On Style and the Algorithmic Derivation Thereof

A thought (or many thoughts):

As someone who grew up in Northern California, which is explicitly not San Francisco, it was always clear to me that fashion sense in the back-country of the redwoods followed one of two patterns:

  1. Weed culture—a kind of tired, Humboldt-inspired look that said “I’m just chillin, and I really don’t give a fuck how you perceive me ‘cause I have shoeboxes of cash in my bedroom (which I obtained through the [then-criminal] transaction of weed.
  2. Culture culture—the kind that starts in a cultural epicenter, like Los Angeles or San Francisco, and slowly crawled its way north until it found us waiting for inspiration.

What this tells me is that “fashion” isn’t just a byproduct of taste, which, conceivably could be destructed into algorithmic sorting and optimization, but of culture.

Style, fashion, taste—they’re all constructed not only by our naked eyes and biological processes, but by the social constructs built around us: who likes what, what did Yeezy wear last week, how will the weather affect my style choices?

These choices are affected as much by our innate chemistry as they are by our eyes and brain alone. This line of thinking, that we can reduce style and fashion—and culture—to algorithms ignores the biology that makes us. It ignores the exchange of pheromones and the larger-scale chemistry that governs our bodies, enforcing decisions without our consent or knowledge.

I posit that every decision we make is as-governed by our toes as they are by our brains—if you develop gout, or a gangrenous toe, you will think of, and view, the world much differently than the day before, when you did not have this ailment. This is the flaw in thinking as it pertains to computational analysis—the technical thought leaders of the world of AI generally ignore biology and chemistry. They view human choice solely as a computation of the brain, and not the entire system of our bodies nested in the system of society.

Taste and fashion are not equivocal the world across—culture shapes fashion, which, in turn, shapes taste. The only true, universally human, sense of taste deals with poisons and threats to our biological systems. Culture layers a veneer on top of biological imperative that defines and encourages style. Yet, culture promotes diversity, as regional environs limit visibility into emergent trends in fashion, in any vertical—food, clothing, vernacular.

However, homogeneity is to our advantage as a species—look alike, act alike, be alike. That an algorithm is pushing us toward a more uniform definition of style is is not human, but I’m unclear as to whether that makes our leveraging of it as inhuman.

All of this being said, show me a culturally-sensitive AI that can distinguish Appalachian from Plains, Deep South from LA, LA from SF, and SF from Arcata-fucking-California, and then I’ll begin to revise my sentiment on what is an unwritten natural law and what is merely an algorithm that has no sense of culture, only what is “popping” in your neighborhood, or in your own abode, for that matter.

The fact remains that what we consider to be fashionable has as much to do with our own instinctive sense of taste as it does with the environment in which we find ourselves. Be wary of the individual who claims "I am the arbiter of my own sense of the universe," for that person is wearing blinders.

Be leery of the thought-leader who claims "AI has decrypted the annals of human taste, and we now have the answer!!" for this person is, at best, probably an agent of Amazon, or, at worst someone who has been swept up in the current, and has had too much Kool-Aid.


Keith Hamilton