Yesterday, while opening my Instagram feed, the first thing I encountered was a video of three pretty girls (non-obvious models) dancing around in nothing more than underwear, shirts and socks. The garments look comfortable and aesthetically pleasing enough for me to actually wonder where I could get a pair for myself. This video has been a part of my social media feed for the past three days and while realising I’ve encountered it multiple times by now, I start to wonder why I’m seeing this. There is no obvious branding to be found and there are no tag lines used (e.g. get 15% off your first order) — just three girls, all of different race, having fun in a studio setting dancing to the same song I was listening to just an hour ago on my personal Spotify playlist. The joy and ease capture my attention the most along with the type casting. The fact that the video is an advertisement for weekday, only becomes clear when I click the assigned promoted post that leads me to its web shop, where the launch of a new underwear line becomes apparent. While I don’t follow the brand on Instagram, I do follow the artist of the song featured in the video on Spotify, and, on Instagram I also follow girls that are ethnically and aesthetically equivalent to the girls dancing in the video. I’ve made my preferences and interests clear through the use of these new media tools. This specific online behaviour can be tracked by algorithms. It is therefore implied that I’m part of the brands target group. And even though I currently have more than enough underwear, I get the feeling that I really need these new items.
Subliminal triggers like these are often found within our fashion system. The system instigates a commercial rhythm through the introduction of new trends and seasonal collections, in which trends pose as the desired new. The idea of the new connotates a momentary zeitgeist and is thus created in the form of seasonal collections with the goal to accelerate our buying behaviour. The current zeitgeist is very much in conjunction with new media. This is a form of media, in which digital devices are connected with its user through online applications such as Instagram and Spotify. These applications embody an algorithm; a calculated force that performs calculation, (personal) data processing and automated reasoning. The algorithm forms a link between new media and the fashion system. The algorithmic new media can be linked to the rhythmic fashion system. Both cyclical rhythms are used as strategy to push the consumer in a continuous cycle of buying fashion. In addition to the offline production cycle, the algorithm therefore is an additional rhythmic system that forces us into this fashion system.
When algorithms track my online behaviour and subsequently offer recommendations, they not just force me into a certain rhythm, they also inherently narrow down my scope of choice. The algorithm works towards limitations or creates a certain focus, thus can be seen as a propagandistic tool that mystifies, blurs our perception (blocking all the other options) and steers our choice. The confusing part is that this propagandistic core is navigated by our own online behaviour, the online behaviour of its user. We, ourselves, are the ones that give input for this algorithm to behave the way it does. These rhythms and the digital infrastructures that they are build upon, are considered to be fluid, in a sense that they have the ability to adapt and navigate its online follower in the algorithmic machine’s desired path, while having the user think it’s his or her own incentive. This desired path it stimulated by the fashion system through the utilisation of the algorithmic gaze. This gaze embodies the portrayal of its users digital landscape, in which determined preferences reach beyond, and overtake, an objective view of the consumers digital surroundings. It can therefore be seen as a form of digital propaganda, serving the consumer a stream of subliminal triggers that focus on tricking the consumer into buying. New media and its applications pose as the perfect digital infrastructure for the distribution of this form of propaganda, as new media is engrained in our daily lives. As new media are engrained in our daily lives, they form a perfect digital infrastructure for the distribution of fashion as capitalistic propaganda. Thus, as part of commercial rhythms, algorithms mystify the influential effect new media has on our consuming habits, affecting our ability to consciously position ourselves within the fashion system.
This essay encompasses the exploration and interconnection of the fashion system and the concept of the algorithm. As they both possess a certain rhythmic ability that blurs our perception of consumer agency, it is my belief that through the utilisation of algorithms by the fashion system in our current digital based society — these rhythms function as tools for mystification. Through the concepts of rhythm analysis, fashion in the non- textile realm, the propagandistic core of new media and defining the consumer-as-user within new media, I aim to explore and explain the way rhythms are used to mystify and subliminally influence the consumer on a daily basis. This influential strategy ultimately manipulates the sense of autonomy and therefore ones agency. Unconsciously acting upon consumer culture attributes to the already polluting character of fashion and diminishes the consumers ability to convey change within the confined structures of consumer society. Once we realise that we are being addressed as full-time consumers by all media surrounding us in everyday life, regaining digital agency and taking responsibility within our digital environment is an important step to take.
The first two chapters are dedicated towards introducing the concept of rhythms as a conditioning force and linking rhythms in fashion to repetition by explaining that the fashion system works as a system of visual influence. Chapter three and four further explore fashions’ non-textile dimension by connecting it to the propagation of consumers’ habitual rhythms. Here, the concept of propaganda and its attendance in communicating capitalism through fashion is defined. Chapters five and six aim to explain new media and situate algorithmic influence in fashions’ online realm. Finally, chapter seven questions the state of the consumers’ digital agency and its implications regarding its passive behaviour.
living through rhythms
Enforcing a rhythm can adapt the course of the conscious. Rhythms are important within the aspect of daily life as we condition them and are also conditioned by them. This double-sense notion is why rhythms are to be considered active participants in our daily lives. Although they help us live our lives accordingly and create a safe environment, its conditioning is also in collusion with its ability to mystify and create a passive state of experience. Perhaps the most important quality of a rhythm is that it is normally hard to break a rhythm once engrained as habit.
