Why it sucks to be a millennial

You’re facing cataclysmic environmental change.

You can’t relate to the existing two-party political system and regard it with a mixture of contempt and cynicism. Civic engagement is low priority (because your main preoccupation is financial survival) even though you sense that society is falling apart and your life prospects are worsening every day. (The educational emphasis on technical, vocational knowledge over subjects such as current affairs, political science and American history, is partly responsible for the decline in civic engagement and explains millennials’ general lack of interest in politics and news.) You want to get involved and do something about it, but voting seems like a pointless, mini-bandaid, while protesting on the street feels like a fashion statement more than a concrete solution. With few exceptions, your generation has yet to stand up for its beliefs, whatever those are, and systematically mobilize.

Social media exacerbates your anxieties and insecurities by making you feel inadequate. In the best case, you feel badly dressed. In the worst case, you feel like you’re pressing your nose against the glass pane of someone else’s very glamorous and successful life.
If you’re not a self-initiating, extroverted self-promoter who’s adept on social media, your professional and economic prospects could be dimmed because influencers with a built-in following get fast-tracked, even if they don’t possess the same experience, education or talent. In short, you live in a world where attention, rather than merit, tends to be rewarded disproportionately. You ignore social media at your peril, while decrying its pernicious effects on your self-esteem and society at large.

The pressures of social media and today’s economy mean you need real friends more than ever, but technology attenuates and distorts relationships and disconnects people more than it connects them emotionally or psychologically. It is therefore more difficult to develop a true support network based on genuine friendship.

Unless you’re a STEM graduate or very well connected, your job prospects are increasingly uncertain because your education, with its outmoded content and utter failure to arm you with the skills required in the digital information economy, has barely prepared you for the job market; gigging, rather than permanent employment with benefits and security, has become the norm; For the same reason, mentoring and training are almost non-existent because the cost of training human capital is hard to justify when companies regard employees as fungible commodities; it also explains why so many young adults seem to be permanent interns, remaining jacks of all trades and masters of none. In such a dog-eat-dog world, connections are more important than ever and meritocracy is just a vaporous illusion thinly veiling the true dynamics of professional and social mobility, i.e., nepotism and inherited advantage. Add to this the medium-term effects of automation, which foretells the demise of 50% of all current jobs, and you really have no reason to believe that your lowly BA degree equips you for any future beyond permanent internship. Don’t even think about responding to that LinkedIn job posting because, in a world of dwindling jobs and unprecedented job market efficiency, your video resume doesn’t stand a chance against the other 487 applicants applying for the same job.

If you don’t work within one of the well-remunerated job categories prized in the new information economy, you won’t be able to buy your own home unless your household has two incomes or your parents can help out. For those of you who don’t work within a privileged job sector, your persistently low pay makes it impossible to live alone. Thus, you’ll still have roommates when you’re 40 years old.

You are suffering from a complete loss of idealism because you have witnessed the failure of meritocracy in many important spheres of human activity. Two prime examples are the election of Donald Trump and deification of Kim Kardashian. Both take up inordinate amounts of mindshare despite their cretinous vacuity and ostentatious vulgarity. The quiet, steely, authentic heroes of the past have been superseded by greedy, selfish narcissists. These days, money and celebrity, rather than vision, principles or sincerity, command respect. Living in this monoculture of invidious venality, other versions of success have become irrelevant or inadequate. Related to this disillusionment is the evident failure of America’s vaunted democracy and, indeed, representative government, to deliver outcomes reflecting the wishes of the average citizen, let alone solutions addressing urgent problems such as police brutality, climate change, the opioid crisis or the repercussions of globalization. Instead, it’s obvious to even the casual onlooker that American democracy has been hijacked by money and special interest groups. Even Obama conceded that it was necessary to compromise on the Clean Air Act during his re-election year.

