On Decline by Andrew Potter (book review)

Do you think we’re* in “decline”. This book argues that we are. Basically, economic stagnation breeds zero sum (your gain is my loss) thinking, playing into political tribalism which inhibits reason. All this taking place in a media environment (social media, smartphones and everything else designed as “casinos”) intended to short-circuit critical thought. That’s the overall argument. It’s heavy on “the enlightenment” and lacks for political and social context. That said, I was well prepared to dismiss the book but it kinda won me over. The basics of the analysis are true even if much is true in addition.

More content not saying I agree or disagree: we’re lucky to live in the current day rich world where “survival” isn’t a concern but… status seeking has replaced survival resulting in absurd behaviours and beliefs detached from practical reality. This can be generalized to the level of countries (for ex. Canada’s mismanagement of Covid-19 is papered over by how rich we are). The political right is the new counterculture** (flouting rules and conformity) while the left imposes new social rules. Smartphones and social media are genuinely more bad than good. “Democracy, technology and progress” once aligned but we’re out of “low hanging fruit”. Decline is not a matter of apocalypse but rather many different smaller problems amounting to one giant slow moving disaster.

*Who comprises the “we” anyway? Always a fun and uncontroversial question.

**His point is that the whole concept of “counterculture” is stupid though.

“Hot” and “cool”

The word “hot” is an interesting case study in social change. About 15 years ago Paris Hilton popularized “that’s hot” as a flirty catchphrase. “Hot” has since lost some of its playful connotation. Nowadays, you’ll the word used in a knowing, detached manner pursuant to brute ranking or self-assertion. Strange non-jokes like “hot girls for Bernie” can only be understood in this new style.

Rating relative attractiveness isn’t new, but nuance and mystery are dead in an era defined by instantly communicated photo and video. Around when Paris Hilton was saying “that’s hot,” Mark Zuckerberg started a “Hot or Not” rating site at Harvard. Eventually Zuckerberg bought Instagram (best understood as a clearing house for hotness) and the fun and flirty connoted “hot” was on thin ice.

“Cool” connoted relaxed street level confidence and/or unique aesthetic expression. But those things have lost their resonance and context as spontaneous social life, private identity and “place” have been undermined. In truth, there are still some consensus cool people but they are increasingly defensive.. which isn’t cool.

Instagram represents the death of “cool” and its replacement by “hot.” Instagram wasn’t really the cause of the switch-cool has died a long death-but it’s an incredible vantage from which to witness the transition. The people who used to judge what was “cool” now get by determining hotness. Because Instagram is the most aesthetic social media it disproportionately attracts the remaining cool people. But they are then forced to directly compete with the hottest people which isn’t fair.

Print and mortality

Print media increasingly provokes a disturbing feeling of mortality. The definitive beginning and end of a book has the most obvious implication. By print media I mean words on “dead” trees. This type of media is increasingly seen as antiquated. Books are still acceptable aesthetically but only if presented in a way that implies high levels of cognitive vitality. Reading challenging material like a serious book taxes the brain in a way that no other media does. In that way serious reading reminds you of your own corporeality and its limitations. Other media are indulged in to provoke a superficial feeling of “living” without limitation. Your smartphone is alive in your hand and the scroll, stream and possibilities are endless. Media consumers conjure up “life” as in friends and lovers via podcasts, social media, video games, and adult content. They “binge” and gorge themselves within a fantasy universe of consumption in which there is no beginning and no end. If you try and turn from this frenzy of consumption to read a book the world has to “stop.” This “stop” is more liable than other moments to be a concrete marker in time separate from the infinite array of interchangeable moments contemporary electronic media produce. The “stop” can be greatly attenuated if you read books on screen rather than on the page. Smartphones provoke a “god complex” in that they mediate your capacity to make food appear at the press of a button along with the already noted friends and lovers. If the friends and lovers prove unfortunately ephemeral you can definitely make the food appear in any event, to compensate. Not all gods are immortal but it’s a safer bet. Hosts of podcasts and people on social media are alive, you can confirm it in real time any number of ways. When someone who is big on social media dies they simply fall away. The crushing, “crowding” and “swarming” inherent to the current moment fill any void. Authors are more likely to be dead. It’s harder to pretend you’re friends with a dead person and antisocial. Being the ultimate distraction, smartphones help avoid spontaneous encounters with different kinds of people, one of the main things that can provoke a consideration of mortality. The mania of activity that colours the current media context recalls a stereotype of childhood and adolescence. Audiobooks are increasingly marketed emphasizing “social” and active qualities. Someone alive is reading you the book and you can consume it while moving around. Books are heavy material and tie you to a particular place. When tied to a particular place you are more mortal in narrative terms.

TV, social media, “authenticity” and “crazy” politics

Here are some half-formed thoughts on media and politics aping things that have been said before but hopefully adding a touch of originality and something in the way of synthesis.

Social media and smartphones are a key new piece of the political context. But not only do people still watch lots of TV, current day political figures of note first gained mass recognition on TV in a unique way. Some key “points” I’m preoccupied with in this write up are the transition from TV to social media, the ambiguity that now exists between the two mediums and the argument about which is more responsible for recent political developments.  

