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Lines in the sand
The art of BeReal, cyberpunk cities, and a Bored Ape conspiracy theory.
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The desert of BeReal
This week I decided it was time to, like many millennials desperately grappling for relevance in a world disappearing into the rearview mirror, sign up for BeReal. I’m currently writing up a newsletter for paid subscribers on some deeper thoughts and analysis of the company itself, but I thought I’d touch on one aspect of it here.
For the uninitiated, BeReal is an increasingly popular social media network which pitches itself as an authentic ‘anti-Instagram’ engineered to run against the overly manicured, performative aspect of social media in the 2010s. Instead of posting whatever you want, the app sends you (and everyone else in your timezone) a notification at a random time in the day, at which point you need to take out your phone and take a simultaneous photo with the front and back camera within two minutes. If you take it late, it tells your friends exactly how late you were — shameful evidence that you may have put more than a single moment’s thought into it. You can’t see your friends’ photos from that day unless you take one yourself. Everything, including comments and reactions, is ephemeral, lasting only until the next day’s designated time to BeReal.
The effect of this piece of social engineering is not merely to obliterate the natural impulse towards online performance and brand alignment. It makes everything stultifying boring in the way real life often is between the moments actually worth remembering. Scrolling through the day’s feed, you are reminded that the topology of human experience in 2022 is mostly made up of unadorned rooms in offices, work-from-home desks, laptop screens, washed out televisions, suburban streets, distant warehouses, quiet train carriages, pets on leashes and the inside of cars.
Writing for OneZero, Clive Thompson describes Google’s CAPTCHA verification images, drawn from Street View photography, as possessing a “positively Soviet anomie”; depicting the world as a jumble of “blurry, anonymous landscapes” that are “never joyful vistas of human activity, full of Whitmanesque vigour”. BeReal generates something only one step removed from that robot perspetive. Divorced of the storytelling impulses and incentives built into to other, more performative social media — including the Stories format pioneered by Snapchat, which was intended to encourage more off-the-cuff, loose posting — life as it quite literally is seems somehow untextured.
But it doesn’t really matter, obviously, because the people on your feed are people you know. You can find meaning in the most inconsequential parts of their lives because you know them. It’s a different story on the ‘Discovery’ tab, which juices BeReal’s engagement metrics by displaying an endless feed of photos from people around the world. Without the connective tissue of social relationships and devoid of the well-developed dramatic language of other platforms like TikTok, it makes for odd viewing.
Some randomly collected samples, which are very much representative of the whole:
All of them look like this, and all are beautiful art that collectively makes an aching point about the desolation and loneliness at the heart of modern online culture.
I guess this could be the near-future of online life: the firehose of staged and scripted content from a lineup of endless viewing apps attempting to chase TikTok’s tail, while our genuine social activity is reduced to randomly taken photos of our immediate environment when we receive a collective signal from the heavens. Very exciting, I’m sure you’ll agree.
There is no greater object of fascination for me right now than NEOM, which is Saudi Arabia’s bizarre plan to build a $500 billion smart city in its northwestern desert. It’s a strange vaporous pipedream which has at various times promised to include everything from flying cars to a gigantic artificial moon, and every bit of content that comes out of it is incredible.
Like the above video, which depicts THE LINE — a so-called ‘smart linear city’ and part of the overall NEOM project. It’s supposed to be a 170-kilometre long vertical city, clad in reflective glass and without cars or greenhouse emissions, in which any given resident is only a 5-minute stroll from essential amenities.
One can only assume its basically just a consulting scam and a way to funnel oil money into the pockets of various architectural firms and futurist keynote speakers. Bloomberg reported in a feature story on the bizarre project last month that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman specifically instructed designers to ape the aesthetics of cyberpunk — which is rarely meant to match the utopian vision NEOM is supposedly aiming for:
MBS told its designers that he liked the aesthetic of “cyberpunk,” a sci-fi subgenre that typically depicts a dark, tech-infused future with a seedy underworld—think William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer or the Keanu Reeves vehicle Johnny Mnemonic (also based on a book by Gibson). “I was a little surprised to hear that the prince was very interested in science fiction, but many people are, of all sorts of political persuasions,” Gray says. He and a team of other consultants were soon working long hours to research the aesthetics and implied culture of cyberpunk’s many iterations, which fed into a taxonomy of science fiction atmospheres that Neom employees were developing.
It does, however, show the extent to which our imaginings of the future are completely inextricable from fictional aesthetics, even when said aesthetics are meant to evoke a future gone wrong.
It’s not currently looking positive for NEOM The Economist reported earlier this year that only two buildings had actually been constructed for the entire NEOM project, with most of the site — which has displaced tens of thousands of people — remaining barren desert.
We need to go back
Here’s a weird one a few people have asked my opinion on over the past few months. I’ve been meaning to mention it at some point, as it does lie at the intersection of a number of my interests, so I may as well now. It’s weird, so bear with me.
There’s a long-running theory popular in parts of the internet that the Bored Ape Yacht Club, the popular NFT collection and aspiring cultural powerhouse — with a big splashy profile on Input this week — is in fact some kind of subversive alt-right project, and is laden with fascist imagery and subliminal messaging. Allegations that the crypto scene is somehow adjacent to the far-right underground are a dime a dozen (and in some cases true) but this one is especially scandalous because so many celebrities either own Apes or desperately want to.
