Thoughts on progress and the world that awaits on the other side of the pandemic.
Globally, we have made progress along numerous dimensions, with almost all of the curves pointing in the right direction. More recently, the idea of progress itself has received some fresh attention. At the same time, we are living through a weird, depressed age in which visions for the future fail to translate into great projects and ambitious enterprise like in the past. Something is blocking progressive movement in the developed world.
There is a virus out and about, giving people fever and aches — and the name of that virus is postmodernism. Our culture does not allow for sincere emotion or human experience. We have forgotten what makes our societies flourish. Everything we do today is saturated in poisonous cynicism, dismissive detachment, and vicious destruction. Only a great, meaningless void remains.
Others have made the case against postmodernism in the past, and progress now has a budding movement behind it. I believe these two camps should sit down for a chat.
This piece is an attempt to articulate what kind of a cultural shift is necessary before we once again can start building better futures.
Normal and Weird
Where do we stand, once we collectively have a handle on the pandemic? It is possible, perhaps even probable, that we return to a world not too different from the one we left behind. After all, our cities and societies are made of resilient stuff: people. There are powerful conservative forces at play in all this, pushing and pulling things to be the way they were. Like a stream carves out a bed for itself in a landscape, so is there a natural destination for the restored flow of human activity. Life finds a way.
At the same time, the everyday we folded away with our winter clothes was a peculiar sort of cultural limbo. According to writer and thinker Venkatesh Rao, the last few years we have been living through a "great weirding", a gradual unravelling of normalcy in our "increasingly weird post-everything world." In his writing, Rao argues that our zeitgeist, our age beyond the present disruption, is dominated by a collective failure to process and resolve emotions. Life is harambe, when normalising narratives don't work and "events play out as nothing more than a string of non-sequiturs that admit no larger meanings."
In Rao's world, fun is a useful measure of normalcy at the society level. When we have completed our life maintenance, all those present and future-oriented behaviours that sustain our existence, we are free to allocate our surplus energy towards fun. We rely on the situation around us to persist as we deplete our energy supply. In transient weirdings, such as in war or even a pandemic, where the situation isn't stable, fun is carefully rationed for the purpose of occasional morale boosting, always in anticipation of a future conclusion. We hold off on the fun and what leisure we know until the Great Resolution to the weirding arrives.
But what do we do, when the world gradually becomes ever more weird and unbelievable, and ultimately, in "the great weirding", becomes the new nebulous unstable whatever? This is a world where nothing is ever resolved, because there is no perceptible deviation from a reasonable baseline. Nothing makes sense. There's nothing to work with, because everything solid has been undermined or dismantled or discarded.
This is a world where junk food and memes and social media are the only forms of fun for which we have the energy and opportunity. A world where only dreams of escapist travel make the everyday bearable — and that's gone for the time being. Instead we have a world so saturated in sarcasm and ironic distance and detachment, that only humour that draws from the postmodern playbook has any currency. A world where emotions are shunned and narratives grand and small have been replaced by a great meaningless void. A world where our institutions rot or get actively eroded away by well-funded opportunists.
Of course, it is possible that this is just history unfolding in the usual way, and I'm simply too close to see. On the other hand, if there is even a small chance that the world we are returning to could be meaningfully different from the one we left behind, now would be a great time to ask what kind of a world would we prefer. If we happen to find ourselves at a crossroads, faced with the opportunity of a generation, where do we go from here?
The Good Life
"I chose to run for president at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together — unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction: towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren."
Any discussion on direction of travel must begin with a study of destinations. Out of many options, we probably want to go towards the ones that promise a better future, a better world. Crucially, this requires a vision of what "better" means in terms of the present situation, as well as an ability to communicate and share this vision.
More fundamentally, the notion that a different kind of world is possible at all must be well established. Moving towards a different world must appear at least plausible: the notion itself must have legs of some kind. There must be room for hope, the belief that things can get better.
This is the foundation of one of the most radical ideas in human history: progress.
