I have missed the bandwagon, but there was quite a dust-up a ways back over whether "bad design was truly good," that is, sites with poor or unprofessional design had stumbled on a key ingredient to success. Microsoft's resident PR blogger Robert Scoble landed in this camp, suggesting that such "anti-marketing" was inherently more attractive to individuals who live in a world constantly bespattered with messages and carefully considered brand experiences.
On the other hand were the designers, and, though I don't want to politicize the debate, the pragmatists. It's a natural extension of Occam's Razor to say instead of the above, not that Craigslist, Scobleizer, plentyoffish.com worked because
of poor design, but in spite of
it. That is, the sites with poor designs nevertheless offered some functionality that surpassed their competitors, such that their success was inevitable, a foregone conclusion of a mechanistic marketplace.
Whether either path is true, we'll never particularly know, but the general history of mankind seems to lend credence to the pragmatist stance. If "authenticity" is your yardstick, you honestly can't be any more authentic than the cave paintings and stark survival of early hominids. Yet our social interactions and technological advances grew ever more complex. Design serves a purpose, else it would have been excised much, much earlier than the Internet.
(This is merely an aside, but I wish to reiterate how tiring it is to witness social phenomena on the Internet hailed as revolutionary. You gather masses of people in one area, and, strangely enough, they act like masses of people. These communities are not truly new, merely accelerated, but it's easy to confuse velocity with novelty. There's an E. coli
joke to be made there, but I'll be damned if I can think of it tonight.)
The heart of this post is akin to the discussion on stylegala about "thornament." Is there really any mode of communication any more authentic than any other? I suggest that there is not. Modalities are narratives. Religion, government, these are narrative constructions of our social experience. They gather and give meaning to passing time, they construct reasons for us to act and be acted upon. Is any one narrative any more "authentic" than any other? Is any one style of graphic communication more "authentic"? No. It's a culturally relative property. What constitutes real
to a fisherman on the banks of the Yalu River in China will not translate as similarly genuine to a teenager in London or a stockbroker in New York.
What creates the illusion of "authenticity" is the degree to which the viewer is already steeped in that mode of transmission. Sculpted by the methods of communication you see every day, you lose sight of the narrative framework that constructs your existence. It seems real
to you because it is
real. It is the expression you find most consistent with your historical experience and with your current communication. Take any self-identified group--to temporarily indulge in crass pop taxonomy--Goths, skatepunks, jocks, nerds, geeks--and their internal modes of expression will not seem constructed to those in the group. How can it be? It is the mode they have chosen to construct themselves with
, and insofar as self-construction is largely an opaque or subconscious process, the methods by which one self-constructs are also opaque.
The methods of self-construction are not those that lead children to view their peers and desire something as cool. It is the means by which you even begin to understand the notion of "cool." It is a term as oddly pervasive as to be near wholly linguistic. You know what cool is. Can you explain to someone what cool is?Would they already know?
Especially in group identities that are defined in opposition to others, the methods of constructing your own mode of expression, your own authenticity, is often described as "the right way" or "the truth," clouded amongst the deceptions offered by a hostile Other. The neo-Nazi groups that incorporate angry young men into their fold preach just such an ideology; groups of disconcerted, unpopular intellectuals in high school do, as well. (How quaint a trope is it, that the "nerds" talk to themselves of how the popular kids just don't get things? How universal a turn of phrase it is that others "don't get" our work, our hobby, us, anything.) The bourgeouis argued similarly against the upperclass, the federalists against the royalists; it is an inherent facility of the mind to categorize things as Us and Them.
You can easily dissect and differentiate the ideology of Them, see how Them is built. You have built Them so you can build Us against it, but you cannot see how you have constructed Us. In fact the opposite is generally considered to be true. "Traditional" American values are just that--"traditional." To deviate from tradition is wrong, has always been wrong, because tradition is "how it's always been done." It's "what we were always taught." Yet one never considers the authenticity of one's own modes of expression, because one is not conscious of those modes. They simply are the ways in which you address yourself through language, so there is no real way to view the narrative framework in which you have yourself been suspended.
Is that to suggest knowing the self, knowing the narrative of one's self-construction is necessarily impossible? No. (Though it is a common misconception that deconstruction suggests all things
are indefinable, this is, nevertheless, a misconception.) One must first learn the ways in which symbols create meaning, in which meaning creates narrative, and then one can study the ways in which others construct themselves. An awareness of narrative is a prerequisite to reading the creation of authenticity, and I'd venture that anyone who has slogged through this post with me is more than ready to contemplate the narratives of their own self-construction.
You stand in front of your own self-identification, a perfectly clear pane of glass. With no other frame of reference than your own position, you would never bother to question if the glass existed. But once you glimpse someone else, standing in front of a pane, you wonder if you might look similar.
I don't have the energy to consider it, but a parting thought is this: the anthropologist, in cataloguing the relationships and existence of cultures, could be seen to be grasping at the definition of his own self. I will never define myself fully, he says, for I am myself, and I am always redefining; but if I define all others, I will know who I am not, and finally learn who I am.