Epistemic status: political, opinionated, personal, all the typical caveats for controversial posts.
I was talking with a libertarian friend of mine the other day about my growing discomfort with the political culture in the Bay Area, and he asked why I didn't just move.
It's a good question. Peter Thiel just moved to L.A., citing the left-wing San Francisco culture as his reason.
But I like living in the Bay, and I don't plan to go anywhere in the near future. I could have said that I'm here for the tech industry, or here because my friends are, or any number of superficially "practical" reasons, but they didn't feel like my real motivation.
What I actually gave as the reason I stay was... aesthetics.
Let's Talk About Design
I'm not a designer, so I probably don't have the correct vocabulary to express what I see. Please bear with me, while I use simple and ignorant language; if any of my readers have a more sophisticated understanding, I'd love to hear about it in the comments.
Stuff that's marketed to Bay Area bourgeois bohemians has a coherent appearance. You see it in websites that are all smooth scrolling and gradients and minimalism -- see the sample websites on Squarespace, for instance. You see it in the product design on the labels and menus of cafes and juice bars and coffee shops -- The Plant Cafe is a good example. You see it in the almost-identical, smoothly minimalist layouts of every tech-startup office.
Professional designers may be getting bored of this "light-contrast, minimalist elegance" or "objectively beautiful, but mostly unremarkable, templates", and are trying out more deliberately jarring styles like Brutalism.
But for your typical consumer, the generic California/BoBo style works fine. It signals elegance, which means, more or less, that it's designed for educated, high-Openness, upper-middle-class, urban people. When I enter a space or a website with this aesthetic, or buy a product with this branding, it's shorthand for "Ahhhh, this place is run by competent professionals who know how to give me a pleasant experience. I will not feel harried or inconvenienced or confused here; I will be well taken care of. I will easily be able to slot my existing behavior patterns into the implicit "rules" of how to use and navigate this place or device or website."
Apple products are, of course, the archetype of this kind of "good" design. Smooth, urbane, almost childishly easy to use. Most computers are still PCs; office workers, older people, hardcore programmers and gamers, and the price-conscious still go for PCs. It's among the style-conscious (who skew affluent, educated, aesthetically/socially sensitive, and slightly more female than male) that Macs are universal. When I asked a Marine from Texas what kind of computer he used, he scoffed, Do I look like a Mac guy?
Let's look at one of my favorite things to buy, G&T's Kombucha.
This is pretty much the most BoBo thing in the world. Its packaging makes a nod to Buddhism ("Enlightened", the mandala-like radially symmetric logo), psychedelia (the rainbow label), Human Potential Movement-ish self-improvement ("SYNERGY" and "renew, rebalance, rebuild, reclaim, rekindle, recharge") and environmentalism ("organic"). But the design is simple and clean enough to seem like a modern company run by professionals.
In this case, it's not just a pretty label: the probiotics in fermented foods like kombucha are probably good for you, kombucha is lower in sugar than juice but pleasantly tangy and fizzy, and in my experience it's uncannily good at settling an upset stomach. But the branding is a big part of what makes it delightful. And, I'm almost embarrassed to say, being able to buy kombucha at the nearest drugstore is a non-negligible part of why I like living in this neighborhood.
I have a friend who's very good at digging up evidence of crime and scam artistry. It's part hobby, part crusade; give her a public figure and she can investigate with great speed and accuracy what kinds of shady dealings he's been involved with.
Once, she showed me some companies she had proved were fraudulent, and my first reaction was "I could have told you that in seconds; their web design looks scammy."
Of course, it's not really the same thing. She had hard evidence; I only had an intuition, and intuition can be wrong.
But, for instance, this penis enlargement website just looks noisy. It's jam-packed with content, it's screaming about sales and deals, there's a bright red "Buy Now" button with a ticking countdown clock. It's not classy. Even if you didn't know anything about the product, you could see that it's being packaged (pun intended) much differently than this website selling relationship workshops.
But my friend, like a lot of nerds, couldn't see that difference in branding at a glance. She couldn't see the difference in connotations that different aesthetic choices evoke. She was almost completely style-blind.
Some people claim that aesthetics don't mean anything, and are very resistant to the idea that they could. After all, aesthetic preferences are very individual. Chinese opera sounds beautiful to people raised with it, and discordant to the untrained Western ear.
So, claim the skeptics, all descriptions of what aesthetic choices "mean" are basically pseudoscience. When design experts tell us that red evokes passion and blue evokes calm, they're using associative thinking, which is no more fact-based than the Four Elements or the five colors in Magic: The Gathering.
Clustering things based on associations and connotations is risky. It's going to differ from individual to individual, and even more from culture to culture. It's easy to take intuitive leaps for granted and quickly get to the point where people are talking past each other. So it's safer just not to talk about what aesthetics connote, right?
To my view, the skeptics have a good point, but they're too epistemically conservative. There's obviously signal being carried through aesthetics. Colors don't have intrinsic meanings, of course, but they do have shared connotations within a culture.
Note that the M:TG color "meanings" and the design/marketing color "meanings" are very similar -- not because everyone is tapping into some magical collective unconscious, but because Magic is a game designed in contemporary America, by designers who probably share the same color associations as the designers of websites and product labels.
When Pantone says their 2018 color of the year, Ultra Violet, "communicates originality, ingenuity, and visionary thinking", they're not just making up random nonsense. Pretty much any present-day English-language "color meaning" summary for designers or marketers will associate purple with something like creativity or imagination or spirituality. I don't know where this meme comes from originally, but it's certainly not unique to Pantone or chosen at random.
