PJ Rey just posted a terrific reflection on hipsters and low-tech on this blog, and I just want to briefly respond, prod and disagree a little. This is a topic of great interest to me: I’ve written about low-tech “striving for authenticity” in my essay on The Faux-Vintage Photo, reflected on Instagrammed war photos, the presence of old-timey cameras at Occupy Wall Street, and the IRL Fetish that has people obsessing over “the real” in order to demonstrate just how special and unique they are.
While I appreciate PJ bringing in terrific new theorists to this discussion, linking authenticity and agency with hipsters and technology, I think he focuses too much on the technologies themselves and not enough on the processes of identity; too much on the signified and not where the real action is in our post-modern, consumer society: the signs and signifiers.
PJ argues that low-tech has risen in order to reclaim a mastery over things (technologies themselves) that has been lost in late-modernity. I would like to counter that it ain’t about the devices; the rise of retro-tech is about the need to demonstrate mastery and agency over one’s identity (ala Bourdieu’s Distinction, which is the topic PJ’s essay starts with but distances too far from, in my opinion). That people may or may not have more agency over their devices is of far less importance than demonstrating identity-authenticity: agency over who you are. I am not an automaton, I am a unique, special, creative, authentic, authentic, really authentic individual.
Identity-authenticity implies identity-agency, and while PJ is right to identify agency in his analysis, it is far more fruitfully applied to identity than technologies. Perhaps the quickest way to weaken PJ’s argument that low-tech is about some hipster-culture need to have always-increased agency over devices is the parallel popularity of iPhones and Pads in precisely the same communities that embrace low-tech. It is not uncommon to see an iPad riding friendly with a fixie, a Macbook hanging with a typewriter, an Instagrameotype dribbling down an iPhone screen. Apple’s devices are popular precisely because they obscure their inner workings, their manufacture, and operation. The hipster-appreciation of both bikes and smartphones demonstrate techno-agency ambivalence. The want of knowable tech comfortably co-exists with the want for unknowable tech, so long as both the knowable and unknowable devices provide perceived identity-authenticity.*
Diverging from PJ’s essay a bit, note that consumer society has compelled each of us to demonstrate and express our own special uniqueness and authenticity but, at the same time, gives us few tools to actually live up to such creative snowflake-like irreplaceable identity-exceptionalism. Instead, we have limited choices to express how distinct we are. This is just that old-school paradox of hipster-identity, and perhaps one of the primary causes of hipster-hate: claiming authenticity and rejecting identity-definition while simultaneously, and disingenuously, replicating a pre-set aesthetic. Let’s call it The Urban Outfitters Contradiction: be unique just like everybody else!
Many hipsters grew up in a Disneyfied, McDonaldized, fake-plastic suburban America and have since seen their life deeply infiltrated by the digital and the intangible. Bikes, especially those without derailleurs, let you travel distinct from those conformist car-drivers, faux-vintage Instgrams provide special importance over regular digital shots and so on. However, each of these distinctions from the mainstream are not indistinct from others buying into this pre-made authenticity pose. Propping that old camera on your bookshelf filled with real, printed, physical books and vinyl records resolves as just a new conformity, and, most importantly, furthers the intense, obsessive drive to find new ways of authenticity. The conundrum is never resolved; instead, we are left with a crisis of agency over our identities (sorry PJ, not over our devices), and we have little to do but squirm ahead trying to demonstrate our precious uniqueness…wallets open.
*PJ does not see Apple as a counter-argument since the devices are simple to use. However, simplicity and knowability are very different things. Often, ease-of-use is gained from making devices less-knowable, making your own agency with respect to their manufacture, operation and use diminished. Further, the valorization of film cameras and other retro-tech is often about making the process more complex and less simple. Is an old-school Kodak Brownie more or less simple? Well, both. Same with an iPhone. Again, focusing on the agency over the technologies just makes all of this more muddled with lots of trends pointing in different directions. The much cleaner argument is not about device-simplicity because some hipster tech is more and less simple in different ways; instead, it is the losing-battle to assert identity-agency and authenticity.