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The Insular Decade

December 12, 2009

The 00s were a triumph of insularity.

Proudly insular politics.  Proudly insular tastes & culture.  Turning inward and accelerating in niche appeal.  The oughties were the decade we realized that social relations are comprised of networks and awkwardly rushed to reframe all our relations upon that premise.

Rather than the tightening of cliques and tribes, the 00s saw a rapidly growing disinterest in common cultural currency.  We stopped paying attention to the abstraction of what was popular in general and focused solely on what was popular with our friends and direct associations.

The oughties were the decade in which popular culture died.  Even water cooler discussion became impossible.  Subcultures were hardly immune because even they require the assumption of a shared venue.  Something unto itself, with its own trends necessary to stay aware of in order to maintain the passive social connections it facilitated.  A subculture was a vast expanse of shared popular culture, or reactions to that popular culture.  Today there are just loose associations.  A shared interest or common experience rarely comes bundled with many others.  And what few bundles remain are seriously fraying.

Team spirit, despite some brief political upticks, was ultimately rolled back again and again, across the board.  Our incomprehension of others outside of our immediate connections deepened.  Our passive, dismissive hostilities increased, but in all directions, not to any net advantage.

Aimless, shallow, apathetic or fadishly political youth are nothing new, but those of this decade marched under no self-assumed collective identity.  And what they held up as signifying their superiority was not an attitude or image, it was access to information itself.  Reference was this decades’ currency.

Rather than gaudy material wealth we decked ourselves our with gaudy informational reference.  To us, gold chains, leather studs, armani suits and hemp rags were paleolithically monotone, a sign of almost third-world informational poverty.  Instead we wore the equivalent of NASCAR jumpsuits bedecked with varying vintage shout-outs, bandoleers of band buttons and ironic body accouterments.  If we could have actually had those shifting t-shirts from the Justice video we would have counted ourselves kings among men.

Poverty was chic, but utilitarian simplicity was suspect if not disgusting.

The oughties were a decade entirely defined by our hesitant first steps of acclimation to the internet.  It saw the destruction of the common sphere, and the almost complete reconstruction of our relations around the limitations of dunbar’s number.  It saw the death of a certain type of empathy — the bland common ties of fellow citizens. …But at the same time the 00s saw the vast expanse of inquisitiveness in random directions and the accelerating spread of discourse.

We surf wikipedia for fun. Moderate liberals quote bell hooks.

We have less in common with strangers, and there are currently very prominent, very intentional and aggressive trends away from wider, deeper connection with others.  But this decade’s insularity was but the first reaction.  We are still opening our eyes to the freedom the internet provides.  Even now we are acclimating to information overload, to the immediacy and ease by which we can share in limited networks.  We are learning, feeling out the limitations of these initial insular approaches and at the same time we are only beginning to address our thirst for substantive knowledge beyond the immediate.  As we do we will become more and more fed up with the limitations inherent in relying on the trivial and stylistic as aids to connection.

The internet has shattered cultural content.  Traditionally the sharing of such substance-less commonalities formed one of the most critical bases of social connection.  But they have shattered too far to be of use much longer.  The postmodern death spiral of insular reference cannot continue, because even the inherent diversity of individual experience and network-position will eventually pare the density of bundled culture in our various networks down to nothing.  We are going to have to find new ways to connect with one another.  To deal with all the strangers we’re pressed up against.  And that means a centuries — if not millennia — overdue resurgence of substance.  The first strains of this will be apparent in the next decade as we remove the last presentational barriers to knowledge of any and all cultural content.  As broadcast mediums are finally abolished, as the beast currently known as Yahoo Answers learns to stop drooling on itself.  As classroom education slowly become superfluous.  etc.

The strength of an ironic or obscure reference lies in the remaining social scarcities of access to information it operates within.  When your t-shirt comes with tabs and tags to the next generation of tvtropes and pandora with extensive and easily accessible situating context, it’s just so much noise.  And not only are we learning to filter out noise and prioritize.  We’re becoming less and less tolerant of it.


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