On The Lost Decade, and Where We’re Going Next
By Sam Kotrba
Last updated March 27, 2023
[Accompanying Arena Channel]
With every ten years comes a renewed sense of identity. From the counterculture-based 60s to the grunge-based 90s, each decade's style has been informed by our unique cultural conditions and ideological beliefs. The technology of the time contributes in a significant way to this process. Most notably, we could point to the Y2K movement of the 2000s as a reflection of how technological advances molded the decade around a once believed futuristic aesthetic. The digital world's impact on our identity has only grown over the past 20 years, as the internet has increasingly become integral in our day-to-day lives. As the 2000s ended, our relationship with the web changed dramatically. It had now become a far more complex system. Society had fully sunk its teeth into the digital landscape. Content became capital, and there was an endless stream of information and resources. As the new decade approached, this set the stage for a full-blown identity crisis.
To have grown up in the 2010s is to grow up as the first generation fully and entirely inundated by the internet. This upbringing threw the youth of its time into a complicated world of culture wars, eco-anxiety, and information overload. The world had been increasingly speeding up its processing power for decades and had finally become the second-by-second evolving digital landscape we know it as today. It became a necessary skill to be able to keep up with the nature of this machine. All of these elements once again began to shape our sense of identity.
As the natural pendulum of trends swung away from the 2000s bright and colorful neo-futurist approach and into the 2010s highly curated minimalism, we start to see one of the decade's first defining style choices. From monochromatic Instagram feeds to endless san serif re-brands, less became more. At the same time, another defining movement was underway that had been slowly rising since the 90s, streetwear. The titans behind the largest skate shops, hip hop albums, and general cultural zeitgeists established a new fashion scene and art category that combined high and low reference points. This partly contributed to breaking the glass ceiling on our perception of genres and is potentially part of the beginning of a sense of ruleless-ness we're seeing play out today. While both of these movements are defining staples to how someone would best attempt to explain the 2010s, there's still one more that needs to be highlighted, thrifting.
Upcycling trends, fashion, and art techniques became one of the most common ideas of the decade. Not overlooking that its roots go hand in hand with the values of one of the most eco-conscious generations the world had ever seen up until that point. Nostalgia had become cool. Along with wearing clothes that made it look like you had just walked off a coming-of-age film. Normcore and dressing like grandparents had marked their beginnings as popular style trends. Fanny packs, windbreakers, fake VHS video effects, polaroids, vinyl, and disposable cameras were inescapable as they made their resurgence. No longer-airing sitcoms such as The Office or Seinfeld became the binge-worthy obsessions of teenagers and young adults everywhere. Along with an endless amount of movie remakes and sequels. Vintage concert merch and retro sneaker reselling fueled by the streetwear market completely reshaped our relationship with consumerism as it existed in late-stage capitalism. There's an endless amount of cultural touch points you could focus on that fueled this nostalgia-obsession throughout the years. Whether Tumblr's short reign, Depop, or streaming platforms helped enable such habits. In the end, it all leads back to one sentiment. That the 2010's never really figured out what they were. Its access to unlimited information and upcycling stopped it from ever genuinely having its own picturesque moment the decades before it saw. It was overwhelmed by its existence within this new framework and the possibilities that came from the internet. Streetwear comes to mind as the most honorable example of how you would define the decade but even this movement was in its infancy as it navigated through a nostalgia obsessed world of drop crotch joggers and old school jordans. In recent years we see a culture that has caught up with navigating the complexities of these tools and that has begun building something that feels new for the first time in a long time.
I started an Are.na channel in 2020, cataloging what I saw as an uptick in colorful design trends. It eventually began to reveal itself as a stark contrast to the identity struggles of the 2010s. The channel became a refreshing example of the new decade's eclecticism and its ability to piece together a vast collection of reference points without coming off as a nostalgia-driven rehash of the past. It was often bold and unafraid of exaggeration. Taking hints from the y2k movement, aesthetics and ideals were beginning to resemble a maximalist rejection of the 2010s. This new moment valued a more flexible and complex sense of identity. We saw hints of this in the decade before from artists such as Virgil Abloh with the work he and his peers were doing in various industries such as fashion, music, art, and more. Everything began to seamlessly blend as we saw the walls of an old vanguard break down. 032c explored some of these ideas in their 2018 issue entitled The Big Flat Now, but as we settle into the 2020s, we can begin to see it all take shape.
Our new cultural direction feels as if it was raised on the internet. A more authentic offshoot of what was being attempted during the y2k movement. This time being influenced by a society where genres merge and hyperreality inches closer. Where the last decade struggled with reduction in many senses of the word, this one seems to embrace itself in its entirety. Maximalism shows itself on full display in our homes as odd shapes and colorful builds, along with other interior design trends, are mixed with organic elements like wood, stone, and greenery. In the past minimalist san-serif design choices were once praised but are now being replaced with in-your-face and even sometimes too difficult to read typefaces. Brutalist websites that challenge our traditional understanding of usability are commonplace. Exaggerated proportions are in, and hair has become boundaryless. We've begun to see traditional guidelines break down. These trends continue to show themselves throughout various mediums. The recent musical movement known as Hyperpop, ushered in by artists such as Sophie and 100 Gecs, comes off as an audio example of what it means to exist on the internet in the modern day. While technology continues to ramp up, we see AI and Midjourney add fuel to the contemporary direction, only furthering the vivid and diverse landscape. There's a strong sense of ephemeral fluidity in the air. Touched on differently by a recent Kaleidoscope article entitled Selected Ambient Works, gradients shape the overall tone as our natural world and the digital world start to blur together. Web3, currently in its infancy, has once again begun to make our online experience feel like the wild west. A common design trend of distortion grows as we sink further into our half-digital lives.
Much like technology, political movements also help shape our world. It's important to highlight the often uncredited minority groups that have helped bring us into this new moment. The 2020s have already begun to establish itself as a time of fluidity. This is undoubtedly partly due to the work trans activists and the queer community have advocated for years. Work that has allowed us the freedom to question both gender binaries and general categorizations we at mass have accepted for so long. There's an ongoing flood of ideas constantly in motion, reflecting the freedom and energy of this period. A new decade is ahead of us, one that demands a different set of ideas. In a time that systematically works for so few, there's a burgeoning resilience in its cultural sense of identity for the first time in almost ten years. None of these talking points are considered a reflection of some easy, whimsical time because it's not; maybe it never has been. But it's a reflection on where we've been the past twenty years and an idea of the possibility of where we might go next. A lot is going on right now, but maybe that's a good thing.
Photo via Hay