"It's absolutely false to think that we in democratic countries have it any different to China," insists Frederic Lemieux. "The only difference is that China is open about what it does and we have a more layered, subtle approach. Governments say they’re not bad but the fact is that they have access to everything if they want it. Frankly, it's hard to grasp the scope of the surveillance apparatus today."
Lemieux is a professor at Georgetown University, US, specialising in information technology, and he uses a virtual private network. He avoids Zoom and social media; has "privacy settings through the roof". Lemieux is only "friends" online with people he’s met several times in person. He watches what he says in emails, won’t wear a smartwatch. And he is not remotely paranoid.
Just look, he says, at the mobile surveillance spyware Pegasus—technically illegal in the US. And yet the FBI has just been caught out. They are forced to cancel its arrangement with a government contractor that used the tool on its behalf. It’s the latest instance of an abuse of power. And the data breaches that underscore it are uncovered somewhere around the world every few months. Many more, one can only assume, are not. "So am I hopeful of some correction to this surveillance culture?" says Lemieux. "No."
Perhaps this culture has been a long-time coming. After all, the idea of systematic surveillance is not new. The Panopticon was the name given to an ideal prison devised by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1787. In it, every prisoner would—as an encouragement to improved behaviour—be observable without ever knowing if they were being observed. It would, as Bentham put it, create a "sense of invisible omniscience". And, he added, more darkly: "Ideal perfection would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time. This being impossible, the next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so."
In Bentham's time, this was no more than a thought experiment. Today the situation is very different. As the tech entrepreneur Maciej Ceglowski put it to a US Senate committee in 2019, "Until recently, even people living in a police state could count on the fact that the authorities didn’t have enough equipment or manpower to observe everyone, everywhere". Now, it seems, it looks as though they "enjoyed more freedom from monitoring then than we do living in a free society today."
It’s easy to see why. The aforementioned spyware, with advanced processing power, can now collate, save and analyse truly awesome quantities of data. Increasingly prevalent CCTV has morphed into often erratic facial-recognition technology and biometrics. That includes the unevidenced idea that people’s emotional state can be read through their physical appearance. Drones have provided 'eyes in the sky'. These digital currencies—actively promoted in many nations as a stepping stone to doing away with cash—will allow the tracking of all financial transactions. So-called 'smart cities'—the UN recognised Singapore as a world-leading example—see the mass deployment of intrusive sensors to monitor its citizenry. Supposedly with the intention of improving the urban environment. And there's ever more wearable tech, RFID tags, GPS dots and the growing Internet of Things to provide anyone sufficiently well-resourced with a detailed picture of what once was considered private.
“But then we have also become largely indifferent to matters of privacy,” stresses sociologist Dr Gary Armstrong, co-author of The Maximum Surveillance Society. “Generation Facebook/ Tik-Tok / Instagram have a different perception of privacy than my generation—over 60s—and think nothing of self- revelation and self-promotion. As it stands the state knows less about me than, say, supermarket chains do.”
How so? Invariably because the greatest tool in the snoop’s armoury is, as Lemieux puts it, "our own complicity". We let Alexa listen and Ring Video doorbells watch. We sign up for loyalty schemes. Given that 86 per cent of the growing world’s population owns a smartphone, we willingly allow the means of our own monitoring. David Lyon, director of the Surveillance Studies Centre and professor of sociology and law at Queen’s University, Ontario, argues that while CCTV might remain the most powerful symbol of surveillance, to still think of it as the most powerful means of surveillance is way out of date. That's the gadget in our own pocket. Our self-imposed, frantically upgraded, style-conscious ankle monitors. He calls the result 'dataveillance', our supervision and assessment through a melding of state and corporate interests.
"And that’s been mutating and accelerating at a rapid rate," he says. Lyon cites a recent case in Canada. A user of the ordering app from a Tim Hortons put in a "freedom of information" request about its function. He discovers that, even when he thought he had disabled it, the app continued to track his movements. It even recorded when he visited one of the company’s competitors.
What he still didn’t grasp, however, was "the other uses that data was undoubtedly put to. His data was sold to and among other corporations and institutions in what has become a globally-significant economic system," says Lyon. "It's not just about being tracked but analysed, and then treated according to the profile then created and from which all kinds of judgments are made—by employers, healthcare providers, banks, insurers, law enforcement. The thing is that most people just don’t get that this is even happening."
Small wonder then that when the public reaction to surveillance is discussed it is, at best, rather muted. As Lyon puts it, "we've become seduced [through our smartphones] by the idea of the world organised around our needs, living in a very consumerist society in which efficiency, convenience and comfort have been elevated into core values"—"luxury surveillance" as it has been dubbed. And even if we give it some thought, our rationalisations justifying our acceptance of surveillance tend to be misguided, adds Juan Lindau, professor of political science at Colorado College, US, and author of Surveillance and the Vanishing Individual.
