- Apr 2021
The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde
An excellent article exploring the origins of "Kawaii" (Japanese for "cute") style as manifested through modern artists in Japan such as Yoshitomo Nara and especially Takashi Murakami, whose aesthetic has won him high-profile collaborations with Kanye West (most notably the album cover of Graduation) and more recently Billie Eilish's video for "You should see me in a crown." The rising popularity of artists like Murakami, which dovetails with the ascendance of cutesy, non-threatening corporate design being discussed here illustrates how the patterns discussed in this article are both a product of and a reaction to a broader cultural trend of adult infantilization.
All year, riding to meetings and home from drinks, I have been obsessed with figuring out why I hate the Seamless ads in the New York City subway. “Welcome to New York,” one reads. “The role of your mom will be played by us.”
I thought the author was overstating his case a bit but seeing this on decaying public transit after a rough day in one of the worlds most expensive cities must be a little rough.
Here's the original Brokelyn article this image was sourced from. There is a lot of overlap in tone with this piece and Barron's essay here.
“child-directed” or “caretaker” speech.
Child-directed speech (CDS) refers to speech from a caregiver directed towards a child, as opposed to overheard speech - for example "Is lil'timmy ready for a nappy wappy?" Speech acquisition in children is an area of particular interest for linguists because it has significant implications for later childhood development and socialization. This article is not directly concerned with language acquisition, but rather the sense of forced infantilization that users of many major applications such as Venmo or Yelp feel is being imposed on them. Still, this is an interesting way to frame the topic of app design and the implications it has for the relationship between users and companies.
Source: Shneidman, Laura A., and Meadow, Susan Goldin. “Language Input and Acquisition in a Mayan Village: How Important Is Directed Speech?” Developmental Science 15, no. 5 (September 2012): 659–73. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2012.01168.x.
I'd also add [learned helplessness] (https://www.britannica.com/science/learned-helplessness) - the constant need for entertainment is definitely a problem, but if we take a deterministic view of these broader design trends the long-term ramifications are even more disturbing - the rise of Web 2.0 has seen a massive shift towards user-friendly platforms, but in addition to cultural infantilization we are seeing a significant decrease in tech literacy - and sometimes these trends manifest simultaneously. For instance, I'm writing this annotation in Chrome, but if I lose internet access my browser tab would allow me to play the endlessly addictive "Chrome Dino" browser game until my connection was restored - this is a fairly innocuous little easter egg (not coincidentally a term also used by Yelp UI designer Yoni De Beule in one of the articles I linked to above), but it does raise some broader questions about the amount of tech literacy and user autonomy these companies want us to have - features like these suggest that passivity is their preferred state for consumers, which is troubling.
as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. Play a children’s game on ur phone. Take a selfie. Be gay. Who the hell cares.
Mid-aughts Twitter legend Megan Amran brilliantly exemplifies the blissful ignorance and infantilization that characterizes so much of contemporary millennial culture with this tweet.
And in fact it’s broader than that. We are put in a position where we either embody the forces of repression or we enjoy a Silicon Valley product.
It's all fun and games until basically everyone is a precarious gig economy worker eking out a meager existence. In all seriousness though, the increasingly para-social relationship many consumers have with corporate America is a disturbing trend. These companies are at best neutral entities, and if left unchecked will absolutely trample over consumer rights, labor protections and environmental concerns if it means increased profit for their shareholders. We do ourselves a huge disservice when we assume that corporations are benevolent actors acting in our best interest - a healthy skepticism of the intent behind these aesthetics and design decisions, as well as more recent savvy public relations efforts by many of these companies to demonstrate a nebulous "commitment" to social causes popular with young consumers (such as LGTBQ+ rights or the Black Lives Matter movement) is a necessity.
indifference to human drivers
Our week 8 module on Web 2.0 and the gig economy discussed this in more depth, and Barron alludes to this dynamic elsewhere in the article when describing both the typical user of an app like seamless and the typical profile of the gig economy worker who actually delivers their food - I appreciate the critiques of app design and user infantilization he is making here, but the article could have also discussed in more depth how these design choices help these companies to obfuscate and divert attention from the way they impact people besides the consumer. There is a whole class people whose primary interaction with these apps is on the back end- as struggling small business owners dependent on positive yelp reviews, delivery people, and rideshare drivers - maybe that is outside the purview of this article, but it would have been nice to see this angle explored a bit more.
