Cute nudging

Meet “cute authoritarianism.”

The results of a study of the effects of Disney films and “cute webpages,” such as Lolcats and Cute Overload, suggest that humans have a hardwired biological response to cuteness. Communications expert Julia Möller argues that “the sensitivity to cuteness is directly connected to the reproductive phase of the recipient.” Some other research suggests that “gazing at cute babies releases dopamine”—the neurotransmitter that also plays a crucial role in drug addiction.

Many corporations have learned to capitalize on this in advertisements that feature images of puppies, kittens and children. Möller describes this strategy as “fluffy dollars.” This strategic use of cuteness is also used to sell non-cute items, such as AI. According to a Chinese study, customers are more willing to adopt AI applications with “high perceived cuteness.”

I think there’s also a counter-cuteness response, when the cuteness goes too far or misses the mark in some way. Some cuteness is just too damn cute. Think Shirley Temple for instance – she was extremely cute as a child, but she was also just too damn cute. Too many dimples, too much curly, too giggly. For the long haul you want a little gawkiness or pathos or similar. That probably applies only to humans though – not puppies.

Most citizens of modern democracies are resistant to being forced to do things against their will. To combat this, social engineers have developed the psychological tool of nudging. Pioneered by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, nudge theory draws on the reductive science of behaviourism and advocates the practice of operant conditioning through indirect suggestions and positive reinforcement through “rewards.” 

“Thank you for not smoking.” I know. It’s a good thing there are so many literal-minded people like me who snarl “You don’t know what I’m doing.”

When Boston Dynamics got three of its robots to do a coordinated dance to the Motown classic “Do You Love Me?” the social media world thought it was very cute indeed. The resulting YouTube videos and GIFs garnered hundreds of millions of views.

This is all very cute—but the cuteness conceals the fact that Boston Dynamics worked with DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) for over a decade and still works with the US military and is involved in the manufacture of robots like the LSR pack mule—a large dog-like AI-powered legged squad support system. Robotic dogs that resemble Spot the dancing robot have been developed by tech companies like Ghost Robotics for explicitly military use and their role within the military has been expanding. One such robotic dog was used to enforce lockdown curfews in Shanghai. It issued commands like Your behaviour has violated anti-pandemic rules. Please go home immediately, or you will be punished in accordance with the law. What a cute doggie!

Imagine the psychic trauma: a darling robotic puppy threatening you with punishment. Ouch.

Japan’s cute army is a strange example of this fusion between military weapons and cuteness. Fighter jets have been painted with anime figures and soldiers often pose with fluffy toys in social media posts. On one fighter ship, a decoy rocket launcher has even been “anthropomorphized into a bunny rabbit, complete with mortar tubes for ears.”

See this is why I think there must be some resistance built in too: because I hate anime [chibi]. I think it’s revolting. It doesn’t make me want to cuddle anything, it makes me want to knock heads together. It’s like the word “winsome” – I hate anything labeled winsome, and always have. Cute can be a love-hate thing.

Kawaii (the “cult of cute”) has been an integral part of Japanese culture since the post WW1 years and includes curly handwriting, shy and childlike manga and anime characters and cute monsters and animals like Hello Kitty and Pikachu. Matt Alt has argued that its strange adaptation to military use “could reflect a deep-seated discomfort with the nation’s military history,” a form of denial.

Samurai Hello Kitty.

Cuteness is where the Red Guard came from.

In his 1963 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Robert Jay Lifton has shown how China made public expressions of joy and happiness mandatory, enforced by rewards and punishments. The populace had to repeat song lyrics and phrases such as Long live Chairman Mao for ten thousand years and Anyone who sees Chairman Mao is the happiest person in the world. This mandatory performative cuteness heightened the sense of inescapable oppression. Fengyuan Ji reports that, by the mid 1970s, there were 141 million radio loudspeakers around the nation, blaring out joy-filled anthems and propaganda to 95% of workers and 65% percent of rural households…

In an attempt to make the populace childlike and compliant, Mao unleashed an army of school-aged children, teenagers and students: the Red Guards, staffed by children as young as twelve. During their two-year reign of terror, the Red Guard children and youths became the policers of Mao’s enforced-positivity state, rooting out all negative elements and forcing older people to perform humiliating struggle sessions—public confessions that sometimes led to prison, torture and even death.

Now the Red Guards are punishing us for gender ideology non-compliance.

There are a few striking parallels between Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Rainbow Rebellion of identity activism in the 2020s. Both ideologies deploy kitsch for political purposes. In the case of rainbow identity politics, this has evolved from the gay camp that Susan Sontag explored back in the swinging 60s, but also from kawaii, cosplay and drag, which stress-test the limits of the acceptable. The cute is here an ironic rebellion against social norms, argues Simon May in his book The Power of Cute. “Cuteness is queer,” writes May. Through hybrid mythical figures like the hermaphrodite and the sphinx, the cute “beguiles us” by “distorting the values of gender, age, morality, and even species into something playfully indeterminate.”

Playfully except when it comes to non-compliant women. Game over!

Both rainbow activism and Maoism share a strong belief in behaviourist linguistic engineering: in the designation of some words as good and others as bad, in the censorship of words, the cancellation of people and the imposition of compelled speech. The very Maoist idea has re-emerged that we can build a new egalitarian, queer, tolerant society, if we simply police all language, images and behaviours and force the populace to use the new rainbow-coloured lingo.

This involves using correct and affirmative words, chants and slogans like mantras, to repel political enemies. This new revolutionary language is based on tearing down the old language of history and discrimination, on the basis that all prescribed forms of identity are oppressive social constructs, bearing the dead weight of history. New pronouns are needed for a new rainbow youth that is free from the past, new forms for a reborn Red Guard.

New pronouns are needed and people who refuse to use them must be sent away for…further training.

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