Automatic for the People

Recently, BBC technology reporter Chris Fox posted a segment debunking ‘fake bakes’—slickly edited food-preparation videos with millions of views that offer clever recipes that don’t actually work as shown. In one example, a microwaved flan slides out smoothly from a milk carton in a perfect solid rectangle, wobbling slightly on a plate before unseen hands pour caramel over it. It’s as mesmerising as any of the thousands of gifs that show factory machines precisely icing cookies or shaping Bavarian pretzels or doing some other automated task. But when Fox tries to replicate this, the ‘flan’ glops out of his carton as a pile of oatmealy mush. In another example, Fox mimics a video in which microwave popcorn is made by placing an actual ear of corn in a microwave popcorn bag. He admits that probably few of the millions who have watched this recipe expect it to work; it’s more of a visual pun, like those circa-2013 images from The Jogging tumblr that would show a fried egg in a CD-ROM drawer or a baguette being used as a stubby holder. The point of watching these vaguely absurdist cooking videos is entertainment, not instruction. Certainly, there aren’t millions of failed flans to correspond with all the views the clip received.

The flan sliding out of the carton isn’t meant to be eaten any more than a detergent pod is; it’s merely meant to look the way we now want eating to feel. It’s indicative of how visual forms of consumption have usurped the pleasures of the other senses, which can’t be shared or monetised as easily through screens. Often, this translation from ‘feel’ to image appears as a kind of minimalist simplicity in which the impossible is made to look effortless. The flan equivalent of interior décor is the expensively spartan white and grey rooms that currently populate Instagram. The absence of visual clutter streamlines the path to suspending disbelief, a prerequisite for any denatured, secondhand experience. Yes, someone—I—could actually live like that! The semi-believable fakeness offers a frisson, an edge, giving conspiratorial ideas a kind of bracing tactility.

Fake bakes bring these elements of austerity and secretiveness together, promising viewers access to a technique that is elegantly simple and eminently sharable, yet somehow still unknown. You can almost taste the views coming in. 

By now, there must be ‘fake bakes’ on YouTube for virtually every species of activity, distilling them down to a filmable magic trick that lends itself to a meme-able abracadabra moment: beauty secrets, plumbing repairs, laundry folding, car detailing, and on and on. Consistent among all these is how they elevate their form over whatever particular slight of hand is on display: they foreground their capacity to be compulsively watchable over any other particular skill, which helps confirm the investments viewers have likely already made in social media platforms. The clips teach us how to extract compelling visual hooks from mundane experiences and remind us of the rewards of doing so, both in terms of sensory pleasure and the financial reward their metrics imply. We learn to make and enjoy virality, not flan.

But these kinds of clips also let viewers substitute images of pure transformation for the labour of it, consuming ‘transformation’ in and of itself—arbitrary metamorphoses in which one identifies not with the before or the after, but with the ease with which one segues into the other. The recipe, the secret, the clever hack is a pretence, an alibi that allows us to assimilate ourselves to the mastery on display, the foreshortened temporality that makes cooking appear as seamlessly machinic as the gifs of industrial assembly processes, endlessly turning out perfectly formed products.

In the 2017 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and GIFs,’ film scholar Anna McCarthy argues that such clips ‘provide vicarious access to the linked sensations of precision, efficiency, and effortlessness associated with a job well-done’—qualities denied by the perpetual and immaterial nature of contemporary knowledge work. Tapping into a nostalgia for craft, for actually making things, the gifs ‘override the opposition between automation and skill’ and allow for the ‘fluid correspondence of industrial and industrious.’ McCarthy is responding to how human and machine labour are conflated in these gifs (as when in the cooking videos you see disembodied hands that may as well be machines), linking that fusion with the cut-and-paste productivity of internet culture. Posting and reposting as a process can thereby feel as beautiful as the repeated images appear. Copied content rolls off the assembly line; looping gifs blur into endless scrolls. Production and consumption become equally automatic at the level of the visual, and the repetitive satisfaction of watching the clips gets linked with the labour industrial automation purportedly saves.

When work is automated, effaced, taken out of context, the result is not misrepresentation, misunderstanding, or injustice but a passive pleasure that anyone can enjoy without having to explain it to themselves. It’s just, to borrow a phrase from an early compilation of automation gifs, ‘oddly satisfying.’