I’m not going to get into the weeds here, because — as with virtually anything crypto-adjacent — there are a lot of posts to read and digest. Much of this particular theory is driven by artist and NFT creator Ryder Ripps, who is basically locked in a blood feud with the BAYC creators. Ripps has posted a number of Twitter threads comparing the project’s logo to the Nazi Totenkopf and alleging the name of the company that runs BAYC, Yuga Labs, refers to the Kali Yuga, a concept from Hindu cosmology which has been adopted by some online far-right communities, essentially meaning the prolonged period of conflict, sin and unrest we are currently experiencing. (I probably don’t need to join the dots for you on where that lines up with esoteric online fascism.)
Ripps, who is endlessly fighting the BAYC after he created an NFT collection that uses the same art, collected his arguments and published them on GordonGoner.com, named for one of the founders. A quick read will reveal that his points range from the vaguely plausible to the absurdly reaching.
The idea of a multibillion-dollar NFT collection popular with celebrities and their agents actually being some kind of Nazi culture jamming project is obviously wild. I personally don’t really see it, but the fact people are getting fired up about it is of great interest to me. The mere thought that Justin Bieber might be a single handshake away from contemporary devotees of Savitri Devi — by way of a glorified blockchain streetwear brand — is an intoxicating idea for any self-respecting fan of weird stuff online.
The internet heat around this theory accumulated to the point that the BAYC founders had to put out a statement in June denying it, offering up the original design pipeline for the skull logo, quoting the Anti-Defamation League and rejecting the allegations of being somehow adjacent to right-wing 4chan mysticism.
3) Talk about the company name, “Yuga Labs”?
We’re nerds, and Yuga is the name of a villain in Zelda who has the ability to turn himself and others into 2D art. It makes perfect sense for an NFT company. We were also aware that “Yuga” means “era” in Sanksrit. Gordon spent a decade practicing Hinduism, and the “Kali Yuga” is the current era we are in according to Hinduism. The ADL quite literally laughed at the suggestion that the term Kali Yuga had anything to do with white supremacy.
The Input profile I linked up top also goes into some detail attempting to rebut the allegations, which clearly loom large over the founders (“It’s all day, every day,” one said, regarding the online hate that comes as a result of the allegations.) The latest development on all of this is an interview with NFT newsletter Surfing the Waves, in which BAYC founder Wylie Aronow admits a friendship with a wannabe transgressive writer from one of the many online lit scenes that supposely harbour reactionary currents.
Again, I don’t really buy much of this. Most of the connections drawn are either circumstantial or can very easily be written off as juvenile internet edgelordism. But the dynamics I do find incredibly interesting. Much hay has been made of web3 providing the infrastructure for a whole new, radical way of generating culture and doing business, but what it has spat out here is a brand with a billion-dollar market cap which is at the mercy of the eternal dynamics of forums drama and crypto bag-pumping, the mythology of the online rabbit hole, and the insatiable desire for more and more content.
As with everything in this space, it’s basically impossible for an outside observer to tell who is spreading these allegations because they genuinely believe it to be true, because they are talking their books on a rival NFT project, or because they’re craving engagement on an expose they posted about it. I can’t shake the feeling that, by seeking to attach a tradable token and a treasury to every weird internet subculture and fandom that exists, we’re going to see plenty more of this new breed of corporate scandal.
A story in The Guardian on the recent cultural obsession with flight tracking. Over the past few weeks tracking private jet activity of celebrities has become part of climate activism, but it’s generally an interesting kind of anti-elite activism. Whatever your politics, you can usually divine some overarching message in the skies from the flight activity of the rich.
Thought this was a good temperature check on the newsletter revolution. The Terminal will not be shutting down or going on hiatus, but I get what the people profiled here are driving at.
On “the euphoria of stumbling upon weird Spotify cover songs”. The writer here is interested in the “every song, whenever you want it” model of music streaming spitting out some often bizarre deep cuts, but I think there’s an even more interesting story in the SEO optimisation game of brinkmanship compelling low-rung artists to cover songs they think people might be searching for. (Related: this painful thread of boutique TikTok covers of Running Up That Hill attempting to capitalise on the song’s post-Stranger Things popularity on the platform.)
Doing the rounds: Marc Andreessen, the powerful VC who wrote the famous essay ‘It’s Time To Build’ inveighing against the regulatory capture and civilisational squeamishness that have robbed Western nations of their capacity to make everything from new tech to infrastructure and housing, appears to have written a complaint with his wife to their local authority opposing multifamily development in their wealthy neighbourhood. A dark day for the YIMBY community.
There’s a rich vein of thought in comparing current social changes under Western capitalism with similar cultural and subcultural shifts in Japan from the 90s through the 2000s. I thought this was good, on infantalisation.
Interesting on AI copywriting, and Google’s longstanding stance that AI-generated copy shouldn’t be permitted in Search. One assumes these frictions are going to become more intense over the next few years.
Thought this was good on Meta’s changes to Instagram versus what people actually want.