‘Cool’ once had a singular connotation — indifference — but we’ve diluted it beyond recognition.
Your tablet computer is not cool.
Your rideshare app is not cool.
Your TED Talk on mindful tweeting is — I hope you’ll agree — pretty clearly not cool.
A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Nope, not that.
I am here on an etymological mission. I’ve come to reclaim cool from Silicon Valley. Someone must rescue this once-useful word from the hordes of techies who misuse it.
Long ago, in a time before geeks ruled the Earth, the word cool had meaning. It meant, roughly: not giving a damn. Or, on occasion: not giving two damns.
Look no further than the original, thermal sense of the word. Coolness implies less-active molecules, a steady state, a chilly reserve. Heat is all about engagement and transformation, overbubbling pots, hopping and colliding.
This distinction has, sadly, been lost. In the tech world, it’s now cool to gush with enthusiasm. It’s cool to be engaged and accessible and to post needy social media messages. It’s cool to get up on a stage and claim that your new device is going to change the world. It’s cool to be in the audience, watching someone on stage claim that his new device is going to change the world.
Don’t get me wrong. I think geek culture is terrific in many ways. I like when people are engaged, enthusiastic and accessible. Those are admirable qualities. Generally beneficial to society. They’re just not cool.
Coolness, I would argue, is all about disengagement and indifference. Consider: What was the quintessential 20th-century signifier of cool? Correct: a pair of dark sunglasses. Preferably sunglasses worn by Cary Grant but, really, any sunglasses would do.
Why not some other type of eyewear, like maybe Rec Specs? Or another sunblocking accessory — like, say, sunscreen, or a parasol? (I often wish we could live in a world where parasols are the coolest possible accessory. We don’t live in that world.) Why did we collectively settle on a pair of dark glasses as the material embodiment of coolness?
Because sunglasses create a barrier. An unknowability. The sunglass wearer — her eyes obscured — is signaling a distance. A disengagement from her surroundings. A level of icy remove. Everybody knows icy remove is cool.
What else signaled coolness, back when things were still actually cool? (I mean, in those blissful days before we let people convince us that Google Glass and 4Chan and Kevin Smith are cool?) That’s right: a cigarette. Lit. Dangling from a pair of unperturbed lips. Why? Because the cigarette signals supreme indifference. Indifference to the Surgeon General’s warnings, to societal opprobrium, to death itself. So freaking cool!
When marketing company “coolhunters” go a-hunting for cool, are they in search of the kind of people who engage with popular culture and rave about new mass-market products? Of course not. They look for the truly cool kids with their own internal cool compasses — people wholly indifferent to what everyone else is doing.
To be clear, cool is not about hating on stuff. The designer Bruce Mau has lobbied against coolness on these grounds. “Don’t be cool,” he pleads. “Cool is conservative fear dressed in black. Free yourself from limits of this sort.” I hear ya, Bruce Mau. Some people are scared to embrace stuff, worried that they might be uncool if they embrace the wrong stuff. So they stick with safe choices, like all-black outfits. It’s an annoying, defensive pose. A posture that geek culture, to its credit, has fought nobly to destroy.
But this is really just another misunderstanding of cool. Genuine cool does not flow from a place of caution, a fear of endorsing the wrong thing. Cool is always — and fundamentally — indifferent.
To wit: Who’s cool? Prince, duh. Now ask yourself, does Prince dress all in black? No, duh. Prince wears purple velvet leisure suits and fussy ruffled collars. Why? Because Prince doesn’t give like 12 damns. Indifference emboldens eccentricity. Eccentricity is cool.
Yes, I know, language is fluid, words evolve, meanings shift and meld. Just ask famed lexicographer Paris Hilton. Hilton literally trademarked the catchphrase “that’s hot.” Yet she uttered it with such obvious disengagement and indifference that, for a brief cultural moment, it was sort of cool. Fluidity in action. Polar reversal. Not bad (meaning bad) but bad (meaning good). Are you up for it? I’m down.
I acknowledge this is a purely semantic and almost certainly futile battle on my part. Please note: I’m not saying I’m cool. And I’m not saying it’s better to be cool than geeky. I might even be guilty, on occasion, of misusing cool in precisely the manner I’ve railed against here. Once in a while, I, too, geek out. (“Coooooool,” I murmured as I swiped a finger across the screen of my first iPhone. And then I felt a hot wave of shame.)
I’m just trying to raise awareness here. We ought to restore the integrity of the term. Cool had a singular and powerful connotation, once. Now we’ve diluted it beyond recognition. It’s become just another all-purpose accolade. Cool’s not cool anymore.
Seth Stevenson is author of “Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.” He wrote this article for Slate.
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