Neo-marxist philosopher Lefebvre  dedicated his research to defining the concept of rhythm as a tool for analysis. Within this research the question of the body, and in particular the body under capitalism is a recurrent topic in which rhythm analysis concentrates on outlining a paradigm; rhythms reveal and hide at the same time. In the analysis of rhythms, biological, psychological and social, Lefebvre shows the interrelation of time and understandings of everyday life, as we train ourselves and are trained to behave in certain ways. Approaching the concept of rhythm as a science or field of knowledge, as Lefebvre does, helps to analyse its practical consequences. These practical consequences can be seen in the adaptation of mass public to a structured system such as the rhythmical structures we experience in everyday life (eg. opening and closing times of physical shops). These rhythmical structures are also to be found within the workings of the fashion system, in its conditioning and adaptation of our buying behaviour by continuously instating new trends.
Lefebvre determined that we experience three different rhythms on a daily base;
1 ‧ Cyclical rhythms : which involve simple intervals of repetition and have a determined frequency of period, and also new beginnings. An example would be day fading into night and night brightening into day. 2 ‧ Alternating (linear) rhythms : which are measured on a decimal base (the metric system). An example would be the flow of information from a television set. 3 ‧ Nested rhythms : which are rhythms that are ingrained within each other. An example would be the broadcast of the local news at set intervals throughout the day, throughout the week.
desiring the new
The behavioural rhythm of consumers is currently mediated by the fashion system as they see fit, blazing through seasons and sub-seasons as if a natural and biological set of weather regulated rhythm never existed.Biological seasons have been replaced by ‘the new’ in form of trends that instigate the consumers’ desire — read: mood and need — to obtain this ‘new’. Philosopher Svendsen  talks about ‘the new’ being one of the principles of fashion, and emphasises the cyclical rhythm of fashion stating that the business and its system is driven by this principle of making the cycle as short as possible. Fashion as a directorial force then becomes a generator for our consumer-driven society and helps brands and their creative teams create desires we did not know we had. As the process of consumption has moved on from needs to pleasures, fashion has become its primary driver. [Worth, 2011]
The concept of rhythm analysis as a tool for the exploration of our daily habits becomes acutely apparent when we look at the regulated flux of our consumer habits. As rhythm is heavily concerned with the concept of time, the most obvious example being musical rhythms which are generally categorised by BPM (beats per minute), this also becomes very clear by examining the fashion system and its fashionable rhythms. During my childhood, I experienced the changing of seasons to regulate the change of clothes my mother presented me to wear. Fall season made sure consumers gravitated towards trench-coats, water resistant materials, and moody colour pallets such as mocha brown, burgundy and forest green. In winter, when it was cold and minus degrees celsius, chunky knits and fleece were amongst the possible options, but by the time spring turned into summer, linen and silky textures were ready to cover our bodies in a more care free type of fashion. There were four designated times a year for a change in wardrobe content, regulated by the season. And fashion (as a consumer- based system) played into this change by adapting to season, mood, and consumer need. Eventually this consumer aspect ‘mood’ and ‘need’ became important parameters in order to overrule the aspect of the season. And because the individuals’ moods and needs are fickle concepts and are easily influenced by its environment — in contrast to the seasonal shifts. Fashion honed in on these givens in order to accelerate this ‘seasonal’ wardrobe change, thus changing consumer habits. Over time — time being one of the most crucial aspects within the current state of fashion, as noted by Aurelie van der Peer in her Fashion Theory article ‘So Last Season’ — the fashion system transformed. Introducing new collections, by taking advantage of the concept of seasonal change, and creating (sub)seasonal change by introducing these collections in between the four seasons, thus creating a new rhythm. These fashionable rhythms are now mainly addressed as trends.
Overall, fashion uses the attendance of natural rhythms in daily life and conditions these in order to affect its consumer. These rhythms influence the consumer which results into them adapting to the likings of the fashion system •
To generate understanding of fashions’ manipulative processes, exploring its visual realm is necessary. Image is one of the most prominent tools used to communicate fashion and to influence the consumer-audience. It is important to realise that fashion lives beyond cloth and manifests itself mainly through image.
fashion as a visual system of influence
In the visual culture of fashion, repetition of brand images have been a clear asset to the way the fashion system operates when addressing its consumers. The repetition can be found in the utilisation of billboards at metro stations and bus stops for seasonal campaign images, which situates fashions visuality amongst the consumer in everyday life. Another form of repetition are video campaigns during the returning commercial breaks while watching television. In fashion magazines this repetition is sketched through trendy narratives in form of advertisements, editorials and the recurrence of brand logo’s. There is also repetition apparent in terms of production, through stimulating regular wardrobe renewal by way of introducing new collections and trends that are based upon improved alternatives of previous style offerings (eg. a slip dress that was part of the Calvin Klein collection mid 90’s can now be revisited in H&M’s spring 2019 collection). With every collection you can become a new you, thus embodying the cyclical rhythm of fashion.
