Image Credit: Claire Turner @clayohr
I came across a video essay which outlined the history of the Facebook Alegria art style, commonly found in Corporate and editorial promotional materials. You would have by now seen it on Google banners, in editorial columns and Facebook’s entire virtual ecosystem. Although one American design company has claim to the original style, there has been a success of imitators across the Corporate landscape digitally spilling out into the real world. Additionally, there is a noticeable wave of critical disdain toward Corporate Art since the beginning of 2021. It seems as if all businesses have begun using the same friendly and approachable art style which has gone under the radar for too long and now people are taking notice of how bland it all is. Here, I’m not going to go that deep into the aesthetic and stylistic design choices since Solar Sands covered that well in his video on the subject. Instead, I want to examine the cultural impact of its omnipresence and, much as Art Deco spoke of the decadence of the roaring 20’s, see what Alegria says about the times in which we live.
The meek and inoffensive figures of Alegria greet users throughout their journeys in cyberspace on most Big Tech webpages. Their disproportionately styled bodies and pastel skin tones make them instantly recognisable as representing a trusted brand. They are engaged in acts of happiness like watering house plants or sharing coffee with a friend. Even when there’s a 404 error their happy “Oops!” reassures you that its okay and to stick around, save you become a lost visitor. What this brings to mind, and is apt given the artstyle was originally found on Facebook, is a group started by late cultural theorist Mark Fisher in 2015 called “Boring Dystopia”. Seen as a commentary on the then polite ineptness of new tech in the United Kingdom, it was an image dump for broken ATM’s and glitched out digital billboards. The sentiment was summerised by Fisher as “…Californian ideology without Californian sunshine.”
Fisher shut down the page in the same year but its popularity spawned imitation pages and subreddit groups awash with examples of the absurd and slightly baffling future no one expected. The concept has since broadened to encompass politically motivated and social themes but the original idea of the broken robot is the enduring legacy of Boring Dystopia that I want to focus on. Specifically, the following quote from the Motherboard article linked above, seems to sum up the current state:
“… because there’s this mixture of Silicon Valley ideology, PR and advertising which distracts us from our own aesthetic poverty, and the reality of what we have. Which is just all these crap robots…”
Alegria’s ubiquitous style spawning in all walks of life, even in the UK Government and NHS Covid-19 campaign posters, clearly speaks of this aesthetic poverty. This is due to the massive influence that Big Tech has on the aesthetic decisions of institutions with in-house design consultants still trying to emulate Silcon Valley. It further spreads the corporate-onotology that is present throughout all sectors now; that every University, Hospital and library all run for profit gain, have service users and operate with the same hierarchical staff structure. Moreover, Alegria’s characters predominately characterise us as the endusers of that omni-service. Our Alegria clones are not so much “crap robots” but the languid and acquiescent projected images of the digital self. Their long, distorted limbs have atrophied through lack of any real meaningful activity. They have distinctive quirks to distinguish themselves on the most shallow of levels from each other; bright hair, curly moustaches, designer frames. The engage socially but disengage from each other happily. To better understand these metaphors, it may be prudent to imagine Alegria as a Country entirely of its own by way of a classic science fiction serial.
George Orwell’s “1984” is often quoted, and misquoted, with regards to the dystopia of the future. We think of stark, brutalist structures, oppressive regimes and war-like imagery keeping the inhabitants of prison worlds incarcerated. But I think Alegría, as a community, looks more like the Village from 1967 television show “The Prisoner.” There’s an implicit acceptance of their role in the Villages’ inhabitants with only Patrick McGoohan’s defiant Number Six rallying a cry for resistance. The villagers are allowed to go around their business and make merry as long as that tacet agreement of compliance is upheld. They dress in a style unique to the village but with enough freedom of expression to satisfy creative needs. For most inhabitants of the Village the resistance has been completely bred out of them with not even a thought of ever leaving. Much is the same for Alegría; all its residents have had all their needs and desires catered for, they are unique aspiring individuals, why would they ever want to leave? In fact, why would you ever want to leave?
In fact, if you come to end of Alegría, or take a wrong turn, its citizens usher you back to the safety of front page when you receive a 404 message. The term “lost visitor” refers to a user stumbling on a broken link and leaving the website altogether. However, the goal of the graphics on a 404 page is retain the user within the same domain. Take, for example, the Google Dinosaur game which brilliantly holds the users attention until the connection is restored. This is the attention/retention economy, where the greater the duration a user spends interacting with a website the greater the data and therefore profit, that user generates. It is attention which is captured and retention ultimately the goal; like getting a fish caught on a line and never releasing it back. For more on this, see the late Bernard Stiegler’s work on protentions/retentions. There’s a good primer here.
Alegría is therefore its own prison but a prison where there are no guards and the security systems are the polite broken billboards of the 404 message. The cells that hold the Alegrians are made of their own design, their social media profiles, and seeing their own virtual reflection as perfect they have forgotten it is a prison entirely. It is a narcissistic panopticon which caters for all desires. To round off this metaphor, Andre Gregory’s words on New York in the 1981 film “My Dinner with Andre” sums up not only the state of Alegría but, for me, the schizophenia experienced in the consumer as both prisoner and guard of their digital self.
“I think that New York is the new model for the new concentration camp, where the camp has been built by the inmates themselves, and the inmates are the guards, and they have this pride in this thing that they’ve built—they’ve built their own prison—and so they exist in a state of schizophrenia where they are both guards and prisoners. And as a result they no longer have—having been lobotomized—the capacity to leave the prison they’ve made or even to see it as a prison.”