People dismiss the encroachment of surveillance because "they have nothing to hide"—"but it's a bullshit notion that they wouldn't mind if every detail of their life was out there for all to see," Lindau notes. Or they say they're too irrelevant to be of interest—"but if you ever do anything of even remote political consequence then you’re immediately not irrelevant to the state," he adds. Or there's the argument that any one personal revelation is now merely lost in a giant sea of revelations and so doesn't matter.
"But its evil brilliance... is that tech gives the veneer of distance and [us the sense of] anonymity that is entirely fictitious," he says. "It is not impersonal. We spend our lives now interacting with machines that observe all, that never forget and never forgive, such that the delineation between our inner and outer selves is [breaking down] by stealth."
It's also because thinking seriously about the boundaries for surveillance is relatively new. Before the seismic revelations of Edward Snowden, much concern about surveillance was dismissed as so much conspiracy thinking, argues Professor Peter Fussey, an expert in criminology at the University of Essex, UK. That, and because much of the surveillance apparatus is, governments so often argue, for our own safety. That's the line Myanmar has taken in the junta’s crackdown on protests. Or for more effective, worryingly "proactive", increasingly militarised crime prevention.
That's concerning. As Armstrong argues, we're well on our way to systems that look for the potentially suspicious or merely inappropriate. "Doing that requires a database of both known and potential offenders. And such schemes are always sold on the benefits of apprehending these known offenders," he says. "But these schemes are expansionist and soon develop databases of 'people of interest' too".
But it's also concerning when national emergencies are used to bring in more surveillance. We see subsequent spikes in favour of its expansion. A TNS poll conducted in 2014—three years after 9/11, but also not long after Snowden—found that 71 per cent of respondents thought the government should prioritise reducing the public threat "even if this erodes people's right to privacy".
"The idea that surveillance is for our own safety holds water, but only up to a point. Surveillance doesn't inherently make us safer. And that’s aside from the misplaced assumption that surveillance always works, as many cases of misidentification suggest," says Fussey. (He also an independent human rights observer of London’s Metropolitan Police while it trialled facial recognition technology from 2020.)
"The problem with people being suddenly more accepting of surveillance after, say, a terrorist attack is that the powers then given [to the machinery of state] don't tend to be rolled back later," he adds. "And then there is the fact that if we keep creating these tools that can be used for surveillance—even if that's not their intended use—they will be. There is simply just so much evidence for their misuse."
Furthermore, the expanding means of surveillance—from gait recognition to remote heartbeat analysis—are developed at such a pace that campaigners and legislators can barely keep up. It says something concerning that a hugely powerful business like Amazon has been entirely open in its ambition to create tech products with what it calls "ambient intelligence". They are always there in the background harvesting your life.
There's mission creep to contend with as well. If it wasn't bad enough the state and commerce wanting to watch us, remote working has encouraged a culture of surveillance among employers too. There was a boom in monitoring software. Tech used to map the behaviour, mood, eye movement, location, online activity and productivity of often oblivious workers. The American attorney Zephyr Teachout has predicted the coming of "surveillance wages". This is where each worker’s pay is constantly changing according to that worker's perceived alignment with their employer's expectations. Data would be used for hiring and firing decisions.
Could a new ad-free business model be devised for the web, disincentivising data collection? Could the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation be adopted beyond its borders? Even as Facebook obtusely moaned about how it and other regulations "may be costly to comply with and may delay or impede the development of new products, increase our costs, require significant management time and subject us to remedies that may harm our business".
Is there scope for a rebalancing of the interests of the surveillance industrial complex and individuals' rights? This segment makes billions from monetising data flows, with China and US the leading exporters of surveillance tech. Surely the transparency and accountability necessary for the relationship between state and citizen to function requires it? And yet, right down to how certain parts of your smartphones algorithms work, all is opaque, and getting more so.
"We have to have a much clearer sense of how surveillance will be used, whether it's legitimate and the necessary limits on its use," implores Fussey. "We're invited to think that the technology is just too complicated, but actually the standards we need to protect—standards in international law—are basic. The problem is who enforces those standards. We need the right policies, programmes and oversight."
"My concern is that so much surveillance now isn't just about watching where you go and what you do but what information you consume and what thoughts you express," adds Lemieux. "Surveillance can now be used to gauge opinion and so influence opinion too. It's not just about watching us through data but manipulating us through data."