The visual dimension of fashion (beyond wearable garments) thus creates the possibility to infiltrate our daily lives through billboards, magazines and of course: the internet. Consumers used to be able to identify when an image they encountered belonged to a form of advertising or marketing by distinct visual elements. These elements or signifiers took form in obvious marketing characteristics such as a stating a clear brandname, a tagline selling price or emphasis on the form of a specific sellable product. Thus, an advertisement used to portray the visual narrative of the pushed merchandise. The shift from this narrative based society to a more digital based environment has made it harder for the consumer to analyse when or what an image is trying to sell. The digital visuals often lack the commercial credits of companies that are offering products via digital advertising. For instance, it has only been a year since a law was instated that it is now mandatory to clarify when a post via Instagram contains sponsored content. This has to be done through (at least) the use of #ad or #sponsored in the posts description. The lack of clarity in the commercial origin of online visuals makes it harder for the consumer to consciously engage or dismiss the commercial aspect of the encountered image.
As modern life takes place on screen, new media has made it possible for fashion to be more unobtrusive when it comes to selling its commercial narrative through images. Users of new media encounter the fashion brands’ advertising without the prominence of a physical billboard. Through the use of a digital infrastructure the algorithm allows images to follow the consumer and accelerate this rhythm of repetition. The ability to follow the consumer and visually show what consumable options are available to them, holds a prominent role in the way the online realm exerts its influence on its users. Instead of ‘telling’ its user to buy an item because it’s on sale, it is showing what you could look like if you owned the specific items. The rhythmic return of images that we do not recognise as advertising are subliminal tools that motivate us to consume. Playing upon fashions visuality, repetitional rhythms coerce consumers to passively engage with the overload of images, because one simply cannot actively engage with the multitude of visual encounters. The subliminal aspect helps us mediate visual culture and its crisis of information and visual overload in everyday life. Nevertheless, these visuals do leave their mark on our sub-conscious by way of association.
Fashions’ strategy to influence consumers rests on spreading
a rhythm of repetitive images throughout the consumers landscape. Because this overload of images influence the consumers subconscious we could state that seeing becomes consuming •
repetition in fashion
The shift from classic visual encounters, such as magazines and campaigns shown in store windows, to fashions visuality and its occupation to new media becomes even more apparent now that fashion is trying to ‘transform itself for the digital age’. [Fernandez, O’Conner, 2019] Par example, Conde Nast, which is the privately owned publisher of Vogue & Vanity Fair and one of fashion’s biggest proprietors and enablers of the visual realm of fashion through print magazines, has recently instated a tech executive as the company’s first ever Global Chief Executive.
fashions’ non-textile dimension ;
propagating habitual rhythms
So far, we’ve established that there is a general rhythmic undercurrent that helps us carve our way through daily life and condition consumers to live their lives within certain patterns. We buy warm clothes when shops offer their winter collection, in anticipation of the cold months and to stay on-trend, thus we adapt our wardrobe according the multiple trends introduced by the fashion system. Within these multiple trends we have the ability to choose which of these fits our body and/or personality best. We are offered a lot of options to choose whomever we envision ourselves to be. This is demanded of us, inasmuch that we — as consumers — should know exactly how to portray ourselves. Contemporary culture has created tools to help us to make these decisions and escape the anxiety of decision making. These ‘helpers’ used to be magazines & mass media — but today in fashion we have turned towards the use of new media and therefore algorithms seem to help us in our decision-making process when it comes to forming our identity through clothing.
When you revisit a web-shop a lot of the times you’re shown clothing options in the browsers’ footnotes with the caption “you might also like”. Chances are you most likely will be interested in these selected pieces, because that particular selection of items is based on the common aesthetics of the previous items you’ve shown interest in. By clicking and examining the items, you give the algorithm the incentive to link your sparks of interest to a possible item that fits your taste.
Although helpful, through the use of new media and these algorithms, we’ve lost a sense of personal agency. As a user of online media you often are not aware of the networked, algorithmic landscape behind it. In fashion we are familiar with mystification through the use of visually enchanting imagery and fairytale storylines that block us from the reality behind product, but the algorithm can be seen as the ultimate form of mystification, as it is able to draw up a narrative while its storyteller and its agenda remain hidden. As a user the feeling of control is sustained by the ability to decide on which item to click, or not. But while deciding which item deserves closer attention, there is no perspective on the system that provided the possible clickable options and the processes behind it. The algorithm enhances desire but stays invisible as its form is mystified. As the creation of desire is one of fashions main drivers, the algorithm is utilised to accelerate this creation in new ways are hard to pinpoint by its user, because of its computational form. The acceleration of desire enhances consumerism and ephemerality. It is important for consumers to realise that the shift from traditional persuasive (print) advertising to the current digital online form is more manipulative, because it acts as if you are in control of your commercial landscape.
