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If the Internet is actually “real life,” then why can’t we smell it? And what does it mean that the most significant technological innovation of our lifetime is seemingly imperceptible to our most primal sense? In search of answers, Berlin-based media brand New Models asked a group of scholars, creatives, and Internet savants, as well as their own Discord swarm and an AI bot, one question: What does the Internet smell like?
To coincide with the launch of their perfume – “The Internet” – now available at the HIGHArt Museum Store, Caroline Busta and Lil Internet talk to Highsnobiety senior editor Philip Maughan to reflect on impressions that are eerily aligned, leading to the conclusion that the Internet does indeed have a scent, and what’s more, it can even smell it itself. Additionally, watch a web-exclusive video created by New Models inspired by the project below.
David Joselit, professor and chair, Dept. of Art, Film, and Visual Studies, Harvard University
The Internet used to smell like sex; now it smells like money.
Amnesia Scanner, artist
Cortisol, Adrenaline, Oxytocin = human dankness?
Kate Crawford, professor, USC Annenberg and author of Atlas of AI: Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence
Rocks and brine, with notes of burning coal, compost, and human sweat.
Vladen Joler, professor, Academy of Arts at the University of Novi Sad and founder of SHARE Foundation
Networks of blood sweat and metal,’ which was one of the working titles for Anatomy of an AI (with Kate Crawford) ... maybe add a bit of the dusty hot air coming out from the computer cooler :)
Philip Maughan: So tell me how the project began?
Carly Busta: We know there’s this very strong myth—eloquently described by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler’s Anatomy of an AI System (and now Crawford’s 2021 book Atlas of an AI)—that the Internet does have a smell, and it’s the antithesis of the cloud. It smells like the earth. It smells like sweat. At the same time, we were interested in the fact that smell, our most primal sense, is not engaged whatsoever while using the internet, which, as you pointed out, might be concerning considering the degree to which it’s used to organize the world. We were curious if there was nevertheless some consensus over the scent of the internet and so posed the question to a few different groups.
Lil Internet: I’ve often thought about our memories of time spent online, which for a lot of people is literally the majority of their waking life, and realized I have very fuzzy, imprecise memories of that time. In a way it’s almost like a second sleep. Personally, I don’t have rich memories from anything I’ve done online, just blurry, fleeting impressions. I think it’s because memory operates most strongly two things: a sense of place and smell.
Wet Brain (Walter Pearce and Honor Levy), podcast
The Internet? Damn, that Smells like everything is the Same over and Over again but then a Little bit Different at the End forever and for All of eternity.
Dorian Electra, artist
The inside of a fursuit. You’ve soaked it in bottom shelf vodka from a dollar store spray bottle (to kill the bacteria and clean it without damaging the fur) but still the stench persists. A half-consumed fermenting Monster Energy can, aged 18 months : ) Various kinds of mildew unsuccessfully covered up with a diverse mix of Axe body spray and Victoria Secret Body Mist that represents all parts of the gender spectrum.
Douglas Coupland, novelist and artist
The Internet’s odor? I have this saying, which is, What would it smell like if you took every perfume there is, mixed it all together to make an omniperfume? You actually already know the answer, it’s called a Duty Free Shop. So I guess the internet, being everything, should smell like a duty free shop. I also like the fact that duty free shops have such a weird name: Here is a place where you have no responsibilities or loyalties. This is, of course, the Internet.
Sam Rolfes, designer
Social media platforms smell like skin oil smeared across glass, search engines smell like a drop of liquid resin in a bowl of water, and forums smell like you wrote your name on laminated paper with the red rubber trackball nub found on old laptops.
PM: Did any of the answers you received defy your expectations? Did you find any unusual connections?
CB: Two that I really love came from our Discord: One was a description of the Internet smelling like the “water” scent from corporate or hotel lobby fountains. You know exactly how that smells – it’s a little bit medicinal, with a kind of bathroom smell, putrid, recycled.
LI: It’s, like, ionized.
CB: The other was someone who relayed a story. I’ll read it out: “I delivered food to a Marriott during a BDSM convention and when you walked in the door you were hit with a weird chalky perfume (that I think Marriott sprays in their lobby) mixed with a gross animalic scent emanating from the convention room, which was behind a bunch of screen doors. That’s what the internet probably smells like.”
LI: It’s interesting how often hotels came up, because the first thing I thought when I smelled the fragrance that Society of Scent made with us for this project was that it smells like puking water in a boutique hotel bathroom. Somehow you’re staying in a fancy hotel and go out partying for 18 hours. You come home and chug water, trying not to be hungover, but then you end up just puking pure water instead. The scent is slightly nauseating but clean, and then there’s a top level hit of fragrance mixed in with stomach acid. There’s something deep in the subconscious with hotels and artificial fanciness.
PM: The New Models community is networked in a scentless way. Was the appeal of creating a scent to forge a new layer of connection?
CB: It’s something we (and probably half of Reddit) have fantasized doing for a long time. We were just thankful Highsnobiety was able to help facilitate it and put us together with a legit perfumer who knew what they were doing.
LI: There was immediate alignment with the Society of Scent. We found the common language for something extremely abstract from the jump.
CB: I think the fragrance smells most like Dorian Electra’s description of the internet as vodka-soaked fursuit. though more as though someone pissed in that suit first, but in a good way? Lol.. It’s animalic. But also, the scent is somehow addictive. I wake up craving it.
PM: It wouldn’t be right if you created a smell that was just delightful, right? It has to be a little perverse.
PM: What are some of the best smelling places on the Internet, and what are some of the worst?
CB: Hahaha, great question. Well, the Highsnobiety site smells wonderful, of course. It smells like Miami sea breeze and chrome in the Swiss mountains and, I don’t know, energetic, lovely.
