Taylor Swift, AI cults and the pain of the personal brand
Plus: Our headlong rush toward total enscreenification
Living room designs of the past 60 years have revolved around one sacrosanct, inalienable axis: the centrality of the television screen — the biggest and brightest one you can get.
That one thing you must remember, or nothing that follows will seem wondrous.1 For at the Consumer Electronics Show last month, several manufacturers debuted TVs designed to blend peaceably with their backgrounds: two transparent televisions, from Samsung and LG, plus a bevy of new high-res projectors, plus off-brand copycats of the Samsung Frame, which disguises your TV as a wall-mounted picture.
These TVs, to be clear, are one defiant speck in a culture that still loves giant, obtrusive screens. Since the late ‘90s, the size of the average American TV has more than doubled, hogging as much as eight square feet of wall space in its most egregious varieties. Our televisions are a status symbol — a pastime — even a personality. (Think of the man in your life with the biggest television, and you’ll know exactly what I mean.)
And yet, demand for these TVs-that-don’t-look-like-TVs also continues unabated. Last month, an executive at Samsung told Fast Company that the runaway success of its Frame TV is prompting the company to expand into other disguised products. You can now purchase smart speakers that look like lamps and MacBook cases that look like books. Pricey laptops and speakers historically signaled your taste and savvy and financial success … but now some portion of their buyers actually hope to hide them.
Intrigued, I put that apparent paradox to the researcher Paul Coulton, the chair of Speculative and Game Design at Lancaster University in the U.K. Coulton has, among other interesting projects, worked on efforts to imagine how future living rooms will incorporate technology.
“Screens and internet, etc., have become home infrastructure like pipes or cables,” he told me via email. “And therefore, as with those, there is a tendency to want them to disappear so we focus on [the] task, not the toll.”
This is fascinating to me, and not only because I own a Frame TV myself. At the time, we justified the purchase because our 110-year-old living room did not include a continuous blank wall appropriate for hanging a normal television. (For more on how the advent of the TV changed home design, check out this blog post by a Seattle-based architect.)
But yeah, also, as screens have become endemic around my house and on my person, I have perhaps felt a desire to see fewer of them. For me — and I suspect, for many others — that desire only deepened in the pandemic. Suddenly, we had even more time on our screens. And suddenly, our living rooms had to multitask: The TV room now doubled (or tripled) as a classroom, a home gym, a workshop, an office.
Predictably, a lot of people bought new TVs during the pandemic. And a lot of people bought Frame TVs, in particular: Samsung sold 1 million of them in the first 11 months of 2021 — more than it had sold in total in the four years prior.
Where will this trend toward hidden tech take us next? These sorts of predictions never age well. (Though I will note that Disney’s famous “House of the Future,” pictured above, did include a flat, wall-mounted TV that looked a bit like an art item.) In 2018, Coulton and a team of other researchers mocked up an immersive living room of the future, in which even mundane objects (a coaster, window blinds, a coffee table) connected to the internet and customized the program playing on a (large, not-at-all-hidden) television.
A similar thought experiment the next year by researchers in Greece hypothesized that many home surfaces — walls, coffee tables — will one day become screens, as well. It’s enough to make you wonder if we’re truly disguising our screens as analog objects … or normalizing the “screenification” of everything else.
I’m not worried about that yet, though. I love my Frame TV. That said, I feel no compulsion whatsoever to upgrade beyond my 50-inch screen.
If you read anything else this weekend
Five Reads Re: Taylor Swift. (Liberal) America’s sweetheart has found herself in the crosshairs of two separate and appalling online campaigns in the past week: the first, apparently started by an abusive group on Telegram, flooded X with deepfaked nude images of the singer; the second, popularized by a handful of high-profile, far-right conspiracists, alleged she’s part of an elaborate plot to help Biden win the election. As the spouse of a diehard Swiftie, there is no way I could choose just one story on this. But of the many I read, these were the best:
“A Complete Timeline of the Far Right’s Tumultuous Relationship With Taylor Swift,” by Miles Klee for Rolling Stone. The context that explains Swift’s transformation from Americana darling to sociopolitical lightening rod. (See also the Netflix documentary, which I liked quite a lot!)