In ‘Updating to Remain the Same’ Wendy Hui Kyong Chun  explains that the loss of our accountability lays in the computational hazard of digital devices conditioning our habitual rhythms. She describes what it means when media shifts from ‘the new’ (a concept overtly used by the fashion system) to ‘the habitual’ inasmuch that our bodies become archives of supposedly obsolescent media, streaming, updating, sharing & saving. As new media exists by planned obsolescence, we thus are forever trying to catch up by ‘updating to remain the same’.
Meanwhile, analytic, creative, and commercial efforts focus exclusively on figuring out what will spread and who will spread it the fastest. Inherently, we become subsequent a commercial landscape that new media forces upon its consumer. Applications (such as: Instagram, Net-a-Porter, Zalando, H&M, Zara, Asos, the list goes on-and-on) that constantly update its user on new additions within collections therefore attribute to the consumers buying behaviour with the aim to accelerate the fashion systems commercial rhythm to shorter and shorter cycles.
So, in the non-textile realm of fashion, its repetitional visuality helps to determine our decisions in terms of what trends to follow. The algorithm offers us options based on knowledge it has accumulated by our previous clicking behaviour, thus helps to push us in a certain direction. Because the consumer is not aware of these behind-the-scenes processes our engagement with fashion is mediated through the state of constantly updating wardrobe options, which motivates the consumer to buy, but also shapes and stimulates our consuming habits.
the unique consumer
In post-industrial society, every citizen can construct their own lifestyle and select a personal ideology from a large number of options. Rather than pushing the same objects/information to a mass audience, new media marketing now tries to target each individual separately. This new social logic is reflected in new media, as it is working to convince us that we are all unique. Common belief is that most people are objected to advertisements, because they are irrelevant as they usually address the mass. On a personal level they are not deemed effective enough to change ones habits. Algorithms promised that, in the future, theywould be. [O’ Neil, 2016]
The cyclical rhythms produced by the fashion system, its ability to create a sense of belonging through trends and the utilisation of the algorithm, embody a short-cut in addressing the consumer as a unique individual through a personalised service.
Amazing! Through your personalised browsing history, you are now offered 4 types of shortsleeved black cotton tops. You were looking for one, but did not end up purchasing any garments during your last visit on Zalando’s online web-shop. In addition, you’re served items as proposition that will complete the look, as well as multiple styles and variables of the black cotton shirt, just to ensure every possible available option. The thing is; you were never looking to buy.. you were just looking for the name of a brand you neglected to remember.
Through the overflow of these personalised options, one might more easily be seduced in thinking, ‘oh maybe I do need this item, even though I wasn’t looking for it’. This exemplifies the ‘creation of need’ in which the focus on uniqueness is strongly present.
Stimulating the consumers uniqueness through the use of algorithms, and their ability to learn from what you’ve previously shown interest in, enables
a digital form of propaganda. When pushing the consumer to constantly update their wardrobe via new media, information is simultaneously gathered regarding the users commercial preference. This gathered information navigates itself through digital media as commercial propaganda and is used by fashion brands to adapt the consumers buying habits •
Propaganda is mostly portrayed as non-objective and used primarily to influence an audience to further an agenda. The word “propaganda” usually refers to the most common manipulative media: advertising. According to visual artist Jonas Staal  here are two crucial components to propaganda; 1 ‧ controls over infrastructure; the means through which society is organised. Propaganda succeeds when the performance of power operates to construct reality in a systemic and sustained way. 2 ‧ controls over the collective narrative about where we come from, who we are and who we will become. This narrative dimension of propaganda cannot be underestimated as it mobilises a collective imagination that legitimises the construction of a new reality.
A wide range of materials and media are used for conveying propaganda. These changed alongside the invention of new technologies and included cartoons, posters, films, radio and tv shows. More recently, the digital age has given rise to new ways of disseminating propaganda, for example, through the use of bots and algorithms to create computational propaganda using social media. Identifying propaganda has always been a problem. The main difficulties have involved differentiating propaganda from other types of persuasion. The propagandist seeks to change the way people understand an issue or situation for the purpose of changing their actions and expectations in ways that are desirable to the interest group.[Martin, 1929] What sets propaganda apart from other forms of advocacy is the willingness of the propagandist to change people’s understanding through deception and confusion rather than persuasion and understanding.
