Is the New Aesthetic a Thing? Searching for Signs in Tupac and Google

Help me, Tupac Shakur, you're my only hope. (image via

LOS ANGELES — So much has been said about the New Aesthetic. I first heard about it from Bruce Sterling’s influential essay in Wired and moving on to a series of response posts from the Creators Project. It was all in response to a panel at SXSW and its accompanying tumblelog. The biggest question I’ve noticed from smart folks who think about this kind of thing is, well, “Is this a thing?” Few had heard of this idea of a new aesthetic before Sterling’s essay and the panel, and many have raised questions about its definition. These were a few responses I caught on my Twitter stream:

James Bridle’s blog post on the New Aesthetic has a picture that sums it up for me: “The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices.” One paragraph caught my eye:

One of the core themes of the New Aesthetic has been our collaboration with technology, whether that’s bots, digital cameras or satellites (and whether that collaboration is conscious or unconscious), and a useful visual shorthand for that collaboration has been glitchy and pixelated imagery, a way of seeing that seems to reveal a blurring between “the real” and “the digital”, the physical and the virtual, the human and the machine. It should also be clear that this ‘look’ is a metaphor for understanding and communicating the experience of a world in which the New Aesthetic is increasingly pervasive.

And now that I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this concept of a New Aesthetic, i.e. (if I understand it correctly), an aesthetic influenced by the way computers see the world and, by extension, how see the world, I’ve started to see signs that maybe the New Aesthetic is indeed a thing, a thing so enmeshed in our way of life that we’ve noticed it but not yet given it a name. It’s just seeped into our world so much that even those of us watching art and technology hadn’t thought about it thoroughly before. Here are just a few signs I picked up in the past week or so.

Holographic Tupac and Hatsune Miku

Some fifteen years ago, the world of hip hop was rocked by the death of Tupac Shakur, arguably its greatest star at the time. I remember rumors floating around that Tupac was still alive, and that he’d been seen at this or that locale. But he never did come back, till this weekend, when, Princess Leia-style, he was spotted on stage alongside former collaborator Snoop Dogg at Coachella.

What’s remarkable about this is that it wasn’t that earth shaking.During the last Presidential campaign, we laughed at a Wolf Blitzer hologram, but now we’re happy to rock out to a Tupac one. I’d already been familiar with the stage performances of Hatsune Miku, a completely fictional, animated pop singer in Japan who draws massive audiences, and the folks who made Tupac’s hologram worked on Benjamin Button and holographic concerts for the Gorillaz. And then there are the inevitable parodies, like a Twitter account and an interview:

Till just a week ago, solo holographic performances might have seemed niche for a tech-savvy place like Japan, but then along came Pac’s first solo performance on stage since his death. But we’d been keeping him alive all along, with YouTube videos, animated GIFs, movie specials. So few of us have seen him in person; we’ve seen him instead mediated by digital devices — is it really all that different to see him on stage now as a hologram?

Finding Mom on Google Earth

This story has been exploding on social media, and for good reason. A young Indian orphan, adopted by parents in Tasmania, was able to locate his long lost mother. But he didn’t do a search the usual way (at least at first), by knocking door to door or by putting out a call for help. He was five years old and not yet literate when he lost his family on a fateful train ride, so he didn’t even know the name of the town he came from.

Khandwa, India, as seen through Google Maps.
Khandwa, India, as seen through Google Maps.

But he used Google Earth to swoop over the vast stretches of India, using a little math and a little luck to find the town of Khandwa. Here’s what he said:

He drew a circle on a map with its centre in Calcutta, with its radius about the distance he thought he had travelled. Incredibly, he soon discovered what he was looking for: Khandwa. “When I found it, I zoomed down and bang, it just came up. I navigated it all the way from the waterfall where I used to play.”

The rest of the story plays out in a traditional way, with him knocking door to door and asking people if they might know his family.  But the first time he saw his hometown again after some 25 years away was through the eyes of a satellite. To borrow from James Bridle’s words, we could say he collaborated with the machines for an incredible reconnecting with his roots.

Google Glasses Spoofs

The eyes of the Terminator remain iconic today for a simple reason: they showed us how a machine might see the world, not just visually but with data being processed live on screen. It wasn’t hard to imagine that one day we might have access to something like it. And along came Project Glass, a series of concepts for augmented reality technology being developed and tested by Google. But what was more interesting to me was the spoofs. After the initial “wow” factor of a world enmeshed in augmented reality, we found ourselves with a more mundane reality: advertising and glitches.

The speed of the spoofs suggests that maybe we’ve already become accustomed to seeing our personal world — our personal emails, our Facebook chats, our Flickr photos — augmented with advertisements and facial recognition. It doesn’t take long to imagine the once mythical vision of the Terminator reality blanketed with the same.

The glasses themselves are not new per se. Recon HUD goggles already promise to turn any snowboarding session into a real life video game, with live stats and sync up to your Android phone. Two years ago, I tested out Canon’s mixed reality goggles, which floored me with how advanced they were — if only they weren’t so cumbersome. But it’s the promise of daily augmented reality that makes Google Glasses interesting, and no longer so farfetched that we can’t imagine the more mundane realities of its day to day use.

These are just a few phenomena I’ve been noticing now that the idea of a New Aesthetic has been planted in my head, and I hope you’ll forgive the rambling. (I’m drawn to spoofs in particular because they suggest that we’ve already gotten over ideas like holograms and augmented reality and are ready to make fun of them.) There are many others. Take, for instance, the $1 billion purchase of Instagram, a service that lets you see and capture your reality through computerized filters. Or the fact that the Vatican’s archives are now going to be available online, transforming how we experience these ancient, once difficult-to-access texts. But my mind isn’t yet made up, which is probably a sign this is a topic worth more exploration.

What about you, dear Hyperallergic reader? Have you been thinking about the New Aesthetic? Is it a “thing”? Does it have a clear definition?

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