You know that the culture is in a parlous state when the most sage advice is coming from Lily Allen. Spouting off somewhere, the mildly talented creator of several pleasantly half-baked, underwritten songs, and daughter of a very famous London actor, announced that she was giving up her Myspace, Facebook, Twitter etc etc and was becoming a “neo-luddite”, because she wanted her “self” back. “It’s become an addiction,” the oversharing Ladbroke Grove Mockney noted.
Leaving aside the medical metaphor, one is tempted to say duh. But given that Allen appears to be ahead of the pack, one can only marvel at what has happened to the culture, and how one could start to assess the character of the decade, about to conclude (yes, yes trainspotters).
Your correspondent entered the millennium above the Arctic Circle in Finland, on the coast of the Bothnian sea. A square had been cut in the ice to reach the water, and you would sit in the sauna and drink koskenkorva (sub-vodka grain alcohol) and then run full tilt to water and plunge in. Then drink more koskenkorva and repeat until your heart gave out, or you fell asleep in a snowdrift and died. The decade has been like that, he said, finding a way to illustrate his argument while telling you what a bitchin millennium eve I had, one of enervating extremes.
When it began, the West was in its highest phase of post-historical irony culture, the pole-star being the literally nihilist non-stories of Seinfeld, or its gagalicious knockoff, Friends. The Taliban was still an obscure regime — a whacky bunch of murderous guys who hung televisions. Email was still a desktop-based text thing, with image circulation slow and clunky. Newspapers were still the info/opinion centre of gravity, things you actually read. The unelectably liberal Democrat was Hillary Clinton. And so on.
That Mohammed Atta’s spectacular piece of lethal performance art on 11.9.2001 was more pretext than provocation in itself, does not change the fact that it changed things — like a magnet dropped into a pile of iron tailings, it formed two great polarised arcs. One, around the re-asserted idea that all cultures were not equal, and that the clash of civilisations was one between a correct West and a mistaken Islamic world, gained great power from its simple certainties. The other — what used to be known as the Left — was diminished by the fact that there was a crisis deep within its fundamental beliefs, and that there was unspoken contradiction between the cultural/identity “left”, and a smaller materialist (or Marxist) left.
Yet part of the process of this decade has been the fragmentation and depolarisation of the right, while something pretty centrist, but, if not, left, then not right either, has triumphed. What looked like a triumph of the right was in fact the twilight of a certain type of fused social conservatism and neoliberalism in a single package, which had lasted from Thatcher to Howard. Should Abbott triumph, as well he may, he will either have to bury his own deep conservatism, and run a centrist government with right tinges, or be the most spectacular one-term PM in our history.
But in the eye of history all this will be most likely overshadowed by the phenomenal and continuing revolution in communications across the decade — an epochal change we have lived across, are living across. It’s a difficult thing to get used to, because not every lifetime is lived across such a change. Overwhelmingly, in media, in politics, in business, almost every failure can be traced back to an inability to understand that we are living in the greatest transformation in communication, since a Sumerian merchant 6000 years ago, realised that the marks he was making on clay to count his cattle, could be used to represent instructions to his workers. Print? Gutenburg? Small potatoes.
Everything is being changed by this process. Opening a newspaper feels ridiculous. Going to a shop to buy something starts to feel like an unbelievable chore. Paying a bill in person seems … archaic, like buying spats.
With that change comes the promise of great liberating potential — but it also radically foregrounds the cultural nature of communication, that a culture is not just a given. Moral panics about Facebook are absurd, but so too is the idea that human existence is fixed and unchanging, and that things such as universal and impersonal social networking can be simply added on top of our lives without changing it, not always for the better.
If I no longer have to invite people to a party, but simply broadcast it to a list from my Facebook page, what does that do to my relationship to those people? Nothing in the particular instance, but the general effect cannot but be one of attenuation and atomisation of human relationships — if we do not, in the middle of the new media revolution, invent new ways to consciously maintain our connections and relations. There is no guarantee that things we value — friendship above all, cannot be blindsided by a system that makes communication automatic, weightless — and increasingly meaningless.
So, if we wonder why, amidst a new war in Afghanistan, there is no protest, why the failure of Copenhagen provokes no stormed buildings, it is because the second part of the decade’s events — the comms revolution — is affecting the first, the political clash, and evacuating it of significance. We live above all in the age of atomisation, and that will determine the character of our lives and our society for some time to come, the best and the worst. Lily Allen’s neo-luddism is just the ridiculous (I’m back in touch with my fellow Arctic frolickers after years of non-communication) but it’s simply a human reaction to the ecstatic adoption of the new technology in its early phase.
Or to conclude with the great Criswell from Plan 9:
“We are all interested in the future because that is where we are going to spend the rest of our lives.”