At the center of Commerce is communication — a “transmission of desires,” if you will. I have what you need, you have what I need. This results in a mutually beneficial transaction.

But what happens when the nature of communication is changing? What happens when the transaction requires a history of knowledge to interpret — or if the transaction results in a loss of identity, performative acts, or demeaning behavior?

Today on Insiders, we will explore the phenomenon of commerce as a language and how new languages are giving birth to new cultural affectations.

Where culture exists, commerce must exist also.

Communication is a Two-Way Street

In The Asynchronous Fiction, I wrote about the limitations of language and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s coined “language games”:

“These language games are our unique contexts, practices, and cultures in which our words have meaning.”

Every relationship requires each party’s unique language games to interweave and create a new language game so the people building the relationship can understand each other. There are basic constructs that we all engage with, but these are pretty limited and we often get lost trying to communicate with each other.

For a new language game to be created, one side of the relationship will actively have to expand its language game to include the other party’s language. Have you ever seen someone “become” someone else when they engage with you or someone else?

Mirroring is a common practice that humans employ to become part of the “in group.” Mirroring isn’t always a conscious decision — we often adopt colloquialisms, metaphors, and mannerisms to become accepted by others as a subconscious behavior. “Code-switching” is a good example of subconscious mirroring.

Language develops and evolves due to mirroring. People adjust how they communicate to try and play the “language game” of the person they are interacting with.

Take a close relationship, like a marriage. Each spouse comes to the relationship with their base way of communicating. For the relationship to work, often, one spouse will stretch and change the way they communicate toward their significant other’s language for their significant other to understand. This can change a spouse’s whole personality. Ideally, both parties adapt to create something entirely new.

This happens in all communication. You see this in business all the time - interdepartmentally, in sales, and in operations. It happens in friendships, too. If one of the parties in a given relationship can’t — or won’t —  find ways to enter the other’s game, the relationship breaks down.

Language Games and the Perils of Audience Capture

Usually, it’s due to some motivating factor. Desire, necessity, profit, curiosity, and care/love drive us to play as close as we can to the game of the other side of the relationship.

To simplify the concept, let’s put communication on a linear spectrum between the two parties (yes, it gets way more complicated than this).

In this example, Party 1 has extended much further than Party 2 so that a space of interaction can exist between them.

The maximum level of potential is based on the limitation of communication between the parties.

When language games cross over, and a new game is created, this is where culture is born. When language dies, a culture dies.

Machine-Generated “Culture”

Human-to-machine interactions fall into this paradigm.

I use the term “machine” broadly - it includes digital machines such as software and algorithms and systems of organization such as business workflows and governmental systems.

Where humans rely on machines to broker communication, the influence of the machine is heavily skewed in favor of the language game being machine-centric:

We adapt to it. We measure units in pixels, in megabits per second. Distance on the internet is measured in latency, in milliseconds; not in kilometers or miles.

We had to learn the language of the machine in order to communicate both with it, and about it.

Code, algorithms, protocols - these are the foreign language games we’ve been grasping at, trying to find ways to communicate with the machine world.

Even with such a small game, we’ve already seen massive amounts of culture arise. Examine earlier inventions like Ford’s factories or his cars. The mass of humanity shifts to specialization, to factories and new architecture, to Detroit culture and roadway towns.

Interaction with and through these machines drove all kinds of new experiences and media. The microphone, TV, and video games; I don’t think I need to elaborate.

Machines drive culture because machines automate distribution and lower the bar in terms of the skills necessary to create the media that is being distributed.

This is why I’ve maintained for years that recent generations should be classified by the version of the gaming console they played on, not the arbitrary bounds of “generational cohorts” that are popularized by media or by analysts. Gaming consoles are a form of monoculture and become a time-bound means of communicating a shared experience.

Curiously, they, too, are machines.

More recently, email protocols and search algorithms have driven all kinds of culture - and, very recently, short-form-media algorithms.

Take, for instance, the emergence of NPC cosplay and, more recently, the performative live-streaming work of creators like Pinkydoll and Cherry Crush.

"Gang gang. Yes yes yes. Mm ice cream so good. Mm ice cream so good" — Pinkydoll

Pinkydoll’s NPC streamer vid took over meme land. The clip shows Pinkydoll acting in character as a non-player character. In other words, she behaved like an AI character in a video game, and people paid her to do it.

Seyi Taylor was on board with Julie Fredrickson’s concern for the state of the world:

In Audience Capture, a publication by Matt Klein of ZINE, author Matt Klein describes these types of performative forms of media as “audience capture” — a phenomenon where audience engagement and participation drives creators into a niche, sometimes with perilous and disturbing ends.

Is this just algo chasing? Is it just more Nikado Avacado - an influencer who follows wherever the audience will consume and guide?
We think that something deeper is happening.

Pinkydoll is just one of many NPC streamers that have recently exploded in popularity. NPC streamers are symptoms of the language game developing between humans and machines. The human-machine communication spectrum is shifting toward the human side of the equation. Culture is changing, and a new generation of nostalgia is upon us.

This nostalgia is taking root because the next generation of human-machine culture is forming.

Think of the shift toward content created by SEO-focused news outlets and brands.

