Thinking Unconstrained

General place of discussion. Topics can span a wide range including but not limited to, observations, insights, problems, solutions, proposals, and hypothetical scenarios. Walk a fine balance between imagination and reality and don't get caught by the trappings of either one.
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By Candideto
The year is now 2021. We've lived through 21 years into the new millennium and for all our gadgets and advances, it still feels very much like a continuation of the 20th century. What has happened in the last 20 years and what can we say about the 21st century and of the cultures that are emerging? What strikes me as odd is that there are no cultural icons or landmarks during this time that are remembered and publicized by the media. They seem to prefer to reboot the 20th century rather than embrace the recent past and build upon it. Hence it's difficult to ascertain the transitional cultural changes that have happened. From a personal viewpoint, it appears as if history and culture since 1999 has largely been ignored, as if everything that has happened since then are all contemporary or simply not important enough to be remembered. This is in stark contrast to the almost habitual pattern of viewing the recent past in terms of decades (80's, 90's, 00's etc.) that was prevalent throughout the 20th century. I can't say for certain whether such an outlook was also present in the previous centuries (there are indications of such, at least in the 19th century) but the main observation is that this has stopped or at least have waned to such an extent as to be almost non-existent from the western cultural viewpoint. Or it could be that the decade viewpoint is no longer identifiable due to the waning influence of television and at the same time, the rise of ad-hoc in-demand nature of internet streaming devices. Ergo, no centralized TV aligned with government support means no identifiable cultural decade.

The years of 00's were broadly characterized as a time that was almost obsessed with the events of 9/11/01. It was a time of war against terrorism and the Muslim world, and also a time that saw an economic "boom" emerging out of the burst "dot-com" bubble. Europe in the meanwhile experienced the EU-phoria of the single currency and easy capital investments injected by the new federal government. BRIC countries were growing economically at a record pace and it seemed like the "good times" could never end, as long as the Islamic terrorists were kept at bay. Then the global financial crisis hit the fan and many countries dove into recession, not quite sunk into depression due to government interjections, but the general jist of it was that most people's bank accounts were left intact by the bank "bail outs". The Obama administration that followed this event ran with the slogan, "Change we can believe in", while the anger against the "elites" brew barely beneath the surface and culminated in the election of Trump eight years later. It certainly resulted in a change but one that many people had difficulty believing in.

But aside from the historical landmarks, what are the traditional decade-long cultures of these 20 years? What is the music of the 00's, the fashion, the cultural focus? And what can be said of the 10's? There are personal identifications that can be attributed to these times but not quite an agreed consensus. It appears however that the chapters can be constructed along the lines of US presidential elections (8-year terms) rather than in terms of decades. If I were to try and classify them as such from a personal viewpoint, I would say that the Bush era had strong elements of heavy metal and industrial electronica, both vilifying and glorifying war and gun-loving republicanism. The Obama years were dominated by hipsters with almost neutral, numbing, melancholic undertones juxtaposed by ironic conformity to a movement that used to pride itself on being contrarians. Both of these eras were still deeply rooted in the 20th century cultural medias, and the rise of the technology giants was still underway. When Trump took office, he inadvertently signaled a break from the culture machine and plunged the public into the internet - a virtual world of instant availability of all kinds of media on platforms of choice. The presidential tweets were now mainstream. Everyone including the children and the elderly had a smartphone constantly connected to the internet, performing commerce through online purchases and transactions, having video calls, listening to podcasts, playing online games and binge streaming for hours on end. The main cultural focus was now virtual and it was no longer restricted to geography or even by any real world divisions or barriers.

Could this mark the beginning of manifestations of global cultures? Can we state that the cultural transition to the 21st century had finally happened after 21 years? And if so, we should be able to identify them and have a historical understanding of the new millennium. Perhaps by doing this, we might also gain an inkling of the direction that the western civilization is headed towards in a chaotic and vaporous environment.
Television overtook radio in the 1950's. Streaming overtook television in the 2010's. This latest transition seems like a continuation of the same programming habits but using a different technology. Although major streaming services are international, they often put restrictions and target their content corresponding to the user's IP address, thereby making them "local" or "regional". These streaming platforms also have the same people who were in television and movies so there's that continuing aspect. For many who "cut the cord" as they, watching streaming shows and movies on your TV set is just like watching Tivo or a DVD. It's not a significant cultural change and this isn't a clean break from the old to the new. However the young ones, especially those who grew up only watching streaming services, will for the most part never watch television broadcasting. If that constitutes a transition to 21st century culture, then I agree. The days of TV and radio dominance are not coming back.