Indeed, the instruments of surveillance only look set to get more invasive, more clever, more wily and devious. The tide might be turning. Lindau argues that after a long period of being "promiscuous with sharing our information", some of us are waking up. With low download rates for various government-driven tracking apps during Covid, the pandemic opened the doors to data collection and tracking on a scale that would have been imaginable just a few years before. Some cities— Portland, Oregon, for example—have banned the use of facial recognition in their stores and restaurants. And there’s a growing academic interest in surveillance overreach too.
And yet the more a surveillance mindset is applied, the more ordinary it seems. "Citizens are allowing greater and greater intrusion, to the point where the distinction between public and private has really broken down at this juncture," suggests Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of The Rise of Digital Repression. "The smartphone has normalised surveillance but it's a slippery slope. You continue to push at the boundaries and surveillance just becomes more and more acceptable. And there are no concerns about this because there is no political will [to make changes]. And there's no political will because nobody seems to care about it. We're seeing a greater level of omni-surveillance made possible and that needs more push-back."
In fact, we're moving towards TIA or Total Information Awareness. "The goal to know everything about everyone in real-time," as Lindau explains. "And so far all that has limited that most totalitarian of ambitions has been the tools."
The really bad news? The tools are coming. The AI Global Surveillance Index suggests that at least 75 out of 176 countries, many being liberal democracies, use AI for automated surveillance purposes. "All considerations we have about surveillance get put on steroids with AI," Lindau says. The French government, for example, has passed a law allowing the use of AI in mass video surveillance at next year’s summer Olympics in Paris. For AI to work, the data must flow. Your data. Everybody's data. "The ease with which AI will be able to amass and process information, combined with facial recognition, well, that’s ominous," he says.
He cites by way of example his recent experience of returning home from a holiday in Norway. Passing through the notoriously aggressive and prying US Immigration, he expected the typical barrage of questions. Instead, he was just asked to look into a small camera. That was it. Lindau asked if they wanted the usual details about where he had been and for how long and why. No, they said casually, we already know that.
Something’s off, but you can’t quite name it. It’s the moment you get home after staying with friends and an influencer using their exact coffeemaker pops up on your Instagram feed. There's the split-second after an actor delivers a quippy line on a streaming series and you try to parse whether this scene has already become a meme or if it’s just written to court them. It’s the new song you’ve been hearing everywhere, only to discover it’s an ‘80s deep cut, inexplicably trending on TikTok.
There is a name for this uneasiness. It’s called “algorithmic anxiety,” and it’s one of the main subjects of Kyle Chayka’s new book, Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture. A staff writer for The New Yorker, Chayka charts the rise of algorithmic recommendations and decision-making. He shows how culture has slowly started effacing itself to fit more neatly within our social media platforms' parameters
Algorithms, Chayka reminds us, don’t spring from the machine fully-formed. They’re written by humans—in this case, humans employed by the world's biggest tech conglomerates—and their goal is simple: to prioritise content that keeps us scrolling, keeps us tapping and does not, under any circumstances, divert us from the feed.
Filterworld shows us all the ways this can manifest, both online and IRL, into a kind of contentless content. Songs are getting shorter, because it only takes 30 seconds to rack up a listen on Spotify. Poetry has enjoyed an unexpected revival on Instagram. But mostly when it is universal, aphoristic and neatly formatted to work as image as well as text.
There’s the phenomenon of the “fake movie” on streaming services like Netflix. These cultural artefacts have actors, plots, settings—all the makings of a real film. But it still seem slickly artificial, crowd-sourced and focus-grouped down to nothing.
If our old tech anxiety amounted to well-founded paranoia (“Are they tracking me? Of course they are.”), the new fear in Filterworld is more existential: “Do I really like this? Am I really like this?” Is the algorithm feeding us the next video, the next song, tailored to our unique taste? Or is it serving us the agglomerated preferences of a billion other users? Users who, like us, may just want something facile and forgettable to help us wind down at the end of the day.
Chayka doesn’t give us easy answers at the end of Filterworld. He does, however, offer an alternative to the numbing flow of the feed: taste! Remember taste? We still have it. Although the muscles may have atrophied after so many of us have ceded our decision-making abilities to the machines.
Rediscovering our personal taste doesn’t have to be an exercise in high culture or indie elitism. But it does require what Chayka calls the conscientious consumption of culture. In seeking out trusted curators, seeking out culture that challenges us and taking the time to share with others what we love.
To go deeper, Esquire sat down with Chayka to talk about the cultural equivalent of junk food, the difference between human and algorithmic gatekeepers, and why “tastemaker” doesn’t need to be a dirty word. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ESQUIRE: Let me start with a slightly provocative question. Is there anyone with a bigger grudge against algorithms than journalists?
