Hyper-objects are things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans. They're non-human actors in our networked world.
They impose their presence in the system. Hyper-objects can be as big as climate change and capitalism to cultural objects like sneakers and Pokémon cards.
But why are hyper-objects important to understand?
As our attention gets fragmented along the edges of countless niche interests, hyper-objects are reliable nodes within our networked culture because they have the most links to past events and people’s memories.
This structure not just characterizes our global media culture, but also explains why certain brands or products maintain cultural capital as media mixes evolve.
“In this way, media forces us to think less about senders and receivers, and more about questions of channels and protocols. Less about encoding and decoding, and more about context and environment. Less about writing and reading, and more about structures of interaction.
— Alexander R. Galloway
Hyper-objects have marketing value because they take less activation energy to trigger nostalgia and fandom. This is the reason for endless brand collaborations.
Everything from Jordans, vans, and crocs to Pokémon cards, Sonic, Mario, retro gaming, the iPod, Barbies, and Flaming Hot Cheetos.
Here’s Virgil on the hyper-objectivity of sneakers, “That was my entry point into the mystique of sneakers, not the object-it’s the object itself plus the aura that exceeds it. Ok there’s an object, but what it calls upon and what it references and what the layers are that tie into something. It’s almost intangible, how they unite, but it can all spark to make a strong artwork.”
While Virgil’s methods highlight the sneaker as an intense hyper-object, it also underscores a cultural weakness.
Bruce Mau explains, “To understand the contemporary problem of identity and the enterprise of producing signal, we have to understand the changing nature of identity—the background against which an identity can be made to stand as an entity, or a life-form. We're living through a period in which the production of background is both expanding and mutating more than at any other moment in history. There are several reasons for this. One is connectedness. The web of communications media connecting us has drawn tighter than ever before. The density of the communications environment makes it difficult for a single entity to maintain presence and integrity—or to manifest its identity.”
Hypertext & Hyper-Culture
Ted Nelson, the inventor of hypertext, did not see hypertext as a phenomenon limited to digital text.The world itself is a hypertext. Hyper-textuality is the real structure of things. Culture has increasingly lost the kind of structure familiar to us from conventional texts or books. Culture is bursting at the seams, so to speak.It is exploding all ties and joints. It is is becoming unbound, un-restricted, un-ravelled, a hyper culture.The hyperspace of culture is organized not by borders but by links and network connections. Everything is as Nelson’s famous phrase has it, ‘deeply interwingled.’Everything is tied up, networked with everything else.There are no isolated beings.
— Byung Chul Han
Liquid Assets in a Liquid Society: Acquiring Cultural Capital
In 2021, Bill Ackman bought a 10% stake in Universal Music for $4 billion dollars.
Why would a hedge fund most notable for their stakes in companies like Lowe’s and Chipotle buy such a huge stake in the world’s largest music company?
Because music is a powerful hyper-object.
In a liquid society where nothing persists over time and the half-life of fame accelerates, IP becomes the one of the most enduring assets in our new digital economy.
IP is king because it can compound in value over time.
Hyper-objects can generate intense fandoms and communities around them, almost at will.
As Bill Ackman states, “I can’t think of an asset I’m more confident in being consumed over time. … You need food and water to live, but music comes next.”
Living in the Shadow of Hyper-Objects
While hyper-objects cast a wide net, they also cast an even larger shadow.
When looking at the music industry, older songs represent 70% of the U.S. music market.
All the growth is coming from a catalog of old songs, while the new-music market is actually shrinking.
Hyper-objects tend to overshadow new, local, and authentic cultural expressions, leading to a loss of diversity and uniqueness.
The mandate to mine IP because they have “pre-awareness” is seen as a safer bet than an original concept is another case in point.
“Real cultural diversity results from the interchange of ideas, products, and interfaces, not from the insular development of a single national style.”
— Tyler Cowen
As hyper-objects gain prominence, traditional and niche cultures may struggle to survive. Individual identities might get submerged in the vast ocean of globalized trends.The problem is not necessarily the over commercialization of hyper-objects per se, but the under commercialization of newly emerging ones.
Hyper-object creators like Nike are already creating networks around the production of hyper-objects with their .Swoosh community. As a brand you want to tap into hyper-objects sparingly. They can give your brand quick bursts of energy, but you will need a solid plan to coordinate a successful laddered path. Otherwise, the half-life of these tactics quickly deteriorate over time.
Hyper-objects are symbolic resources. Whether they're animate or in-animate objects, hyper-objects are intimately woven into our physical and mental world.
In summary, looking at the world through the lens of hyper-objects can help us rethink how we evaluate the cultural currency of certain hyper-objects—underscoring a need for a new philosophy that helps us understand a social space that is governed by the twin poles of economic and cultural capital.