The strange phenomena of people fixated on presidential tweets is indicative of a shift in the public perception but it's also not that surprising as many get their news and information that way. Everyone has a phone, everyone has social media accounts, the phone is always nearby and never shut off, etc. It's a direct public broadcast to everyone almost instantaneously and it's very natural to use new technology to do old things more effectively. The decision to mix personal tweets with political office wasn't very presidential, but it appears to have been effective in grabbing attention and gaining those precious ad-revenue-driven clicks. Likely those presidential tweets positively contributed to the solvency of many news outlets. On a related note, posts on "social media" often spread fast but not all make it to the news sites (for various uncorroborated reasons). With so many various happenings being reported, news aggregators and funnels are needed to stop information overload. But this also has the effect of over-filtering useful information and condensing them down to those that serve the narratives and whims of news editors and publishers. So in that sense, we again rely very much on the centralized news system that was prevalent in the 20th century. But since it's just as easy for anyone to get their information from any website, the overall news experience is international in nature. Therefore this can also be constituted as part of 21st century culture, allowing various opposing opinions to co-exist, albeit giving an impression that there is no such thing as "real news".

When thinking of online movements or communities, names like "4Chan", "Annonymous", and "Wikileaks" come to mind. Prominant file sharing and torrenting communities such as "Pirate Bay" and the early pioneer, "Napster" also come to the fore. These often used to receive headlines during the early 2010's, but that activity seems to have waned since then. Maybe not much is happening or maybe the influential members went "underground" into the "dark web". Whichever may be the case, the commonality here is that these groups are highly distributed without any central leadership. So they don't really fall apart as long as there's interest, traffic, and the funding to keep the infrastructure running. Kind of like a microcosm of the internet, really.

As for communities on social media platforms, they're a virtualization of real world relations, but they don't necessarily materialize the other way around. Somebody you befriend on the internet doesn't always become your friend in real life. There are many people who think that the two are equivalent and thus they run into psychological problems sooner or later. These aren't really 21st culture communities but the phenomena of living more in the virtual than the real is a recent development, and is likely going to continue as a general trend.
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By Sybilla
When thinking back to the early 00's, I remember the "big brother" shows being the main attraction across the world. I also remember a torrent of "reality TV" shows being lauded as the next thing in TV entertainment. In hindsight, it almost seems like they were precursors to the voyeur activities on social media and the now popular streaming channels on YouTube, playing games or doing mundane things or opining on everything under the sun. It certainly set a precedent and acted as a social training to be more accepting of those types of entertainment. People from earlier generations hardly saw these activities as fun, and I don't think the popularity of social media would have been so high if it wasn't for this transition in the 00's. So I think this counts as a characteristic of 21st century culture and its impact was global.

Another major source of social media popularity can be attributed to the smart phone revolution that Apple drove with the iPhone. Before this, the trend was for mobile phones to shrink in size with higher battery life, apparently because that's what customer surveys told the phone companies that they wanted. This may have been true but the "wow" factor and the status symbol of the iPhone meant that people wanted it more than a regular phone. Hence the smart phones took off in popularity and with it came high speed internet available to every person all the time. The transition to perpetual internet connectivity was complete, creating the 21st century culture of internet-of-people (ioP). No wonder the tech industry wanted to expand this concept by sticking a radio on everything and make them internet-of-things (ioT). I think the trend of virtualization is going to continue with AR and VR but whether that is going to have a revolutionary impact like the iPhone remains to be seen. It's flopped already several times in the last decade but maybe somebody will get it right.