KYLE CHAYKA: Well, journalists are known to have a grudge against algorithms. I can speak to my own dislike of them. Just because they’ve taken away this filtering, tastemaking function that journalists have had for so long. But through the course of the book, I talk to all sorts of creators who hate algorithms just as much.
It’s the illustrator who got trapped into doing one bit on Instagram because it succeeded all the time. Or the influencer whose hot selfies get tons of likes but their actually earnest, artistic posts don’t get any attention. In the book, I interview coffee shop founders around the world, and even they are like, “I hate the algorithm because I have to engage with all these peoples’ photos of my cappuccinos.” Everyone feels kind of terrorised.
Maybe journalists were just part of the first wave to realise this?
I think journalists are often canaries in the coal mine, partly because we complain the loudest about everything. But you could see the impact of algorithmic feeds in the media really early on. We moved from consuming news on cable TV or in a newspaper or even on a website homepage to consuming stories the majority of the time through social media feeds. And that just takes away so much control.
A newspaper front page or a website homepage is a human-curated, thought-through intentional thing that highlights important stuff, along with fun stuff, along with goofy stuff. There was an intention and a knowledge to that, which algorithmic feeds have just totally automated away.
Let’s take it from news to culture, which is really the focus of your book. Filterworld explains that the algorithms driving social media exist to keep us engaged as long as possible.The result is a kind of flattening of culture. Our social feeds privilege content that’s easily digestible so we can keep on grazing. What happens to us when all the culture we consume is flattened like that? And we’re not pushed to seek out new things, or to just try something that makes us uncomfortable? What happens to us when we aren’t getting any nutrients, you could say, from the feed?
It makes me think of the cultural equivalent of junk food. It’s engineered to appeal to you. To engage your senses in ways you might not even like, per se, but it’s just so chemically perfect. I talk a lot about how creators feel pressure to conform in certain ways to the feed. Consumers also have to conform in a way. Algorithmic feeds push us to become more passive consumers. That we don't really think about what we’re consuming. We float along on the feed and not think about our own taste too much. I feel like that makes us into more boring people. It makes the cultural landscape less interesting. But it also takes away this opportunity for us to encounter art that is really shocking or surprising or ambiguous.
Take the example of a Spotify playlist. You start by listening to something that you choose. Then Spotify pushes you along on this lazy river of music that is similar to what you put on and is not going to disrupt your experience but it’s also not going to push you anywhere new. It’s not going to try to disrupt you; it’s not going to try to challenge your taste. In the book I contrast that with an indie radio DJ who is making these intentional choices to put songs next to each other that don’t really fit but have some kind of implied meaning based on their proximity. Algorithmic feeds fundamentally can’t create meaning by putting things next to each other. There’s no meaning inherent in that choice because it’s purely automated, machine choice. There’s no consciousness behind it.
You talk a lot about curators in Filterworld. What else can a curator do for us that an algorithm cannot do? Why should we trust them more than an algorithm?
Curating as a word has this very long history dating back to Ancient Rome to the Catholic priesthood. It always had this meaning of taking responsibility for something. I feel like curators now take responsibility for culture. They take responsibility for providing the background to something, providing a context, telling you about the creator of something, putting one object next to others that build more meaning for it. So curating isn’t just about putting one thing next to another, it's all this background research and labour and thought that goes into presenting something in the right way.
That’s true of a museum curator who puts together an art exhibition. It’s true for a radio DJ who assembles a complicated playlist. It’s true for a librarian who chooses which books to buy for a library. But it’s not true for a Spotify algorithmic playlist. The Twitter feed is not trying to contextualise things for you with what it feeds to you. It’s just trying to spark your engagement. TikTok is maybe the worst offender because it’s constantly trying to engage your attention in a shallow way. But it’s absolutely not pushing you to find out anything more about something. There’s no depth there, there’s no context. It actively erases context, actually. It makes it even harder to find.
But we know curators can have their own agendas. What’s the difference between, say, a magazine editor who needs to please their advertisers and a tech company looking after their bottom line? Is there a difference?
There’s this transition that I write about in the book from human gatekeepers to algorithmic gatekeepers, so moving from the magazine editors and the record label executives to the kind of brute mathematics of the TikTok ‘For You’ feed. I think they both have their flaws. The human gatekeepers were biased. They were also beholden to advertisers; they had their own preferences and probably prioritised the people that they knew in their social circles. Whereas the flaw of the algorithmic feed is that while anyone can get their stuff out there, the only metric by which they’re judged is: How much engagement does it get? How much promotion does it merit based on the algorithmic feed?
So they’re both flawed. The question is: which flaws do we prefer? Or which flaws do we want to take with their benefits? The ability of the human gatekeeper was to highlight some voice that would be totally surprising or shocking—to highlight some new and strange thing that totally doesn’t fit with your preconceived notions of what art or music or writing is. The algorithmic feed can’t really do that because it’s only able to measure how much other people already consider it popular.