The privacy agreement allows Niantic Labs to snap a photo of what the user thinks is a Pikachu but Niantic knows is $500,000 worth of market research. Now imagine the client is a police chief, or the Department of Homeland Security.
The implications of this are huge and cannot be understated. Pokemon Go has seen a bit of a decline in it's user base since the article was published, but as this data breakdown shows - one key takeaway from this data breakdown is that this app maintains an impressive user base and signifiant marketshare even 4 1/2 years on from it's debut - clearly the pairing of a famously cute intellectual property with an addictive gaming model is a recipe for success.
Hammy wasn’t born in our fantasies, but in a Silicon Valley office.
Per Yoni De Beule, UI (user interface) developer at Yelp: "Why a hamster? Why not a hamster!" . This quote gives some insight into how this design style is viewed internally (at least at the developer level) - it's not really a matter of deliberate infantilization or overtly sinister - although the end result - infantilization of the user (and all the broader cultural impacts this infantilization creates) is definitely not a neutral outcome.
Source: Quora. “Why Does the Yelp Ios App Use Hamsters in Their Loading Animations and Error Screens?,” January 14, 2014. https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2014/01/14/why-does-the-yelp-ios-app-use-hamsters-in-their-loading-animations-and-error-screens/?sh=3253fefa462c.
I now understood how Lenin felt approaching the Finland Station.
The personality is half mom, half teenager: “cool babysitter.” Seamless will let me stay up late, eat Frosted Flakes for dinner, and watch an R-rated movie
“What a nice doggy-woggy” is something I could say to the young man who rides my subway line with his giant gray pitbull on weekday afternoons, if I wished to be punched in the face.
What a convenient little elision for the Valley, the seat of real power. They’re not the repressive force; opposing them is. All they want is to let us be as free as when we were kids.
because the public’s perception of the goodness or evil of a Silicon Valley company often hinges on the design of the company’s apps.
This is one of the core points Barron is making in the article - the cutesy design choices these companies make are not a whimsical design decision made off the cuff, but the end result of many deliberate UI and UX choices to shore up their image, which helps to counteract against any negative press they might receive.
Yelp, like Google, makes money by collecting consumer data and reselling it to advertisers.
This sentence reminded me of our "privacy checkup" activity from week 7 and has made me want to go and review the terms of service for some of the companies featured in this article- I don't use yelp, but Venmo and Lyft are definitely keeping track of some of my data.
My surprise that no one is insulted by this is quickly overtaken by surprise that Venmo is condoning alcohol consumption among kindergarteners, the only group in America who is routinely asked, with educational toys like Leapfrog, to match short words with pictures.
I appreciate what Barron is getting at here but I think he's taking an extremely contrarian stance to get at his point. Obviously Venmo is not condoning childhood alcohol consumption - a better and more nuanced take (which he alludes to elsewhere in the article) is that the conditions of modern life have prolonged adolescence for millennials (and generation z) - the traditional signifiers of adulthood are gone and the aesthetics of contemporary corporate app and internet design have adjusted to reflect this shift.
"Spaces" is not an official entry here, but svdictionary is a good resource for all sorts of technical jargon common in the valley, and the site itself gives plenty of insight into the internal culture at these companies. Interested readers will also appreciate this guardian article from 2019 which covers a bunch of commonly used silicon valley terms.
a song from the Disney movie Frozen began playing in the cabin.
Why would any respectable airline subject their passengers to this? Like who sits in a boardroom and thinks that adult passengers want to hear this, especially after a long flight? It boggles the mind.
- Post-recession malaise
- speech development
- Mean girls
- Tech bros
- moving back in with your parents
- Data profile
- You are the product
- K-shaped economy
- Essential workers
- Public relations
- Corporate malfeasance
- Generational wealth gap
- It's all about the disruption dude
- Big data
- just a wee babe in the woods
- Mobile gaming
- Terms and conditions
- App Design
- Cool mom
- Let me live my life!