The Null Device
Researchers in the US have been investigating the question of what is “cool” from a psychological perspective, hitting the dichotomy between the two opposite poles which can be described with this term: on one hand, agreeability and popularity, and, on the other hand, a vaguely antisocial countercultural/oppositional stance reflected in the classic iconography of rebels and outlaws from the history of cool:
"I got my first sunglasses when I was about 13," said Dar-Nimrod. "There wasn't a cooler kid on the block for the next few days. I was looking cool because I was distant from people. My emotions were not something they could read. I put a filter between me and everyone else. That, in my mind, made me cool. Today, that doesn't seem to be supported. If anything, sociability is considered to be cool, being nice is considered to be cool. And in an oxymoron, being passionate is considered to be cool—at least, it is part of the dominant perception of what coolness is. How can you combine the idea of cool—emotionally controlled and distant—with passionate?"
"We have a kind of a schizophrenic coolness concept in our mind," Dar-Nimrod said. "Almost any one of us will be cool in some people's eyes, which suggests the idiosyncratic way coolness is evaluated. But some will be judged as cool in many people's eyes, which suggests there is a core valuation to coolness, and today that does not seem to be the historical nature of cool. We suggest there is some transition from the countercultural cool to a generic version of it's good and I like it. But this transition is by no way completed."The researchers claim that the concept of “cool” is mutating away from the oppositional/rebellious sense and towards straight agreeability.
If this phenomenon does bear itself out, there may be a number of possible explanations. Perhaps, as the countercultural struggles against the repressive hegemony of the “squares” have receded into folk memory of The Fifties and everyone wears jeans, listens to rock and has smoked a joint at least once in their lives, the idea of the rebel is left with even less of a cause than before Perhaps the shift in the meaning of “cool” has something to do with the ongoing process of commodification of the counterculture, with the sneers and icy glares of vintage cool now being little more than a mask for agreeable dudes to put on when the occasion suits. Or perhaps, in the information age, being agreeable and well-connected confers a greater advantage than being tough and detached. One would imagine that this would be the case in most normal situations, in which case, the old world of tough guys and strong, silent types would have been an anomalous case, a hostile environment which traumatised its inhabitants into growing expensive carapaces of character armour.
Another option would be that the meaning of “cool” is not, in fact, changing (this study doesn't seem to involve surveys done decades earlier to gauge what people thought at the time, and compares living attitudes with canned stereotypes), and that the word “cool” has several meanings; when it's used as a term of approval for a person, it has always indicated agreeability, whereas when talking about fictional characters, it suggested a certain type of antiheroic asshole.