Aside from computing and information technology, I think there's also been a significant increase in the level of awareness in the need for healthy living. For instance, smoking tobacco is taboo or looked on as a dirty habit in many places. Young people don't drink alcohol as much, or even not at all, and they don't even seem too keen on taking illegal drugs as much as the previous generations. Organic foods are more prevalent than ever before in the super markets and fast foods are shunned by many. I believe this trend is also coupled with the awareness in climate change and environmentalism, and thus a net movement towards a green, holistic future of renewable energy, carbon neutral vehicles, energy conservation and holistic living. If I look around at the young, it appears that this dynamic has created a people who's a strange mix of hippies and computer nerds - the "hip-nerds". They grow microgreens, use hydroponics, take part in fungiculture, take psychoactive substances, play online games, watch game plays and popular streaming channels on YouTube, engage in technical computing topics and do coding as a routine activity or just for fun. I'm not saying they're all like this, but it appears that many young people fit at least partially in this Venn diagram. In all these cases, they're not strongly bound by regional cultural tastes and customs but identify more with abstract interests that they connect with on the internet. Hence their culture is for the most part located in these activities and social interactions.
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By Candideto
Since culture is intimately tied to "activities and social interactions", and these for the most part are experienced almost entirely online, the cultures of new generations must by logical argument exist on the internet. These virtual cultures translate back into the real world; Whereas before, the process used to be the other way around, where the virtual mirrored the real. It is no wonder that the idea of "simulated reality" is popular now. It's because everyone's living through it on a daily basis. Take the gaming community for example. Someone who identifies himself as a "gamer" would surely be familiar with the cultural mannerisms, language, and history of all things related to gaming. He would recall instances of memorable tournaments, conversations, outrages, and all the things that a 20th century equivalent would reminisce about sports, movies and music of his day and age. The similarities are directly comparable in many respects. However the major difference between them is the cultural medium and the flipping of polarity of interest. The skills and popularity in the virtual world are valued over that of the skills and popularity in the physical. In such a world view, reality might as well be simulated because the culture is experienced entirely through pixels on a screen rather than being a representation or an abstraction of something that happens in the physical setting. Hence a gamer is the 21st century equivalent of a 20th century sports fan albeit trying to shoe-horn it into the sports mold by the sports people is likely the wrong way to go about embracing it. In order for it be successful, my personal hunch is that the gaming world should move towards being more in the virtual and less in the physical. Let the competitions and related entertainment be entirely virtualized and remove themselves from associating with physical and real-world aspects. Entire economies and social structures can theoretically exist in such a framework, and this may be preferred by the gamers themselves (second life, minecraft, fortnite, pokemon go, mmos etc.).

Another community of interest is the "influencers" and "followers", or if we were to employ a portmanteau, the "inflowers"; Those who prodigiously submit, subscribe, and follow various trends and interests online. This is something that most people with social media accounts actively engage in (to varying degrees). While not as obviously focused on virtual simulations as the gamers, the inflowers are captivated by their hand-held devices, almost constantly consuming, posting, reposting, opining, up/down voting, tweeting, loling, and in general interacting with virtual entities with impressive agility and focus. This is a different type of socialization to what humanity has experienced at least in the last 5000 years of recorded history. The previous 500 years certainly did change much from the preceding centuries, and the advancements made in the 20th century brought even more drastic social rearrangements, but the inflowers are a different breed altogether and the world they inhabit is just as alien to the traditional man. On the far end of the spectrum on the influencer side, this type of socialite is a borderline megalomaniac and an exhibitionist, who derives immense pleasures from his virtual popularity but also dreads in fear of losing it. On the other end of the spectrum on the follower side, the perpetual consumer is an addict and a creature of a time-absorbing habit, unable to draw himself away from that next click, or swipe, or that next endorphin-enducing comment thrown into a sea of judgmental peers. The similarities with TV personalities of the 20th century and their dedicated audiences are well apparent in this model. The major difference however is that an inflower frequently takes on the roles of both, as any contribution made by a follower can theoretically transition that person to an influencer. The inflowers also consume and produce much faster, the rate of information exchange is "viral" as they say, and the half-life of the content is much shorter. Their popularity is also short lived as vying for the attention of desensitized people who have instant access to entertainment of the entire world and its 5000 years of accumulated contributions takes a lot of patience and luck. "Click-baiting" is naturally an obvious strategy in improving the odds and ad-driven monetization is rampant in this world. Neither of these are liked by most people but are tolerated as necessary evils.

Wikipedia on the other hand is one of the most famous and last remaining major websites that does not rely on advertisement revenue. Instead it runs donation campaigns as necessary to cover operating costs. It is the most successful of wikis to date, and has become the defacto encyclopedic reference for anyone using a search engine. Contrary to traditional encyclopedias written and reviewed by dedicated persons of learning, the wiki model relies on the contributions of laymen and experts alike and undergoes a series of refinements and revisions until settling on a steady state of near-completion. It's a collaborative writing process and hence a page is frequently either chimeric or is dominated by select users. The process is described as "Darwinian", and it certainly is in both flattering and condescending ways. The wiki people, or the "wikites", are those who actively engage in supporting and contributing to wikis. The quality of articles from these people may vary considerably and there appears to be many copy and pasting activities, taking sections of text out of various sources and stitching them together to give a semblance of coherence. Or plastering pages with equations and technical terms without a kernel of understanding makes some pages impressive to look at but inaccessible and completely useless as an encyclopedic reference to any who are uninitiated in those fields. Still, the existence of wikites means that "knowledge" can undergo changes and updates rather quickly without needing extensive reviews. It also makes revisionism an integral part of the process, which itself is a double-edged sword.