Direction is key, but note that travel without direction is of course possible as well — indeed it might be a better description of how history actually plays out. Staying perfectly still or even going backwards in a changing world are hardly legitimate alternatives, but this has not stopped political campaigns of all colours from using them as part of their policy and message. Many regimes have tried — and some have succeeded — to hold on to illusions of permanence, capitalising on a particularly malignant form of nostalgia.
The notion of progress quickly leads us to the most fundamental questions around what we value as individuals and as members of society. What is good, and what does it mean for things to get better? How do we know if we are not already living the good life? Maybe this is as good as it can get, the best of all possible worlds.
Defining progress is already a rather involved affair. Indeed, some might challenge the very notion of it. People experience and perceive progress or lack thereof in their lives in their own individual way. People make do, in all kinds of circumstances. We all have our own unique stories and hopes for the future. In this sense progress beyond the individual experience feels almost inscrutable. At the same time, in the most abstract sense, progress is just events in time, open to every point of view, every choice of direction and trend.
The dictionaries emphasise motion and change: progress is development towards an improved or more advanced condition; progress is gradual movement forward, a process of change, general betterment; progress is deliberate action towards an objective or goal.
Motion is a kind of change itself, so maybe change is what progress is all about. Not just any kind of change, of course, only the kind that makes things better. Progress is world change that is good for me — and perhaps for you, too. Progress is about change we choose to believe in.
At the same time we can never perfectly agree on measures of progress. Individuals value different things and even the same things in different ways. That's not to say that measure debate is pointless, quite the opposite: progress and its many facets are what political debate should be all about! Any clarity on the direction of societal change helps with its execution. Direction is what we can hold on to, as we have to make compromises along the way. Discussing progress is how we articulate and share our values. Every demonstration is a collective call for progress.
Many, many thinkers have wrestled with these questions. Indeed, the subject of progress might be as large as ethics itself. For obvious reasons, I'm inclined to sidestep a little.
Instead of definitive answers, I merely offer some propositions. Let's say that the good life emerges from perpetual pursuit of progress, both individually and collectively. The pursuit makes the good manifest, stagnation results in a hopeless mess we cannot see through.
The distance travelled so far has little meaning, if we have lost all sense of direction in the present. If progress is about destinations, then the good life is the journey underway.
The problem of our times is that we have lost track of the idea of progress, we have stopped moving. And I claim that postmodernism is to blame for this. The postmodern mindset is what keeps people from imagining alternative realities — better futures. Postmodernism is therefore one of the central mind jails of our age, the number one enemy of progress in the developed world.
To see how this works, let's first have a brief primer on postmodernism.
Postmodernism, like other isms, is a label for the era in which thought of its kind was considered contemporary. The postmodern era is, of course, the present one. As the name implies, the one preceding this one was the age of the modernists, who believed in all things new, and in the pursuit of genuinely new things, new ideas, new expression.
Modernism was a response to realism and traditional ways of thinking and doing and being, and more broadly a response to the arrival of the 20th century. Postmodernism, in turn, is a response to this line of thinking, drawing once more on tradition, but blowing up any fixed notions of order, structure, identity, category, meaning, and so on.
If defining progress is a challenge, defining postmodernism is even more of a hopeless affair. What I mean by postmodernism is a certain mindset or critical attitude that rejects epistemic certainty and stable meaning: we can never really know things, everything is a construct.
In a postmodern world, knowledge and truth are contextual and discursive, infinitely open for discussion. Reality is subject to individual interpretation. Meaning and morality are always relative. There is no higher ground, no vantage point from which to analyse things objectively: there is no escape from the system, or perhaps there is no system from which to escape. Everything is open for critique, but equally one cannot step out or step back to criticise.
What makes postmodernism so dangerous is that its methods are deeply entertaining. The postmodern tone is one of irreverence and ridicule: postmodern culture is rife with cynicism, irony, and detachment. Postmodernism makes fun of things, laughs at ideas, and undermines everything definite and serious and sincere. There is humour in everything humans do, but this dismissive postmodern default stance is enfeebling to the human spirit.