The advertiser thing—another hobbyhorse of mine is Monocle magazine, which has existed for a decade or two now. It’s a print magazine with a very nice mix of shopping and international news and culture and profiles. That magazine does really well selling print ads because they put print advertising in a good context with good articles. The advertisers appreciate the quality of the content that surrounds it. So that’s a net positive for everyone. Whereas with the internet now, the advertisers are almost in a war with the platforms just as much as the users are. Advertisers don’t want their content appearing willy-nilly, messily next to the crappy content the algorithmic feeds promote, which at this point might be snuff videos or videos of bombings in Gaza. That’s not serving either users or advertisers.
The other night, I was scrolling through this beautiful, curated interiors account and then there was an ad for Ex-Lax, just dropped in the middle of this very aspirational stuff.
That collision to me is the case and point. It’s so useless, and so not productive for either party, that it just feels like a glitch, you know? And that’s because of algorithmic targeting. It’s because these feeds don’t prioritise anything besides engagement.
Places like Monocle, for instance, cater to a relatively small readership. It’s not for everybody; it’s for this smaller subset of people who consider themselves clued-in. We’re getting into a sticky discussion about taste and tastemaking here, but: how do these more niche platforms react against the algorithm?
Tastemaking is a really complicated topic. I think it strikes a lot of people as elitist because you're talking about what people should like and why they should like it, and why I know something that you don’t. “I’m going to tell you something, and it's going to heighten your sensibilities or lead you somewhere different.” That can be intimidating, it can be pretentious, it can be alienating, it can be very biased in class ways, identity ways, all sorts of ways.
But I almost feel like it has to be defended at this point, just because we’re all so immersed in automated feeds. We’re consuming so much through different platforms that we’ve kind of lost touch with the human tastemaker. We all have voices we love following on Twitter or Instagram or TikTok but those voices get lost in the feed. We sometimes lose track of them and we sometimes don’t see their content. Those feeds are also not serving those creators particularly well because the business models are all based on advertising and the creators don’t get access to the bulk of that revenue. Through the book, I propose that one answer to Filterworld, to the dominance of these algorithmic feeds, is to find those human voices. Find tastemakers who you like and really follow them and support them and build a connection with those people.
Thinking about your own taste doesn’t have to be elitist. Fundamentally it’s just about creating a human connection around a piece of culture that you enjoy, and that should be open to anyone. It’s literally telling a friend why you like this specific song, or saying, “We should go see this movie, because I like the director because of XYZ reasons.”
Tastemaking is almost just being more conscientious about cultural consumption, being more intentional in the way that we’ve become totally intentional about food, right? Food is such a source of identity and community, and we take pride in what we eat, what restaurants we go to, what we cook. I would love it if people took more pride in going to a gallery, going to a library, going to a concert series at a concert hall. I think those are all acts of human tastemaking that can be really positive.
And all the things you mentioned are also things outside the house.
Yes. You’re coming together with other people in appreciation of the kind of culture you like to consume. And that’s really good. That helps everyone.
I want to finish by talking about the idea of ambient culture. You clearly appreciate ambient music, and in Filterworld you describe genres like lofi hiphop and Japanese City Pop as music that feels almost designed for the algorithm. Our feeds seem to push us toward ambient content: stuff that’s frictionless and easy to ignore. So I’m wondering, is that always a bad thing? When is ambience necessary and when is it detrimental?
I do really enjoy ambient content. My first book was about minimalism, which has a kind of ambient quality. I wrote an essay about Emily in Paris and ambient TV. I've written about Brian Eno a lot, the musician who coined the term ambient music. That kind of art fulfills a function: to put your brain at rest. It provides a pleasant background at a technological moment when we have a lot of distractions. Ambient TV is maybe the perfect TV to look at your phone in front of. It relies on the presence of that second screen to complement it. The TV show doesn’t have to be that interesting because your phone is interesting.
The problem becomes that through algorithmic recommendations, so much content is pushed towards ambience, and you never want all of your stuff to be ambient. You don’t only want to consume ambient art because then what are you actually paying attention to? If everything exists as a soothing background, what’s actually provoking you? What’s leading you somewhere new?
I think the critique goes back to Brian Eno’s definition of ambient music, which was that the music has to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” You have to be able to ignore it. It can be in the background, but you should also be able to pay attention to it and be rewarded by your attention to it. I feel like a lot of culture now only falls into that former category. You’re only able to ignore it. Once you start paying attention, there’s nothing really gripping there. Certainly with TikTok and Spotify playlists, there’s this prioritisation of the soothing, numbing quality of ambient content. Functional stimulus in the form of culture is so big these days, whether it’s ambient music or ASMR videos.
