One of the biggest comforts of fast food is its familiarity. Generic from location to location, you know not only what the food will be and how it will taste, but that the ritual of the experience will be familiar too. It isn’t that fast food people are necessarily unadventurous; but at least some of the time, they’re drawn to the familiar.
There’s a parallel on the internet. Remember the sense of adventure when the web was first new and you were always discovering new websites? Or when social media became a thing and suddenly information and people opened up in whole new ways? After a while though, you get used to your pathways, your trusted sources of information and daily conversations, and the rituals of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram or Snapchat are familiar and comforting. Fewer and fewer of us boldly go off to explore far corners of the internet.
Kyle Chayka has a fascinating piece in Verge suggesting that the familiarity conveyed by our online apps has begun to make our real world experiences more generic.
It’s easy to see how social media shapes our interactions on the internet, through web browsers, feeds, and apps. Yet technology is also shaping the physical world, influencing the places we go and how we behave in areas of our lives that didn’t heretofore seem so digital. Think of the traffic app Waze rerouting cars in Los Angeles and disrupting otherwise quiet neighborhoods; Airbnb parachuting groups of international tourists into residential communities; Instagram spreading IRL lifestyle memes; or Foursquare sending traveling businessmen to the same cafe over and over again.
We could call this strange geography created by technology “AirSpace.” It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset.
As we depend on social media apps to find things we like, we find ourselves increasingly in the same kinds of places wherever we are. After a while they feel placeless, like they could be anywhere, and they could be. Tourists flock to shopping districts in far off cities to shop in a version of the Gap they could have gone to at home. That artisanal coffeeshop you just “discovered” through your app feels comfortably familiar because artisanal is the new generic and you like it that way.
So what’s wrong with generic culture? Don’t we need some generic so the extraordinary can stand out? And why does generic by definition need to be looked down on by those who are more adventurous? Chayka suggests that cyber-genericity leads to de-personalization and life in a bubble. That bubble gets increasingly more difficult to exit.
Left unchecked, there is a kind of nightmare version of AirSpace that could spread room by room, cafe by cafe across the world. It’s already there, if you look for it. There are blank white lofts with subway-tile bathrooms, modular furniture, wall-mounted TVs, high-speed internet, and wide, viewless windows in every city, whether it’s downtown Madrid; Nørrebro, Copenhagen; or Gulou, Beijing. Once you take the place of the people who live there, you can head out to their favorite coffee shops, bars, or workspaces, which will be instantly recognizable because they look just like the apartment that you’re living in. You will probably enjoy it. You might think, ‘This is nice, I am comfortable.’ And then you can move on to the next one, only a click away.