Gateway: The Paranoid World of Vaporware

This essay was produced by Charlotte Filipov on the occasion of Vapourware, an exhibition as part of First Thursdays on the 3rd of August 2017. You can find and read the full print publication here.

This essay is written as an experimental piece, designed to read alongside the installation [The Condition of The Digital Native] providing gateways of thought to each of the objects contained conversations, not just in their materiality, but where they came from, how they manifested in this place at this time, and how they interact.

Almost two decades into the 21st century, humans have made astounding technological advancements. AI deep learning is constantly developing with the aid of the archive from prehistory and into the foreseeable future, smart cars and fridges have been invented, we have even developed a small but notable community of cyborgs, or BioHackers. Those who use technology to further their abilities beyond human capabilities. We cannot think about these developments in technology as isolated phenomena, we must also examine the social and cultural influence they bring.

Vaporwave was a short lived virtual image-based subculture [circa 2010-2014] that existed in constant state of flux before dispersing itself into the ocean of mass culture. The aesthetic values of ‘Vaporwave’ revolve around a clean hyper-virtual environment, pink and blue hues, appropriation [by use as a flat aesthetic] of Japanese Katakana, 80’s-90’s corporate design, and glossy roman busts. The musical counterpart manipulates found commercial pop music and audio, remixing them often by slowing them down and making the data yield to its own digital decay. The audio-visual experience of the phenomenon creates an unsettling view of the future, as many-a-contemporary philosopher has warned us about the enticing nature of technology and cybernetics.

Nick Land’s proto-vaporwave video work Meltdown created over a decade earlier than the phenomenon began to develop, laid the groundwork for what was about to be flattened into an ‘aesthetic’. A virtual phenomenon where politics, philosophies, and canonical objects are stripped of their meaning. The images used in a principally visual manner for mass-image circulation, with no practical application other than desktop images and mood-boards. These were popularised on image-sharing websites such as 4chan, Tumblr and Reddit, where visual vocabularies are popularised and become memetic, known as ‘memes’; words and images, repeated until they became cliched, somewhat of a community-specific in-joke, often within a very short timeframe.

The debris of these short lived phenomena can often be found throughout popular culture, for example, in the return of the coveted-yet-defunct limited-release cassette tape, Fiji water suddenly being a very trendy kind of water to have despite the ecological implications of draining ancient aquifers full of ‘Earth’s Finest Water’ for company profit, while the country witnessed a typhoid outbreak due to lack of clean drinking water (Berger, 2017), with visual culture as in music videos, and commercial advertisements. Visual languages that evolve online often perforate the fabric between the IRL and URL. The unrelenting self-referentiality of postmodernism gains traction with each new meme, revealing to us a dark, shallow and chaotic view of our present, tempting us with the secret places of paradise and perfection that we must pay [a private company] to experience.

The blending of our IRL and URL subjective experience of reality is in a way, proof of the promised land of the future metropolis as envisioned in the 20th century. The slow bleed of URL into IRL will continue its metamorphose, it begins with our minds and our ego, and it slowly extends to reshape our experience of our intersubjective realities (Harari, 2016). One’s lived experience of the fitbit and the undeniable truth of the smart-fridge.

In Circuitries (1992) contemporary philosopher Nick Land displays his concern for the implications of the future, social, economic, personal. Vaporwave is founded from this principle, Circuitries, often cited as the cyber-punk origin of vaporwave lays out for us the underlying fears of technology and AI systems, realising their very real potential for mass surveillance and control. In Meltdown (1994) Land foresees a reality where you are no longer a human being, you are now only viewed by these systems as pure algorithmic material, a data mine. In the age of information, this is the way you are interpreted, as this is the way computer systems can understand and predict you, nothing but algorithmic functions (Harari, 2016). The extended argument of this is whether humans will be able to remain relevant, when the competition is algorithmically perfect, unable to make mistakes.

Meltdown simultaneously lays the aesthetic groundwork for Vaporwave and its nostalgic pining for a slow world stuck in stasis like a skipping track. The rise of cassette tapes as a cheap and easily circulated tangible format for music, despite its vulnerability to decay, has made our human need for sentimentality and something that appeals to our idea of the soul clearer than ever in the age of lossless FLAC files.

The nostalgic pining of the ‘aesthetic’ for the early 1980s runs alongside significant developments in culture and technology, the bleed of postmodern discourse into the imagined modernist utopia, questions arose whether the imagined future was in fact an unachievable utopia, or would continue the stifling of humanism. Ayn Rand was a significant figure in influencing the development in laissez-faire capitalism (privatisation), individualism, self esteem and acting in one’s own self interest. Her revolutionary work Atlas Shrugged was such a radical book for the conservative environment of 1950s America, and the second most influential book for contemporary USA after the bible (Curtis, 2000) in terms of its influence over libertarianism and value in the self.

Larry Ellison including many other important figures involved in the construction of the silicon valley saw themselves as ‘Randian Heroes’ allowing her book which foresaw the creation of a place where the artists, creatives and intellectual individuals would create the model for a new society based on their own self interest, rather than the collective or community interest (Bauman, 2000; Curtis, 2000).

Alongside the recent formation of online subcultures that have a tendency to form their own communal cultures, The Fall of Public Man, Sennett discusses the action of wearing a mask as a ‘civil’ therefore, ‘public’ behaviour (1978). The use of the ‘avatars’ [images as an identifying mechanism] could apply as a sort of virtual mask, something which allows us to communicate beyond the borders of what our IRL physicality allows. In V for Vendetta, the guy fawkes mask is used as a unifying symbol, to unite the people in their revolution against their totalitarian overlords, and the appropriation of this symbol by the online group, Anonymous, associated with freedom of information and wikileaks, media and speech, seen by Bauman as ‘private issues turned public’ (2000).

Another ephemeral online entity, seeing their collective power as proof of man’s ability to unite and overcome the ‘big brother’ figure of shady government deals, perhaps did not recognise the influence of Rand’s selfish philosophy on the very technologies we are using, and the consequences of allowing privatisation and individual bias in the economy. Anonymous and Wikileaks using technology borne of Rand’s philosophies, to release information about the TPPA to the public, public land and resources being sold for individual gain. Sacrificing using an image of yourself, your body or your interest, you adopt the communal image. This works as a small-scale model of the model which is precisely the exact opposite of Rand’s envisioned utopia. It is merely a point of interest that what the silicon valley gave to us despite being so clearly propelled by Rand’s vision of the self-serving society, could also become so radically communal and focused on an interpretation of the ‘public good’.


Cited Works:

Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 2000
Dr. Stephen Berger, GIDEON Informatics, Typhoid and Enteric Fever: Global Status: 2017 edition, 2017
Adam Curtis, All Watched Over By Machines in Loving Grace, 2000
The Wonderful Company, Fiji Water (Marketing Information), 2017
Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, 2016
Nick Land, Circuitries, 1994
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 1957
Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man; On the Social Psychology of Capitalism, 1978

Images:

Jennifer Katherine Shields, Vaporware, reassembled found text, 2017
Nick Land, Meltdown (Still, accessed 27 July, 2017), 1994, Uploaded to YouTube, Jan 4, 2016
Azealia Banks, Produced By Owwwls, Directed By FAFI, ‘ATLANTIS – AZEALIA BANKS (**OFFICIAL VIDEO**)’ (Still, accessed 27 July, 2017) Uploaded to YouTube Nov 11, 2012
FIJI Water TV Commercial: Nature’s Gift (Still, accessed 27 July, 2017), Uploaded to YouTube Feb 10, 2015
Louis Fabian Bachrach, ‘Larry Ellison, Oracle CEO’, Date Unknown