Dilemmas of the Cheap Aesthetic

I’ve frequently taken aim at “expensive tastes” on this blog. It seems like the corollary of that critique would be praise for inexpensive tastes, or a cheap aesthetic. This may well be the cheapest music video ever made (American Princes, Never Grow Old):

Here’s the band’s (promoter’s) description of the video on YouTube:

Take a moment and think back to the younger years. All you have is a pen, notebook paper, and an imagination. No distractions to interrupt you, just you and the music in your head. How would you envision your new favorite rock band? American Princes captures this innocent moment with their music video, Never Grow Old. It will effortlessly and entertainingly take you back to simplicity . . . . It’s new, fresh, ingenious, and original.

The simulations here are not merely simple (unlike, say, Justice’s graphics-dominated video for DVNO), but are quite a lot less resource-intensive than, say, real drums, guitars, stages, etc. Never Grow Old reminded me of Albert C. Lin’s article Virtual Consumption: A Second Life for Earth (2008 BYU L. Rev. 47), which provides a creative response to the Malthusian dilemmas I was discussing yesterday.

Lin cautiously concludes that a shift from real to virtual consumption could relieve pressures on natural resources:

Whether virtual consumption will be better for the environment, or for society at large, remains to be determined. On the one hand, virtual worlds may serve merely as enablers of real consumption. If so, the environmental promise of virtual consumption may be only an illusion. On the other hand, virtual worlds may function as a bridge to a society less dependent on material consumption. Such an outcome would benefit the environment and finally provide a curb to the rising tide of consumption.

But Lin has some fascinating thoughts on whether engagement with a virtual world may lead individuals to care less and less about real ones:

Obviously, Second Life and other virtual worlds differ from Nozick’s experience machine (and even more dystopic visions such as that found in The Matrix films) in various ways, not the least of which is that they provide opportunities to interact with other human beings. However, one’s ability in Second Life to assume a selected persona and a chosen avatar, combined with the ability to have virtual experiences that simulate real ones, raises serious questions about the moral suitability of these activities.

Viewed in this light, the fact that many Internet users feel as strongly about their online communities as they do about their real communities is both impressive and troubling. Granted, virtual worlds offer far more excitement, with increasingly powerful graphic capabilities, than the video games of yesteryear. The growing attraction of virtual worlds nevertheless may be as much a commentary on the quality of life in the real world as a testament to the experiential value of virtual worlds. As more people establish presences in the virtual world, the danger is that these virtual world users will “tune out” the real world, give it less value, and view its problems as increasingly irrelevant. Technology has had a tendency to foster social isolation by privatizing how we get information, how we do things, and how we entertain ourselves; virtual worlds may well exacerbate that isolation.

Fortunately, the aesthetic valorization of the cheap (or ugly) may not be as dangerous as the romance of the virtual. Liking the cheap (be it real estate, food, or art) can be a training in satisfaction; virtual reality is more bivalent, both compensating for a world that falls short of expectations and subtly making those expectations grander.

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