Sliding Back to Modernity

Nothing stings more than the end of a revolution, for in failure it brings a loss of hope, and in success, the bitter disappointment that the world continues to operate as before.

So the intellectual revolution of post-modernity has left us straddling between success and failure, with the twin disappointments of the end of a revolution. There has been almost nothing of profoundly new written in the realm of social philosophy since the death of Foucault. The critique of the post-moderns remains with us, but so do the Enlightenment institutions they were supposed to tear down. Instead of new, more functional institutions, we have the old, broken ones, but without the blind faith that previously gave them enough clout to function at a minimal level (albeit with ghastly discrimination).

In our cynicism we have abandoned the bold task of rebuilding society and Generation Y is content to lob snark projectiles as an emotional outlet for its frustration. In the realm of technology, where the media tells us people are “revolutionizing everything,” we see a lot of hype, but very little meaningful revolution. For all of the remarkable speed of Internet education, for example, it is just a more flashy, digitized version of the public library.

As a result, we have slid back into modernity, its categories, and its presuppositions, but with the ever-present knowledge that it’s all a broken mess. We know the University is screwed up, but we don’t know why, and we don’t consider genuine alternatives to reviving the sciences and the literary disciplines. We may not be content that our educational institutions have become credential-factories and that truly brilliant people have almost no chance of success in an academic career, but we have accepted it as an immutable rule of contemporary life. Wittgenstein not only wouldn’t be offered a teaching post at a major university today, but he probably would not have even received a Masters degree (much less a doctorate) for Tractatus–not enough sources cited! The same would probably be true of a Newton or an Einstein in the sciences.

The neo-marxists sit around complaining about neo-liberalism and the IMF-imposed world financial order. The libertarians sit around complaining about the Rothschild-Bilderberg global conspiracy in central banking. The conservatives wring their hands about a decline in morality because gay people want to live in committed relationships and raise children in a two parent home. The liberals are still fighting the Civil Rights movement of the 60s fifty years later. Our categories are broken, but we dare not discard them.

The French Revolution’s lasting victory was to eviscerate all of the non-State institutions of civil society. Given what most of those institutions were, it was a first step in the right direction. The post-modernist critics succeeded in completing this revolution. Not many Americans under the age of 40 are going to Rotary Club meetings, and most people’s relationship with church is as a consumer of religion. These institutions represented the perpetuation of a social and economic order that needed to be deconstructed, but once we finished deconstructing everything, we were too tired to build something new and better in its place. And so we are living in a society where we maintain mild attachment to hollowed-out organizations and empty notions because the void would be too painful to bear.

Western Conservatives want to rebuild the old institutions and claim that our contemporary anxiety and depression is the result of abandoning the old, “tried and true” ways of organizing society, and indeed of forgetting God himself. The left believes we still have deconstructing to do. It is a stale war with soldiers only feigning genuine interest in its outcome–but they fight on because they wouldn’t know how else to fill their time. Old culture warriors never die, and they apparently don’t fade away either.

In the face of the anxiety and meaninglessness of our existence, we have no context, no institutional framework to come of age and learn to navigate the actual process of living. The Western meta-narrative has been dead for decades, but it is still the closest approximation to a framework we can find. What has happened as a result is its continued perversion. Life has become hyper-atomized. Materialistic aspirations have morphed slightly, and subsequently become more acute. Status is still the most prized possession, but different things now constitute it. Even though my generation believes it is more spiritually and emotionally advanced than our predecessors, we are in fact moral and emotional midgets who have tacitly and unwittingly embraced the financialization of existence. We speak about the ROI on friendships, we are concerned about whether our romantic partners have a good enough credit score, and our careers have come to define who we are more than at any time in human history. Our parents were building families by their mid-20s and decentering their identities. We wonder if we can “afford to be in a long-term relationship,” or have children, or any other things we now continually delay out of financial concern.

We read of our younger members being a lost generation because they cannot find high paying jobs after college–as if the lack of cog-in-a-machine corporate serfdom is the defining nature of us as individuals or collectively as a generation. The alternative of founding a Silicon Valley start-up and raising venture capital is one of the few other options available to our status-craving selves. Starting a successful business just won’t do–we have to raise investment capital and get featured in TechCrunch. We need that invitation to speak at SXSW or TED to feel accomplished. Actually advancing the bounds of science anonymously or publishing a work of literature under a pseudonym is an unthinkable way to approach life more than a decade into the 21st Century. If you can’t take credit for something in the social media universe, why bother doing it?

