One of the main problems in the present age of globalism and individualism is how to reconcile—and sustain—their paradoxical coexistence.

The disappearance of distinct local cultures as a result of the global expansion of consumerism and its brand-names, franchises, and the mass-marketing of look-alike products shows no signs of slowing down. Sooner or later, we might imagine, every human settlement will look more or less the same. Already, the newer urban centers where the population has grown recently and rapidly are difficult to distinguish architecturally, as the same building types, same technologies, and even the same globe-trotting architects, are defining their skylines. In the streets, local languages and customs still survive in differing degrees, at least for now.

Parallel with this aesthetic and cultural development has been an increase in the value of human identity. Throughout the world, people are concerned with affirming their individual identities in a public way. The rapid emergence of internet sites where any person can post personal information available to everyone is a prominent example. This can be seen as a reaction to the homogenization created by consumerism, yet it is also part of a broad political change in the present society that emphasizes human rights to a historically unprecedented degree. Perhaps, as some have pointed out, it is consumerism itself, both in its marketing propaganda and the ubiquity of credit-card buying, that has fostered the demand for publicly asserted personal identity, but it is also the growing belief that each person has a right to have a say in forming and directing everything from the election of political leaders and the policies of government to public opinion about anything. The internet and news media are jammed with opinion polls and personal blogs of every description, and while their actual impact is unclear, it is certain this is a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.

The conflicts between or, paradoxically, the merging of these two seemingly contradictory movements in culture, politics, and society is one of the epic human projects presently unfolding. Skeptics claim that the widespread public push for personal identity is the dying gasp of individuality in the flood of consumerist conformity engulfing the world. Optimists claim that their coexistence is the first stage in the emergence of an entirely new and more complex, even more subtle, form of human society, a step up in human evolution.

In the realm of aesthetics—which is the flipside of ethics—it is clear that new definitions and distinctions must be made. The age of the singular and original object standing out from an aesthetically anonymous background (the Medieval model) is ending. Appropriation, the death of the author, and most especially of the genius, “mechanical reproduction”—not only in product and print, but also in virtual and electronic form—signal new aesthetic techniques, and also new aesthetic values and criteria of judgment. The emphasis is shifting to the background—the field—which is no longer anonymous and uniform, but alive with the unique, the singular, mass-produced and not. In such a time, designers, artists, and architects must rethink and redefine, in visual terms, the global field condition. They must learn to see, and enable, variations in the field—the aesthetically and socially complex field—and for that task what they most need is the capability to perceive, and conceptualize, the differences in radical similarities.







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