So now sometimes, culture exists in a functional context rather than an artistic context. You’re like, “Oh I watch The Office to fall asleep,” or, “I listen to this track while I run because it sustains my exercise.” I personally always want to make an argument for culture for its own sake and for thinking deeply about artistic process and ideas.
I LIKE TAKING the road less travelled. I used to fly to Tokyo a lot but now I want to check out other places. Southeast Asia is an area I’d like to visit more. I’d just flown in from Manila. It’s an amazing city. Great people, very strong energy, a lot of things happening there.
THE SALVAGES is a long-term endeavour. I don’t see it as, okay, we got to get to the next big thing. The Salvages is a brand that will outlast me. I don’t want it to be the coolest, hottest thing right now and then it’s gone the next season, I want it to be evergreen.
THE ’80S was when I grew up and the culture of that time is what I know best.
WHEN I WAS INTRODUCING CRUMPLER in Singapore, I had to bang down doors and hit the bike stores. But no one wanted to stock it. Singapore hasn’t cultivated a messenger bag culture yet. So, I pushed it to the fashion stores; I did a hip-hop party at Zouk to promote Crumpler; I was seeding the bags to friends. Word caught on and next thing you know, it became really big. And when Crumpler became popular, I began on my next journey.
MY FIRST STORE, Ambush, was small and niche. We sold T-shirts and toys from KAWS; cool stuff that friends from New York were making. You can say that we imported [street] culture to Singapore in the 90s.
SURRENDER is my second store and I did it with James [Lavelle] from Mo’ Wax. A good friend with whom I still keep in touch, James and I brought in Japanese brands like Neighborhood, visvim, Undercover. Back then those labels were not available outside of Japan. Maybe Hideout in London but generally, those brands were usually sold in Japan. We were the first store to bring in the Ura-Harajuku culture.
“BE AUTHENTIC to yourself, your tribe will find you.” That’s the best advice Nicolette [Earn’s partner] gave me.
PEOPLE DRAW ENERGY from possessions. You buy a piece of art or clothing and you draw inspiration from it. It feels good that you’ll want to share the experience with other people.
I WAS INTO records, toys, furniture, art, everything, you know. Now, I’m at a point where I prize the experience as well. Covid-19 kinda flipped the switch on my thinking.
YOU NEED to let go of things to be happier.
IT’S IMPORTANT to feel like an outsider. If you stick with your comfort zone, you’ll stagnate. You’ve got to keep moving, you’ve got to be continually inspired by what’s happening around you.
EVERYTHING is a learning process.
I GET A LOT OF JOY from designing a space. All my stores, I designed them. Creating new spaces is basically like creating your own little world.
IN THE ’80S, I was into post-punk and early Hip Hop. From 2004, I would progress to something else, like rock or whatever. Back then, Zouk played a lot of house music and I just didn’t get it. I was into Hip Hop. Fast-forward a decade or two and I’m understanding house music and disco. Turns out after all these years, I simply just enjoy good music.
I’VE MET MY HEROES my heroes and so far they have turned out to be really decent human beings.
LOLA, our West Highland White Terrier is eight and you’d be surprised by her personality. She just brings joy to us every day. Before Lola, I didn’t have much experience in taking care of a dog and I learnt so much from Lola.
DOGS ARE PURE; they love you unconditionally. We should learn how to love and receive love. That’s very important that Lola has taught us how to love.
I’M AFRAID of not doing enough. Unfinished projects, y’know?
I DO GET A LOT OF CREDIT—maybe more than I deserve—from people in the countries that I travelled to. They’d say, oh, your store inspired me to set up my own thing. I’m glad those people resonated with me and what I did.
I’D RATHER BE known as a guy who has done great things, instead of owning them.
WHY DO I NOT SMILE IN PHOTOS? Probably comes naturally to me. Or maybe I look better without smiling.
IF YOU’D ASKED ME pre-COVID if I would open another retail space, I’d be like, nah, I don’t wanna go backwards. But now, I think it’s time and soon.
THESE DAYS, I don’t want to explain about myself too much. People will understand.
Photography: Jaya Khidir
Photography Assistant: Natalie Sienna
While researching her role for a new film Past Lives, Greta Lee watched a South Korean reality show in which a celebrity is reunited with a childhood sweetheart. Being confronted by your first love is, unsurprisingly, a physical experience. “It’s initial shock, terror, a look of death, then ecstasy, joy and a desperate, deep sadness, all within a matter of seconds,” says the 40-year-old Korean-American actor on a video call from Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, the writer Russ Armstrong, and their two sons.