These three examples of online communities show that they're not really dedicated segments of society strictly defined by their isolated interests, but are composed of regular people who like to interact and take part in those activities in a fluid and non-partisan way. They're not organizations but are loose associations with no central leadership and they often don't even realize that they're part of these groups. There are many communities like these on the internet but many are also continuations of existing organizations and groups from the 20th century rather than new ones emerging and superseding the old. Whether those can be counted as truly 21st century cultures is debatable and open to interpretation.
Would conspiracy fantasists fit that category? They've taken a giant leap in popularity in the last decade and seem to be a big concern to the authorities at the moment. Conspiracy theorists have always existed, but the internet has allowed them to take on an entirely new dimension. Rather than referring to all of these people as "conspiracy theorists", and thereby equating the internet variant with those of the 20th century, I'd rather call this group the "conspiracy fantasists". They are those who would rather believe in the fabrications of "inflowers" than believe in the state medias, who are viewed as propaganda outlets for various nefarious forces. They are fantasists in that they believe in fantasies and fiction, stringing together disparate topics into a set of phantom realities bordering on delusion and schizophrenia. The conspiracy theorist on the other hand is a researcher who has reasons to believe that a specific thing is amiss, a thing that happens to be vilified by state authorities and associates as a "conspiracy". The fantasist may follow the theorist but in most cases it's the inflower that uses the theorist to concoct his narrative and then the fantasist follows the entertainment. It's the process of rising fiction from hypothesis and theory rather than condensing into fact and objective reality that seems to be the general trend in this dynamic. Therefore the reality of a conspiracy fantasist draws ever closer to subjective fiction, strengthened in a cult-like environment where heroes are made by resisting and not being one of the ignorant sheeple subservient to the MSM. Whether this trend will continue is not clear, but the dynamic will continue as long as the three groups exist or if something else comes along to create another relation similar to this.

Speaking of relations, or lack there of, there is also a giant naked pink elephant in the room of this era, one that is hushed up and treated as taboo - the "chronic self-servicers" who serenade to their screens and "handhelds" with moral impunity. When the internet became widespread in the 90's, its number one use for it was for personal adult solo-relief. It was unavoidable for many men to be lured into this Pandora's box even for a slight peak, and with it came the iSTD epidemic infecting the minds, hands, and trousers of every male in the world. Following down the rabbit hole of playboy's seemingly innocent bunny footprints, the strange and exciting wonderland quickly plunges the adventurer into a freak show of grotesque media divorced from the realities of intimate relations between consenting adults driven by love and attraction. Instead a cheapened mockery is presented, perverting natural urges and addicting them to fantasies that most will never experience in reality, or if so experienced, would never actually quench the thirst for the next level of the online circus. The sad truth is that the vast majority of men are indeed addicts but no-one wants to admit it. Whether women are equally affected is not apparent, as visual stimulation of this sort is more of a male turn-on. Perhaps there are other mechanisms that lead to addictions for the "fairer" gender. In any case, self-servicing naturally goes hand-in-hand with any young person's path to adulthood but it's the continuing and the substitution of relations with online fantasies that makes it become chronic in the person's life. Therefore we now have generations of "chronic self-servicers" who are as ubiquitous as those on social media, and just as mainstream albeit not as publicized or acknowledged.

As for gamers, the popularity of MMOs on mobile devices gives credence to the possibility of a continuing momentum in that type of entertainment. Could the next step be AR and VR? A world of AR Warcraft/Minecraft in a sort of Star Trek holodeck in your living room with enough processing to render every object into an AR form? It's not so far-fetched as it's a linear progression using existing technology but it'll need to be highly marketable before it gets widely accepted. Many gamers are also software developers and enthusiasts, and there's plenty of excitement in what they can do whenever a next generation of hardware is made available. So in a sense, gamers are also coders and computing technologists. Seeing as how widely available CGI, deep-learning and AI are to non-experts, it's possible that gamers could create virtually anything that can be digitized at a fraction of the time and effort to create it from the real world. So perhaps everyone might become a gamer eventually just like everyone became computer nerds once home computing and smart phones made them indispensable and the transition lucrative.
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By Sybilla
With so much focus on computing technology and the internet, I wonder if there would also be a concerted counter movement of rejectionism against technology. Perhaps a modern day incarnation of Amish-like and hippie-like communities/communes who prefer to live out their lives away from the internet and computers or at least limit their use considerably. For example, there could be those who reject participating in social media, or who reject having a smart phone, preferring to have a regular phone instead. They might even reject digital and go as far analog as possible, such as using film cameras rather than digital cameras or smart phones. They might reject the computer entertainment and AI aspects of automobiles, instead preferring base models or older cars with fewer electronic components. Or it may be that these people would exist within the main society as a subculture, not out of economic necessity per-se, but as a status symbol similar to how the upper middle class of the yore took on the cultures of the underclass as a form of rebellion against the establishments. Therefore it's conceivable that there might be a divergence where one group will be pro-virtualization and digitization, and another that will reject it and move closer to the real and the analog. Possibly this might lead to another incarnation of the conservative and progressive paradigm of the American political divide, or perhaps it might be something that would be international through the internet.