You have grown up in an age where analytics and “likes” are the governing barometer of “success” when it comes to content and products. Consequently, creators of products and content chase last season’s (or everybody else’s) successes instead of forging ahead in original and unprecedented directions. Retail has become a least common denominator terrarium of recycled looks and ideas, with only fringe merchants daring to flout statistics in favor of following their inner compass. Not surprisingly, the consumer world feels hollow, chaotic and unrewarding as brands incoherently zigzag and iterate trying to catch the next wave, rather than commanding true loyalty based on unswerving dedication to their original mission. Not having been exposed to the sublime, esoteric, rarefied or exquisite because long tail experiences and products aren’t the stuff of mainstream commercial success (let alone popular social media posts), your exposure to art, culture and history is truly narrow. It’s fair to say that, as a rule, your knowledge of human civilization and culture is generally confined to the first page of Google search results, with little incentive to dig deeper because that sort of curiosity is no longer rewarded by society, consumers or “likes”.

Race relations are more fraught than at any time since the Rodney King episode so that, contrary to the world you expected to live and flourish in, you’re now subject to the same abuses and anxieties that plagued your parents’ generation if you’re a minority living in the US.

You’ve grown up comparatively pampered and shielded from adversity, so while you may have a gloomy presentiment about the state of affairs I’ve described here, you lack the experiences and determination, the sort forged through abuse, violence, warfare and prejudice, to tackle these problems and are certainly not going to give up your career ambitions to wade into the fray. As far as you’re concerned, you just want to earn a living and keep your head down, even if it means accepting the daily grind of a rather hollow, pointless existence which has as its sole reward, the derisory increase of your bank balance.

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The Demise of (Beautiful) Brands

[This is the original unedited version of my column for Courier Magazine entitled “Death by Algorithm” in their June 2018 issue.]

Remember the good old days when an idea could gestate in the mind of, say, Vivienne Westwood and, then, voila, the hallucinatory output of a single theme like “Seditionaries” or “Buffalo Girls” would emerge on the runway fully formed, causing jaws to drop (one way or the other) among the small cabal of editors who ruled the fashion establishment? “Les Incroyables,” John Galliano’s Central Saint Martin’s 1984 graduation runway show dishing up 18th century French romanticism interpolated with hard-edged punk flair was possibly the zenith of that epoch, just as Marc Jacobs’ ode to the street style of homeless people was an unmitigated critical and commercial catastrophe during the same period.

These days, the fashion industry is spared from giant errors of judgment like Jacobs’ grunge collection — but also from moments of elation and awe, the sort customarily inspired by the collections of Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood twenty years ago. That’s because, for decades, statistics and, now, analytics, have slowly strangled creativity.

For better or worse, in the past, ideas germinated and developed in a vacuum for the simple reason that we were not instantly connected to ideas, images or each other. That in and of itself was not actually a plus, but simply a fact.

In the late 80s, creativity started becoming big business. Louis Vuitton merged with Moet Hennessey in 1987 to become the world’s largest luxury conglomerate and Johann Rupert set up the Richemont Group one year later. The advent of brands like Calvin Klein Jeans (remember how nothing came between Brooke Shields and her Calvins) and Ralph Lauren signaled the mainstreaming of luxury. Not surprisingly, the professionalization of the fashion and luxury industries, no longer a series of family-run enterprises, brought with it the newfound discipline of numbers. Designers’ imaginations still ran amok but their enthusiasms were curbed, at least at the margin, by sell-through reports and managers with MBAs beholden to shareholders. (Considering that sell-through reports, back then, still required a high level of manual tabulation, they had marginal impact on creativity and were more seasonal post-mortems than predictive blueprints for action.)

Then came the influence of Google and, with it, search results including images which eliminated the necessity of sourcing inspiration from travel, museums or even coffee table books. Suddenly, collections about “Venice” or “safari” started resembling each other rather than their native environments because designers, hard pressed for time or, worse, lazy, started culling references from the same first page of Google search results. Fast-forward to today, with most “creative” visual output a cut-and-paste of freely available design references, and it’s no wonder that the depth and intellectual commitment which marked the creative projects of twenty or thirty years ago have gone missing. The creative process, once based on independent, even solitary exploration, has given way to the mental terrarium of Google.