Three figures fit a vague but niche trajectory. Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Eric Zemmour were all stars on TV debate and current affairs programming for years. Trump stands apart from the other two men as he had a massive TV presence outside of politics and Zemmour is as yet much less significant than Trump and Bolsonaro but all three were constantly put on TV to be provocative. Because they were constantly put on TV for that purpose, regular rules of conduct didn’t apply to them. It was their job to flout normal behaviour so it would be silly to expect anything else short of regulation or mass change in taste.

These men were “made” to be the provocative stars of niche content and therefore anticipated the current social media vibe. Because regular rules didn’t apply to them, they came to be understood as more “authentic” to many people. Today, if you are a public figure but “withhold” on camera you don’t get traction. The current context often rewards acting “crazy,” basically. Social media based “authenticity” seems to have the connotation of wild behaviour and emotional instability. In any event, many figures—political and otherwise—have developed massive followings strictly on the basis of this type of conduct and presentation.

This standard of “authenticity”—and by extension the political figures who meet it—presumably relates somehow to the current tendency to “mental health acceptance.” My impression is that this same tendency renders what I’m saying here mildly politically incorrect. Would it be self-involved to say it therefore inhibits understanding? It’s hard to take pure “craziness” as a starting point in the current discursive context even though it’s clearly a phenomenon.

Part of the reason for social media’s symbiosis with neuroticism is its intimacy of consumption. People are literally lying down in bed or in the washroom with the conceit that they are simultaneously participating in social life and politics. To some extent this was already true with mass media of course, people “participated” in events by listening to radio or wrote letters in bed, but it’s true in a new way now, and taking place in a new social environment. The feedback loop with loneliness and atomization is cliché but true in my opinion. Neuroticism and loneliness make “authentic” figures more appealing for obvious reasons.

Social media actively “includes” neurotics more than classic mass media and also augments neuroticism generally. One preoccupation that lots of people have in the current day is fear of exposure. They correctly think that they are liable to be photographed or recorded in any number of contexts, with the results possibly ending up online. Judging from many viral videos, other people, or perhaps the same people, take the opportunity of being “exposed” to finally “overcome” their fear and “act out,” or “let it all out.” It makes sense that the political figures I’m highlighting would appeal in this context. They do relentlessly what many people—especially more marginal and excluded types—subconsciously crave.

It would drive almost anyone “crazy” to be the target of the current chaos of media coverage but these guys were already “crazy.” These pre-“crazified” figures match the “craziness” of the current context. Marshall McLuhan said that on TV you have to wear a “mask.” That rings true, but were/are these men masked? Possibly, but perhaps they were exempted. McLuhan also said that the previous medium becomes the content for the current one. That seems to fit TV and social media fairly well, obviously. The current media context is overwhelming. There’s a feeling of info-chaos, active competition between many mediums, people consuming many forms of media simultaneously and so on. These political figures revel in the chaos instinctively, they defy fragmentation even to the point of feeling “present” in social life quite unlike other contemporary figures.

This essay ended up going in at least two different directions. One more sociological, the other attempting a sketch at a distinct political subtype and its relationship to different methods/phases of communication. I’ll also add that Zemmour has less of a “crazy” presentation when compared with Trump and Bolsonaro. For that reason, and because as already noted he is as yet less significant, it’s tempting to exclude him. That said, he is clearly the “wild” person in the French context so perhaps the same basic picture applies.

Zeynep Tufekci on social movements and digital technologies

“Capabilities are like muscles that need to be developed; digital technologies allow ‘shortcuts’ which can be useful for getting to a goal, but bypass the muscle development that might be crucial for the next step. It is difficult, if not impossible, to develop one set of muscles without also developing others that work in support and coordination; digital technologies can sever or alter this link, allowing for the social movement equivalent of a bodybuilder with massive pectorals but no biceps or deltoids to speak of.”

The smartphone screen as railcar window

“With speed, there is quantitatively more for the brain to deal with. This is not specific to the railroad but part of modernity more broadly, including the rise of the city. The classical social theorist Georg Simmel described this urban perception as an ‘intensification of nervous stimulation,’ as opposed to slow, lasting impressions which ‘use-up, so to speak, less consciousness than does the rapid crowding of changing images.’ The modern condition was thought of as a general onslaught of things to pay attention to, newly positioning the urban railroad-riding individual as a kind of spectator to an existence slipping quickly by.

The railroad positioned the world for the traveler as some thing passing, distant, to be taken as scenery framed by a cabin window. Schivelbusch expands on philosopher Dolf Sternberger’s description of this way of seeing as a ‘panoramic vision,’ a view that foregrounds the back—the passenger barely noticing that which is most near, reduced to an incon sequential blur by rapidity—and detaches the passenger from this space immediately surrounding the train car. Opposed to slower travel, where the passing landscape can be lingered upon and seen in great detail, railway speed produced a panoramic vision where the landscape is not seen for as long or intensively, its particularities are instead taken in as a part of an ongoing flow instead of discreetly. Always quickly vanishing, the landscape becomes more impressionistic, evanescent; panoramic vision is seeing the world as montage. This panoramic vision produced by the rapid succession of imagery is a useful way to frame the contemporary type of vision that social photography encourages, both in how we make and consume the images. The social photo is often viewed through the grid, stream, or story to be finger-scrolled, swiped, and tapped. The images in their proliferation and rapidity create an emergent stream in aggregate, and for the person doing the swiping, there is a more panoramic view of social life, akin to the montaged scenery from the train window.”