Our physical environment is built primarily by corporations which employ designers. Those designers draw inspiration from artistic or creative subcultures. Design has a life cycle in which it starts as an original aesthetic trope being used by some individual artist, to being imitated by other artists, to becoming trendy, to becoming ubiquitous. Tastemakers may be a tiny minority of the population, aesthetics may not be a big deal for everyone, but everything manmade you see around you has its origins in someone obsessed with aesthetics. Designers "rule" our visual world in the same way writers "rule" our verbal world, in the same way that "practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." In this sense, aesthetics very much mean things, and you have to look to their origins and contexts to understand what they mean.
This essay, worth reading in full, calls the process "subcultural sublimation" and tracks how Pantone's 2016 colors, Rose Quartz and Serenity, drew inspiration from seapunk (a musical subgenre with an online visual aesthetic). Seapunk aesthetics propagated through fashion blogs, the NYT style section, and pop stars' music videos, all the way to the Pantone Institute, which sets the tone for fashions in mainstream commercial design. The popularity of pastels began with feminist artists interrogating softness and femininity, propagated through Tumblr "aesthetic" blogs, and likewise eventually reached Pantone. Aesthetic tropes are "commodified" over time; they drift from artistic or countercultural milieux towards corporate branding.
Mostly implicit in the article, but worth mentioning, is that commercial design ultimately borrows from creatives who are politically opposed to business and resent this commercial appropriation. More on that later.
If you're style-blind, you'll look at Rose Quartz and Serenity and say "they're just colors! they don't mean anything! all this cultural criticism is just pretentious noise!" If you're mildly style-sensitive, like myself, you'll notice that the colors seem Tumblresque, and you'll note that Pantone's description makes a nod to "gender blur" and "societal movements toward gender equality and fluidity". If you're actually an expert, like the author of the article, you can concretely trace where the popularity of that color scheme came from.
"Subcultural sublimation" runs on ordinary, non-magical cause and effect, the propagation of memes from their originators towards mass popularity. It can be understood and analyzed. You can isolate where aesthetic tropes come from, why they're used, what their creators believe, and what channels govern their imitation and spread -- and that tells you something about their "meaning" that's not purely subjective.
Politics and Aesthetics
Artists tend to be on the political left; arts and media occupations are among the most heavily weighted towards Democrats over Republicans.
It's not clear to me why. Maybe it's a temperamental thing -- high openness to experience drives both an interest in aesthetics and a preference for left or liberal politics. Maybe it's explained by education, which both inculcates interest in the arts and left politics. Regardless of cause, it's a real and important phenomenon. And it's a problem for anyone who's not on the left, as Rod Dreher, the original CrunchyCon, pointed out years ago.
Beauty matters to people. So does health and emotional wellbeing. So does everyday kindness. Living well, in other words. Quality of life. You can't cede all of that to the opposing political team without losing something valuable.
Rod Dreher points out that, while, say, organic vegetables are coded liberal, they also taste better and are healthier than processed food. Yet conservatives often have a knee-jerk condemnation of anything "green" or "pretentious", which means they're boxed into being cultural philistines who miss out on flavor and beauty and health.
“It’s a PR disaster for the Right to allow discussions of fun and beauty and poetry and nature to be owned by the Left,” says a New York publishing executive and closet conservative. “The right wing just looks unappealing. Do they not understand this?”
If you like the arts, if you're temperamentally high-Openness and aesthetically sensitive, you're going to be drawn to coastal cities and educated social groups, and those environments tend to skew left-wing. It's hard to leave without giving up something intangible that's hard to convey to people who don't share your sensibility.
Dreher, a conservative Catholic who values tradition, can with some justice argue that beauty and art properly belong to his culture; after all, it was Catholics who built the cathedral of Chartres.
Libertarians are, if anything, in a tougher position, because we're not traditionalists, and because strong individualism runs counter to even being able to talk about shared cultural sensibilities. Ask a libertarian "Why don't we have any good songs about our values?" and there's a good chance that you'll get the response "Ew, who'd want one? That's too collectivist for me."
But the result is that you're living in an aesthetic environment that's largely created by your ideological opponents, and subjected to constant subliminal messaging that your values are uncool. This causes an evaporative cooling effect where the only people willing to express libertarian views are "style-blind" and sometimes even socially blind, people who do not perceive that they are being mocked or that their aesthetic signaling is clumsy.
It's hard to argue to a skeptic why this even matters. Why care about aesthetics and culture? What do you care what other people think? Surely an independent-minded person would simply refuse to succumb to social pressure -- and the cultural connotations of aesthetics are inherently relative to social context, so maybe the best way to keep your independence is to choose style-blindness as a cognitive strategy. What you can't see, you can't be manipulated by!
But I think it's unvirtuous to choose blindness or ignorance. And it's also ineffective. What you can't see can sneak up behind you. People who think they're immune to social pressure get manipulated all the time.
Scott Alexander is honest enough to admit that it happens to him:
Sometimes I can almost feel this happening. First I believe something is true, and say so. Then I realize it’s considered low-status and cringeworthy. Then I make a principled decision to avoid saying it – or say it only in a very careful way – in order to protect my reputation and ability to participate in society. Then when other people say it, I start looking down on them for being bad at public relations. Then I start looking down on them just for being low-status or cringeworthy. Finally the idea of “low-status” and “bad and wrong” have merged so fully in my mind that the idea seems terrible and ridiculous to me, and I only remember it’s true if I force myself to explicitly consider the question. And even then, it’s in a condescending way, where I feel like the people who say it’s true deserve low status for not being smart enough to remember not to say it. This is endemic, and I try to quash it when I notice it, but I don’t know how many times it’s slipped my notice all the way to the point where I can no longer remember the truth of the original statement.
Now, I could say "just don't do that, then" -- but Scott of 2009 would have also said he believed in being independent and rational and not succumbing to social pressure. Good intentions aren't enough.
And I'm seeing people in roughly my demographic going silent or submitting to pressure to conform, and it's worrisome.
