This was written by Tom Goodwin, EVP Innovation at Zenith. It’s brilliant.
A Life Without Focus
I didn’t take my phone to Hudson Yards, the screaming new development thrusting above the once empty train depot on the west side of Manhattan. A mistake on my part, because this isn’t a place to go, or be in, it’s a place to share. It’s a place to be seen in, but from afar, digitally, with your cliched pictures, your pre-set shot list, your pose on the step and repeat. Hudson Yards is a new permanent fixture on the Instagram game, holding up the Tower of Piza, glimpses at the Mona Lisa, crafted Cappuccinos, wonderful wing shots, we now have a new destination.
This is a shopping mall with seemingly nobody carrying shopping bags, just phones held aloft while people stand pointlessly stand in queues for the celebrated food du jour, FUKU Fried Chicken, Van Leeuwen Artisanal Ice Cream, Kith Treats, being the same as people you aspire to be like has never been so easy. The global aesthetic has never been more accessible.
For years, we’ve had destination architecture: Frank Gehry put the post-industrial gloom of Bilboa behind it and the city on the map, with one of the many buildings as icons, as catalysts, or as travel brochure fodder for a visual age. From Roger’s Pompidou center to Calatrava’s Milwaukee Art Museum, we’ve seen the late 20th century move towards architecture as bait. A way to bolster civic pride, foster identity, signify change, but now about all else lure in the tourists and let them make our city go viral.
As McLuhan said, “First we shape our tools, then they shape us”, and the rise of a visual web, the social platforms of Instagram, and an attention span that favors quick rushes over slow delectation, we see the world become one filled with the same visual cues and metaphors. We now see Instagram not just as a way for people to share the moment, but as a creative brief for chefs, interior designers, and architects. From the relatively benign, oversized 3D-lettered place signs to real-life photo filters to Instagrammable meal kits and to the now ubiquitous fiddle-leaf fig trees and Edison lightbulbs, the world becomes a backdrop for images. Pop-up stores exist on the single premise that one day, they won’t be there. Hurry to buy something you don’t need because you won’t be able to later. Museums curate collections around one strong image for the Instagram generation, with perhaps a hashtag thrown in.
Hudson Yards becomes the new proof of concept. A new case study in the Urban Millennial. A place for two audiences. The Peloton and Juicero class-goers to spend their unexpected wealth on $160 Heretic candles, ironic mechanical typewriter iPad keyboards, underwear as a service, and other expensive things to make up for a life without problems, but also without meaning.
The real crowd is those with a thirst for validation, who seek meaning from likes, purpose from followers, and for them, this isn’t a shopping mall to buy from, it’s a stage set for Instagram. For those collecting images, not experiences or memories, turning life into a game of social media metrics, an ever-changing leaderboard of high scores. Art, like those wings on walls, becomes dating app profile fodder. This is a destination for those who don’t live life, they broadcast it. If it’s not liked, it didn’t happen.
This is a shopping mall for a planet where each destination becomes a collectible stop in life orienteering. The Eiffel tower, the Marina Bay sands pool in Singapore, the tower of Pisa, the wing sunset shot. It’s not Starchitecture, it’s Inst’Architecture. Expensive stores attract meandering, purposeless shoppers inside, with things not to touch, feel or buy, but to take pictures in front of; space capsules, ironic signs, taxi cabs with plants, big quotes with accessible wisdom, but at the center of it all, like a fountain for a quasi-public square serves as a focal and social point, the ancient lay lines of Instagram run right through the Vessel.
The Vessel is part stairway to nowhere, part giant Kebab. It’s the centerpiece and alter to a lost tribe, whose religion is social validation. This becomes their cathedral. Some think the sculpture come building is Escher-like, with its strange angles, its complex array, it’s mesmerizing, curvaceous and impossibly deep copper shiny-ness, pulling in phones with its gravity. Perhaps the Vessel is a real-life demonstration on lost perspectives. A moth-like generation, drawn towards it with the captivating light of screens, and the drug-like rush of social engagement. This development serves as a monument to a planet with lost motivation, confused sense of reality and the hypnoses of a blended and digitally augmented world.
We’ve only ever said yes to technology, without asking why or how. We’ve let it fill the pores of our lives, hack our feedback mechanisms and biochemistry. We’ve added phones and a barrier to all moments, including real-life interactions. The phone becomes the shield behind which boredom cannot hit, we waft nonchalantly down our feeds so we never have to feel empty, sad, disconnected or self-reflect. We can celebrate the metrics of connectivity, not discuss with close friends the futility of it all.
We live ever more isolated and connected, more adept at ever on social media, less capable than imaginable in real life. We’ve lost meaning and purpose, we’ve lost the ability to bond, but we’ve become better than ever at curating moments in our lives, to broadcast who we are, to live the lifestyle our personal brand demands through brands that specifically represent who we are.
As technology continues to exaggerate and propagate divides, we feel empty if we let life in for one second. Loneliness only sets in when we are without our digital pulse. Maybe now is a good time to reflect on the role of design and culture and technology in our lives. Maybe we need to fight to feel alive in earnest ways, embrace the delight of reality, enjoy the poignance of smells, get validation from accomplishment and connection, feel part of a tribe of one, and more than anything else, fight the current culture of “I ‘Gram therefore I am.”
The world now allows frictionless experiences. We can buy culture without worrying about feeling it. We can live in large cities and deal with the stink of garbage, the threat of interest, the authenticity of reality. This is a world where efficiency has streamlined life like a critical path analysis. A world driven by optimization and code, in which our steady path to death becomes not about touching the sides, but of winning.
Perhaps now is a time to take a step back, to welcome boredom, to celebrate the hard, to enjoy the weird, to feel alive.