From Postmodernism to Postmodernism – Economist Writing Every Day

Authors of the kind of books I read present themselves as a voice of reason against our decaying society that can no longer evaluate arguments or define moral principles. (I have fun at parties.) “Postmodernism” has been under attack all my life.

For a while I had been looking for a successor to postmodernism. To simply define our era as that which followed modernism seems unsatisfactory. How many more decades can we advance on this antithetical idea?

One of the reasons I don’t like the term postmodernism is that it gives a sense of progress where we might be losing ground. If you are not modern, then you are pre-modern. If you are not a verbal culture, then you have regressed to pictographs. If you don’t engage in arguments then you have degenerated into tribalism. So postmodern might dress up a decline with a word that sounds too respectable.

Calling people who use pre-modern smartphones doesn’t seem fair. But what information do they consume on these screens? Is it mostly low quality videos and quick posts? It doesn’t sound like someone in 1900 would expect a modern person.

Here is an idea for the new century. We are in a time of postmodernism, starting with the creation of Twitter. This is different from the kind of skepticism or moral relativism that has defined postmodernism. Poasters and their followers can be serious. They retweet like evangelists. (A “post” is a message posted on an Internet forum.)

The posts are short. This does not allow for nuances or traditional rational forms of argument. A post might reference a rich story or body of literature, but if this generation hasn’t evaluated those original sources, they’re just receiving the meme. The post does not provide its own context. Tyler Cowen says people who think “modern art” is nonsense have no context. The context of modern art would be classical art and the realistic landscape paintings that preceded it. Most Americans, myself included, are quite ignorant of classical art. Likewise, what value would teenagers get from The Lord of the Rings Internet memes if they had never seen the movies or read the books?

I’m on Twitter. The pace of the speech is more fun than reading a 50-page article from a business journal. I get the call to post. It’s easy. Our first pediatrician told us not to let our baby use touch games. She told us that it is good for a child to struggle to hit a ball that is two feet away on the ground. Better they cry on the ball when they get dopamine too easily on a tablet game. Tapping on a screen trains kids for instant rewards. Something that worries me about a generation that wasn’t brought up on books is that they’ll actually enjoy posting less than I do, because they’ll be used to the fast pace of rewards. Twitter as a business benefits from the current generation of people who didn’t grow up with Twitter.

Posting affects politics. This week, two candidates for the US Senate had a debate. What would someone who gets most of their news from social media learn about the debate? Some of the best articles on the debate have almost no positive political substance. Activists use the Internet to dunk on their opponents instead of offering solutions to problems. What attracts engagement is the fire emoji.

This is not meant to be a commentary on either man as candidates. I share these jabs because a lot of Americans consume their “news” in this form (see chart from Pew Research). In postmodernism, a successful political candidate must appeal to feelings as well as reason. In postmodernism, they only have 280 characters to work with. (Donald Trump was a skilled poaster.)

Getting elected today may require big messages, but that has little to do with being good at governing. Most people think government details are boring. Ten minutes into a city council meeting, I’m bored and ready to check notifications on my phone. And yet, we cannot content ourselves with posting on postage. It’s the physical political world and classic books that make the best conversation starters. So, I don’t know if the era of postmodernism will last for a long time, or just until the end of my life. Millennials aren’t going to give up on the dog fire meme.

You will have to snatch it from our hands after the death of our great generation. But will it inspire people in the future? I’ve been told before that teenagers call our gifs “cringe”. They seem to prefer 90-second videos of their peers dancing to pop music. Don’t ask me what comes after that.

I will end on a positive note by saying that sometimes the shorter the better. Go quickly to the point, if you can. Some of the novels produced in modern times were too long. Adam Smith’s books would be more widely read if they were shorter. Endless speeches aren’t necessarily good and I’m glad I don’t have to listen to them. (I get the tl;dr the next day.)

Many bad ideas have been disguised as pages of clever-sounding language and then passed off as wisdom in the modern age. It may be more difficult to get out today. Authoritarian regimes of the past relied on their ability to lie about conditions on the ground. Today we know what’s going on thanks to Twitter. American elites believed lies about what was happening inside the Soviet Union for years. It would be impossible today.