I think it's much better to try to make the implicit explicit, to bring cultural dynamics into the light and understand how they work, rather than to hide from them.
There are a number of defensive strategies people (of varying political views) adopt against the cultural dominance of the left.
Reaction is what, say, Ann Coulter does, or Breitbart.com, or the Donald Trump campaign. It's defiantly anti- progressive, rejecting the "mainstream media" and "coastal elite" tastemakers. It's happy to be perceived as tacky and rude.
The problem with reaction is that it has no positive vision. It's just "the opposite of what my opponents want." It's uncreative and it can easily descend into spitefulness.
Respectability politics is a different tactic, and, in this context, usually takes the form of (not very credible) claims to be apolitical. Early forms of this include "Keep Your Identity Small" or "Politics is the Mind-Killer." By declaring the importance of not taking sides, you're already asserting that you're not wholly on one side; a progressive can reasonably infer that any avowedly "apolitical" person disagrees with them at least somewhere.
Claims of aloofness from politics have always, correctly, been identified as evidence of covert dissent from "good" politics: "formalism" was a political offense in Soviet Russia. There are many thinkpieces like this one observing (rightly) that Silicon Valley culture is nominally apolitical but implicitly capitalist.
And then you see obviously defensive moves by the tech industry to distance itself from that allegation, like YCombinator's announcement of its New Cities project:
Just to get ahead of the inevitable associations: We want to build cities for all humans - for tech and non-tech people. We’re not interested in building “crazy libertarian utopias for techies.”
Once you have to defend against a stereotype, you're already losing the messaging war. As with reaction, there's no positive vision, only the frantic assurance that you're not really the bad guy.
Cooptation doesn't seem to be that popular, and might be underrated.
It's a kind of judo where you claim to be the true exemplar of the goal your opponents want. They hate capitalism? Well, you note that what most people think of when they hear that word is crony capitalism, which is indeed terrible, and that you are bitterly opposed to the system in which unfair legal privileges give vast wealth to a few and deprive everyone else. C4SS does this, quite well in my opinion, but hardly anyone outside of libertarian-world has heard of them.
It's still not fundamentally creative, though. You're borrowing your opponents' tropes and aesthetics, not building your own. And if you get too good at it, you end up being easily confused for believing things that you don't actually believe.
The Opposite of Defensiveness
One of the things I like best about Ayn Rand is that she staked out aesthetic and cultural territory without resorting to any of these defense mechanisms. She actually made art that was fundamentally in a different style than that of the cultural establishment. Of course, this left her vulnerable to the allegation that it was bad art -- there are 52 million Google results for "ayn rand bad art."
But most of the common criticisms -- of black-and-white thinking, didacticism, utopian optimism, overly heroic characters, and so on -- are based on implicit presumptions about the nature of life and the role of art which she explained (or, at least, began to explain) why she did not share. She brought the dissent into the light, into explicit discourse.
If you take something about yourself that's "cringeworthy" and, instead of cringing yourself, try to look at why it's cringeworthy, what that's made of, and dialogue honestly with the perspective that disagrees with you -- then there is, in a sense, nothing to fear.
There's an "elucidating" move that I'm trying to point out here, where instead of defending against an allegation, you say "let's back up a second" and bring the entire situation into view. It's what double crux is about -- "hey, let's find out what even is the disagreement between us." Double crux is hard enough with arguments, and here I'm trying to advocate something like double-cruxing aesthetic preferences, which sounds absurdly ambitious. But: imagine if we could talk about why things seem beautiful and appealing, or ugly and unappealing. Where do these preferences come from, in a causal sense? Do we still endorse them when we know their origins? What happens when we bring tacit things into consciousness, when we talk carefully about what aesthetics evoke in us, and how that might be the same or different from person to person?
Unless you can think about how cultural messaging works, you're going to be a mere consumer of culture, drifting in whatever direction the current takes you.
The Arts and Imitation
Let's go back for a moment to subcultural sublimation.
Artistic trends have a life cycle, of creation, expansion, and destruction, or more specifically, the artist, the marketer, and the critic. First, the artist creates a new thing. Then, a succession of tastemakers and creatives imitate that thing and scale it up, from a subcultural scene to mass-market production. Finally, the critic notices that it's become commoditized (in the literal economic sense: if it's exactly the same everywhere and anyone can copy it, its price goes to zero) and deflates the hype.
This isn't specific to the arts, of course. Companies are created, expand, and eventually succumb to competition. Empires are founded, expand, and succumb to invaders. It's a human-organization pattern.
But expansion in particular is enabled by mechanical reproduction processes dating to the Industrial Revolution. We can systematize "scaling up" much easier and faster than pre-industrial peoples could.
Commerce is ancient -- in different times and places, trade has been more free or less so, and it became somewhat more free in the West with the introduction of classical liberalism and economic theory at the end of the 18th century, but trade itself is as old as the first anatomically modern humans, living 300,000 years ago.
Invention is ancient -- the Greeks had it, including more advanced science than modern stereotypes would assume. Archimedes probably knew calculus.
What's modern is scaling-up, the ability to make many copies of things, from physical objects to social systems. That's what allows for mass culture. That's what allows startups to grow exponentially. For the past two hundred years or so, we've been living in an era where the expander of the reach of a creation is more powerful than ever.
