We’re pleased to publish Aesthetic Flattening, a new essay by Cade Diehm and Jaz Hee-jeong Choi, in ACM Interactions, XXVIII.4 July - August 2021.

On January 29, 2008, in an attempt to combat competition from cheap sub-$500 netbook computers, then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the first generation Macbook Air, revealing it from inside an envelope on stage. The laptop introduced the so-called ultrabook category, a configuration of over-polished hardware with significantly underpowered internals sold at a premium price. The rest of the industry followed.

13 years later, “remote workers” and “essential workers” in downtime alike are subjected to aesthetic flattening, attempting to live expressive lives in a series of economic models and design paradigms optimised for a consumption-first digital life. The computing world we ended up with downplays by design the capability for performative or deeply immersive interactivity and self-expression. The result? A blank hole where 2020 should’ve been, and soaring valuations for companies that sell little more than disembodied, laborious and frankly embarassing social interfaces. The future didn’t have to be this way.