The Curmudgeon Effect: Cultural Retrogrouchery

So, like, the world. What do we think? Better? Worse? The same? Every generation ponders this question, and every generation comes to the conclusion that the world was great once but that it sucks now. This is called the "Curmudgeon Effect." Consider the following quote from Socrates, a guy who lived in a time when people still knew how to think cause they weren't all dumb from their iPods:

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

This quote certainly supports the theory that the "Curmudgeon Effect" is as old as philosophy itself, and that the aging generation is always critical of the one that supplants it. Moreover, it would also seem to support the theory that the world is not better or worse but is in fact in a state of stasis, since it could just as easily have been written five minutes ago as 2,500 years ago. However, when you take into account that whole ancient Greek pederasty thing, the quote starts to take on a slightly different connotation and it becomes tempting to think that, yeah, maybe things are a little bit better now after all. See, back then academia was a much different place, and it was socially acceptable for a philosophy teacher to have a sexual relationship with an adolescent pupil. Now, however, it's mostly frowned upon, with the exception of the athletic departments of state universities.

In other words, when you compare yesterday with today, the world looks a lot worse. However, when you compare yesterday with a really long time ago, you can see we actually have it pretty good. For example, here's how average schmucks lives today:

("We have no idea who this creepy old guy is.")

And here's how they lived 600 years ago:

(In the 1300s, death metal was called "life.")

Here's what school looks like today:

(School of hard knocks gentle coddling.)

And here's what it looked like at the turn of the (last) century:

(Check out the spoiled kid on the left with the shoes.)

Here's what an economic crisis looks like today:

("i'm totally protesting LOL :) #occupy")

And here's how it looked in the 1930s:

("totally bummed sh*t sux :( #dustbowl")

You get the idea. It's all summed up rather humorously in that famous Louis C.K. routine which you can watch on the Internet--something you couldn't do back in Socrates's day since there was no Internet and you were too busy fending off the socially-sanctioned sexual advances of your philosophy professor:

So it was with Louis C.K.'s sagacious observations in my mind that I read Kurt Andersen's recent piece in "Vanity Fair" magazine, in which he posits that American culture has essentially stalled:

Basically, he's saying that, despite all the new technology, nothing's changed from a cultural perspective since the 1980s:

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.

Now, I suffer from the "Curmudgeon Effect," and in fact I've dedicated most of my life to complaining about how much stupider things are today then they were yesterday. For this reason, I read this with great interest, and I thought Andersen made some very good points. At the same time, sometimes I also thought he was crazy. And sometimes I thought both things while reading a single paragraph:

Look at people on the street and in malls—jeans and sneakers remain the standard uniform for all ages, as they were in 2002, 1992, and 1982. Look through a current fashion or architecture magazine or listen to 10 random new pop songs; if you didn’t already know they were all things from the 2010s, I guarantee you couldn’t tell me with certainty they weren’t from the 2000s or 1990s or 1980s or even earlier.

I'm tempted to agree with him as far as the music goes, but it's a bit of a stretch to say you can't tell the 1980s from the 2000s because people are still wearing sneakers to the mall--especially when he also says this:

People flock by the millions to Apple Stores (1 in 2001, 245 today) not just to buy high-quality devices but to bask and breathe and linger, pilgrims to a grand, hermetic, impeccable temple to style—an uncluttered, glassy, super-sleek style that feels “contemporary” in the sense that Apple stores are like back-on-earth sets for 2001: A Space Odyssey, the early 21st century as it was envisioned in the mid-20th. And many of those young and young-at-heart Apple cultists-cum-customers, having popped in for their regular glimpse and whiff of the high-production-value future, return to their make-believe-old-fashioned lives—brick and brownstone town houses, beer gardens, greenmarkets, local agriculture, flea markets, steampunk, lace-up boots, suspenders, beards, mustaches, artisanal everything, all the neo-19th-century signifiers of state-of-the-art Brooklyn-esque and Portlandish American hipsterism.

I'd say that's a pretty shocking change. I have mixed feelings about Apple stores and all the other hallmarks of gentrification he itemizes, but the simple fact is that if you plucked me out of the 1980s and put me in an Apple store today my face would have melted. Here's what an Apple store looked like when I was a kid:

Steve Jobs had nothing on Crazy Eddie. Speaking of cultural changes, you could have fired up a Marlboro in that Crazy Eddie and nobody would have even looked at you sideways. Just try that now in an Apple store--they'll lock you in an iCell and then send you to Cupertino for "refurbishment."

("A computer is like a rocket-powered bicycle for my bank account.")

I do think Andersen's central point is a good one, though, which is that popular culture is the way it is right now because we have our heads up pop culture history's ass thanks largely to the Internet:

On the one hand, in a country where an adorably huge majority have always considered themselves “middle class,” practically everyone who can afford it now shops stylishly—at Gap, Target, Ikea, Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Barnes & Noble, and Starbucks. Americans: all the same, all kind of cool! And yet, on the other hand, for the first time, anyone anywhere with any arcane cultural taste can now indulge it easily and fully online, clicking themselves deep into whatever curious little niche (punk bossa nova, Nigerian noir cinema, pre-war Hummel figurines) they wish. Americans: quirky, independent individualists!

But to say that "fashion, art, design, entertainment" hasn't changed dramatically in the past decade or two is curmudgeonly by any standard, even if that dramatic change does mostly amount to an explosive rehashing of the most insipid fads, fashions, and spurious "movements" of the past 100 years. Pop culture is always stupid; its stupidity just takes a different form every generation.

And who knows? Maybe the fact that we're no longer trying to outdo ourselves with outsized ambitious projects like we did when we built skyscrapers or flew to the moon is a good thing and a sign that we are "maturing." As it happens, not too long ago I also read an article in the New Yorker about venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who also thinks that our society is stagnating:

Says Thiel derisively, "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters." Is this really a bad thing? Maybe we didn't get flying cars because we realized that flying cars are stupid. People can't control cars on the ground as it is. Does anybody think it's a good idea to put them in the sky? Sure, Twitter is pretty stupid, but I'll take that over a Buick falling on my head any day. Plus, it turns out that we already had something as amazing as a flying car, and it's called a "bicycle," which is why more and more people are riding them now even though they've been around since the days of child labor. Sometimes all that rooting around in the ass of history actually yields some useful finds.

As for my own curmudgeonly view, I do find myself amazed at the way in which we all completely and utterly surrender to marketing and branding in a way that must surely be unprecedented. However, when I stop and think I realize it's not really all that surprising, since marketing is now our folklore and how and where we spend our money satisfies our need for personal expression. This is why in the 1960s people moved to communes, but now they're forming utopian societies of douche:

I've mentioned Rabbit Island before, and whereas once the goal was to "turn on, tune in, and drop out," now experimental societies function as focus groups and labs for new cocktail recipes, which are then served in the bars of the "gentriverse," thus perpetuating the artisanal economy (as forwarded to me by a reader):

I only hope those "foraged cocktails" contain truffle umami and smell like semen.

We may not be the greatest generation, and we're definitely not the worst, but we're certainly the most self-interested.

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