Expanders sometimes like to present themselves as creators, but they're not. The creator makes the first prototype, the original. No scale at all. "Zero to one." In fact, creators often resent expanders for taking credit for their work or diluting it for the mass audience. This is why seapunk artists were frustrated at being imitated in music videos:
also, why aren’t y’all frustrated AT ALL at the rihanna thing? that performance marked the commodification of an aesthetic movement…— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)…which means all taste-makers have to start all over. it’s a lot of work. clearly ur not doing shit but consuming if ur not peeved by this— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)“wow amazing rihanna performance i love seeing my tumblr on SNL” why? that Aesthetic served as an exclusive binder for URL counterculture…— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)…tomorrow, when it enters Phase Three and Forever 21 puts a price tag on it, it will no longer be exclusive. its purpose is gone.— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)
My own addition to the pile of theories on "why don't creative professionals like capitalism?" is that creators feel defrauded by expanders, and the core of modern capitalism is superpowered expanders. Expanders capture most of the economic value and social credit from scaling up things originated by creators. Expanders are sociopaths, in the "geeks, mops, and sociopaths" trichotomy.
And we don't really have good tools for fairly compensating people for intellectual originality. Intellectual property law is a kludge, with a lot of problems. Creators don't really know how to extract "fair market value" for ideas, possibly because they're intrinsically motivated to create them and the kind of "payment" they want is more like appreciation or kindred-spirit-ness than money. Standard startup ideology says that ideas are of low value: "If you go to VC firms with a brilliant idea that you'll tell them about if they sign a nondisclosure agreement, most will tell you to get lost. That shows how much a mere idea is worth. The market price is less than the inconvenience of signing an NDA." That may be true, but you could also interpret it as markets not knowing how to price ideas, in the same way that markets can't price natural resources until you figure out a way to define property rights over them.
So, whenever you encounter a piece of media -- words or images or music or anything representational -- no matter how many levels of imitation or expansion it's been through, you're still hearing some distant signal from its originator. And its originator probably feels ripped off and undervalued. When you go looking for good art, you're looking for art that's closer to its creative source, and that means you'll hear in it the voice of the frustrated creator.
In a sense it's inherently paradoxical to enjoy something like G&T's Kombucha -- it's a product produced by a process (scaling-up) which the hippies who inspired its aesthetic would have vehemently opposed. To like it knowledgeably is to partly dislike it.
I think there may be some kind of necessary project in the vicinity of "making amends between creators and expanders" that would be required for creative work not to have the dynamic where scaling up is seen as selling out. I think scaling-up is probably net good -- it allows more people to have nicer things. But there may well be legitimate grievances with it that deserve to be addressed. That's another one of those cases where dialogue and making the implicit explicit would be really helpful.
From a perspective of economic efficiency, you could argue that art production is inefficiently low because artists can't capture the value they create. But I think there's a stronger opposite effect where people get fooled by survivor bias into making art anyway, which makes art production inefficiently high. (For example, unsuccessful musicians are everywhere.) It might be better for society to add incentives against creating art, so people switch to other pursuits more likely to make them and others happy.
The inability-to-capture-value problem isn't just for art, it's for basically everything. The idea that even monopolistic profit maximization gets that big a percentage of surplus is based upon all the customers being similar. For my favorite art (including music, movies, TV shows, books, blogs, etc), even I paid 'full retail' for all of them, I'd be paying multiple orders of magnitude less than my consumer surplus for them, which is why I don't worry too much if 80-90% of my purchases (in both time and money) are duds.
There are two issues then. One is that the vast majority of marginal artists are not actually live to create something of net value, and producing more bad art is actively bad since it takes mindshare and market from good art, so taxation on the margin might still be good. So I think it comes down to how well-sorted artists are here. If the marginal artists are the ones on the verge of quitting tax is good, if not tax is bad.
(The other is that the same inability-to-capture applies to almost everything else that isn't very commodified. I think I mostly bite that bullet and say that yes, we don't properly encourage (and often actively discourage) doing non-commodity things that produce value, and that's sad, with art just being a special case of that.)
Crowdfunding approaches as seen e.g. in Kickstarter or Patreon have recently made it a lot easier for artists to capture significant amounts of value for their efforts. (This could still be supplemented though, e.g. via after-the-fact prize awards for especially impressive art.) It's interesting to think of what comparable approaches may be applicable to goods and services that are very much unlike art, and where value may nonetheless be hard to capture efficiently.
gwern made a similar argument in "Culture is not about Esthetics":
Let’s look back on the argument:
1. Society ought to discourage economically inefficient activities.At least, it ought not to encourage inefficiency. It may not do this perfectly, but this is still a desiderata; special pleading for some activity, saying that some other activity or market is far more economically inefficient, is not a good reason.
2. If some good a can be created to fill a need, and there is an existing & available good b that fills that need equally well, then it is economically inefficient to use a and not b.
3. Consumers of new art would be equally satisfied by existing art.
4. By 2 & 3: it is economically inefficient to produce new art.
∴ By 1 & 4: Society ought to discourage new art
In short: old stuff is as good as the new, and it’s cheaper; so making new stuff is wasteful.
A pattern of Bryan Caplan's work is to demonstrate, much like Hanson does, how observed human behaviour can be modeled as rational, but we often don't notice, and the reason why is because the cause of the observed behaviour is a truth we don't want to admit about ourselves. This is what gets you conclusions like how it's rational for people not to vote, or the real reason most Americans pursue post-secondary education is mostly to acquire a credential for signaling purposes. The first part of Caplan's heuristic is to find an alternative explanation for observed behaviour at first perceived to be irrational. If we follow the assumption human behaviour can be modeled on some level, even if individuals aren't always aware of it themselves, as a rational economic agent with some value function, goals or whatnot.
This is what comes to mind when I read Gwern's explanation. It could be the case people are acting perfectly rational in their consumption of art because there is some value in how people consume art that isn't accounted for in prices or current economic explanations. It could just as easily be the case the professional art world is full of pieces selling at inflated prices for all manner of silly reasons. That is the prevailing hypothesis of anyone I've ever discussed the subject with.
Unless you consider variety to have its own value, which I do. I disagree with just about all of that post's fundamental premises.