We may also see people taking on different identities and discarding the established groupings. There have been much liberalization in many areas in the last 50 years. More and more people consider themselves multi ethnic, national, gender, sexual, religious, and other things associated with "identity politics". It may be that those characterizations are no longer adequate or accurate, given the wider variations of the populations in the present. These people would also be rejectionists against the defined paradigms of socialization, necessitating an invention of new identities to form group consolidation. There may be splinter groups from larger organizations, or something emerging organically from existing groups, or if the past is any measure of prediction of future human behavior, new groups will be formed in what is commonly termed as the "underground". In today's context, this refers to groups that are not publicized by the establishment, which does not necessarily mean physically underground or existing virtually on the "dark web" left out of the state-supported search engines and gateways. They are identities coursing like an undercurrent through the main vein of popular culture, but well apparent for people to naturally gravitate towards as they feel the compulsion to associate and have a sense of belonging.

And what is this longing but a basic human desire for social interaction? In a highly interconnected world, the sense of community is devoid of substance as physical beings innately require physical presence. Virtualization cannot replace a fundamental human need for physical contact and the use of all 5 (+1) senses. Similarly, historically indentured identities cannot convince a multi-modal human of this age that the burdens and shackles of those outdated identities define reality and social thought. Therefore it is inevitable for the new to reject the old, and any mass movement in one direction must have a counter-culture moving away from it.
The silicon and computer revolution was a wonderful driver of innovation for the last 50 years. It has brought the dream of complex human-like machines much closer to reality. However, while this idea and that of integrating with machines has been around for decades, its manifestation today is somewhat of a disappoint, much like the overoptimistic visions of "The Jetsons" and the like from the 1960's. One would think that if humanity had the capability of accessing any information at its fingertips, then that civilization would be incredibly advanced in all respects. Or if it had the capability to issue commands to machines to perform any calculation at will, then there wouldn't be any major problems at all in the world. But unfortunately that's not how it turned out. It appears that there was a slight miscalculation somewhere. Much of the advancement that has happened in the latter half of the 20th century was indeed skewed towards computing technology. And because our sciences are based on logical models that can be easily represented using computers, many branches have made significant progress thanks to this new tool. But it has also had the net effect of placing an over reliance on computers, which has shifted our focus away from experimentation and has possibly stunted our scope in other areas as well.

The promise of becoming a cyborg or being part of an overmind "artificial intelligence" has yet to happen, and instead for the moment (perhaps thankfully) we're somewhat socially crippled, phone-addicted zombie-like creatures who prefer to immerse ourselves in our devices than to converse and interact with our fellow human beings in the traditional way. Generation Z indeed - we the perpetually downcast people living in this era will be remembered as the "phombies". If brain machine interface (BMI) was to ever become mainstream (and not be limited to medical applications) then perhaps we might get closer to the cyborg vision. But history has often shown that it likely won't be what we envision it to be. Perhaps those with brain implants would be mentally deficient in other ways and behave as if they were suffering from a severe case of Autism or Asperger. Or perhaps they would involuntarily twitch and be spasmodic. Or they might be semi-vegetative in real life and choose to live in the virtual as a human software, likely spending most of their time trying to fulfill their basic human needs and desires.

But it's also possible that we will see a decline in incremental advancements of the very mature computing technology space. The technology has plateaued and there's little room for improvement in the hardware itself, unless an entirely new architecture is pursued or if programming is performed in a new way. Quantum computing is supposedly going to be the next step in advancing this field but that should actually be treated as a different tool altogether rather than something that will displace the traditional computing machine. It likely won't be very useful in the commercial space in the short term. In any case, technological advancement is a difficult train to derail and it will likely continue to plow on even with a counter culture yanking on the breaks.