Authors of the kinds of books I read present themselves as a voice of reason against our declining society that no longer can evaluate arguments or define moral principles. (I’m fun at parties.) “Postmodernism” has been attacked all my life.
For a while, I have been looking for a successor of postmodernism. To simply define our age as the one that came after modernism seems unsatisfactory. How many more decades can we coast along on this antithesis idea?
One reason I don’t like the term postmodernism is that it gives a sense of progress where we might be losing ground. If you aren’t modern, then you are pre-modern. If you aren’t a verbal culture, then you have regressed to pictographs. If you aren’t engaging arguments, then you have degenerated to tribalism. So, postmodern might be dressing up a decline with a word that is too respectable sounding.
Calling people who use smartphones premodern does not seem right. But, what information are they consuming on those screens? Is it mostly low-quality videos and quick poasts? That doesn’t seem like what someone in 1900 would expect of a modern person.
Here’s an idea for the new century. We are in an age of poastmodernism, beginning with the founding of Twitter. This is different from the kind of skepticism or moral relativism that defined postmodernism. The poasters and their followers can be earnest. They retweet like evangelists. (A “poast” is a message posted in an internet forum.)
Poasts are short. This does not allow for nuance or traditional rational forms of argumentation. A poast could be referencing a rich history or body of literature, but if this generation has not evaluated those original sources then they are really just getting the meme. The poast does not provide its own context. Tyler Cowen says that people who think “modern art” is absurd have no context. Context for modern art would be the classical art and realistic landscape paintings that came before. Most Americans including myself are pretty ignorant about classical art. Similarly, how much value would teenagers get from Lord of the Rings internet memes if they have never seen the movies or read the books?
I’m on Twitter. The pace of discourse is more fun than reading a 50-page econ journal article. I get the appeal of poasting. It’s easy. Our first pediatrician told us not to let our baby use touchscreen games. She told us that it is good for a child to struggle to touch a ball that is two feet away across the floor. Better that they cry over the ball then get the dopamine too easily on a tablet game. Tapping on a screen trains kids for instant rewards. Something that concerns me about a generation that was not raised on books is that they will actually enjoy poasting less than I do, because they will be used to the rapid pace of reward. Twitter as a company benefits from the current generation of people who did not grow up with Twitter.
Poasting affects politics. This week two US Senate candidates had a debate. What would someone who gets most of their news from social media learn about the debate? Some top poasts about the debate have almost zero positive policy substance. Campaigners use the internet medium to dunk on their opponents instead of offer solutions to problems. What attracts engagement is the fire emoji.
This is not meant as a comment on either men as candidates. I share these jabs because lots of Americans are consuming their “news” in this form (see Pew Research chart). In postmodernism a successful political candidate has to appeal to feelings as much as reason. In poastmodernism, they only have 280 characters to work with. (Donald Trump was a skilled poaster.)
Getting elected today might require great poasting, but that has little to do with being good at governing. Most people think the details of government are dull. Ten minutes into a city council meeting, I’m bored and ready to check the notifications on my phone. And yet, we cannot just poast about poasting. It’s the physical political world and the classic books that make the best subjects of conversation. So, I’m not sure if the era of poastmodernism will last for a long time, or simply to the end of my lifetime. Millennials are not going to give up the dog fire meme.
You’ll have to pry it from our hands after our large generation has passed on. But will it inspire people in the future? I have already been informed that teenagers are calling our gifs “cringe”. They seem to prefer 90 second videos of their peers dancing to pop music. Don’t ask me what comes next after that.
I’ll end on a positive note by saying that sometimes shorter is better. Get to the point quickly, if you can. Some of the novels produced in the modern era were too long. Adam Smith’s books would be more widely read if they were shorter. Long-winded speeches are not necessarily good and I’m glad I am not forced to listen to them. (I get the tl;dr the next day.)
A lot of bad ideas were dressed up in pages of smart-sounding language and then passed off for wisdom in the modern era. It might be harder to pull that off today. Authoritarian regimes in the past relied on being able to lie about conditions on the ground. Today, we know what is happening because of Twitter. American elites believed lies about what was going on inside the Soviet Union for years. That would be impossible today.