Pankaj Mishra on the 90’s “revolution of aspiration” and the “common present”

“Beginning in the 1990s, a democratic revolution of aspiration -of the kind Tocqueville witnessed with many forebodings in early nineteenth-century America- swept across the world, sparking longings for wealth, status and power, in addition to ordinary desires for stability and contentment, in the most unpromising circumstances. Egalitarian ambition broke free of old social hierarchies, caste in India as well as class in Britain. The culture of individualism went universal, in ways barely anticipated by Tocqueville, or Adam Smith, who first theorized about a ‘commercial society’ of self-seeking individuals.

The emphasis on individual rights has heightened awareness of social discrimination and gender inequality; in many countries today, there is a remarkably greater acceptance of different sexual orientations. The larger political implications of this revolutionary individualism, however, are much more ambiguous. The crises of recent years have uncovered an extensive failure to realize the ideals of endless economic expansion and private wealth creation. Most newly created ‘individuals’ toil within poorly imagined social and political communities and/or states with weakening sovereignty. They not only suffer from the fact that old certitudes about their place in the world -including their sense of identity and self-worth- have been lost along with their links to traditional communities and other systems of support and comfort and sources of meaning. Their isolation has also been intensified by the decline or loss of postcolonial nation-building ideologies, and the junking of social democracy by globalized technocratic elites.

Thus, individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity, or what Hannah Arendt called ‘negative solidarity’, is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communications, the improved capacity for envious and resentful comparison, and the commonplace, and therefore compromised, quest for individual distinction and singularity.”

Bonus: Zygmunt Bauman

“We remain of course as modern as we were before; but these ‘we’ who are modern have considerably grown in numbers in recent years. We may well say that by now all or almost all of us, in every or almost every part of the planet, have become modern. And that means that today, unlike a decade or two ago, every land on the planet, with only a few exceptions, is subject to the obsessive, compulsive, unstoppable change that is nowadays called modernization, and to everything that goes with it, including the continuous production of human redundancy, and the social tensions it is bound to cause.”

Byung-Chul Han on social media and “distance”

“Today, more and more, dignity, decency, and propriety -matters of maintaining distance- are disappearing. That is, the ability to experience the Other in terms of his or her otherness is being lost. By means of social media, we seek to bring the Other as near as possible, to close any distance between ourselves and him or her, to create proximity. But this does not mean that we have more of the Other; instead we are making the Other disappear. Nearness is negative insofar as remoteness is inscribed within it. But now, a total abolition of remoteness is underway. This does not produce nearness so much as it abolishes it. Instead of closeness, it entails crowding.”

Byung-Chul Han

“Distance is the soul of beauty.”

Simone Weil

social media notes #1: TikTok audios

TikTok is “a highly musical version of social media because it works based on endlessly repeated snippets of audio.” On TikTok, users can make videos using popular audios as a type of template.

TikTok audios themselves become “memes” which -in their endless repetition and use as an intelligible creative starting point- are ultimately more significant that any visual cues that a user will find repeated on the platform.

Part of what makes TikTok compelling is that audio is very intimate and therefore emotionally engaging. Audio sticks in human memory and creates a nostalgic feeling. For example, some popular TikTok audios are the most emotive moment of a contemporary song. Endlessly repeated, these snippets can put the user-listener in a trance-like state.

Audio is primal. As humans we can “reproduce” audio naturally and instinctively by speaking, singing or humming. Reproducing a visual -as in a scene or picture- is much more challenging and abstract.

TikTok has taken this fundamental component of human culture -reproducing audio- and automated it. I’ve already called TikTok audios “memes” but I think that might understate things. What are they though? Poetry? Incantations? Chants? War cries? Maybe something entirely new.

Arron Banks’ Leave.eu Brexit social media campaign

Arron Banks is one of the biggest political donors in British history. He funded and ran Leave.eu, the insurgent right-wing Brexit campaign. Here he is talking about that organizations successful use of social media:

“Within our office we had an office setup that was for Leave.eu. It was a call center and we were getting a tremendous number of phone calls from our.. obviously the website, from Twitter, from Facebook and from the whole thing and as part of that what we had was a creative department that basically created Facebook tiles and Twitter.. and one of the reasons we were so successful as you can appreciate in politics, we were able to create some of the stuff that was in real time and was topical, quicker than anybody else. So effectively what we would do was take something that was being talked about and turn it into relevant material and I think that’s much more relevant to how you get traction on social media. You know we have one video that had fourteen million views. If I look through the campaign statistics, we had more traction than Labour, Conservative, Liberal social media put together”