I don't think society should discourage economic inefficiency, at least not beyond the inherent discouragement that comes with unprofitability; I agree that unprofitable activities shouldn't be actively subsidized, but I don't see why they should be actively suppressed either. If someone had a lot of money to burn and wanted to fund some vanity project with no real artistic value, or just decided to give money to writers and painters and filmmakers to do whatever they wanted even if it had no public appeal, I don't see anything wrong with that. And if instead of one independently wealthy sponsor, it was several thousand fans contributing $20-50 each for a studio to make a new season of the trashy show they liked, all the better.
And I certainly don't think that people would be meaningfully better off with a smaller variety of art to consume, even if it meant a higher proportion of better quality are. I consider plenitude of options to be a good thing in itself. Besides, quality is extremely subjective anyway, which means that at least some people would be left with less art that they personally consider enjoyable.
But the assertion that I find most objectionable is the idea that people waste too much time consuming art and media already. Let people do what they want.
Unless you consider variety to have its own value, which I do.
Unless you consider variety to have its own value, which I do.
Yes, but does most new art really increase variety, in a broadly-acknowledged sense? It's not at all clear that it does: even most of the OP is about how art- and design tendencies are getting more uniform rather than less, and variety is if anything being done away with. I think if we truly care about variety, by far the best bang for the buck is had by promoting availability of existing works from previous eras, and to some extent (especially in new media where there isn't as much of a history to draw from) by specifically encouraging new art from less-represented geographical locales, social groups, political outlooks and the like. But this is not what usually happens when we subsidize new artworks.
That's a fair point, and I agree with both of your solutions: We should promote the availability of works from past eras, and encourage more new art from underrepresented cultures and groups. But I don't think there's any need to discourage or reduce the creation of new art overall. There seems to be a concern that truly beautiful works of art will get buried under a flood of disposable pop culture trash and forever lost in the glut. I'll admit there might be some truth to that, but for the most part, I think it's a greatly overblown fear. Shining jewels are bright enough to stand out on their own merits.
Also, I don't really want a world where all art is high art. There are times when I'm in the mood for low art, sometimes I just want to sit back and enjoy some shallow comedy or mindless action movie. I enjoy a good steak, but that doesn't mean I never want to eat hamburgers or cold cuts again.
"Low vs. high art" is indeed a key dimension of variation, and both have a role to play in a complete arts ecosystem. For that matter, sometimes it is really hard to place works of art on the ''low vs. high" spectrum: for instance is a still life painting "low" or "high" art? Historically it was considered the lowest-status genre of them all in visual art, yet in practice, 'still lifes' heavily feature values such as symbolism and abstraction in their settings, that are very prominent, indeed even distinctive, features of "high" art!
It might be better for society to add incentives against creating art, so people switch to other pursuits more likely to make them and others happy.
It might be better for society to add incentives against creating art, so people switch to other pursuits more likely to make them and others happy.
That assumes that all the reward from art comes from the success, but many forms of art are pleasing in themselves, hence therapeutic art.
Yeah, society might be spending the right amount of effort on art for personal pleasure. But I still think it spends too much effort on creating art for sale, judging from how many people are trying and failing to sell their art, not just create it...
This post kills me. Lots of great stuff, and I think this strongly makes the cut. Sarah has great insights into what is going on, then turns away from them right when following through would be most valuable. The post is explaining why she and an entire culture is being defrauded by aesthetics. That is it used to justify all sorts of things, including high prices and what is cool, based on things that have no underlying value. How it contains lots of hostile subliminal messages that are driving her crazy. It's very clear. And then she... doesn't see the fnords. So close!
Could you expand on this? What are the fnords?
Double crux is hard enough with arguments, and here I'm trying to advocate something like double-cruxing aesthetic preferences, which sounds absurdly ambitious. But: imagine if we could talk about why things seem beautiful and appealing, or ugly and unappealing.
My work is basically about this; extracting aesthetic preferences from people (and S1 based inside views more generally).
I haven't done specifically artistic aesthetics, but most thinking relies heavily on aesthetics about which problems are interesting or important, ways of behaving, ways of thinking about the world, what counts as 'simple', etc. If you want to resolve disagreements about big things, you're going to have to wade into aesthetics.
What's most unappealing to me about modern, commercialized aesthetics is the degree to which the bandwidth is forced to be extremely high - something I'd call the standardization of aesthetics. When I walk down the street in the financial district of SF, there's not much variety to be found in people's visual styles. Sure, everything looks really nice, but I can't say that it doesn't get boring after a while. It's clear that a lot of information is being packed into people's outfits, so I should be able to infer a huge amount about someone just by looking at them. Same thing with websites. There's really only one website design. Can it truly be said that there is something inherently optimal about these designs? I strongly suspect no. There are more forces at play that guarantee convergence that don't depend on optimality.
Part of it might be the extremely high cost of defection. As aesthetics is a type of signalling mechanism, most of what Robin Hanson says applies here. It's just usually not worth it to be an iconoclast or truly original. And at some point we just start believing the signals are inherently meaningful, because they've been there for so long. But all it takes is to look at the different types of beauty produced by other cultures or at different points in human history to see that this is not the case. The color orange, in silicon valley, might represent "innovation" or "ingenuity" (look at Tensorflow's color scheme), but the orange robes of Buddhist monks evoke serenity, peace and compassion (but of course the color was originally dependent on the dyes that were available). However, one can also observe that there is little variety within each culture as well, suggesting that the same forces pushing towards aesthetic convergence are at play.
The sum of the evidence suggests to me that I am getting an infinitesimal fraction of the possible pleasant aesthetic experiences which could feasibly be created by someone given that they were not subject to signalling constraints. This seems deeply disappointing.
There’s really only one website design.
There’s really only one website design.
Which one is that?
I think he's talking about minimalist websites.
Surely there’s more than one way to design a website in a ‘minimalist’ way?
