For the past 3-5 years, I’ve been noticing a shift in the quality of culture. I wouldn’t say everything has gotten worse; rather, there seem to be fewer peaks and troughs. Movies, TV shows, and music are all trending toward a sort of stable, vaguely satisfying mediocrity. Probably books too, but I pay less attention to them.
I have a foggy, pre-verbal sense of why this is happening, but I can’t quite see the big picture. The primary drivers seem to be stagnating innovation — likely due to a dearth of aesthetic problems that require new, innovative solutions — combined with an explosion of new ways to belong.
Here are some of the symptoms I’ve noticed:
Fake experimentation – Going through the motions of experimentation, but without a failure condition. The veneer of “being experimental” is itself more important than success — that is, whether or not a new, widely useful artistic invention is discovered — in part because it is harder than ever to invent anything truly new. Luckily, the aesthetic of experimentation enables membership in a similarly-minded group. This is easy to find at any basement show in America.
Recycling – If the need to use cultural objects for social differentiation exceeds the number of unclaimed cultural objects, and creating new things is too hard (because they lack built-in brand recognition or because there simply isn’t anything to invent), it becomes necessary to “purify” existing objects so they can be reused. One way this is done is by adding irony to cliches, a la Rick and Morty. It’s also a component of fake experimentation. By “fixing what ain’t broke,” resources are stretched by making them ugly so they’re undesirable to outsiders.
Unbundling – Elements formerly only available as part of a unitary object are now sold separately, like nutritional supplements instead of food. Those who only want the competence porn aspect of science fiction (without, say, the romance or character development) can get it from The Martian. Unbundling is evidence of stagnation because “new” demand is for partial versions of already-existing works. It isn’t really new at all. Nonetheless, each unbundled interest equals a new form of belonging in the form of subcultures and fandoms.
Downsides of better sorting – Before the Internet, the luminaries of a geographically local “scene” might remain in that scene longer, strengthening it by inspiring peers. Now talent has no place to hide, and usually prefers not to anyway. Instead, it is snapped up early and put to use by larger entities, leaving the dregs behind to engage in…
Mutually reinforced hobbyism – Easier access to tools (via plummeting cost of gear and software) plus way less low-hanging fruit (no clear path to originality) means almost everybody wants to go through the motions of creativity just enough to be part of a community where they have a defined role. So most cultural abundance looks like “I won’t point out your weak shit if you don’t point out mine.” Socially stable but more ritualized than innovative, it’s the less hip version of fake experimentation.
Tight feedback loops – The Internet doesn’t just connect big fish to bigger ponds, it also connects everything to everything else. This means more community (and consequently closer competition around more specific targets) but less random tinkering in isolation. It also grants access to anything anybody ever made, including a much better version of that thing you’re working on. As it turns out, this is somewhat discouraging.
Voice > exit – There has been a cultural shift away from exit as a response to aesthetic dissatisfaction. It remains to be seen whether this change is due to a lack of aesthetic real estate to exit to, or a broader trend in conflict resolution, or both. Regardless, the trend is toward appealing to existing institutions for desired changes (“Thor should be a woman now”) rather than leaving to do one’s own thing.