Postmodern culture panders to our desire to feel superior and smart by portraying a broken world and assuring us that there's nothing we can do about it: just stand well back and laugh at those who don't see it. No change is possible — in our relationships, in our circumstances, in our politics, in our personal and professional development — so anyone trying is obviously a fool. The world just is the way it is, and there's nothing to be done about it.
The only postmodern tools that produce anything are those that operate on self-reference and self-conscious expression. No text, no thing in the world, can be just a simple entity. "Face value" is just one of many faces. The writer has no control, no authority over the readings of their texts. Context is everything and everything is context. The postmodern object is nebulous and fuzzy.
For example, I can point out that my earlier discussion on definitions is hopeless because the words and ideas I was working with mean different things to you, dear reader. In this I have employed a standard postmodern wordplay device. In writing this to you, to illustrate my point, I'm making an explicit self-reference. But try as I might, I still cannot separate this commentary from the rest of this exposition. It's just word games all the way down: whatever meaning or insight you gain from this — for your reality — is purely incidental.
So I cannot say anything real, cannot comment on anything outside this text, and now you, dear reader, are stuck in here with me. You cannot read the rest of this without being conscious of the infinitely branching readings that are possible, probing the text and your context and mine for clues on how it all applies to your experience of the world. (Do you see how this works?)
The postmodern reader employs methods that draw on the cleverest tools of literary criticism, with "text" being viewed as broadly as possible. The reader is always slicing and dicing the text at hand, de-constructing its meanings and ways. Because anything goes, it doesn't take much to prepare and express an argument for or against any position the reader-author might have going in. A postmodern mind can tear anything to pieces.
In 1996 physics professor Alan Sokal famously managed to publish postmodern gibberish in a cultural studies magazine. This was the scientific community rising up to defend scientific realism against postmodern nebulosity in what was quickly dubbed the science wars. Richard Dawkins' comments on Intellectual Impostures, a 1998 book by Sokal and his colleague Jean Bricmont, highlight the issue further.
For a rational exposition of the central postmodern technique of deconstruction, check out Chip Morningstar's sharp tutorial How To Deconstruct Almost Everything (1993).
Progress and the Void
The reason why postmodernism is poison for progress is that in a postmodern world saturated by cynicism, it's difficult to hold on to a sincere vision for the future. Nothing can grow in a culture in which every idea, every message and every effort is immediately deconstructed and deflated and chewed up by the great disassembler — for whatever purpose.
To be clear, my issue is not with postmodern critical techniques themselves. Ridicule has its place, sharp irony and all things meta can be good fun. The challenging of novel or rediscovered ideas is well warranted. The problem is that the inherent vagueness and infinite digression of the postmodern treatment of ideas can only destroy and diminish: it offers nothing in their place, it offers no alternatives, it adds nothing. And this maintains the status quo.
The postmodern machine chews up both the naive and the sincere as well as the defiler and the corrupt. Our age doesn't allow for blue-eyed dreamers, the bumbling entrepreneurs, the fools that in the past have ended up changing the world (for better or worse). Instead, what we have is endless critique and outrage and bitter pessimism that, at a minimum, drains the energy of those trying to shake things up and move things about if not forward.
Take The Ocean Cleanup for example, an ambitious nonprofit startup working on a real environmental problem: plastic in oceans. Boyan Slat, the boy wonder who started the project in 2013, received global praise and some funding and support, but equally failed to convince ocean experts and others suspicious of anything sponsored (in part) by Silicon Valley. The Ocean Cleanup team, now some dozens of people, went on to design, test, and, yes, break plastic collection systems intended for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. After years of effort, the team was able to build a successful capture device prototype. They have published several studies on data collected during their expeditions, and, in a move upstream in the pollution chain, have branched out to river cleaning as well.
My issue is not with people criticising the effort — maybe the funds could indeed have been used more effectively, maybe they are going about the cleanup in an awkward way, maybe it won't work. My issue is with articles like this Verge piece and in particular with the readers for whom these articles are written. The glee of the "I told you so" reporting and all experts lined up to say what the team got wrong is depressing indeed. Metacommentary on how the media is treating the organisation, how hopeless the project is, the bitterness of other initiatives that haven't received such press — all of this is trash.