Propaganda shares techniques with advertising and public relations. [Bernays, 2005] Each of these can be thought of as propaganda that promotes a commercial product or shapes the perception of an organization, person, or brand. Advertisements evolved from the traditional commercial advertisements to a new type in the form of paid articles or broadcasts disguised as news. These generally present an issue in a very subjective and often misleading light, primarily meant to persuade rather than inform.
If the reader believes that a paid advertisement is in fact a news item, the advertisers’ message will “believed” or “internalized” more easily. Such advertisements are considered obvious examples of covert propaganda because they take on the appearance of objective information rather than the appearance of propaganda, which is misleading. This illustrates the technique used for paid promotional posts on Instagram and Youtube.
communicating capitalism through fashion
When you’ve been looking for sneakers online and finally decided to purchase a pair, the algorithm does not stop showing you sneakers. The algorithm will adapt your media feed to content that is concerned with the promotion of sneakers. In fact, it will suggest promotional content on the ‘explore’ page of your Instagram, concerned with various sneaker brands. In this overview, sometimes sneakers will be visible, but there will be individuals associated with the brand (lets say, employees), in which there is no obvious sign of brand affiliation.
Propaganda is described to be information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a (political) cause or point of view. When you eliminate the political aspect and imagine it to be purely economical, you can maybe understand why the fashion system, which has a capitalist nature as driving force, is eager to use a propagandistic model in its approach toward its consumer. Bending behavioural habits of its consumer through utilising the mystifying quality of propaganda, is fashion’s way of sustaining profit margins regardless of ‘need’. Digital media mystifies by creating an environment in which online is the new normal. In regard to fashion, this online realm created space for pattern recognition. Pattern recognition in combination with a capitalistic driver causes apophenia for the user of new media.
Hito Steyerl  defines Apophenia to be the perception of patterns within random data. This ‘made up’ rhythm of personal data is applied by algorithms to personify associations for the fashion consumer. The consumer perceives these connections as logical and objective, because they are communicated as such by algorithms through new media.
In relation to structuring random data, one could conclude that any conjunction between visuals and politics is necessarily fraught by estranged agendas. [Bratton, 2013] Algorithmic capitalism suggests an incompleteness in the effects of communicating through personified images. The work of computation as a style of thought, while driven by its economic bias, is enabled by the incompleteness of algorithm. The lack of clarity enables the adaptation of a propagandistic form. Visuals and aesthetics under late capitalism tend to be promoted beyond all measure, which is referred to ‘acceleration aesthetics’. In this construction the acceleration of aesthetics are used in order to draw out the feeling of uniqueness in the contemporary moment. As the contemporary moment adapts to trends determined by the fashion system, one thus continually tends to update this uniqueness through the consumption of new items. Unrecognisable politics are being used through recognisable aesthetics. The apophenia is unrecognised by the consumer of fashion and simultaneously utilised by the fashion system.
In positioning propaganda and its link to fashion, commonality finds itself in the fact that they both operate their influential tactics through visual language. Utilising algorithms in this visual language thus propels an unreliable visual narrative.
Traditional forms of propaganda have been translated to an online realm in which control over infrastructure and narrative are monitored by algorithms and the fashion system. Fashions hidden and inherently commercial agenda uses these algorithms to create a deceptive online realm based on a bias narrative. This bias narrative is based on the consumers preferences thus rules out (visual) information outside of the users’ preferable spectrum •
The online realm of fashion manifests itself through web-shops, mailing lists and social media platforms. Backstage documentations of various Fashion Weeks are covered though Snapchat, nearly every established print publication also curates a Youtube channel and the first looks of every fashion show during Fashion Week are uploaded via the image directory of Vogue.com. New media has become in disseminating fashion, as clearly outlined by Lauren Sherman in her article “instagram killed the fashion magazine, what happens now?” Sherman sketches the increasing usage of Instagram (amongst other new media platforms) as main medium of image distribution and consumer engagement by high fashion brands such as Oscar de la Renta and Chanel. The accessibility of fashion online has alternated its rhythms of media consumption, in a way that fashion is now available for anyone, anywhere and at any time. These altered rhythms of media consumption become apparent when you encounter advertisements from the same brand on different platforms.
For instance: when you’re looking for a specific brand via Google and shortly after you’re forced to watch a 10 second video campaign on Youtube for the exact same brand, you can be certain that the algorithm has left its mark. A clickbait moment is right around the digital corner, diminishing your digital agency. When the user chooses not to engage with these advertisements, they inadvertently also send a message. This lets the algorithm know that previous forms of engagement are not effective, causing the visuals to repetitively follow you around your digital environment in various forms. When you see an ad pop-up everywhere in your digital space, you will automatically start to wonder why this specific ad would be appealing to you. In actuality, the ad already received a lot of the users’ personal information and can therefore determine when and where to engage. This generates focus towards a so called ‘clickbait’.