This comment is only tangentially related to the post, in particular, to the first 15 or so paragraphs of it.
Marin County, the part of the Bay Area in which I live, doesn't have outdoor advertising except on buses, on less than a dozen bus shelters (all of which are within 100 yards of highway 101) and on the property (the retail location) of the firm whose product or brand is being advertised.
Of course people's aesthetic responses vary, but for me personally, my being spared from most of the outdoor advertising I'd be subjected to if I lived in another suburban or urban location in the US, e.g., Berkeley, dwarfs all the aesthetic considerations mentioned in the first 15 or so paragraphs of this post about where to live. (Not that the aesthetic considerations in this post are not worthy of discussion.)
I still feel some desire to finish up my "first pass 'help me organize my thoughts' review". I went through the post, organizing various claims and concepts. I came away with the main takeaway "Wowzers there is so much going on in this post. I think this could have been broken up into a full sequence, each post of which was saying something pretty important."
There seem to be four major claims/themes here:
I basically agree with each claim, although each of them depends on some vague assumptions that are hard to check empirically.
Meanwhile, here's my overall summary of this post's claims:
Overview of Aesthetics and Style Blindness
Politics and Style
Arts and Imitation
Replying to the intro topic instead of to the actual topic: “light-contrast, minimalist elegance” is exactly what the lesserwrong interface is not.
One reason sites have this problem is that designers want to be Doing Something. Nobody gets a promotion based on a web interface that is good because it's easy to ignore. Nobody gets the satisfaction from making a boring interface as they do from making an exciting one, and nobody gets the praise. Because nobody wants to not be noticed, even if the best interface is one that doesn't have to be noticed.
Nobody gets the satisfaction from making a boring interface as they do from making an exciting one
Nobody gets the satisfaction from making a boring interface as they do from making an exciting one
I beg to differ!
I make absolutely no claims about the extent to which I’ve succeeded in this with any of the things I’ve made, but my goal is, and has always been, to create what Mark Weiser called “calm technology”. Weiser said:
The most profound technologies are those that disappear.
The most profound technologies are those that disappear.
If you don’t notice a UI, but simply do what you want to do, and barely (if ever) think of using a tool rather than doing a task—that is the ideal.
And while this may not be at all the dominant trend in the industry, I am by no means alone in my views. Some designers get great satisfaction out of creating things that are (mostly) unnoticed!
Following this xkcd, it seems natural that lots of designers (most designers?) "get great satisfaction out of creating things that are (mostly) unnoticed" (or else these designers aren't satisfied with their jobs). In a world where so much *is* designed, it would be exhausting to notice all the details.
there are 52 million Google results for "ayn rand bad art."
there are 52 million Google results for "ayn rand bad art."
Interestingly, today I get only 5 million hits on that search, and 4 of the top 6 hits are from Objectivist or pro-Rand sources that I take to be defending Rand's theory of aesthetics.
I... don't know exactly why I think this post is important, but I think it's really quite important, and I would really like to see it clarified via the review process.
I think this post was one of the posts that changed my mind over the last year quite a bit, mostly by changing my relationship to legibility. While this post doesn't directly mention it, I think it's highly related.
This post... may have actually had the single-largest effect size on "amount of time I spent thinking thoughts descending from it."
The concept of "Aesthetic Doublecrux" shifted me into a paradigm I've been exploring ever since. I've had an "Aesthetic Doublecrux" post sitting unfinished for over a year – unfinished because I kept struggling to make the point I wanted with it. I eventually decided it was more important to first write up background thoughts on "general doublecrux", and eventually on Noticing Frames.
I'm still quite uncertain about how to think about the relationship between aesthetics and explicit reasoning, but am fairly confident there's something important in that space. I'd like to have a principled way to adjust the degree to which I find something disgusting, or beautiful, because those seem to drive a lot of my other thinking.
Ask a libertarian "Why don't we have any good songs about our values?"
This is a tangent, but Sons of Liberty by Frank Turner.
Re-reading this for review was a weird roller-coaster. I had remembered (in 2018) my strong takeaway that aesthetics mattered to rationality, and that "Aesthetic Doublecrux" would be an important innovation.
But I forgot most of the second half of the article. And when I got to it, I had such a "woah" moment that I stopped writing this review, went to go rewrite my conclusion in "Propagating Facts into Aesthetics" and then forgot to finish the actual review. The part that really strikes me is her analysis of Scott:
Sometimes I can almost feel this happening. First I believe something is true, and say so. Then I realize it’s considered low-status and cringeworthy. Then I make a principled decision to avoid saying it – or say it only in a very careful way – in order to protect my reputation and ability to participate in society. Then when other people say it, I start looking down on them for being bad at public relations. Then I start looking down on them just for being low-status or cringeworthy. Finally the idea of “low-status” and “bad and wrong” have merged so fully in my mind that the idea seems terrible and ridiculous to me, and I only remember it’s true if I force myself to explicitly consider the question. And even then, it’s in a condescending way, where I feel like the people who say it’s true deserve low status for not being smart enough to remember not to say it. This is endemic, and I try to quash it when I notice it, but I don’t know how many times it’s slipped my notice all the way to the point where I can no longer remember the truth of the original statement."
Sometimes I can almost feel this happening. First I believe something is true, and say so. Then I realize it’s considered low-status and cringeworthy. Then I make a principled decision to avoid saying it – or say it only in a very careful way – in order to protect my reputation and ability to participate in society. Then when other people say it, I start looking down on them for being bad at public relations. Then I start looking down on them just for being low-status or cringeworthy.
Finally the idea of “low-status” and “bad and wrong” have merged so fully in my mind that the idea seems terrible and ridiculous to me, and I only remember it’s true if I force myself to explicitly consider the question. And even then, it’s in a condescending way, where I feel like the people who say it’s true deserve low status for not being smart enough to remember not to say it. This is endemic, and I try to quash it when I notice it, but I don’t know how many times it’s slipped my notice all the way to the point where I can no longer remember the truth of the original statement."