Email retention email styles, texts and push notifications, YouTube videos.

The crying CEO on LinkedIn.

Single sentence paragraphs.

Chasing the algo has led to new cultural styles, motifs, and aesthetics.

eCommerce has become an art form in its own right; with curators and critics, as we covered extensively in our new zine, The Multiplayer Brand.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan:

"Whenever a new form creates an environment that encompasses an older service, the older service becomes an art form. Electric technology has turned the old industrialism, including the motor car, into an art form… Sputnik created a man-made environment for the planet and turned the planet into an art, an old nose-cone, a spaceship."

NPC streamers are modern playacting the world that includes RPGs and the Sims and Zelda as a nostalgic send-up. It’s the language of the very-online, the media-literate, the gamer-centric.

This fixed-response world is now officially designated old. Hence, the Pinkydoll vid is early nostalgia at work. And you could even see it in the arc of responses to Pinkydoll - when it went from “the world is unhinged” to people having fun using “yes yes yes” in their everyday banter”.

This world already has a group of people who find that era the peak of their lives.

But why is this era moving to “obsolescence”? The language game is shifting. Algorithms are becoming much more specific, and much more targeted to individual tastes and desires. While there are more complex, and numerous machines that sit between our digital communications, they’re more transparent than ever before.

The Machine world has moved the needle toward Human communication.

The Wild World of the Machine

The effect of generative AI is a jump in the vector of the Machine language game toward humanity.

Generative AI gave Machines a way to speak in Human terms instead of Humans having to find a way to speak in code and 0s and 1s. This expanded the language game by leaps and bounds. The age of fixed response NPCs is over - the world is now randomized, themed, coherent AI responses. “Ice cream so good” might happen, but it certainly won’t happen over and over and over. NPCs will be much more complex, trained on specific data, and sometimes have a real-life counterpart who can take over for the right price.

For example, back in May, we covered CarynAi, the extension of real-life Caryn Marjorie. The AI “girlfriend” is available to “date” for $1/min. CarynAI has been trained on real-life Caryn’s data but provides personalized experiences for those that pay. Caryn’s just one example, powered by Forever Voices, but there are many other AI girlfriend companies out there like PicSo, Girlfriend AI, and iGirl.

“AI girlfriend” is just one use case. Companies like Inworld are powering in-game AI NPCs. Companies like Replika are creating AI companions. ShopWithAI is powering shopping with an AI version of a celebrity.

This is just scratching the surface. It’s just not just about NPCs - it’s about everything. It’s about compiling and writing code. It’s about solving problems. It’s about authorship and image creation. It’s about interacting with everyday machines. It’s about everything because the wild world of the Machine is simultaneous and unlimited. Back to McLuhan - it’s about extending innate Human functions.

It’s communication with the future self. Machines are a future mirror of humanity - a window into what we will be and what we’re capable of. Creativity and human capacity for thought become the limiter - as the father of cybernetics Norbert Weiner said “The world of the future will be an even more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves." He called this our new industrial revolution.

That’s what makes limitation so endearing to us. The limitations imposed on us by our current environment (that is, our technological limits) give us a break from the responsibility that is our capability.

That responsibility to push what we can now do with our minds is going to be relentless because our minds are wild places. With this newly expanded language-game, we’re continuing to chip away at what machines are capable of, like Michelangelo with marble.

”The best artist has that thought alone which is contained within the marble shell; The sculptor's hand can only break the spell To free the figures slumbering in the stone.” - Michelangelo

The world of the machine is a frontier, wild in nature because it extends the range of our wild brains and imaginations. The stone that we’re chipping away at is not machines but ourselves. We can answer fundamental questions. What are we ultimately capable of? If machines take over all the jobs that we need to survive, what is our true purpose?

The Dangers of the New Era

As we push further in, there’s a toll that comes with it.

We’re already pushing so hard on our minds. By many accounts, we’re in the midst of the worst mental health crisis of the past century. And it will only get worse — we must push our minds further and be more creative; or at the very least more productive.

In the Industrial Revolution, people pushed their bodies beyond healthy limits. We now, in our “new industrial revolution,” are pushing our minds beyond healthy limits. How will we protect ourselves?

As we mastered the industrial revolution, we created laws, penalties, and oversight systems to protect people’s physical health. In this new world, do we need an OSHA for the mind? At the same time, it seems that the further we focus on mental health, the more depressed we become as a society. Is this correlated?

We’re going to need breaks. We’re going to need limitations, or we’ll be eaten alive. Software IS eating the world, including our very minds. People are making a big deal about “remote” vs. “back to the office.” This is a false debate. The real question should be: “How is knowledge work best structured?”

To wrap it up, is the Pinkydoll video unhinged? It is. It’s a symptom of how attached we’ve become to machines these past 30 years. We’re so deep in the culture Machines have produced of late that we pay someone to play-act them.

We’re mirroring; we’re code-switching. But our native lands are not accented forms of a foreign language. It is a new type of performativism and short-form media communication that is fielded by nostalgia. Are we at risk of the death of a former language in favor of this new one?

If we are, we lose ourselves because we desperately try to adapt to the other party’s language game.