The epochal change in which we find ourselves in the midst of – in the centre of this enbinaried and interconnected vortex – has a score of ramifications, some better viewed through the lens of history, some with the perspectives of travel, and others still by dumb luck, though of course it never hurts to be instilled with a morbid curiousity in the subject matter. One of the more entertaining, and possibly telling, ramifications is the Kodak Golden Moment of our day – the Instagrammable moment – that which we do for the gram.
In the day-to-day course of affairs, particularly if you’re foolhardy enough to follow the news (or past a certain age), it can be easy to miss the sheer pervasiveness of Instagram and its role as a mass-market dopamine fuel. Not that it’s a cause of anything in particular, despite what headlines and “studies” will tell you about depression or cyberbullying or whatever fashionable correlates are hot-buttony, but it is an effect worth closer examination.
More intelligently curated,1 seemingly less intrusive in terms of privacy, Instagram is now the fastest growing social media platform,2 not least of which is because it’s so obviously less political as a platform than either Facebook was in its heyday of 2004-2009 or Twitter in its peak of influence from 2009-2016.3 Those with an interest in politics still know where to look to get their fix of mass democratic citizen “information” but the waning interest and broader demographic decline of both Facebook and Twitter in favour of a more photogenic worldview and even cityscape defined by the gram is ample evidence that the citizens of the world are largely moving past politics, and all too happy to do so.
“But Pete, don’t we need to be more politically engaged so that we can make better decisions at the polls ? Isn’t it a bad thing that so many of us are ignoring what’s really happening around us ?”
Hardly so! Much as during the decline of the Roman Catholic Church at the end of the fifteenth century, for very nearly everyone involved, this 21st century rendition of the changing of the guard is both overdue and welcome. Mass democracy4 was birthed as an Industrial Age convenience flowing from the necessities of economies of scale and overall output (not some higher moral calling) required to compete for scarce physical resources and protection services thereof. The necessities of today – of the Information Age – are massively more individualistic.5 That the gram has emerged as the go-to platform for self-expression in 2018 is a testament to the shape of this new frontier emerging before our very eyes. Politics as we know it is dying.6 The individual is being born.
Which brings us neatly to Cancun. This time, less than three years after our last visit to these posh porcelain shores, with tastes somewhat more refined and budgets somewhat enlarged to accommodate, the overall sense of the impact of the Information Age is starkly magnified. Never before has there been such a concentration of iconic symbols for individuals to recognise their fellow individuals at a photogenic glance.
In the flesh, this looks like a veritable sea of iPhone X‘s with their iconic notched screens, Rimowa suitcases with their iconic corrugated aluminum shells, and Richard Mille watches with their iconic tonneau-shaped three-piece cases. For the gram, this looks like so much bloody time and energy spent curating photographs that you’d swear girlfriends were only traveling with their boyfriends so that someone could hold the camera, as candidly captured behind the bleached blond Wunderkind :
This background photo op lasted easily thirty minutes and you just know it wasn’t the only one of the day. But let’s not to diminish, out of hand, the psychological and even biological7 value of these efforts to express individualism!
Nice things are nice, they have networking potential, and if nothing else “do it for the gram” is the sine qua non 30-60 minute void-filler that, on a daily basis, each of us needs to reconnect with the greater universe as we understand it. Sure, it can be seen as a self-aware and self-deprecating cliché, but it can also be seen as the latest evolution in void-filling (ie. mortality-abating) technology. A void once occupied by piety (during feudalism) and then politics (during democracy) is now being occupied by careful selection of filters, photo alignment, on-brand messaging, cross-referencing to trends, and memes. Oh the memes!
So contrary to the self-important views as seen in The Economist or The New Republic about the increasingly polarised nature of politics today compared to, say, even a decade ago, what we’re seeing is instead information (and dopamine)-fueled fracturing of conventional nation-state doctrines, which are now evolving into self-selecting factions based on more informed and more granular world views.8 The effect of this is a greater diversity of perspectives, most of which don’t (and arguably shouldn’t) give two shits about mass democratic politics.
What remains once all the superficial cruft of gaussian equality is wiped away is the same 5-10% of the population active and interested in politics that the Ancient Greeks had, leaving the rest of us left to enjoy our limited time on this planet secure in the knowledge that we can once again defer to individuals more specialised in such matters.
Accepting that, might as well do it for the gram.
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- Only YouTube comes close with the sophistication of its “Google Brain” algorithms. [↩]
- Perhaps with the exception of China’s emerging micro-video platform Bytedance. [↩]
- These dates are rough but fair approximations. Historians can fight amongst themselves for more accuracy when we’re all dead and gone. [↩]
- We can define “mass democracy” as an institution that, irrespective of minority suffrage, dates back to the French Revolution. [↩]
- The individualism of the Information Age is born largely of the nature of public-key cryptography. [↩]
To speak of the coming death of politics is bound to seem ridiculous or optimistic, depending on your disposition. Yet that is what the Information Revolution is likely to bring. For readers reared in a century saturated in politics, the idea that life could proceed without it may seem fanciful, the equivalent of claiming that one could live merely by absorbing nutrients from the air. Yet politics in the modern sense, as the preoccupation with controlling and rationalizing the power of the state, is mostly a modern invention. [...]
Moral outrage against corrupt leaders is not an isolated historical phenomenon but a common precursor of change. It happens again and again whenever one era gives way to another. Whenever technological change has divorced the old forms from the new moving forces of the economy, moral standards shift, and people begin to treat those in command of the old institutions with growing disdain. The widespread revulsion comes into evidence well before people develop a new coherent ideology of chance.
Something similar happened in the late fifteenth century, but at the time it was religion rather than politics that was in the process of being downsized. Notwithstanding popular belief in “the sacredness of the sacerdotal office,” both the higher and lower ranks of clergy were held in the utmost contempt – not unlike the popular attitude towards politicians and bureaucrats today.
Beneath the “crust of superficial piety” was a corrupt and increasingly dysfunctional system. Many lost respect for those who ran it, long before anyone dared to say it did not work. A life saturated with religion, making no distinction between the spiritual and the temporal, had exhausted its possibilities. Its end was inevitable long before Luther nailed his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg.
We believe that the reaction against saturation politics is following a similar path. The death of the Soviet Union and the repudiation of socialism are part of a broad pattern of depoliticization sweeping the world. This is now most evident in a growing contempt for those who run the world’s governments. It is driven only in part by the realization that they are corrupt, and prone to sell “indulgences” from political difficulty in exchange for campaign contributions or special help on commodity trades to subvene their personal finances.
The reaction against politicians is also motivated by the widening realization that much of what they do at great cost is futile, in the same way that organizing another pilgrimage of penitents to march barefoot in the fifteenth century, could have done little to improve productivity or relieve pressures on living standards. [...]
The modern world was born in the confusion of new technologies, new ideas, and the stench of black powder. Gunpowder weapons and improved shipping destabilized the military foundations of feudalism, even as new communications technology undermined its ideology. Among the elements that the new technology of printing helped reveal was the corruption of the Church, which hierarchy as well as rank and file were already held in low regard by a society that paradoxically placed religion at the center of everything. It is a paradox with an obvious contemporary parallel in the disillusionment with politicians and bureaucrats, in a society that places politics at the center of everything. The end of the fifteenth century was a time of disillusion, confusion, pessimism, and despair. A time much like now.
Excerpts from The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age, by James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg (1997). [↩]
- After all, what has history taught us if not that life is competition and selection ? [↩]
- With more complexity comes more granularity! [↩]