The algorithm compares what you already bought via an online web-shop, and guesses what you might want to buy next. It creates a shopping list based on earlier purchases, sourced from your digital history. When you, as a user, increase your online activity the algorithm inherently will increase the amount of interpretation. Digital propaganda falls by act of conscious decoding the visual narrative — thus the digital sphere acts upon this by affecting the consumers feed through algorithms. In regard to the application of this mystification strategy; the algorithm needs to be told how to work. In the particular case of fashion, consumers ‘tell’ the algorithm what to show them according to their history of interest, without pro-actively engaging. This act of proposing needs, based on previous preference is what the fashion system is utilising and capitalising on. One could say that consumers in the age of new media are creating their own personal propaganda.
Fashion online does net exist without new media and relies on it to create a propagandistic infrastructure, in order to sustain commercial profit. New media has created the possibility to connect to (and influence) the consumer, as it uses new media every day •
The Oxford dictionary explains new media to be a means of mass communication using digital technologies such as the internet. In this essay the concept is approached as such, by specifically focussing on the digital technologies and forms of media that rely on technological devices for distribution. Some examples of new media are smartphones, computers and websites. In this setting the exploration of the algorithm is essential as it is a processor of information within new media.
There are 5 principles of new media : numerical representation, automation, modularity, variability and cultural transcoding. Numerical representation and automation are important when it comes to understanding the building blocks and regulations of the way algorithms behave. Numerical representation allows media to become programmable, in which a visual object can become subject to algorithmic manipulation. Automation allows ‘machine-learning’, enabling the algorithm to learn from its previous made data connections and the ability to use these as base for future actions.
Algorithms are everywhere beneath the surface of contemporary life. They govern what songs or films a streaming service will recommend, which potential partners will appear in a dating app, and what adds are served to you. Because the circumstances in the world evolve so rapidly an algorithm is expected to be dynamic. The algorithm therefore learns from its experiences and develops adaptive strategies.
Stripped away of its mystification, machine-learning is the process by way of which algorithms are taught to recognise patterns in the world, through the automated analysis of very large data sets. The algorithm doesn’t ‘think’ anything, but has assigned a weighted score to the received information, representing the probabilities. The algorithm itself is conditioned to serve a rhythm of information, opposed to the actual informative content. At the base of its production the algorithm is meaningless to its user, but once the user engages, the algorithm generates meaningful content to the user’s perspective.
Digital media has made it possible to ‘push’ the visuality of fashion through a digitally manufactured infrastructure that can reach the consumer at any given moment and at any given place. Most western based consumers carry their digital portal (in form of phone, tablet or laptops) with them and continue to spend a lot of time actively engaging with them. Where in the past, fashion distributed their visual impact through print and placed images publicly where the consumer was most likely to encounter them, this visual impact is now ‘pushed’ upon consumers of digital media in a more specified and individualised form. Because of the continual flow of information, visual applications and the rhythms of online media attribute a new dimension of the fashion system, by enhancing the fashion systems’ visuality.
We encounter the mentioned push technology and pull technology on a daily basis. A web browser is an example of pull technology: you put in an address, and your computer pulls information from that server. Television and the mail on the other hand are push technologies; the information shows up on the tube or at your doorstop without any action on your end. Pull media put users in control. The problem is that pull is actually a lot of work as it requires you to be constantly active, curating your own media experience.
In connecting the concept of rhythm analysis to the new media realm, the algorithm can be perceived as the technical translation of the rhythm, which conditions (and is conditioned by) its user. The fashion system utilises algorithms in its approach towards consumers-as-users, as they are able to regulate and apply to the consumers’ preconceived needs. Thus, it is important to unveil the digital DNA of this applied ‘technological decisionism’ [Parisi, 2017] in which the algorithm is able to pre-select options for its user. This pre-selection was previously conditioned in form of advertorials in fashion magazines. Through new media this act has been successfully transferred to a digital and even more engaging realm.
As new media is now more and more utilised by the fashion system, its impact and level of engagement is not fully understood by its consumers. Currently we are in the middle of a new media revolution and this shift enables all computer-mediated media to turn the consumers of capitalist society into users. These computational forms have introduced the consumer to the interface in which it has the ability (to some extent) use and personify digital media. On a fundamental level, the opacity of these strategies can be seen as a process of mystification that is used to influence the consumer. The consumer-as-user of these interfaces is left in the dark regarding the extent of their digital agency.
With new media, and specifically the algorithm, the content and the interface are separated. It is therefore possible to create different interfaces that show the same material. Thus, there is a difference in what it shows and how its shown (e.g. the content is meant to say “I want to sell you this”, but the interface shows the content in form of “this is what you need”). On the level of an individual screen, the interface forms a personal paradigm that is explicitly presented to this user. On a bigger scope the user isn‘t made aware of the many different available interfaces. One interface trajectory is selected from the paradigm of many trajectories that have been defined. This decision-making characteristic of the algorithm propels questions regarding the extensive personalisation of the consumer-turned-user.
