On fashion trends, and evolution

I love platform shoes. I like being elevated a bit off the ground, like I'm floating, and I like to be tall enough to look people in the face. I loved them in the 70s but I wasn't old enough to wear them. I was shopping for a knee-hi pair when I when the saleswoman told me, oh, we probably won't get more of those in, the next shipment is all Country-Western boots. You know, cowboy style, that's the next thing.

Oh no! Cowboy boots pinch the toes. We don't ride horses in San Francisco! Wait, does this have to happen? Who decided this anyhow? Is there a secret society of fashion illuminati? So I told my friends, shoot me if you see me wearing cowboy boots in 3 months, okay? I plan to resist. I have free will.

We know that "they", the marketing sleazes and advertizing ho's, hire professional hipsters. These seers are able to sense the cresting wave of the future. They tell the suits, wait--I'm seeing--the gas station attendant look for spring. And when the look comes out, at first I hate it, and I'm thinking, how much do they want for that shirt???, but a month later, I catch myself thinking, I want one that says "Joe".

Is this why the rate of change is accelerating exponentially--the marketplace has become so efficient at peddling the trends that fads sell out before they even really happen? It's like they affect the future by predicting it.

So we cruise Haight St or Melrose all sporting tiny variations on the same theme. I really wonder what would happen if we all got together and boycotted a trend. That crap would pile up in warehouses.

Our generation prides itself on being too cynical and media-savvy to be sucked in my the same dumb "Use TIDE-it will make you smile idiotically like-me-" ads that worked on our zombie parents. So we were dubbed "Generation X" by those who were trying to market to us and couldn't. But eventually they figured it out--all they have to do is invoke individuality, rebellion, or freedom. I'm so used to the revolution being televised, I barely even rolled my eyes when I first saw that McDonalds commercial that mimics Woodstock. Are they getting the last laugh--are they actually mocking us?

But I think that this whole issue of fashion trends goes deeper...it's really about the evolution of culture. According to Stephen Jay Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium, evolution is not gradual but instead takes place in sudden bursts. It's kind of like that with fads--all of a sudden, one day, the stores are filled with cowboy boots and the only platform shoes left are in size 11.

Robert Pirzig in his book Lila outlines his model of evolutionary change being an interplay between dynamic (chaotic) and static (order) forces. Pirzig believes that a new pattern needs a period of stable order to really "take". If the behavior doesn't work, things slip back into the last stable groove that existed before. If it does work, the new behavior crystallizes into a habit.

Pirzig describes how this model works at many levels of evolution. For example, take the biogenetic level. The DNA molecule is made up of nucleotides with a protein cover. The static force manifests itself in the protein part, which is very stable and inert; the dymanic force is expressed in the volatile nucleotides which are prone to mutation.

Another example would be cultural evolution. In a society, the younger generation tends to be the dynamic force which creates change and revolution while the older generation balances it with conservatism.

This dynamic force that drives evolution forward, could be described as novelty. We as humans seem to be programmed to perceive novelty. For example, ever notice how when you walk down a familiar street, your eye is drawn to new stores, or new billboards. You may not remember what was there before, but you are certain that it's new. Pirzig gives the example of hearing phat new music--the first time you hear it, it blows your mind, but after you rush out and buy the CD and play it over and over, it just doesn't sound as "fresh".

It seems as though some humans in a society are novelty-seeking and others novelty-phobic. Overall the young seem to fall into the first category, quick to embrace what's new and cool. The old, as pointed out by Alvin and Heidi Toffler in their classic book Future Shock, seem to be almost pained by newfangled gadgets. Some individuals too are particularly dynamic; these iconoclasts are surfing the change waves, generating novelty and catching things on the cutting edge. Others only accept ideas after they have become widely accepted. Maybe these stick-in-the-mud people are a necessary static balance; does this mean that having a large population of sheeplike followers is inevitable?

But evolution proceeds not just forward and onward but in cycles. With fashion trends, the cycles are obvious in the phenomenon of retro comebacks. A more significant cycle is between authoritarianism and relative libertarianism; the chaos pioneer Ralph Abraham describes this in his book Chaos, Gaia, Eros.

Actually, the premise of Future Shock is that in the 20th century the rate of novelty and change has shot up exponentially; we went from horses-drawn buggies to space stations. The cycles too are turning faster and faster. It took only 20 years for platform shoes to go from brand new to retro.

The quirky and brilliant writer Terence McKenna came up with a system of graphing novelty over time. According to his equation, the novelty in this century is a huge spike on the graph. (Interestingly, he predicts that in the year 2012 novelty will be so great as to be completely unprecendented, at which point history will come to an end. It's a strange coincidence that this is the year that the Mayan calendar ends).

The biologist Rupert Sheldrake speaks of cultural change as happening at a kind of "group mind" level. There is such a thing as "an idea whose time is come"; that is, every new idea or fad or fashion is not invented by one single person, but is actually a manifestation of the zeitgeist of the group mind (kind of like the stock market--isn't it essentially an equation for the human race's degree of confidence in an idea?). Perhaps these ideas are actually coming from the future--maybe instead of history happening from the past to the present, there is a magnet or chaotic attractor in the future that's pulling us toward it. Or perhaps there are a number of potential future attractors; modern physics is tending to support this science fiction concept of alternate universes.

So the question is, do we have free will? If we conscious beings are co-creating reality at every moment, could we choose to defy the marketing weasels and just decide to blow off their fad and start our own? Or more importantly, can we decide to take a short cut straight to a post-war, post-greed future of enlightened hedonism? Who's driving this bus, anyway?

October, 1998