Hipsters have been much discussed on the Cyborgology blog (see: here, here, here, and here). Cyborgology authors have also talked about the fetishization of low-tech/analog media and devices (see: here and here). As David Paul Strohecker pointed out, these two issue interrelated: “hipsters are at the forefront of movements of nostalgic revivalism.” I want to pick up these threads and add a small observation.
Nathan Jurgenson and I were discussing why low-tech devices have a seductive quality. Consider the popularity of, for example, fixed-gear bicycles or vintage cameras (such as the Kodak Brownie or the Polaroid PX-70 [correction: SX-70]). Though I think this phenomenon is probably overdetermined (in the Freudian sense of having multiple sufficient causes), I came up with a theory that seems worth further consideration: namely, that hipsters’ obsession with antique devices reflects a desire to escape the complex and highly-interdependent socio-technical systems that characterize contemporary society and return to time in which technology appeared to be something that humans could master and, thus, use to affirm their individual agency. In short, the fetishization of low-tech is about the illusion of agency; it provides affirmation for the hipster whose identity is defined by the post-Modern imperative to be an individual, to be unique.
Žižek is often cited as the philosopher of the hipster or the hipster philosopher, but, here, I argue that Simmel and Deleuze were the true Oracles of Hipsterdom. Simmel observed that the individual was a Modern phenomenon–that the desire to “be different” is historically contingent. Delueze identified this desire to be unique as something rather insidious, when he described that the mechanisms of social control are being decentralized away from institutions such as prisons, schools, and hospitals and are now situated within the mass population itself. We, each and all of us, are now the primary mechanisms of social control. We are built to desire what society needs from us and to demand the same from others. Delueze observes with transparent contempt that “young people strangely boast of being ‘motivated;’” they require no institutional coercion.
This shift in the nature of social control is of monumental importance (as Virno, Negri, and others have described) because top-down institutions promote conformity and homogeneity (at least, within various social classes), which is appropriate for assembly line workers or retail clerks; however, in a new economic paradigm defined by the activity of software engineers, graphic designers, and the like, conformity is anathema to the goal of mass innovation. That is to say, institutional control is counter-productive to a (post-Fordist) economy of ideas and innovation and, thus, must be replaced with a new system of self-regulation reinforced by mass surveillance. As institutions weaken, individuality and uniqueness are no longer stifled but, instead, are promoted as the chief values of hipster culture. Innovation is the result of constant surveillance of and comparison to other individuals.
So, hipsters are the product of a moment in history where the socio-economic system benefits from and has discovered effective methods to enforce the moral imperative to “be unique.” The hipster aesthetic reflects an ideology of hyper-individualism, though this individualism is itself paradoxical because it is socially mandated.
How does this relate to technology then? As, I have argued in the past, citing Anthony Giddens’ “bargain of modernity,” the complexity of modern technology and the expert system required to produce and operate it threaten our sense of individual agency by continually reinforcing our dependency on others (this experience of being just another component of a technologic system and not the master of a tool or device is similarly captured in Jacques Ellul’s notion on”technological autonomy” and actor-network theory as derived from Bruno Latour). The structural reality of Modernity’s complex socio-technicals systems is at odds with the individualistic ideology uniqueness.
Thus, nostalgia for the low-tech/lo-fi/analog is really nostalgia for a time when technology could be mastered–a time when you could fix your own car or bike, a time when you pop open the back of a camera and intuitively understand how it works, a time when you knew where your food came from and how it was prepared, a time when the circuits in electronic were large enough to be visible and an average person could figure out how to repair, replace, hack, and even build them, a time when a device was yours to open and when warranties end-user agreement didn’t micro-manage how used your own property. In short, the appeal of low-tech is it affirms our sense of independence and individuality.
Low-tech is also about a form of authenticity. As technology has grown more complex, manufacturers have tended to mask it with layers of design. William Gibson noted in “The Gernsback Continuum,” that
The Thirties had seen the first generation of American industrial designers; until the Thirties, all pencil sharpeners had looked like pencil sharpeners your basic Victorian mechanism, perhaps with a curlicue of decorative trim. After the advent of the designers, some pencil sharpeners looked as though they’d been put together in wind tunnels. For the most part, the change was only skin-deep; under the streamlined chrome shell, you’d find the same Victorian mechanism.
Perhaps the quintessential example is the marketing of the iPod/iPhone/iPad which asks you to forget altogether the technical specifications of the product and instead immerse yourself fully in the magic of the design. As Nathan noted in our conversation, this is analogous to Marx’s concept of fetishization, where the set of human and technological relations required to produce a thing are concealed and the thing becomes defined only by its superficial characteristics. The hipster low-tech movement seeks to dispel this illusion, by returning to things that can be easily understood and laid bare.
The hipster low-tech fantasy–”the dream of the 1890s“–is one of escape from the complex socio-technical systems that we are highly dependent on but have little control over. It is a fantasy of achieving the most radical expression of individual agency: the opt-out.
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Clarification: I don’t think we are driven, directly, by a desire to master technology so much as the desire to individuate and to be unique. We desire technological simplicity, whether real or illusory (as in the case of Apple), because we feel like we have greater control and agency with respect to simple technology than we do with respect to complex, highly-interdependent technical systems, so that simple technologies better serve this kind of identity work.