This is not just a social malaise, it is a cultural cancer that is eating away at our core. We cannot imagine that we would be valued for our actual merit–we have to be sure to take public credit in order to be valued. We cannot believe that years of toil to solve a particular problem with no significant reward in the short or even medium term could possibly be worth it. This is because we lack new institutions to encourage, support, and frame such ways of living. We have thus far lacked the imagination required to conceptualize what an institution of such a sort would even look like, how it would operate, how it would persist into the future beyond our deaths. No, we can’t be bothered to think about these matters because they aren’t sexy, the don’t live up to the expectations of the zeitgeist to talk about how we don’t need institutions anymore and that the Internet is making them obsolete. Ignore all of that inner loneliness and longing, for a bunch of barely 20-something upper middle class white kids in Northern California are going to become multi-millionaires making photo-sharing apps and turning educational lessons into online videos!

The revolution is coming!

We were told something similar before, back in the 90s. The world is better off, no doubt. Technology has improved our lives, and its continued marginal innovations are empowering us to do a lot of things that we couldn’t do before. But we are not pushing the boundaries of technology in any meaningful way. Solar panels that are efficient enough to be at grid parity–iPad Mini–3D Printing–these are not revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination. 3D Printing has been around for decades, and while it is now becoming more accessible to more people, and there are tremendous opportunities that will flow from this, it is not a revolution, but an evolution. We will be as disappointed by it as we were by the bold claims of the Internet hype-sters of the 90s. Life rarely changes by revolution.

But like the religious zealots longing for the rapture or some other apocalyptic event to save them from their boring and absurd lives, the technology televangelists will keep preaching about the imminent appearance of their savior, one invention this year, some other invention next year, and the revolution will always be near, but not present. Repent of your Luddite ways, for the kingdom of Kurzweil is at-hand!

The Marxists promised salvation by revolutionizing the economic order. Not only did it not materialize, it produced disastrous results. So too will the techno-fascism that has become the religion-of-the-day in Silicon Valley and is being imposed on the rest of the world in our smartphones, our web browsers, our cars, and nearly every other electronic way we interact with the world. Technology can and does improve our lives, but it is not inevitable, and given the motivations of the culture driving the creation of most, it is growing more unlikely by the day.

If we remain (or grow more) hyper-atomized, alienated from each other, devoid of enduring relationships other than those that are mutually beneficial at the margin, without a framework for confronting the difficulties of existence, then we will be nothing more than the hapless victims of the Digital Robber Barons in Cupertino, Mountain View, and Menlo Park, their products rather than their customers, infinitely replaceable parts addicted to making money for them impoverishing ourselves in the process.

It does not have to be this way. No course of history is irreversible. But our slide back into modernity, its categories, its consequences, can be changed if only we find the resolve to push back against it, to battle the inertia in society and in ourselves and build from nothing with worn-out tools a foundation for a new way of living, a new way of thinking. There will be no sudden transformation of life from its current state into some euphoric utopia. Indeed, most of the benefits of the work will not even be ready to be enjoyed by the people doing it, but instead will be the inheritance we leave to future generations.

For me this is not mere idle chatter or navel gazing. This is what I have decided to give my life to doing. Exosphere is not an educational institution–it does fulfill that function–but it is exactly the kind of post-post-modernist civil society framework that I have been describing in this essay. We are doing the low-time-preference heavy lifting needed to make the world a livable place and we are creating a space where people can make sense of their lives through collaboration, innovation, and mutual support. If any of this resonates with you, please join us. We are creating an open community, not an elitist hang-out like most entrepreneurial “communities” that are being built on mountains in Colorado or beaches in some exotic location. We want to help you where you are in your life–to help you figure out what you can uniquely do with your talents and your passions, to learn the skills you need to do it, to provide you with a forum to find collaborators, to lift you up when you fail, to cheer you on when you succeed, and to empower you to help others to do the same.






  • Paulo R. Ribeiro

    Really good piece, nothing to add.
    It’s nice to know you’re putting your main project aligned with what you believe in life.

    >”If you can’t take credit for something in the social media universe, why bother doing it?”