As time passes, it will seem more and more convenient to historians that the last decade ended so punctually—we rang in 2020 just as COVID was gaining traction, two months before it precipitated an unprecedented, jarring global disruption. This temporal alignment stands in contrast to the “Long ‘90s,” which began with the Berlin Wall falling in 1989 and ended with 9/11—a 12-year decade—as well as the ‘00s, which lackadaisically faded into the ‘10s without an obvious bookend to mark its passing (ironically, the best milestone is probably smartphone adoption, which helped to propagate an ahistorical perspective throughout mainstream culture). You could also argue that the ‘00s simply refused to end, dragging on until the 2016 election. In the preceding years, Obama had seemingly delivered the end of history that the ‘90s had first promised, a state we seem increasingly desperate to tuck back into. The ‘10s surely would have melted into the ‘20s with similar ambiguity if not for the pandemic. And believe it or not, this decade is already more than a quarter done; with COVID turmoil transitioning into regular turmoil, it’s about time to admit that present conditions are what the ‘20s are actually *like*, however unstable they still seem.
A notable difference between 2019 and 2022, so fundamental that it’s easy to miss, is our relationship to technology. The previous decade’s tech criticism revolved around big, palpable concerns: platform monopolies, privacy and surveillance, misinformation, ad-based attention monetization, algorithmic manipulation of culture, and the commoditization of labor. Facebook tilting elections, Uber skirting regulations, Amazon undermining small businesses. Today, the concerns are totally different. Most of the problems just listed remain unresolved or have been papered over with better PR; we may have just accepted them as inescapable, or beaten them to death and gotten bored, or learned to love our platform overlords thanks to pandemic Stockholm syndrome. The critical narrative that has replaced them amounts to a crisis of reality itself—a collective grasp for an increasingly elusive authenticity in the digital hall of mirrors. Tech discourse has become an endless parade of such debates: NFTs (why are they worth anything?), the metaverse (is it serious and will we have to use it?), TikTok (what is this shit?), AI art (is it really art?), along with weird subplots like Dimes Square (which is a tech issue to the extent that it’s a product of the internet). Unlike, say, Facebook’s role in the 2016 election, caring about any of these topics requires an acceptance that you’re stuck online, unable to just ignore it all and move on. It’s as if the dual trauma of Trump and COVID-19 forced us to admit that the internet is a prison of our own making and one that we’ll never entirely escape. We no longer expect algorithms to stop organizing our reality. We just hope they’ll go easy on us.
We all define “reality” differently, but however you define it, there is still plenty to go around—as much as there ever has been. We are mostly trapped in digital hyperreality because we want to be. Going outdoors and “touching grass” has become a euphemism for a particularly stale version of accessing a traditional notion of reality, a desire that affirms a false distinction between physical and digital existence. Not only has that distinction long since broken down, but one could argue it has even inverted: As I wrote in late 2020, when much of the world was relatively shut down and New York City felt especially dark, public and private space had traded places: “Activities traditionally done in public are increasingly digital and done at home; the outdoors are where we go to take a break from it all.” When the world opened back up, physical space intensified its role as a stage to perform for an online audience. You can also just go out and touch grass, but that’s different than going out in public—in its purest form, it’s a solitary activity. When we want to participate in culture, we go online. W. David Marx, who just published a book called Status and Culture, has observed how the growing accessibility of subcultures, increasingly decoupled from physical constraints, has caused more and more people to flood into them, adopting their symbols and debasing their value as status signifiers. In this world, all those once-precious forms of obscurity—like touching grass—hold less appeal: Now, obscurity just means you’re alone.
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Toby Shorin on the end of lifestyle brands and how “cultural production has become a service industry for the supply chain.”
The bizarre urbanist vision of King Charles. “Constantly guarded and chaperoned, he has never once in his life been able to walk freely around a city, either. Buildings and towns to him are just pictures, and they are either ugly pictures or pretty pictures.”
An anti-pickleball manifesto. “What they really desire is less leisure time for workers, the further entrenchment of the capitalist logic of productivity, and the dismantling of public space.”