Is the user able to consciously choose a specific interface trajectory? And, in the context of fashion, does the elimination of possible options lead to unconscious consumer behaviour? If so, who is responsible for creating awareness regarding ‘the making of’ this choice?
Options that are offered to the consumer by the fashion system, contain in a somewhat comparable measure; the same distance between content (this being the clothes as product) and the interface (this being the branding, visualisations, the models they use, background settings, advertising placement, etc). This division between content and interface creates the ability to convey the same commercial narrative in different ways, by communicating them differently to various types of audiences in order to connect with them on a personal level.
Digital society has turned the consumer of fashion into a user of new media in which it encounters fashion online. Through the algorithm, information is portrayed in form of an interface specific to each user. This interface visualises the bias narrative by only showing content based upon the users digital history. By using digital media the consumer gives access to personal information which is obtained by the algorithm and transformed into push notifications that encounter the consumer in a rhythm of repetition across multiple new media applications. This deceptive online environment tries to stimulate consumer behaviour, in which the the consumer falls victim under the loss of digital agency •
interface ; the illusion of objectivity
For instance, when you need a haircut, you make an appointment at a salon and wait for the hairdresser to determine what comb, scissor and other utensils they will use in order for them to fix the current state of your hair. As a costumer you don’t interfere during this process by blow-drying your own hair or massaging your own scalp while it’s being shampooed. As a costumer and enjoyer of that particular service, you take on a passive role, and let the hairdresser lead the way towards a previously explained style preference. In short; there is no active participation in the matter of service. The act of consulting a service simultaneously creates a passive state of being, in which the consumer is able to tune out from psychological interaction.
As the web has not only reprogrammed the way we think, talk and (inter)act virtually it has also reformatted our understanding of everyday life. It is interconnected with our daily activities as we are constantly connected to the web through the digital devices we surround ourselves with. Through the algorithms in this digital realm a bias narrative is conditioned that holds a remarkable power over the consumers’ digital agency. Algorithmic technology has the ability amplify commercial narratives, but demands its users to help this process through performative acts such as clicking and browsing the internet. Ever since it first became clear that control over our habits passes through the hands of parties that instate techno centric tools such as algorithms, concerns about the obscurity of their functioning have prompted calls for ‘algorithmic accountability’ and user responsibility. When you approach the internet as ‘public space’ one needs to realise that we, the users, are the producers of internet platforms. In the case of fashion occupying the online realm, the internet can no longer be seen as ‘public’ because its main drivers are situated within private economic spheres.
So, why do we view our networked devices as “personal” when they are so overly connected with the commercialised world?
In our current capitalist society, it is unfair to expect a level of hyper sensitive users when it comes to recognising and dismantling the hidden agendas of fashion brands embedded in the digital media. This is a milieu where applications make it hard to find privacy settings and digital media companies create terms & conditions forms have to be accepted in order to use the service, while they strongly lack in readability (due to the use of a 55-word average per sentence — where an average of 25 is needed for consumer readability). Here lies a subliminal disengagement while the illusion of engagement is created through highlighting the proposed service once these terms and conditions are accepted. The applications allude to interact with its user, but in actuality this interaction can be seen as a one-way stream of information; as the user serves the application with personal information.
When we use the concept of interactive media exclusively in relation to the digital realm, there lies danger in interpreting ‘interaction’ literally equating it with physical interaction between a user and a media object, at the expense of psychological interaction. Physical in this sense does not specifically correspond with the psychological, thus creating a passive ‘interaction’. The confining aspect of our online experience through digital platforms like Google, Amazon and Instagram are obscured because they sell this confinement to us as ‘service’. When you look at this proposed digital ‘service’ in abstract from — it being something you receive and it being a property that you’re not willing or able to actively get done yourself, it is self-evident that as consumer of that service, you wait for what is expected to be done.
Users have become native informers of the algorithm and need to relish the ability to navigate themselves through the maze of information overload and manipulation. Consumers-as-users can be referred to as ‘Digital Natives’ [Shah, 2010] and thus participate in discourse regarding the effects and affects of ‘being digital’. Here discussing the integration of digital and web based technological, aesthetical and political processes that occur in everyday life, is of most importance.
The user-generated content is in a crisis of “participatory culture”, a concept in which the public does not act as consumers only, but also as contributors. [Lovink, 2017] In the digital sphere, ones contribution comes in the form of personal data. Pre-internet media literacy came with the ability to question sources, deconstruct opinions and decode ideology but not to really actively participated. Media literacy, as Lovink argues, creates the possibility for users to produce content in the form of responses, blog posts and social media updates. This shift from consumer to contributor comes with a price; information inflation. This inflation makes sure that we are very present online, putting out a lot of personal information. This personal information is tracked through ones digital footprint by the algorithm, and the fashion system hones in on this digital footprint through the utilisation of the algorithmic gaze.