That artists and designers are discouraged from risk-taking by large-scale capital and our imaginative capacities vastly diminished by Google paint a bleak picture for many creative industries. But the real coup de grace has been analytics and its apparent ability to foretell commercial success or failure, even before the lightbulb goes off in the mind of a designer or artist. With job security based on positive ROI and designers themselves obsessed with Instagram like counts, the sheltered space for creative germination which once led to the birthing of full-blown works of art has been squeezed out of existence. The current system, if anything, penalizes unbridled creativity. (To take an example from an industry which has undergone the same seismic shifts, music, contrast The Wall by Pink Floyd, an entirely original, integrated work of art referring to nothing which came before it, to the music created by today’s major pop stars, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, etc.. The showcase for musical artistry formerly known as the “album” has been abandoned, much like the runway collection, in favor of hit singles based on riffs, tropes and styles known to provoke the desired aural reaction among listeners.)

Thus, consumers are treated to an endless stream of thinly veiled retreads of best sellers and hit-or-miss collaborations, each a desperate stab to reproduce the glory days of last season. The formulaic recycling of old ideas has become so instinctive that it feels practically suicidal to return to the more venturesome days of creative risk-taking, when brand integrity was defined by a philosophy, a mission, an aesthetic. Athletic brands like Nike and Adidas are especially guilty of this form of “product development”, forsaking investment in product R&D to chase after collaborations with the next big streetwear influencer. Similarly, Louis Vuitton has never been the same since Marc Jacobs invited Takashi Murakami to co-create a collection. The brand is practically defined by its collaborations and LV’s recent appointment of Supreme creative director, Virgile Abloh, to helm its menswear design is an unapologetic case of the commercial tail wagging the creative dog. I never thought I’d see the day when streetwear tropes, so easily wielded within the world of Adobe Photoshop, would ascend to the apex of the luxury world.

To put it in the simplest way possible: When is the last time that you experienced an electric frisson looking at a new runway collection, photograph, piece of music — or sneaker? In short, when is the last time you felt like you were looking at something BRAND NEW and it actually gave you a JOLT?

If brands lose their leadership position, it’s their own fault. Why should a consumer look up to them when they fail to demonstrate confidence, leadership or sure-footedness. Commentators complain that “millenials don’t give a sh — -t about brands.” But the truth is, most brands, the big ones anyway, deserve to be abandoned, not just by millennials but by all of us. Soullessly following statistics rather than the inner compass of an original vision, brands have lost their very reason for being in the first place.

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John Snow had White Walkers. We have AI.


In 2060, human life is likely to be exterminated by AI.
After reading this long and brilliant blog post by Tim Urban, which consolidates the existing viewpoints and prognoses about humankind’s AI future into a single, comprehensive overview, I now believe this to be our ineluctable fate. If it sounds like I ran off and joined a cult, know that this cult has Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk as firm believers. It also explains why they have sounded loud alarms about the dangers posed by AI.
Far from being sad or upset by this learning, I’m much more at peace than I have ever been. Knowing that the end of my life will most likely coincide with the end of human existence in ~2060 palliates my despair at the decline of civilization brought on by technology.
I made this vlog because my newfound understanding of AI has affected me so deeply that, in light of this new learning, any content which follows it will be unavoidably colored by it.
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Technology is ruining civilization #2: The soullessness of the “like” economy

Real-time analytics and “likes” have a lockhold on marketers — and, now, us. Here’s why and the repercussions.

For the first time since advertising was invented, it’s possible to measure positive audience feedback.

But the measurement is crude and doesn’t permit negative, lukewarm or ambivalent feedback. That’s on purpose of course. In short, there is no assessment of value based on complex, nuanced criteria, the sort which would ordinarily be included in a long form book review or runway report. (Even the TripAdvisor system is better than the one-dimensional system of Facebook likes.)

“Likes” do not equal expertise; but there is no system which does objectively quantify expertise or quality of thinking. Consequently, the “like” system has no competition and reigns supreme among advertisers and publishers.

