Accelerating Toward Oblivion

(This article was first published on on December 23, 2014. It has been revised with only minor editorial changes.)

“Contemporary society is, therefore, ‘rich in lived events but devoid of experience’ (emphasis added) because ‘it becomes difficult to integrate developments into cultural world pictures, narratives, educational institutions, and patterns of interpretation.’ We get, instead, ‘the increasing fluidity and ephemerality of fashions, goods, work processes, ideas, and images.’ We get ‘not the end of the world, but the end of meaning.’ We get the experience of ‘frenetic standstill,’ the state where ‘nothing remains the way it is while at the same time nothing essential changes.’ Life, Rosa explains, ‘can no longer be understood as directed motion and narratively constructed in the sense of a history of progress or development. Life doesn’t head anywhere; in the end, it goes nowhere (very fast).’”

Alexander Zubatov, I Loved You, I Loved You: A Farewell to Art in The Hedgehog Review Fall 2014

Zubatov quotes heavily in this passage from German sociologist Hartmut Rosa and his book Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. This is the central idea of Zubatov’s essay, but it deserves further unpacking.

In the times before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one major problem human cultural development faced was the lack of infrastructure with which to provide individuals enough time and context to study society, come up with a critique or analysis, integrate that into their worldview, propose something new, and disseminate it to others in a similar position to consume it, integrate it, and refine it. In a sense, the world was “moving too slowly.” In the same way that technological innovations were either repressed or destroyed (requiring reinvention), social innovations, too, suffered a very similar fate. Artistic development and literary tradition are built in the same style as technology—humans take what has come before, add something of their own ingenuity, and craft something new. The displines and skills involved differ, but they follow the same basic process.

However, social development differs significantly from technological development in that it requires more time for a sensitive individual to integrate emotion and metaphor and observation into a coherent worldview. Most importantly, cultural depth (also called wisdom), increases as one is better able to build a coherent picture of the past. The more epochs and genres and experiences an individual has to work with, the greater will be his contribution to the social expression of his own art.

Technological development has no such limitation. The twentieth century saw technological progress accelerate exponentially. Most new technical innovations require only the synthesis of the techniques that came immediately prior, combined with a novel idea or observation in the present. To use computer programming as an example, I don't need to know microprocessor programming in order to code a web server. Neither does technological innovation require as lengthy a “ripening” period. A new technological development can be built and tested roughly as soon as the prior innovation has been completed.

Technological development largely spurred on the arts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by improving human resilience to disease and injury, and providing better and faster avenues for communication and collaboration. Essentially, technological development sped up the “cycle time” of community intellectual thought, making cultural developments, such as art, “stick better” and reach wider audiences. But by the twentieth century, the ever-increasing velocity of the cycles morphed into art’s enemy rather than its benefactor.

In our modern culture, we are bombarded endlessly with input: Facebook, Twitter, blogs, feed readers, work, exercise, socialization, coworkers, games, advertisements, music over intercoms, emails, cell phones, and on and on and on. We are put under social pressure to experience as much of this deluge as possible. Failure to recognize the most recent pop culture trends can become a stigma in many social circles. This is Zubatov’s “going nowhere very fast.” All of life’s facets endure constant change, but none of that change actually matters in the grand scheme of things.

And this why I maintain that my position on cultural tunnel vision is not elitist stance, but rather a warning that is pragmatic in the extreme. Perhaps, as our cultural and technological cycles approach maximum velocity, and, simultaneously, as the average human attention deficit reaches maximum entropy, we will arrive at the death of meaning itself. At the point at which an individual views his own tastes as entirely self-defining and infinitely meaningful, then paradoxically, so will his universe and his life cease to have any meaning whatsoever.

Zubatov calls for like-minded individuals to create “islands of deceleration,” in other words, enclaves where art thrives that is slower and more gradual, which builds upon the traditions of the important works that came before it, that demands empathy, that demands deep, meditative thought, that demands significance. If you can develop an interpretation of The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, or *chortle* Billionaire Dinosaur, that fits them into such a framework, I’d be happy to consider its validity, but my suspicion is that these popular culture phenomena are what Zubatov refers to as the “fizzy sea…of mass ignorance.”

For what it’s worth, I honestly hope that my technologist friends are right. Perhaps we can speed up societal cycle time and feel no ill effects within our culture. But my gut tells me that art and history, that a philosophical and intellectual connection of our present culture to its past matters. Its loss will be, as Zubatov suggests, akin to a new kind of dark age, one characterized by frenetic, unmanageable excess of experience rather than the punishing dirth of it.

I’ll get started on my island.

EssaysMatthew BuscemiComment