When I first stepped foot on Mexican soil, I spoke relatively good Spanish. I was by no means fluent, but I could hold a conversation. So when I asked a local ice-cream seller in downtown Guadalajara when he expected a new delivery of chocolate ice cream, and he said ‘ahorita’, which directly translates to ‘right now’, I took him at his word, believing that its arrival was imminent.
I sat near his shop and waited, my Englishness making me feel it would be rude to leave. Half an hour passed and still no ice cream arrived, so I timidly wandered back to the shop and asked again about the chocolate ice cream. “Ahorita,” he told me again, dragging out the ‘i’ ‒ “Ahoriiiiita”. His face was a mix of confusion and maybe even embarrassment.
It may seem like a convoluted system of doublespeak to some, but for Chinese netizens, this is the norm — and always has been. Much of Chinese Internet lingo involves codewords, and the corpus of codewords is constantly changing to accommodate new topics and avoid smarter, stricter censors. It has reached the point where a simple understanding of Chinese vocabulary, syntax, and grammar is no longer enough to fully understand Chinese Internet discourse. On today’s Chinese Internet, fully comprehending the language requires a thorough knowledge of current events, a deep respect for historical implications, an agile mastery of cultural conventions, and more often than not, a healthy appreciation of topical humor.
About five years ago, Ari Popper enrolled in a course on science-fiction writing at the University of California, Los Angeles, hoping to distract himself from the boredom of his day job as the president of a market-research company. “It was, like, the best ten weeks of my life,” Popper told me recently. “But I knew I wasn’t going to pay the bills as a science-fiction writer.” Still, the course gave him an idea: since businesses often spend money trying to predict how the world will change, and since speculative fiction already traffics in such predictions, perhaps one could be put in service of the other—corporate consulting through sci-fi narratives. Soon, Popper quit his job, sold his house, and launched his own firm, SciFutures. Today, his network of a hundred or so authors writes customized stories for the likes of Visa, Ford, Pepsi, Samsung, and NATO. Popper calls their work “corporate visioning.”
We live in an era dominated by series production. From the Baby-Sitters Club to the Marvel Universe to Vintage Contemporaries to Chicken Soup for the Soul, our cultural products increasingly rely on the series concept to ensure market viability and brand loyalty. Cheap Modernism not only provides us with a fascinating backstory on this marketing mechanism, but it also illustrates an exemplary methodology for future study of what we might call serial culture.