A friend recently sent me a picture snapped outside a posh toy store in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Sitting front-and-center in the shop’s window was a most curious toy: a ring light, camera, and selfie-stick tripod, all rendered in composite wood. Plan Toys is an aspirational kids’ brand for the anti-screen set, the parents who lost their minds the fastest and most acutely during the first months of lockdown as the press began to fret over the impact of screens on children’s socio-cognitive development. It couldn’t have been more than six weeks into the pandemic work-from-home odyssey when my fellow parent coworkers and I began covertly admitting to one another that our kids, sitting quietly just off-camera, were actually being placated by screens.
Eighteen months later, we’ve given up. The kids are all addicts now and the toy industrial complex, even the Waldorf-approved toy industrial complex, has clearly caught on. The relentless self-documentation of (forced) domestic life that characterized the pandemic’s first blush — my shitty sourdough; your DIY tie-dyed socks — is now a life skill for children to acquire through dramatic play.
While we continue to perform the pandemic on social media, deepening our already-entrenched addiction to screens, start-up companies clamor to capitalize on our ongoing confinement as the Delta variant ripples its way across the country. The apps themselves — Instagram, in particular — are specifically designed to generate addictive behavior. Targeted ads, however, are doing the real job on us by hawking goods and services that barely existed in virtual form prior to the onset of the pandemic. Soothing, pastel-hued ads for text message-based psychotherapy and psychiatry, for example, are aimed specifically at women. Women just like me.
What I have been calling “late pandemic aesthetics” is about a general look-and-feel distinctly informed by the at-home goods and services that were in hot demand in 2020. Athleisure. Office furniture and home decor. Workout equipment and programs. Psychiatry. Cooking. Late pandemic aesthetics may be found in the space where digital advertising tailored to buyers’ demographics, search, and spending habits, all likely informed by the crisis, meet culture. Late pandemic aesthetics are where screen life and real life become one in the same again following a stretch of locked-down time when one (screens) was a portal to the other (street).
We see this in the subway system, where ads for virtual services — dentistry, the aforementioned psychiatry, weight loss — meet a car packed with masked riders who have given up on mask-as-personal-statement in favor of straight PPE. (As one friend recently put it, the blue surgical mask is “the ‘normcore’ of masks.”) We see it very clearly in street fashion, as America’s pre-pandemic predilection for sportswear has reached new heights: Think about the Yeezy foam runner, for example, or the ubiquitous Croc, whose market shares have skyrocketed over the past eighteen months. (Both have inspired countless street knockoffs, with Kanye West actually suing Walmart back in June for copying the foam runner, which was initially released in 2020.)
We see it in the child wielding the wooden selfie stick while her mom doomscrolls through photographs of Afghanistan and cries.
Plan Toys Vlogger set ($49.99 from Happy Mango); My Life as a Vlogger set ($19.99 from Walmart); “Children’s Screen Time Has Soared in the Pandemic, Alarming Parents and Researchers” (New York Times, January 17, 2021); Quarantine Dream House/ White Ally Barbie (YouTube, 2020); How Instagram and Facebook are Designed to Intentionally Mimic Addictive Painkillers (Business Insider, August 11, 2021); Crocs Sees Best Sales Ever With Pandemic Giving Clogs New Life (Bloomberg, January 11, 2021); Scenes from Afghanistan: Here’s What Happened Today (New York Times, ongoing)
In Happiness Machines, the first episode of British documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis’s 2002 BBC television series The Centry of the Self, Curtis details the relationship between Sigmund Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays, the so-called father of public relations, who emigrated to the United States in the 1920s and applied the tenets of Freudian theory to the then-nascent field. The documentary, which is one of my very favorites, traces the troubling relationship between consumer advertising as we now know it and the rise of capitalism in America. Bernays would have been fascinated by targeted digital advertising which, when done “well,” thoroughly confuses the consumer’s wants with their needs, drawing on the compulsive nature of human behavior coupled with addiction-fueling app design to sell products. Happiness Machines will change your understanding of the way you spend money. Watch it!