Everything that points directly or not in the general direction of "They should not even have tried" is poison. And the peddling of that sentiment is what postmodern culture makes easy. Everybody supposedly has a hidden agenda, it can't possibly just be a guy trying to fix a problem he saw in the world. And where would we be if we successfully shouted him out of his moonshot: he would have a comfy job doing something marginally useful, and the rest of the world would be exactly where it was seven years ago.
When all efforts to change the world get chewed up, the sincere and the wicked alike, we throw out any hope of progress. I can understand established players not wanting competition, but the markets (together with well-tuned regulation) should be able to sort that out. Why make things harder than they need to be for those who are trying to make things better?
We are living in the age of the great weirding because the stuff we had is no longer fit for purpose, but the new stuff hasn't arrived to take its place. All efforts to produce new stuff get laughed out of the building or undermined in a thousand other post-everything ways. So we just repackage the old stuff and try and get by, but nothing makes sense anymore. The world keeps changing, maybe there's new technology even, but events, by and large, remain harambe.
This is the Void left behind by postmodern culture. There is no normal, there is nothing to build on, and all random change we experience is mere banal meme fodder. The postmodern mindset, baked into our culture, is holding us back collectively, preventing progress.
"But we have made progress, globally", I hear you say — and yes, I fully agree. By just about every imaginable metric, on the global stage, things have gotten significantly better. Progress means different things not just to individuals, but to nations and economies as well. I'm trying to understand the weirding of the developed world and argue for a cultural intervention there, but it's useful to consider progress also in terms of the rest of the world. In the less developed world the story is potentially a simpler one, as countries travel roads that have already been mapped out by those who got there earlier on.
We, the citizens of the world, have chosen to take on the formidable challenge of measuring and promoting progress all over the world. This is arguably one of the most positive aspects of globalisation. We have collectively tried to create better futures for all, though national interests frequently play a role in distorting these pursuits. We have done this work through our international organisations, through the very same institutions that are actively being decimated by the grinding tooth of our age. (How ironic — do you see how this works?)
Take something like the United Nations, as an obvious example. On the global stage, the various UN agencies are heavily involved in everything from human rights to food supply and health, and from peacekeeping to cultural heritage. The UN is far from perfect, but for all its flaws and inefficiencies, it remains an instrument for the kind of positive world change that rarely makes it to the front page. Bloated, bureaucratic, and desperately behind the times, sure, but equally a beacon of hope for progress and ever better international relations.
What does progress look like? Have a quick read of the final UN Millennium Development Goals report from 2015. Then explore the current framework, the Sustainable Development Goals, a "call for action" to "promote prosperity while protecting the planet." That's a pretty good working definition for progress —even for developed countries.
It doesn't even matter whether or not the UN played a major role in bringing about all this progress. The point is that things mostly got better along these dimensions chosen in advance. The better future arrived, either as part of an explicit effort or due to external forces and trends. We envisioned a better future, did what we could, measured all the way — and lo and behold, reality changed.
Yes, there are other organisations that are more effective a world bettering. The point is that we decided to do something at the nation level, at the planetary level. The UN is an institution for progress, and that effort, that sentiment and that hope, is praiseworthy by itself.
To reiterate, progress for underdeveloped countries, while certainly not easy, is perhaps straightforward enough in a conceptual sense. For most individuals in most of the world, the good life is simply further travel along the dimensions laid out by the standards of developed countries. But clearly the developed countries haven't got it all figured out yet, and indeed the hardships of impoverished life have in many instances been replaced by entirely new problems. Is it progress if you swap one set of problems for another?
Many questions on progress and its measures remain open. What makes the world good, and better still? What is possible, how do we get to utopia? How do we balance quality of life and sustainable standards of living? What makes the world just?
In rural Edwardian England, a mere one hundred years ago, running water was a luxury. What will be commonplace and abundant in a hundred years' time, and where and for whom? How many hours of the day and days of the week do we work for our sustenance? Or will some basic income solution cover everyone, with robots doing the heavy lifting on our behalf?
