In her essay “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Sianne Ngai, a professor at Stanford, theorizes cuteness as an “aesthetic of powerlessness.” In the face of the overwhelming question — “What’s it for?” — a strain of avant-garde art responds by playing up its inutility, she argues. It magnifies its impotence until “it begins to look silly.” Ngai’s concerns, admittedly, weigh heavier than any app or Disney-movie soundtrack: she deals in her essay with Beckett, Adorno, and Stein. But one of her key observations, that we tend to read cuteness as evidence of “restricted agency” rather than as evidence of concealed and significant power, proves useful when looking at the visual language of apps.

    What unites Yelp, Seamless, and Venmo is, in part, their desire to monopolize particular spheres of adult life (“spaces,” in Valleyspeak). They also offer services that diminish the user’s autonomy in a way that — from a certain low angle, in a certain light — reads as patronizing when we’re supposed to be the patrons. We cannot find food on our own, or choose a restaurant, or settle a tiny debt. Where that dependency feels unseemly in the context of independent adult life, it feels appropriate if the user’s position remains childlike, and the childlikeness makes sense when you consider that Yelp depends on us to write reviews, and therefore must, like a fun mom, make chores feel fun too.


I've written and deleted three comments to this piece now. I don't know where to put my anger

The crass commercial world makes me angry. I thought it was going to get a little better when we didn't watch so many commercials on TV.

As I grow older I despise the world we've wroght more and more. I love so many of the people in it.

Like Bill Hicks said "any one here in marketing? Go kill yourself and make the world a better place."

Think I'll slam three beers, take a rarely indulged in hit of grass, drop a tab of morphine to sleep like the dead. It's stupid how under my skin thinking about what a pack of barrow pigs we all are but I don't know where to put my frustration at the constant needless assault.

posted by kleinbl00: 870 days ago