Consumer Nation

Our Cultural Dead Zone

Kurt Andersen wrote a brilliant piece for Vanity Fair in which he examines our 20-year cultural stagnation. We've all observed this, I'm sure, but Andersen dissects it nicely.

Simply put: other than technology, there's nothing significantly different in our culture -- architecture, fashion, music, etc -- between 1992 and 2012.

Why is this?

In some large measure, I think, it’s an unconscious collective reaction to all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts. People have a limited capacity to embrace flux and strangeness and dissatisfaction, and right now we’re maxed out. So as the Web and artificially intelligent smartphones and the rise of China and 9/11 and the winners-take-all American economy and the Great Recession disrupt and transform our lives and hopes and dreams, we are clinging as never before to the familiar in matters of style and culture.

I also believe it has to do with our instant-feedback culture.

First, decades ago, with fewer options in terms of entertainment, audiences and consumers were trapped into accepting what was there. Now we have infinite choices, and anything that's slightly unpopular dies rapidly.

This death comes with a thousands of negative (and often ugly) comments or it comes with a total lack of attention at all (with a gazillion choices, even good stuff gets lost). Think about a mediocre cartoon on YouTube or a bizarre niche item on Etsy. If those things were presented in the context of three networks or several physical shopping outlets in our immediate town (respectively), they would enjoy a decent, though perhaps brief, moment in the sun. Not any more.

Fewer people want to stick their necks out to try something new for fear of being publicly -- and instantly -- rejected. Consequently, fear motivates them to recycle what's already succeeded. Hence, the endless roundelay of remakes and reboots. (Yes, there are new and different things out there, but I'm speaking in broad cultural/societal terms, and in context of a timeline previously dominated by cultural change.)

One of the reasons why 1970 were so different from the 1960, and so on, was also due to the lack of instant reflection. We know exactly what we look like right now because we're all video stars. We can tweak our appearance in real time via instant digital photography and instant feedback via social media. That wasn't as true about 1970 or 1950. We followed cultural trends without the self-consciousness that comes with constant digital feedback. So 1976 hair styles look ridiculous by 1986 standards, which, by that time, a substantial film and photographic record had been accumulated -- like a bad yearbook photo we used to be repulsed by the recent past. We just didn't really know our hair looked silly in 1976, until much later.

Now we know times a thousand, so we make narcissistic, preening micro-changes based on the criticisms of peers from around the world. And those changes result in a homogenization -- a leveling off of culture -- due to a sort of cultural group think.