Certainly we would not be done, even if every country in the world ran as well as the most developed ones. And this is why the Void of postmodernity is so dangerous. If we lose track of the idea of world change and its pursuit, we not only settle for a broken world, but gamble the future on the stability of our weird harambe age. If the good life is in the pursuit, we risk everything with our paralysing postmodern nebulosity and general ennui.
In rooting for progress and the good life, I am of course in good company. Many prominent writers and thinkers have advocated for global progress and a better world for their whole lives — both before and during the postmodern era.
It is no accident that life is still hard for the average person. Generations upon generations have been defrauded out of a good life by exploitative regimes and economic systems rigged against the general public. In particular, the postmodern playbook works extremely well with modern day capitalism: unresolved issues manifest as repeat business. At the same time the well-oiled machine of capitalism produces both novel problems and novel solutions.
British theorist Mark Fisher argued in his 2009 surprise bestseller Capitalist Realism that neoliberal ideology, the driving theory behind free-market capitalism, is the real mind jail of our age. Building on Thatcher's line "There is no alternative", Fisher explored in his writing some of the many effects that capitalism and neoliberalism have had on culture and society. He concluded that "it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative [to capitalism]".
In a sense Fisher's take can be seen as the postmodern nebulosity and the status quo being used for sustained private gain. This is Frederic Jameson's thinking as well. There is no way out of the system, as, for example, the anti-capitalist slogans and even climate action can be used for brand and marketing purposes, resulting in a world where nothing actually changes.
In this world people who are not with the program (social and mass media, material consumer culture, 9-to-5, nuclear family, etc.) are labelled abnormal and undesirable. Your problems are your fault, there's nothing wrong with the system — and there's nothing to be done about reality anyway. And so on.
Postmodern culture, perhaps in a symbiotic relationship with capitalism, is not exactly fertile ground for radical proposals in the economic sphere. Against these rather long odds the left has managed to keep alive some ambitious economic ideas. In addition to ever shorter working weeks and higher wages, in recent years there have been numerous calls for experiments in universal basic income (UBI).
UBI is a radical idea indeed. In his aptly named fourth and final book to be published before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., returned to his life's work: the civil rights movement, and social and economic justice. In addition to advocating once more for nonviolent social change, Dr. King called on all Americans to unite in a social movement against poverty. In his vision, the government should act more directly to benefit individuals through some kind of a guaranteed income scheme.
"I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income."
In the wake of the economic disruption delivered by the present lockdown, advocates of UBI gained some new footing. Governments all over the world suddenly found themselves handing out monetary aid directly and indiscriminately to their citizens, raising questions about stately welfare mechanisms more broadly.
As it turns out, even the Pope is a fan of basic income, suggesting that it could help the precariously employed to get through the lockdown. As universal income schemes are unconditional by definition, there is some friction here with standard Catholic social teaching on the importance of work. Certainly a progressive stance.
The point is that if, coming out of the lockdown, we could stamp down on postmodern mind games a little, perhaps we could then really move the needle on economic issues as well.
The recent surge of interest in all things to do with progress can be traced to a single article by Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison and influential economics professor Tyler Cowen. In their call to arms, We Need a New Science of Progress (2019, The Atlantic), the authors make the case for a new, dedicated discipline — Progress Studies — that would bring together existing and future research on ideas and fields related to progress.
Both Collison and Cowen have written on progress previously, and certainly progress has been studied before, but for some reason this particular article went viral and caught the attention of the whole Internet. Unsurprisingly, the optimists found one another and began an exchange, the naysayers found many things to complain about, most pointing out that subjects like history and education/pedagogy already meet the stated objectives. To which I say: Look around you, this is where those subjects brought us, is this the best we can do?
Collison gathered some responses on his website, a great place to start digging deeper. Daniel May's reading list is a good resource on progress readings. Matt Clancy gives a basic curriculum under the title Economics of Innovation.
