Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Decade as Farce and Tragedy

For Music, the twenty-first century began in 1999. Jordan Knight, one of the spry, ingratiating kids from the by then odious New Kids on the Block, was attempting to revive his career, and in doing so, notes Tom Ewing of Pitchfork, “pointed most clearly at the future.” Ewing’s thesis is that “the worlds of pop, R&B and mainstream hip-hop were moving ever closer together, and a generation of stars, songwriters, and producers recognized an opportunity to reinvent how pop music sounded—and who listened to it.”

If pop was about to appropriate a new partner in crime and commerce, rock was about enter its lean years. In a final moment of desperation critics fell over themselves to anoint the New York City band The Strokes the new gods of Rock, but their ironically titled 2001 debut This is it? was only the start of a long argument.

A battle that pitted on the one side defenders of Rock n’ Roll, the Rockists, and on the other the children of 90’s popular music, the Popists, would change the terms of critical discourse. Soon, you could listen to pop music guilt free. Meanwhile, urban culture became mainstream culture, and white newscasters didn't blush when casually punctuating their telecasts with "bling" or "pimped-out!"

Then a plane flew into a building. The ensuing political vacuum led “the international community” to look to the West, where for much of the decade the only thing they could hear was a huge sucking sound. This lack of leadership infected global politics, a virus that most of the developed world contracted.

Parliamentary and legislative deadlock turned natural ruling parties into incoherent behemoths in Japan and Canada. While trying to join in economic and political union European countries were fighting false wars to reclaim national identities that had already shifted. The “Muslim Problem” was, and is, primarily about a sclerotic welfare state coming to grips with a rate of diminishing returns. Economies weren’t growing fast enough or equitably distributing their gains. People were growing older, and godless -- so Islam seemed very much that rough beast.

And then there were wars. A cosmic struggle over good and evil was irresistible to an unlikely alliance of idealist on both the left and the right, and religious warriors in Central Asia were all too pleased to fight it. Seen more rationally, internal disputes within the Middle East and Central Asia, framed as world-historical in nature, were merely political and geographic squabbles over power.

Further East, India grew, and even further East, China ballooned. Perhaps illusory, China’s economic growth may turn out to be more of a problem for China, and the East in general, than for the world. But China as an ideological competitor, an alternate reality for managerial statecraft, will be one more contingency that hunts Francis Fukuyama. History goes on.

The climate was changing, only a lot faster. Green became an ideology, an industry, an epithet. For the poor there was a lot of cheap, fatty food, and obesity. For the well-off there was moral superiority of eating better. Will and Grace was popular, and then gay marriage.

Men embraced extended adolescence, ultimate fighting, and poorer employment prospects; thankfully there were older women, "Cougars," ready to support their low ambitions and nurse their bruised egos. Because it was making less and less sense, there were a lot of commercials about what it meant to be a man. They didn't help.

People started watching themselves on television, and then started singing on television, and then started dancing on television. People also stopped watching television.They stopped reading newspapers and talking on landlines. What they started doing was, well, texting and blogging. They started looking at pornography on the Internet, perhaps one of the main reasons the Internet grew so quickly, and they started stealing. People stole music, and then they stole movies. It got so crazy that people even started stealing the Internet.

If 10,000 songs on your iPod seemed inconceivable in 2001, 100,000 applications on your iPhone, only nine years later, seemed excessive. There will be a whole generation of children who won’t know what a CD is. In the meantime, phones got smarter and people began to fear that Google was making us stupider. A whole industry sprung up around the idea that, somehow, culture was being “dumbed down,” becoming more “sensationalized." We ate it up.

If you were paying attention to the social scientists they assured us we were getting smarter. Yochai Benkler noticed that we were paying more attention to each other, had more opportunities to criticize and collaborate, were ultimately sharing more and expanding our cognitive capabilities through larger networks. And then we started talking about networks. The feedback loop was getting tighter, louder.

For the closet Marxist this was an opening. Neoliberal institutions began to falter. Corporate fraud was the "new black." An inflation of information wound up devaluing both the information itself and the public figures that produced it. Radical skepticism was the default position and social trust and cohesion began to erode.

There was a tsunami, some earthquakes, and a hurricane. Suddenly the world was a dystopian nightmare. The African continent, in a word, regressed. Former leaders of the independence movements neglected to appreciate Lord Acton maxim of absolute power corrupting absolutely. A counterweight to the world’s industrial powers, the BRIC, the g-77, started speaking with a unified voice after Doha.

A black man became leader of the free world, while the last icon of popular culture died. Our guide through the farce and tragedy of the last decade was a caustic Jewish man with a half hour show. From time to time he would disrupt the prevailing narrative, forcing media organizations to tacitly acknowledge their ridiculousness. One news organization wore its ridiculousness as a badge of honor and became the obnoxious mouthpiece of a misguided, though perhaps well intentioned, president. Because we were dispossessed, power so completely a function of larger interests, entertainment was news and news was entertainment. It wasn’t a stretch for TMZ to become a legitimate news organization.

Just as the beginning of the decade started with the crash, our collective entrepreneurial imagination far out pacing objective reality, the decade ends with a spectacular financial crash. Again our imagination, through mind-numbingly confused financial innovation, far outpaced material reality. Not only could you turn debt into a financial instrument, you could turn that financial instrument into thousands of other pieces of financial instruments. You could trade stocks that you didn’t own. In fact, you still can. Think about that for a moment.

So it was a little cute when former chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan announced that he had identified “a flaw” in the system. Who knew self-interest wasn’t reason enough for financial firms to regulate themselves? Who Knew! You would only had to have been alive in 1998 to internalize that chestnut, which Mr. Greenspan, in fact, was.

How much risk were you willing to take on? If your model for tough-mindedness, discipline and hard work was Tiger Woods, who for many it was, then there was an unpleasant parallel that capped off the “Aughts.” Choose your colorful pun, but ultimately we all took excessive risks. In short, we were all too human.

So what points to the future today? One word: Women. A subtle and under-appreciated shift in gender dynamics pervaded much of the decade. You could see this in labor market trends and educational attainment. Women started winning all of the careerist foot races and decided to start their lives before the golden seal of marriage. Ms. Bradshaw was a lagging indicator of a lager trend.

The old school Feminist resented the new school, unwilling to accept that family and children or career was actually a false choice. It turns out that there was a heterogeneity of things that women could want, and do, and not feel lesser. What does this mean? First, forget the work week. Forget the office. Women began to prove that productivity and efficiency didn't only exist in company's org chart. And while the computer geeks laid the foundation for the next phase of global economics, it appears that women may be its key architects. World, hold on.

No comments: