ears ago, when I was a young college student, I was in a class where we were discussing a well-known and controversial work by the political theorist Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History and the Last Man.” The basic premise of Fukuyama’s treatise was that the nations of the world were on an unstoppable march towards freedom and democratic rule. Might that cause a society in a rut?
“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Is Society in a Rut? Are We at the End of History?
Many people at the time were critical of Fukuyama’s assertions. Even Fukuyama himself later backtracked on some of his arguments. Still, others can’t help but wonder if Fukuyama might have been on to something, even if it wasn’t in the way he imagined. One such person is Kurt Andersen, who wrote a provocative essay for Vanity Fair back in 2013, “You Say You Want a Devolution?”:
“For most of the last century, America’s cultural landscape—its fashion, art, music, design, entertainment—changed dramatically every 20 years or so. But these days, even as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionize life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new…..Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new. (And then there’s the miraculous drop in violent crime in the United States, by half.)
Here is what’s odd…
During these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s— looks almost identical to the present. This is the First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History.”
The Blurring of the Decades
I would only nitpick with the last part of Andersen’s argument. For some reason I can recognize “’80s style” when I see it, along with the 1970s, 1960s, 1950s and so forth. Yet I think the larger part of his argument holds a lot of weight. Try this experiment some time… Turn on a TV sitcom or movie that you’re not familiar with, and try to figure out what decade it’s from. The 1990s, 2000s (“oughties”!), or 2010s. I’m amazed by how often I’m wrong in my predictions. Maybe I’m not focusing on the right elements?
On a related note, I know how common it is for the elders in our society to denounce the music that younger generations listen to. That happens every with generation. But is today’s popular music actually worse than before? Over at Scientific American, John Mattis asks: “Is Pop Music Evolving, or Is It Just Getting Louder?”.
“A group of researchers undertook a quantitative analysis of nearly half a million songs to look for widespread changes in music’s character over the years. The findings, published online July 26 in Scientific Reports, show that some trends do emerge over the decades—none of them necessarily good. (Scientific American and Scientific Reports are both parts of Nature Publishing Group.)
The researchers based their analysis on the Million Song Dataset, a publicly available 280-gigabyte file that provides a sort of background sketch—name, duration, tempo, and so on—of songs from nearly 45,000 artists. Of the million songs therein, 464,411 came out between 1955 and 2010 and include data on both the sonic characteristics and the year of release.”
While the average loudness of popular music has increased, there has been a relentless and steady decline in the variation of pitch and in “timbre” (defined as “the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity,” according to Oxford) since the peak was reached in the 1960s. I guess it’s understandable now when people complain that today’s music “all sounds the same.”
Some other random observations…
Cell phones are all the same rectangular “brick” design, in contrast to the early 2000s when there was a large and diverse variety of headsets to choose from. The Nokia 3310, the Motorola Razr, the Blackberry Pearl, and the Sony Ericsson, among others, were icons of the time and unique in their own way – now many of us use indistinguishable gray and black touchscreen “slabs” with only incremental changes with each new release – have we truly reached the end of phone design?
I remember going on the Internet in 1996. The average computer had a 75MHz processor and a whopping 16 MB of RAM. Obviously video was out of the question. But surfing the world wide web with only text and pictures was not any problem whatsoever. Today, even while computing power has increased stratospherically in the last 20 years, it still seems to take a long time for computers to boot up and applications to launch. Web pages still freeze up and browsers crash regularly. Have we made zero progress or are we expecting too much from our machines?
Automobiles have improved in terms of having all kinds of technology at our fingertips, but one huge thing has not: increased gas mileage. One might think that we could have vehicles that regularly get 70 – 80 miles per gallon on the highway by now, but that goal appears far-off. In spite of the fact that mileage has improved a little in the last few years, the overall trend has remained essentially flat since the 1980s.
The Space Program
There’s a huge media frenzy about a manned space mission to Mars. Only one problem: we humans are seriously out of practice when it comes to long-distance space flight. The last manned mission to the moon was carried out by the Apollo 17 way back in 1972!
The Movie Industry
Is it just me, or is Hollywood stuck in a repeated “time loop” of “sequel-itis” and “re-make-itis”? Have we run out of new stories to tell? Over at HuffPost, Liat Kornowski and Christopher Rosen go a step further. He argues that most new “original” Hollywood features are really just combining elements from multiple previous films. From their 2014 article “13 Recent Movies That Prove Hollywood All But Recycles Itself”:
“It’s hard to come up with a winning recipe in Hollywood. A successful movie must attract the masses, garner positive reviews (or at least passable ones) and live on in merchandise, DVDs and even a possible sequel. So what’s a producer/director/writer/executive in Tinseltown to do? Why, repeat a previously proven success, of course. When a recent slew of movie trailers and plot summaries were revealed, we couldn’t help but think: We’ve seen this before. All of it. From storylines to soundtracks to overarching themes and target audiences, from roles the lead actor and actress have already played to characters whose traits and occurrences have unfolded in other films….”
Their article, while certainly humorous and tongue-in-cheek, certainly makes for an interesting read.
The Job Market
We live in a revolutionary “new information and social media economy.” But many still doing the same kinds of jobs and performing the same kinds of work that have been done for a long time. The well-off continue to work as doctors, lawyers, and managers. Those in the middle classes continue to work as teachers, nurses, and truck drivers. People on the lower rungs continue to work as cooks, cashiers, and janitors. For all their influence on society, Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat employ a total of around 30,000 combined.
Innovation – or the Lack of it…
Steve Denning penned an article for Forbes in 2015: “Why U.S. firms are dying: Failure to Innovate”. In a nutshell, Denning argues that between CEOs insatiable appetite for stock buybacks (which were actually illegal until 1982!) and consumers’ endless demands that everything be “faster, cheaper, and more convenient,” innovation is breaking down. Most companies are failing to offer products and services that are truly new and groundbreaking.
What do you think, readers? Are we, as a society, “in a rut” and are we, in a sense, reaching the “end of history”? Have we lost the ability to explore and come up with new ideas? Am I being way too pessimistic and cynical about our progress, or lack thereof? Are we as a society doing better than I’m giving credit for?