“Taylor Swift Conspiracy Theorists Get Psyops All Wrong,” by Justin Ling for Wired. Asking real psyops experts about bullshit conspiracies is a good schtick on its own, but there’s also some good background here on how “information wars” are really lost/won.
“Inside the Taylor Swift Deepfake Scandal: ‘It’s Men Telling a Powerful Woman to Get Back In Her Box,’” by Emine Saner for The Guardian. Nonconsensual deepfake pornography is an exploding problem — and lawmakers haven’t done much about it.
“America’s Paranoid Taylor Swift Super Bowl MAGA Fever Dream,” by Kyle Chayka for The New Yorker. A theory of both Swift’s “inescapability” and how/why she keeps getting grafted onto all these other social issues.
“Taylor Swift vs. the Manosphere,” by Ryan Broderick in Garbage Day. A characteristically smart analysis that ties the week’s Swiftian scandals into the widening political divide between young men and women.
“Everybody Has to Self-Promote Now. Nobody Wants To,” by Rebecca Jennings for Vox. I came across this article during one of my daily “social media sprints” — tortuous and vaguely desperate 30-minute blocks when I force myself to log into Twitter and Threads as a form of “brand maintenance.” I do not want to maintain my brand. I TRULY do not want to possess a brand at all. And yet, as Jennings lays out (in fabulous and wide-ranging detail — I really like the way this piece was reported) it is increasingly impossible to find success in any field, and especially in media or the arts, without also engaging in constant, laborious self-promotion on social media. Is now a good time to tell you I’m on Threads and Links has a dedicated Instagram now?
“How Quora Died,” by Nitish Pahwa for Slate. Do you remember the last time you got a decent answer from the internet’s foremost knowledge-sharing network? Quora declined so dramatically, and over such a long span, that I personally forgot it was ever any good. But its idealistic origins, and its spammy, AI-diluted fate, are sadly very relevant (maybe prescient!) right now: Next month, Google will make it easier to use generative AI in literally any online forum where writing happens.
“The Cult of AI,” by Robert Evans2 for Rolling Stone. You might have heard some recent mumbling about the Rabbit R1, a new device that exists to outsource every possible decision to AI — including choices as mundane as which type of pizza to order. Some critics dismissed the R1 as silly; Garber-Paul has a slightly more interesting, ominous (!) take. She argues it’s the latest sign that AI partisans have adopted an increasingly cult-like tone … which conveniently disguises the technology’s significant shortfalls and dangers.
“She Gave Birth Two Weeks Ago. Now She’s in a Beauty Pageant,” by Madison Malone Kircher for The New York Times. 2,500 words in the paper of record about the queen of Mormon influencers and her weird, regressive pageant? Hell yes, this is appointment reading. Please relish it.
Flip Phone February. “Fringe Friendships.” The enshittification of TikTok. Black Twitter still thrives on X, but The Hairpin is now an AI clickbait farm :(. What is the point of “reading” apps like Blinkist? When is “only a small chance” still too large? The dream of cheap, ad-free streaming is dead, or: yeah, you should cancel some subscriptions.
A taxonomy of text-based social media users (… which doubles as a fun explainer of why Twitter replacements haven’t taken off.) The UMG/TikTok fallout will hurt small artists most. The bulk of YouTube videos aren’t meant for a wide public. Everyone online is selling something. “Stunts of tedious comprehensiveness.” Last but not least, a consoling reminder for my fellow millennials: “While it’s true that the generation born in the years from 1981 to 1996 is getting older — as is the way of all life — we are obviously not actually old.”
Until next week! Warmest virtual regards,
If you correctly identified this as a quote from The Muppet Christmas Carol, you have my enduring respect AND affection.
Originally named the wrong author here — apologies and thanks to Kelly for the correction!