Mimicry as Taste: Why Cultural Sameness is a Matter of Social Design
Uptown or downtown. Billie Eilish or Justin Bieber. Zara or The Frankie Shop. Bagels or cronuts. Gucci or Louis Vuitton. Soulcycle or Tracy Anderson. Ibiza or Croatia. Rimowa or Muji. Vegetarian or not. Taste choices we make reflect where in society we belong, or aspire to belong. They are valuable social signals, and in the post-everything world, perhaps the ones that matter most.
There’s been a lot of talk about the sameness of our taste choices — in music, fashion, interior design, entertainment, or physical looks. It’s easy to blame algorithms for this, but the real culprit is us.
Similarly as our ancestors had to, as a matter of survival, quickly decide if a fellow Neanderthal was a friend or a foe, modern humans use social signals to quickly orient themselves in the world. On a daily basis, they actively classify one another by lifestyle, values, interests, and projected and perceived social standing. Based on taste displays, they make snap decisions whether a person is like them or far away in taste space, and thus foreign. Feeling cozy in our own taste space is largely responsible for the 37 Avenger movies and the Top Gun reboots to look forward to. Burning Man outfits, family pajama sets, Halloween costumes, weddings, craft breweries and coffee shops all appeal to human tendency to revert to the recognizable and the familiar. Thanks to it, Spotify is now a music genre, one shorter and with memorable hooks in the first 30 seconds, in addition to being a streaming platform. TikTok is a music label. Amazon’s clothing line does little more than to mimic what’s currently popular.
In the past, it was easy to discern one’s social standing by display of their economic power. But with both inconspicuous consumption and the rise of “installment economy,” everyone can wear designer clothes and accessories, travel extensively, be an art collector, or have an interior decorator. Less affluent mimic behaviors, values, and tastes of the affluent, and the affluent mimic sand crabs, rendering themselves all but invisible.
Faulty as they may be, snap judgements overpower decision-making. Processing complexity of any person, choice, or a situation is time consuming and resource-draining. Snap judgements simplify the world. A very few people…