It was a specific feeling she needed to tap into for the romantic drama from writer-director Celine Song, which is out now in cinemas and was released earlier this summer in the United States to considerable critical acclaim. The film charts the story of two friends from South Korea: Nora, played by Lee, and Hae Sung, played by Teo Yoo, who were separated when Nora’s family emigrated to Canada. A couple of decades (and relationships) later, the pair reconnect for an intense week in New York.
Before Nora and Hae Sung’s reunion was filmed, Song asked the actors not to interact. “Admittedly, at the time I felt like, ‘Oh, this is kind of hokey and manufactured,’ but I’m glad we went along with the experiment, because it really helped me hone in on the biology of longing and what it does to your body,” says Lee. Yoo and John Magaro, who plays Nora’s husband Arthur, actually met for the first time on screen; for months, Lee had acted as a “conduit” between the two, a distance that Song encouraged. “She’s supremely manipulative,” Lee jokes.
Taking on Nora, a nuanced romantic lead, “felt really, really radical at the time—and very nerve-racking”, says Lee. While she was starting out as an actor, doing theatre in New York, the roles available for Asian-Americans were scarce and, as Lee points out, she wasn’t cut out for stereotypes: “I was not very good at playing a lab technician or a doctor.” Later, however, she proved very cut out for scene-stealing turns in Girls, as the clueless and cut-throat gallerist Soojin, and more recently as Maxine in Netflix’s time-bending hit Russian Doll and Stella in The Morning Show, which is about to start its third season. In 2025, she is set to star alongside Jared Leto in the third instalment of Tron.
Central to Past Lives, says Lee, is the Korean concept of in-yun. Not precisely translatable, it refers to the time-spanning connections between people: if you meet in this life, you encountered each other in a past life. “Now that I’ve done the movie, I can’t not see in-yun everywhere,” Lee says, with the air of a recent convert to a niche religion. “You and I have in-yun now,” she says, pointing to me. “You can have in-yun with a chair,” she adds, pointing at her chair. Wherever you stand on the idea—as Nora says in the film, in-yun is “just something Korean people say to seduce someone”—it’s an effective way to raise the romantic stakes; both balm and delusion. “It’s really a coping mechanism, isn’t it?” says Lee, cheerily. “We’re all just trying to make sense of the injustice that we only get to live once.”
This interview took place before the SAG-AFTRA strike.
Originally published on Esquire UK
First seen on the Autumn/Winter 2016 menswear runway, the Hermès Bolide Shark makes a return seven years later. This time it’s been shrunk to the size of a bag charm with the shark’s teeth-baring smile appearing as playfully menacing as ever. It could probably fit a few coins and some keys if you need, but amusing design—coupled with Hermès craftsmanship—takes priority over functionality with this one.
Think of the Morning Machine as an automated professional coffee maker. It’s been thoughtfully designed to maximise the extraction and flavour in every brew—no matter the capsules used. The design is sleek with an interactive interface that allows one to customise settings ranging from brewing methods to temperature and amount of water used. Or simply select from a gamut of built-in recipes created by baristas from specialty roasteries the world over, to experience artisanal coffee right in the comfort of your own home.
There’s decadent and then there’s Celine perfumed soap level of decadence. Does anyone actually need soaps infused with Hedi Slimane’s curation of olfactory sensations for Celine? Maybe not, but if you’re already a fan of the scents, the soaps enhance the experience, packaged in a dodecagon shape topped with the Celine Triomphe motif. It’s a throwback to bar soaps and helps to promote a more sensorial routine, whether that’s for washing your hands or body.
We’re getting ready for hat season once again. It’s still somewhat cold down south and getting colder in some parts of the world—a good time to have some sartorial fun with hats. Zegna’s collaboration with Los Angeles-based The Elder Statesman revolves around the former’s traceable Oasi Cashmere material, which only means that everything’s made from carefully sourced cashmere of the highest quality. This bucket hat will keep you warm, no doubt, but will also add panache to any fit.
It’s all about being a first adopter with this one. The mini Shield Sling bag is one of Daniel Lee’s first designs for Burberry, named after the shield seen on the brand’s revived Equestrian Knight Design logo. It’s definitely on the small side but with almost everything now available in a digital wallet on your mobile device, no one needs to carry much around these days. The bell charm is a curious addition and thankfully, is not designed with a ball bearing inside to jingle with every movement.
If it hasn’t been said enough: sunblock is essential. Even if you’re not interested in skincare (it is 2023 though, gents), at least slap on some sunblock on your face. Grail’s Daily SPF has a formulation that feels more like a serum so the skin feels hydrated without experiencing any stickiness associated with most sunblocks. It’s also free from harmful chemicals, leaves no white cast residue and is water-resistant—perfect for everyday sunny conditions.
