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Hipsters Under Control: The End Of Subculture?

Almost everyone wants to belong to the "in-crowd", even if that in-crowd defines itself as being outside the dominant culture. Subcultures expressed through music, art or political dissent have long played an important role in human history.

"Not for much longer", says the always provocative Venkatesh Rao (he goes by Venkat). In a recent post entitled "Peak Attention and the Colonization of Subcultures" Venkat follows the erosion of subcultures into mere market niches.

The Big Data collectors (Facebook, Amazon, Google, etc.) are so good at spotting the development of subcultures that soon, Venkat says, they will be creating and controlling them for their own (or their clients) market exploitation. He continues:

"As a revealing sign, it is noteworthy that subcultures have already been subverted so completely that they voluntarily self-document their doings online on privately-owned platforms. Every party or group lunch is now likely to be photographed, video-taped and archived online as part of collective memory. Group-life streams and grand narratives are out there, for the reading."

"If you're not paying, you're the product. Indeed."

Venkat is a fascinating thinker and while sometimes his posts can be heavy with the language of a graduate seminar in cultural studies, they are always worth the effort. His work can be deeply creative. In this case, I think he correctly understands how the union of Big Data and computationally driven, advanced statistical analysis might undermine a process of human culture that has managed to survive from the birth of cities (6,000 or so years) until today.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.

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