LI: I thought Second Life smelled really good. But other than that, I don’t remember any part of the Internet that smelled particularly great to me recently.
CB: Discord has a smell. I think these post-web 2.0 enclaves are generally less ozoney-fresh. They smell earthy. They smell like humus. The analogy works because there’s this psychological smell of something dense with proteins that are both decomposing and also germinating something. Whereas the clearnet, by contrast, smells sterile and canned – like an airport smell … or as Douglas Coupland put it, like “duty free.”
PM: Can a smell really wreck things for you?
CB: The smells they pump out of the Subway sandwich shops and Lush soap stores have a marked effect on my mood. They’re like scent-based pop-up ads that interrupt your train of thought , which is exactly what they're designed to do.
LI: The strangest thing to me about cannabis legalization is that it is the most conspicuous drug that could ever exist. Every time I go to a city where it’s legalized, I smell wildly strong skunk weed everywhere and I’m like, what the... Weed is the siren of drugs. In California, you can be driving with the windows down and suddenly it just smells like skunk weed. You’re like, this is weird. I’m on a highway.
PM: Why do you think someone might want to smell like the internet?
CB: Because it’s uncanny? Of course there’s no way to capture the actual smell of the Internet because it’s all these different things. It’s artisanal mining. It’s undersea cables. It’s the carbon exhaust of the shipping containers going back and forth across the sea, carrying your Alibaba buys. It’s the supply chain. But It’s also the boredom of a coworking space or server rooms or a Silicon Valley campus. And also it’s the total desire of gaming, OnlyFans, and crypto gains.
CB: Right. It’s all of these things.
LI: I think “The Internet” is a really good scent for those days where you’re at home or in the office sitting on your computer for 10 hours. If you wear it on your computer days, now those days will have a smell, and may even take on more of a shape for you.
Jeanne-Salomé Rochat, Novembre Global Creative Director and Head of Brand at Art Basel
The Internet smells like a sports arena filling up with a sweaty crowd, plus the off-gassing of an oily liquid pooling on the arena floor where players dressed in lavender-tinted kits kick around tiny bags filled variously with glitter and gelatinous muck. Regularly, these packets burst open releasing plumes of faded incense or that summer traffic smell of sunburnt car interiors. And when this happens, the whole crowd roars, exhaling a metallic breath from all the clenching of teeth.
Samantha Quick, immersive director
Tbh, the first thing that comes to mind is a mix of the [My Little] Pony Cum Jar thread from 4chan and also that generic high rise corporate office smell I can’t quite explain. Or like the scent they pump through all the Subway sandwich stores. You ever open the fridge and something smells bad but you don’t know what it is, and sometimes it’s not even rotten food, just that weird fridge smell? It’s like that LAN party where they’re butchering the chicken in between rounds of Counterstrike — body odor, dust burning on CPUs, and chicken blood.
PM: The absence of smell can be a cause for alarm. The first sign of a Covid diagnosis is the loss of smell. It’s been reported that at Chernobyl, plants and trees have lost their scent.
LI: I think that loss of smell and life moving more and more online are an evil but sort of symbiotic development. Without smell, you don’t have memory. Without memory, you’re floating in an eternal present, and the eternal present is the time of the Internet. They work together even though it’s not necessarily good for human thriving.
PM: Is the Internet real life?
CB: It’s blended. We’re already in full AR because media has long directed physical existence. Radio did, television did – any kind of mediating tool, whether it’s digital or pre-digital, directs the way we perceive. It’s real life in the sense that it codes the way we interact with the physical world.
LI: A broader narrative over the past eight years or so has been the changing gravity we give to screen space. Society decides how real the Internet is at any given time. It’s as if there’s an unspoken social pact wherein we collectively decide whether to treat the online space as fantasy or a direct and sincere expression of physical life.
PM: There is enormous potential for smelling machines, not only for giving depth and memory to the online world, but also for safety applications. You could smell if there’s a gas leak. You could ID local flowers by lifting your phone to the breeze.
CB: You could determine whether or not a wild mushroom was lethal.
LI: Smell is a chemical medium, and much more complex than anything that runs on a simple electrical signal. Once we’re in the realm of chemicals, we’re in the realm of bodies, which is a tricky space to precisely engineer.
While researching perfumes I came across this ingredient, Helional, which is used to make a sort of ozonic smell for perfumes. Ozone was a smell that kept coming up when people were deciding what the Internet smelled like. Then I read that Helional is a restricted ingredient because it’s a precursor for making MDMA. Once you get into the medium of chemicals, operated by smells, the results can be psychoactive. There’s a lot of research now also revealing just how much scents actually trigger our brains to release neurotransmitters, endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin.
CB: Yeah. I smell burning plastic and I immediately think of 9/11, and my whole body chemically reacts to that.
LI: I think it’s actually far more concerning if we were to suddenly bring machines into the medium of the chemical in our day to day, far more than even the Internet might be. That could be the last stage of total controlled society.
PM: With the experience of smell we have something that can’t easily be rendered as code. It’s a very sense-ible thing that we all do which is excluded by the digital. It’s interesting that there is this whole shared universe that can lead a disparate group to the inside of a fridge.
CB: That’s true, though I do wonder what would happen if we asked this question in Venezuela, or in India, somewhere that the Internet is also present but works in a slightly different way. If you’re in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would you be thinking of the smell of the mines?
PM: Kate and Vladan have done such a good job of bringing the earth layer into the conversation around Internet infrastructure, and much like the rest of the economy, it’s built largely on extraction. So the Internet cannot be a pure smell. It’s something that unites and divides. Which I guess we already knew.