Where she responds:
Now, I could say "just don't do that, then" -- but Scott of 2009 would have also said he believed in being independent and rational and not succumbing to social pressure. Good intentions aren't enough. [...]I think it's much better to try to make the implicit explicit, to bring cultural dynamics into the light and understand how they work, rather than to hide from them.[...]If you take something about yourself that's "cringeworthy" and, instead of cringing yourself, try to look at why it's cringeworthy, what that's made of, and dialogue honestly with the perspective that disagrees with you -- then there is, in a sense, nothing to fear.There's an "elucidating" move that I'm trying to point out here, where instead of defending against an allegation, you say "let's back up a second" and bring the entire situation into view. It's what double crux is about -- "hey, let's find out what even is the disagreement between us." Double crux is hard enough with arguments, and here I'm trying to advocate something like double-cruxing aesthetic preferences, which sounds absurdly ambitious. But: imagine if we could talk about why things seem beautiful and appealing, or ugly and unappealing. Where do these preferences come from, in a causal sense? Do we still endorse them when we know their origins? What happens when we bring tacit things into consciousness, when we talk carefully about what aesthetics evoke in us, and how that might be the same or different from person to person?Unless you can think about how cultural messaging works, you're going to be a mere consumer of culture, drifting in whatever direction the current takes you.
Now, I could say "just don't do that, then" -- but Scott of 2009 would have also said he believed in being independent and rational and not succumbing to social pressure. Good intentions aren't enough. [...]
This seems like a key point. I haven't quite refactored it into an "open problem" or "question", but I perhaps feel a bit like Brienne, noting something like "Thinking in terms of 'what are the big open questions' is daunting, but this area feels really interesting as well as important and fruitful."
I know this post is intended for a Bay Area audience, but that stated for readers outside the United States reading about politics is confusing. The words "liberal" and "conservative" mean moderately different political ideas in Western countries aside from the United States, and "libertarian" and "socialist" mean very different things in other countries, especially outside the Anglosphere, than they typically connote in the U.S. Americans typically mean by "capitalist" what other Western countries mean by "capitalist", since we all live in capitalist societies. I assume most readers on LessWrong know that the stereotypical use of "socialist" to generically mean "big government" is inconsistent with the meaning of "socialist" everywhere else in the world, which suffice to say refers to a type of "big government" not specified in typical American usage of the term. Maybe some Americans use "capitalist" to refer to "crony capitalism" and "socialism" to refer to a "mixed-market economy with much more regulation and nationalization of industry than we currently have". Depending on who you ask, those are just two types of state capitalism. Of course the United States isn't the only part of the world where people lose all the original meaning of political terminology. It definitely feels like when a lot of people say "capitalism", they're using it as a boo light to castigate whatever "big multinational corporations" or "the American empire" are currently doing.
This is all to say for non-American readers like myself, it's confusing to read of this pretense of Silicon Valley as apolitical instead of inherently capitalist when from the outside it looks like almost every institution is unambiguously capitalist to begin with. I know some American libertarians might joke the U.S.A. is already a socialist country, but real conversation is limited when the definitions of terms as we use them in context aren't pinned down and made common knowledge. The optimal solution to synchronizing definitions/usage of political jargon hasn't been found yet. LW really doesn't need more kinds of jargon to deal with though.
You should look at Raemon's recent post The Steampunk Aesthetic. In particular, he has a somewhat less flattering take on Apple's design philosophy.
Your post reminded me of this article, which touches on a lot of the same points, albeit with a bit more vitriol for a certain kind of anti-aesthetic libertarian: https://fee.org/articles/against-libertarian-brutalism/
Regarding the question of why are artists usually left wing. IMHO the best theory of political left and right is the thrive/survive theory. Art is quite clearly a "thrive" thing.
Except the thrive/survive dichotomy applies to conservatives and liberals in the classical sense, not the economic right and the economic left. And by that standard, libertarians are firmly in the liberal category, even if their right-wing economic views are more commonly associated with conservatives in modern times. Even the rhetoric that right-libertarians use to justify their economic policies is distinctly different from - and in some ways, diametrically opposed to - the rhetoric that conservatives use to justify the same or similar policies. Conservatives tend to focus a lot more on scarcity and have a very survival-of-the-fittest interpretation of capitalism, whereas the libertarian view of capitalism is centered more around the idea that a rising tide lifts all ships. (To use a MtG color wheel analogy, conservatives have a Green/Black view of capitalism, while libertarians have a Blue/Red view of capitalism.) That's not to say that libertarians don't recognize the value of competition, or that conservatives don't care about economic growth and technological progress, but there's certainly a huge difference in emphasis there.
I think the real reason there's such a shortage of distinctly libertarian art is simply because libertarians are a fairly small group, and also fairly disorganized/decentralized, so they just don't have the cultural influence that left-liberals or conservatives do. Although it's also worth pointing out that a lot of mainstream media does have strong anti-authoritarian and individualist undertones that I would consider to be libertarian in nature, even if it wasn't specifically created for the sake of promoting libertarianism.
The thirve/survive dichotomy quite clearly does apply to economic right and left, inasmuch as economic right is about creating better incentives (in its more humane manifestation) or survival of the fittest (in its less human manifestation) whereas economic left is about helping the poor. If you believe you have to survive, then there is no slack to help others, and free loaders endanger everyone. If you believe you can thrive, then you can afford to be generous. Where does it leave libertarians I don't know (probably there are different kinds of libertarians), and it might be that indeed there are few libertarians artists just because there are few libertarians. But I think that the thrive/survive theory definitely does explain why most artists are left wing rather than right wing.
