s blog by the same name hosts image after image of supposed instances of the “New Aesthetic”, from pixelated giftwrap next to an unpixelated child to pixelated water spewing from a pipe on the street. The connecting thread is what Bridle sees as a reaction against nostalgia. “We need to see the technologies we actually have with a new wonder,” he explains in some of the sparse text provided. Bridle doesn’t notice that many of the images posted carry their own nostalgia for the 8-bit era.
A few links to keynote speeches he’s given are offered up on the about page on his blog, thus completing the sum total of thought Bridle’s put together to discuss this movement. None of the Powerpoints say much, and the designer’s propensity for making overblown statements fuels the talks. “I’m going to try and talk through some of the symptoms of… this project, this way of seeing,” he tells his audience during a keynote at Web Directions South. The New Aesthetic “is itself about ways of seeing,” he adds portentously.
This special vision is defined as both a state of transition that suggests a “coming into being”, and an interest in making the invisible visible—or, as Sterling dubbs it, an “eruption of the digital into the physical.”
Cue the onslaught of Powerpoint images. We see Douglas Coupland’s seemingly rasterized pixel Orca, a tumblr that showcases photographs of people holding up photographs of the location they’re at, and a data center in West London that’s designed to look like a computer process. “There’s an insistent futurism of wanting to see these representations coming into the world and becoming real” he tells us.
Well, sort of. At this point our image archives are so complete that we’re used to scrolling back and forth on virtual timelines; the future is just one end of a spectrum we’re constantly toggling.
Bridle’s Web Directions South lecture concludes with the hint that “The New Aesthetic” is also somehow related to artificial intelligence. “Technology wants to be like us, and we kind of want to be more like it,” declares Bridle, before going on to describe his proposed culture as “these new beings.” This is a little much for work that up until this point had just seemed like a puffed-up description of contemporary life, but so be it. We all want to believe we’re participating in a world that’s improving upon itself somehow, and lectures like Bridle’s allow us to believe that for a moment. In another instant, though, we’ll return to what we’re doing, and forget all about it.