Gentle Monster may be better known for its futuristic designs but its more classic offerings take on a similar slant while remaining wearable in day-to- day settings. The OBOE 01 for example, features a slight cat-eye shape that differentiates it from other sunglasses of its ilk. It’s also set against a black acetate frame that is multifaceted for an elevated design language.
This seminal work of fiction by George Orwell is a perennial favourite. Not only does it deal with themes that remain relatable to this day—mind-blowing considering that it was originally published in 1949—1984 changed culture by popularising terms the likes of “Big Brother” and “Thought Police”. This anniversary edition features stunning cover artwork by Jon Gray that catches the eye on the shelf as well as on the commute.
The Maison Margiela Tabis are perhaps one of the most contentious pair of shoes out there—you either love them or hate them. This new-in-season lace-up version takes the crazy down a few notches. It’s a familiar derby silhouette—save for the split-toe design, of course—fitted with a chunky cleated sole that grounds the entire look together. Wear a pair with pretty much anything and we guarantee you would at least be given credit for the brave footwear choice.
Packing eight hours of battery life on a single full charge—and at full volume too—Kipsch’s Gig XL portable speaker is one mighty audio companion. It weighs slightly more than 4kg but is easily portable without getting in the way. And because it’s splash-proof, those pool parties are about to go harder than before. Oh and did we mention the speaker also lights up in multiple colour modes to dance to whatever tunes you have on the party playlist.
Photography: Jaya Khidir
Styling: Asri Jasman
Photography Assistant: Chuen Kah Jun
This article was created in partnership with the Oval Partnership.
The Kampong Spirit has long been a part of Singapore’s history. Used to describe a positive communal attitude and solidarity of people, there seems to be a common consensus that the Kampong Spirit has been slowly chipping away as Singapore elevates its status from what used to be a small fishing port during the colonial era to its current standing as one of Asia’s most developed countries. The term has long been a part of our past, stemming from the period before Dutch and Portuguese traders landed on our shores. Prior to Western influences, our little red dot was a sleepy fishing village that contributed to Malaysian seafaring and trading.
The story of our island’s humble beginnings with trading may be common knowledge, but less is known about the time before colonial influencers took rein. What was the way of life before the rapid growth of Singapore, and how can our past and present interact meaningfully? That’s precisely what the Oval Partnership and several university research groups from Singapore Management University (SMU) and Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) sought to answer in the Lost Cities exhibition.
The Lost Cities exhibition is a purposeful stray away from your typical replication of Singapore’s pre-colonial kampong, but a unique display that showcases the pre-colonial urbanism in Asia from a past-meets-present perspective. Guided by exploratory trips to Pulau Ubin and Lorong Buangkok—the two earliest settlements on our island, and now the last two kampongs known to Singapore, the Oval Partnership and researchers took to the local culture and its inhabitants to document and collect first-hand experience of living the kampong life, a cultural gem unbeknownst to most Singaporeans.
Mr Chris Law, Founding Director of The Oval Partnership and visionary behind the exhibition shared, “this event recreates the experience of a bygone age, and enables attendees to explore how life was lived then,” he said. “Now we have a clearer sight of where we came from, and how we were shaped. It deepens our understanding of the giants whose shoulders we stand on, so we can build a better world for the generations that come after us.”
Debuting an experiential exhibition with three key zones, each guided by a reinterpretation of kampong living—The Lost Cities exhibition takes one through a fictional journey of a 14th century kampong through a contemporary lens of the three key themes of heritage, sustainability and community. The highly curated exhibition explores the world of a fictional kampong lead by the visionary female Chief Esah, as their thriving society lives in perfect harmony with nature and progressive cultural practices rooted in equality.
Members of the public can not only expect a refreshing perspective of our island’s past, but also an admirable display of sustainably sourced exhibit materials such as locally sourced wood from ethical wood-makers and non-profit environmental organisations. From interactive displays to creative experiences rooted in cultural kampong practices, exhibit-goers can expect an engaging and unforgettable journey through a reimagined city.
In addition to the research driven exhibits, the Oval Partnership has also tapped into the talents of three multidisciplinary artists—Gilles Massot, Marc Nair and Zen Teh, to contribute their take on Singapore’s kampong heritage.
An immersive experience through time, the Lost Cities exhibition will be taking place from 18 August – 1 October, 2023 in Fort Canning Centre for all members of the public to journey through Singapore’s earliest Kampong cities and dive into the past and present of Kampong heritage.
The Lost Cities Series: Kampong Port Cities of the Pre-colonial Era Exhibition
When: 18th August – 1st October, 2023 (Weekdays: 10am – 6pm, Weekends: 10am – 10pm)
Where: Fort Canning Centre, Singapore