Most libertarians I know believe that a more 'right-wing' economic system will help the poor, along with everyone else. Libertarians generally don't tend to worry about "freeloaders" the way conservatives do, which is why they mostly focus on government regulations and corporate welfare, while conservatives mostly focus on social welfare. When libertarians do take a stand against social welfare, it tends to be less about freeloading and more about welfare programs creating perverse incentives (e.g. discouraging people who want to work but would lose their benefits and be worse off if they did). Just look at the difference between libertarian and conservative arguments against the minimum wage. Conservatives will go on about how uneducated burger flippers don't deserve $15, while libertarians will focus a lot more on the fact that increasing the minimum wage will just make it harder for people to find work and make poor people worse overall.
Libertarians largely fall on the 'thrive' side of the thrive/survive spectrum. They might be closer to the middle than the far-left redistributionists, but so are moderate center-left liberals. The only difference is, unlike the center-left crowd, they see government intervention as the main obstacle preventing people from thriving.
Most libertarians who support social welfare (often in some unconventional form, like negative income tax or the citizen's dividend, but whatever) do so because they understand that people vary widely in their ability to sustain themselves via market work, and that providing people with a minimal standard of living regardless of such ability (which is really more about 'surviving' than 'thriving'!) is a widely-shared value that ultimately has to be acknowledged. Conservatives tend to be skeptical about these claims in some way or another, but even libertarians don't actually think that one can design a social welfare system which won't deeply impact incentives and make people more likely to freeload.
FYI, I'm skeptical about people drawing conclusions about "most" in contexts like this. I do think there's _something_ to the distinction you're making but I when I see statements like the ones in this thread my immediate question is "are they basing this off large surveys of self identified libertarians and conservatives, or on 'who I run into in my filter bubble?'" which I think are very different questions.
Sure, but my claims weren't actually about libertarians and conservatives in general, only the fraction among them who support and oppose social insurance, respectively. It doesn't actually take much formal evidence (that is, evidence that also reaches a high 'admissibility' standard - which 'who I run into in my filter bubble?' might not!) to show that sizeable such groups do exist, or to talk about their ideas.
Part of it is just semantics, really. In contemporary times, "art" tends to be connoted as left-wing, while "design" and "craft", which occupy much of the same space, as apolitical or even loosely on the 'right'. Wiewing website design as "art" as opposed to a "craft", or even just one design activity among many, isn't quite a value-free choice!
In my country "design" is definitely associated with left wing politics. The difference between "art" or "design" and "craft" is, the former is concerned with aesthetics whereas the latter is only (or mostly) concerned with functionality. This also makes the former a "thrive" thing and the latter a rather neutral thing.
A lot of pre-modern was performed anonymously and for a greater cause -- icon-painting, cathedral-building and so on. The artist as a high-profile "star" is something modern societies seem to have invented, perhaps as a substitute priesthood for progressives.
I don't quite disagree, but "modern" can be a somewhat confusing term. William Shakespeare lived during what is now called the early modern period, and he was far from a "star" among his contemporaries; more importantly, even very notable men of letters who lived at the same time seem to only have been 'notable' among a highly restricted elite, and artists themselves were even lower status. It is really only with the industrial age (and related developments in culture, available media and the like) that it makes sense to start positing people in the arts (understood in a broad sense) as high-profile 'stars'. There was definitely a sense of a "substitute priesthood" in the service of broadly secular values, but I'm not sure if I'd call that "progressive" in any real sense, since ideas of individualism and self-reliance were in fact quite influential, in a way that would be regarded as quite anti-"progressive" these days.
Late to the game, I read the book...
‘But: imagine if we could talk about why things seem beautiful and appealing, or ugly and unappealing. Where do these preferences come from, in a causal sense? Do we still endorse them when we know their origins?’
There is! These deeper answers lie in the work of architect Christopher Alexander. I found out about him some years ago on Hacker News so he is known in this part of the memosphere. His most general work seems to be the four volume ‘The Nature of Order’. I think he was even a core influence to the development of Wikipedia. Alas, I wish he were still more widely known.
Please look into The Nature of Order because I am about to paraphrase and I am only a pianist. His theory describes that which touches the heart by adding to our notion of all of space and that which we call life. All of space is full of centers of activity, a coordinate in your brain will have exponentially more interconnected centers than the coordinate in the air a foot in front of your face does, although the space in front of your face is not empty and is to some degree alive. So is a beautiful house, a small town, craftsmanship, a good piece of art, they are alive and life affirming. Biology has co opted the word life to be restricted to complex groupings of centers that we call organisms but what if all space was on the spectrum of life? Space that is not an organism may not be as alive or have as much agency as an organism but it plays an important role in supporting life or being life affirming. How do we fit in? Humans can enhance space, can organize centers to be more life affirming by following our heart. A well thought out, tended and mature garden or a meadow that is lightly cared for is more alive than an overgrown patch of woods. A slum full of people living authentically is more alive than a McMansion development. Eliezer has referred to us as probability optimizers and Christopher Alexander’s nuanced take on that is that which touches our heart guides our probability optimization to create more life and/or order space to be more alive or life enhancing.
The problem is that we are losing our ability to connect to the heart because of the increasing division of labor in the modern world. Think about the craftsmanship of the past and how it was almost always good, because the process by which it was created was more human, more connected to the heart of an individual. But when something is produced by an endless chain of subcontractors we begin to fill the world with stuff that is not from the heart, WalMarts and paperclips. While that which touches the heart is usually a foo foo, mystic, taboo term, Alexander has formalized these phenomena in his work. There is math!
The extreme ends of the political spectrums are glorified paper clip generators but we do have a super power that the modern world increasingly forsakes, our hearts. What would happen if CA has found the equation for that which touches the heart? Could we find a way back to the heart? What would neural nets or AIs do with this?