The gaze generates a multitude of digital (and commercial) options. In the way we engage with these lies a responsibility with the consumer. The options are part of a commercial environment offered to us in the form of a service, the service of personalisation. This personalisation does indeed deliver a service, because it helps navigate us through an enormous amount of choices, but, this service also reeks of mystification. The idea that displayed options are random and that we have agency within this broad range of options is false, thus manipulating our sense of agency.
the consequences of active participation
change the system
A rhythm of elaboration regarding the workings of
the digital realm is needed to demystify the field of machine learning, as it is creating a narrative through our personal data in which we, as providers of this data, have absolutely no control over. We need to reprogram passiveness towards analysis of the algorithms we encounter on a daily basis and their influential effect on our habitual rhythms within the fashion system •
Regaining lost agency within the digital sphere calls for digital activism. A form of activism in which the ‘Filter Bubble’ [Pariser, 2011] is pierced and undermined by awareness regarding the applied digital filters by algorithms in which we need to train our visual competence in relation to the new visual online environment.
In relation to ‘interactive’ media, making a choice involves a moral responsibility. Economic production by a content provider is only a means of anticipating this content receivers’ future consumption behaviour. This anticipation is relevant because it provides profit, but also entices the content provider to forge their way into being consumed through deception of the content receivers’ digital space. In our state of high media exposure we situate ourselves in the form of public persona through applications (such as Instagram). This positioning should not be the work of the unconscious. Modern media currently finds itself transforming social space into an exhibition space for fashions desired (very short) production and consumer rhythms. This socio-political paradigm is concerned with creating desire through showing off what you have and what you stand for, by curating this internet persona.
Today’s media design could be accused of seducing people into weakening their autonomy and agency — making them passive consumers who lack will, who are manipulated by omnipresent advertising and thus have become victims of our visual culture. [Groys, 2010] In this visual landscape it has become an obligation to take an active role in perceiving and engaging with digital media, but with contemporary visual culture solely focused on consuming, how can the consumer regain its digital agency in an algorithmic society?
I ended up not buying any underwear from the Weekday web-shop. Although the webpage aspired me to ‘mix and match: buy 4 bras or panties, pay for 3’, everything I was interested in was sold out. After 20 minutes of looking for the right combination of underwear sets I gave up and just started browsing. Since I was already there I wanted the time, dedicated to this webpage to be fruitful thus I scanned every garment directory, used the web shops ability to filter items by colour (black), and size (small). I’ve spent nearly 30 minutes on Weekday’s web-shop and ended up buying a pair of trousers and off-shoulder sweatshirt (which was a steal at 50% off) both black, both size small. While providing my payment details, I still felt unsatisfied because the items that I specifically came for, were not available to me at the time that I wanted them to be. After receiving my order conformation via mail, I got up, put on the black trousers and the black sweatshirt I already own, and went out to visit the physical Weekday store to check if the items we’re available. Turns out they were out of stock, so they made me signup for an email alert, which will notify me once my specific colour and size preference are restocked and available online. Currently I’m patiently waiting to be updated regarding the status of the underwear I never knew I needed in the first place.
This example sketches the way my behavioural rhythm is altered by algorithms through the use of subliminal triggers. The triggers disseminated through digital services like Instagram, resulted in my rhythm of media consumption and accumulated my attention. The initial subliminal branding I’ve experienced through the promoted post on my feed, turned more visible once the actual website had my undivided attention through the use of tag lines and sale offers. Moments ago I never even realised I needed these garments, but situating them in my data landscape, helped to visualise my life with them thus turning them into a necessity.
The notable link between the fashion system and an algorithm is their rhythmic capacity and the mystification that these rhythms produce. These entities both generate a lack of agency for the consumer. We, as consumers, can only regain this digital agency by becoming aware of the rhythms that the fashion system produces and how the algorithm controls the infrastructure for these rhythms. In general, the algorithm generates an acceleration in the rhythms of fashion (such as consumption and production) and makes these subliminal. This poses an interesting paradox; where fashion thrives on visual impact, the algorithm manoeuvres itself unnoticed through our daily lives. The reason why it is difficult to be more aware of this process is because algorithms are hidden in the building blocks of new media. It is therefore difficult for a consumer to be aware of something which cannot be seen and of which the mechanisms are never clearly explained.
I am in favour of clarity and believe that, especially when it comes to the consumers’ digital agency, it would be better if these rhythms were revealed. This enables consumers to play an active role in addressing these influential rhythms since we, as users of new media and as fashion consumers, are victims of the propagandistic core of algorithms. This propagandistic core embodies the fashion systems’ capitalist incentive which is presented to the user of digital media in form of a personalised environment. This digital approach poses an ethical problem in terms communicating through manipulation. We currently abide by a system most of us are affected by everyday but don’t fully understand. Through a rhythm of elaboration, in which the persuasive processes are de-mystified and explained, I hope to reject the passive state of consumerism and encourage the consumer to regain a sense of digital agency.