It’s fitting that clips like these are now served primarily by algorithmic cueing systems that save viewers the trouble of having to actively seek them out. The aestheticised automation on display is made to serve a broader automation of taste, freeing us from the effort of having to choose what to watch. Algorithmic feeds nudge us toward being more ‘industrial and industrious’ in our consumption practices without demanding any additional effort from us. Our eyes are enlisted as machines whose control can be harmonised and orchestrated remotely, working as rhythmically and methodically as any of the other oddly satisfying wire benders or spool threaders.

I think there is a connection between our taste buds being sidelined for consuming images and our tastes being superseded by algorithms. For images to seem tasty or tactile, they need to deliver sensation without interpretation, with the automaticity of a reflex. Their impact cannot be impeded by their content, by any potentially ambiguous meaning or significance. Algorithmic feeds deskill taste in an attempt to make it more knee jerk, a process that involves no projection of identity or status aspiration. Instead, it purportedly reflects something intrinsic about who you already are, preformed like the microwaved flan, already bent into the appropriate shape by the process of repeated viewing. We can enjoy our own passivity as a kind of aestheticised process of automation. We can see it reflected in the algorithmic feed and in the repetitive content that recapitulates it, the minimalist images that capture the same beauty ideals, the video clips that pursue the same sort of magic short cuts, the same impossible elisions. Automation becomes commensurate with a kind of personal purification. This makes being deskilled seem like a form of vicarious mastery even as one is being subjected to it. It appears as a consumer good—something convenient, beneficial, and pleasurable, rather than a capitalist imposition that threatens our dignity, if not our future livelihood.  

Particular examples of popular content—like the fake bakes, or the minimalist interiors, or the ‘oddly satisfying’ gifs—are often blamed for a broader unoriginality that is supposed to be spoiling culture. Algorithmic filtering promotes the creation of formulaic content that everyone has to see, but no one seems to want (Big Tech made me watch it!), while quirky creativity and nonconformity is being steadily extinguished. Even the 20th century monoculture that was produced by media scarcity is now evoked with nostalgia, for organising us into communal viewers instead of making us the disaggregated, atomised narcissists that social media platforms are presumed to require. In an essay for Vox about ‘monoculture,’ Kyle Chayka worries that in today’s network-driven culture, ‘there isn’t enough room for products or projects (or even places) that are not memes, that aren’t pre-optimized for sharing or scaling.’

This view can be misconstrued as a critique of technology or of particular memes, but it is really a critique of how consumerism has always worked. It simply makes the point that media technology can force any representable thing (including ‘the self’) to adhere to the logic of the commodity.

That means that the problem with overfamiliar content is not its homogeneity; it is that it reflects the sorts of economic incentives that warp the field of cultural possibility. Whatever superficial novelties it happens to inspire, capitalism threatens to be forever and always the real homogeneity. The cash nexus is the most reductive of all cultural formulas. 

Pretending that our cultural consumption has ever reflected a desire to participate in community does nothing to address capitalism’s shaping effects. But it does distract us from the affective appeal of formulaic content, what now manifests as algorithms and algorithmic culture. This desire hides itself by pretending to be about some specific subject (such as flan), but it’s drawn to the guarantees a formula provides. Accepting algorithmic recommendations, like embracing a zeitgeist or attuning to a monoculture, is a strategy to protect ourselves from what might otherwise reveal to us the arbitrariness of our tastes. Latching on to popular trends not only protects us from expressing attitudes that others will ridicule or reject; it saves us the work of forming attitudes, or making decisions, of assessing our criteria. We can take on the horizons of algorithmic culture (and lament them in comments about how everything is the same) to obscure the actual particular cultural horizons that betray our habitus—the biases that would show our ‘true’ selves to ourselves.

Though algorithmic targeting purports to reflect that self, its manifest failures actually work to conceal it, positing an obviously reductive version of who we are against which we can define a ‘real’ self, one that retains full existential freedom to become whatever it wants to be.

As individuals, our tastes are fixed by our biographies within certain limits; algorithms oversimplify this, hinting that we remain unpredictable, and that data about our past behaviour is not closing the walls in around us.

Like a negative theology, the content we’re automatically provided shapes a void that we can pretend is what we really want. But in the meantime, we’re ensconced in the comfort and protection of taste conformity. Our sense of personal ineffability is assured by the host of machines failing to hail us accurately, even as we keep answering the calls, monitoring the notifications, checking our accounts. Of course, at some point, taste can no longer be deskilled because it won’t have been developed in the first place. It will have been fully pre-empted by algorithmic recommendation. We will form our tastes after the fact, in a creative act of projection into the choices that have already been made for us, and take retroactive credit for them, a fake-baked identity. We will have become the flan at last.