December 11, 2023

Four small stories about tech and culture that have stuck in my head

In my notes, a few ideas for posts have been staring at me for weeks or months. I found these interesting ideas and always wanted to share them but never had enough material to flesh them out into a complete article.

Well, now that we’re halfway through list season, today is the perfect opportunity to share them. Here are some intriguing things I’ve come across about color, tourism, shopping, and longevity – enjoy! (This post is inspired by the excellent mini-stories from 99% Invisible, which you should also definitely check out.)

Everything is now grey

Back in 2020, Reddit user Feemiror posted a chart showing the distribution of car paint colors and how they have changed over time. While the data was from Poland, the trend over the past two decades is the same across much of the globe: more white, silver, grey, and black, and less of everything else.

I'm guilty here. I bought a black sedan in 2019.

It’s not just cars. Researchers looked at objects of all sorts held in British museums and analyzed colors and how they changed over time. The same pattern emerged: black, white, and grey take off running about two or three decades ago.

Grey, in particular, has taken over much of our built world. Fast food restaurants, once a dizzying spectacle of color, all sorta look like Chipotles now. This year has seen a surge of criticism over “millennial grey,” a trend in interior design of grey couches, grey paint, and, most of all, grey floors.

Many observers note that this pull towards neutrals is a response from a generation growing up with two forces. Cluttered designs, like the “Tuscan kitchen,” were wildly popular in the 90s and 2000s (think Cheesecake Factory), and many see these more minimal styles as a reactionary breath of fresh air. And the age group making these decisions was walloped by the Great Recession and is still skittish to commit to big decisions that may both cost more to execute and affect resale value.

But maybe the tide is turning, at least in some domains: among the 2024 trends forecasted by Pinterest Predicts are tropical aesthetics, kitschy kitchens, and groovy weddings.

The Sphere is very cool

I’m not a big Vegas guy, but one thing has me wanting to book a ticket: The Sphere. Every time I see a video of this thing, I am blown away.

The Sphere is a 14,000-seat performance venue, and it’s one of the most unique things anybody has built anywhere in a long time – both the interior and exterior are giant spherical screens. On the outside, this 360° billboard has been used as an emoji, a basketball, an eyeball, a jack-o-lantern, and a bunch of other designs that make your brain tingle. And on the inside, U2 is holding a residency that includes its own share of trippy graphics and immersive footage.

Two things I think will be true with The Sphere. First, every new building in Vegas (and a number of other touristy places) will soon be covered in a similar sheath of LEDs. Second, every ad agency is going to throw in a sponsored activation of the exterior in their new business pitches going forward (it’s only $450,000 a day).

Is Black Friday dead – or bigger than ever?

Last month, I noticed two contradictory trends related to the “biggest shopping day of the year.” Anecdotally, the manufactured holiday seemed like a bust – people posted videos of empty malls and false bargains. But by the numbers, this was actually the most successful Black Friday to date, 7.5% bigger in terms of dollars spent than last year. 

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How much of that first bit was millennial nostalgia and algorithmic content targeting? Probably a lot. I’m now 34, making me just old enough to be in prime stuff-wanting age as there was a lot of new stuff to want: portable DVD players, MP3 players, a flurry of new video game consoles, the first wave of HDTVs, and all sorts of physical media. Lots of reasons to line up outside of Circuit City.

But now that the modern equivalent for most of that stuff is either software on our multi-purpose black computing rectangles or streaming media accessible with a couple taps, the most notorious Black Friday deals no longer have as much sheen. And everything else is available with free shipping online, a much less visible form of consumerism. So, the malls stay empty.

And it looks like the growth can probably be attributed to a mixed bag of reasons: inflationary prices, pent-up demand, growing international interest in Black Friday, and even cooler temperatures.

What happens to our digital stuff over a long time?

In a few hundred years, nearly all of us will be gone and forgotten. (There’s an optimistic angle here: Go do whatever you want! Any embarrassment or failure is astonishingly fleeting!) But, while we’re here for a brief moment, there are a few things that we do want to last for a really long time. The problem is, we’re pretty bad about making that happen when it comes to our digital stuff.

Technologies change, data gets corrupted, links break, and companies go under. Most of the apps and websites you once used, even just a few years ago, are now considered lost media. While books can last for centuries, it’s basically a miracle when something still works on the internet a decade later.

This summer, WordPress introduced a novel way of addressing this, a “100-Year Plan.” For the low, low cost of just $38,000, they will provide you with a century of domain registration, ongoing hosting, additional backups, and bespoke ownership and support services. It’s designed for family legacies, company archives, or similar long-term use cases.

Of course, this assumes that WordPress (and the web) will still be around in 100 years or more. Some estimates say that there are only about 1,000 companies in the United States that old, and the average lifespan of a company on the S&P 500 is only about 21 years.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just released his first book – Simply Put, and works with some cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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