But it’s still the only thing we have. And since it’s better than nothing, marketers and companies tend to assign way way way too much value to it — to the point where traditional experts have been sidelined in favor of influencers with huge follower numbers.
Our news funnel is dominated by feeds and push communications, increasing the power of social media at the expense of traditional experts (unless of course those experts have a big social media following).

The fact that news, brands and products are being discovered primarily via social media feeds or push communications, rather than web browser (via Google search), is yet another blow to the expert whose thoughtful, well-written critical content resides on the latter. These days and most of the time, you retrieve a long form article because it was mentioned in some form of push communication, for example, an email newsletter from a newspaper or a post within the social media feed of a friend you’re following.

Besides those daily staples like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal which you might keep open all day on your browser, how often do you independently decide to log on to a new website without first having come across the link in a feed or push communication? I refer to leisure reading, something which is not entailed by school or your professional responsibilities. Today, for example, I looked up a brand’s website because I saw their handbag worn by a famous blogger I follow on Instagram. Similarly, I googled an artist because my friend snapped and shared their street art on her Instagram account. If you look at any one of your open browser tabs on your computer right now and trace the referral chain, 80% of the time, that tab is open because you clicked or followed up from a social media post or newsletter.

If information and brand discovery take place primarily through social media, then, obviously, accounts with huge numbers of followers will be seen by more people, even if those individuals or posts are mediocre and inexpert.

Experts basically have to put up or shut up with this new system of validation because, again, there aren’t very many other forms of external, objective validation (except an industry-beating CV — and that only works if the CV practically levitates).

Brands and marketers see all those likes and are comforted that they are doing their jobs well — or if not well, escaping censure for taking unwarranted risks.

These same marketers generally hew to formulas which duplicate past historical successes — resulting in an endless churn of well-rehearsed, tried-and-true pabulum (e.g., inoffensive Instagram posts featuring glossily groomed thirty-something women who are almost as pretty as models but not, wearing ensembles of matching designer clothes or ingenious high-low pairings, which show just enough fashion IQ to create an air of adventure and risk-taking without losing the vibe of the popular girl-next-door. For every Anna Della Russo, there are at least 1000 such innocuous would-be fashion pin-ups on Instagram.)

If you’re wondering why you, consumer, are so exhausted and uninspired, it’s because statistics have replaced originality and risk-taking while subjecting you to a homogeneous tsunami of drivel every waking minute of the day. It is this combination of too much of nothing special at all which is the true crisis of modern consumer media.

I end this essay by posing two major questions:
How do we introduce creativity back into the system (for the great mass of talented designers and creatives who don’t have the same access to capital or bully pulpit as, say, visionary Elon Musk)? What’s the future, if any, for traditional experts (besides getting on the social media bandwagon) — or are we already relegated to the same destiny as the dinosaurs?

At what point does the consumer understand that all of this abundance is actually just a sham illusion?

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Vlog #10: This is about NOW (The Home Truths of the Handmaid’s Tale)


(WARNING: Contains disturbing sexual and violent content suitable for mature audiences only.) A chilling work of genius that got me vlogging after a hiatus of several months, the Emmy-award-winning, Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale, exaggerates and magnifies the insidious dynamics of present-day society, to bring home the profound power imbalance between men and women which, until now, remains a backdrop of, at best, silent oppression and, at worst, potential violence. Unlike Orwell’s 1984, this work isn’t predictive or even dystopian. IT’S NOW. Indeed, it’s so true that any menstruating girl will find its home truths ineluctable.
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Daily Mind-ful 16 September 2017 (Cincinnati, Day 1 — after more than 35 years)

My first full day back in Cincinnati, Ohio after more than 35 years, with Sam and my brother. We visit all the places which defined — and traumatized — us, the places which were the crucibles of my, if not our, personality. Sam told me that the best thing about this trip was getting to know his uncle James and me more — by listening to us revisit our childhood and experiences.
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Trace at Hirshhorn by Ai Weiwei (Washington DC, 17 Sept 2017)

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