Jason Crawford, through his website Roots of Progress and his work in progress related outreach on the Internet, has become a kind of a spokesperson for the budding progress studies movement. In his view, according to a recent talk, the progress studies piece really galvanised a group of people who were already thinking about the nature of progress, but didn't really have an umbrella term or proper banner they could get behind.
For Collison and Cowen (and Crawford), progress is about economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organisational advancement that has the power to transform lives and raise standards of living. In his presentation, Crawford outlined a set of core beliefs that have emerged to define the still rather loose movement that took on the progress studies challenge:
- Progress is real and important and good, it is worthy of study and attention
- Progress is not automatic or inevitable, it can slow down, stop, or even reverse
- A fundamental optimism: we can solve problems, especially through science and technology
- Empirical mindset, an epistemic culture: we can use data to understand the world
- Long-term focus on understanding and addressing root causes
Notably, the list is missing political orientation, though Crawford acknowledges that certain libertarian values may be well represented in the progress crowd. Questions such as whether culture is downstream from institutions or the other way around divide proponents of progress studies.
Today, Crawford is busy organising a programme for high school students (and up), called Progress Studies for Young Scholars. The Torch of Progress interview series, an integral part of it, features many contemporary progressives.
Progress is a tricky subject. It takes a long time to manifest, and gradual changes are difficult to appreciate. Bad news about current events sell, while good news or indeed any slow trends do not. The progress movement builds on previous phenomenons such as Hans Rosling and Gapminder, as well as on recently renewed interest in Enlightenment humanism.
Cognitive psychologist, linguist, and author Steven Pinker has written two popular science books on progress: The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), on the steady decline of violence, and Enlightenment Now (2018), which presents research on improvement along most dimensions of the human condition across history.
Through these writings, Pinker attempted to highlight some of humankind's greatest accomplishments, but still received a mixed reception. Curious postmodern archers these, shooting the messenger bringing good news.
In some circles, Pinker ended up being labelled a kind of an apologist of sorts for capitalism and the status quo, the world as we have it. A highly visible target and perhaps operating outside his linguistic core competency, Pinker's writing on Enlightenment and progress drew fire from both the political left and right. Pinker himself later wrote a wonderful retrospective addressing the concerns people had with his message.
"'Progress' is an alien, exotic, counterintuitive concept."
The response to Pinker's Enlightenment writing and the progress studies invitation both strike me as great examples of postmodern cynicism dismantling and undermining the progress narrative. Pinker offers a few explanations for why people got so mad, but the Conflict vs Mistake divide, as popularised by Scott Alexander, fits really well.
In a nutshell, progress depends on Mistake theory, application of knowledge, while Conflict theorists think progress is just an excuse for reinforcing privilege, a form of power struggle. Pinker is emphatically a Mistake writer, while his critics have Conflict in mind. Postmodernism, of course, offers tools for creating conflict out of thin air.
Obviously the world is not done yet. There is much to be improved, we shouldn't call it a day. However, progress, as an overarching theme of history, is not the enemy of the people. It's just that postmodernism has successfully undermined the grand narrative that there could be a positive trend to it all. Fortunately hope is a resilient thing.
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
Silicon Valley Wants To Build
The venture capitalists in Silicon Valley have always been keen on ideas. Entrepreneurs are in the business of growing ideas into goods and services for which there may or may not be a market. Progress, in the science and technology frontier in particular, is about solving problems that humans actually have. Often the solutions bring new problems, but that's okay, as long as the idea machine keeps on running. The problems we have today, while nothing to sneeze at, are still vastly more manageable than the ones we had a hundred years ago.
Ideologically, Silicon Valley is all over the place. On one hand, there's true postmodern flair about, with the VC backed startup scene being able and willing to laugh at itself, as manifest in the TV show Silicon Valley. On the other hand, nowhere else in the world is there so much naked optimism and genuine (if often naive) belief in changing the world. There's the hippie legacy and the Californian ideals on one hand, and then on the other the greed and the libertarian capitalists and true believers living The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged one regulation dodging unicorn at a time.
For a variety of reasons, there's an excess of money in the system, and so even underwhelming ideas and solutions seem to find funding and momentum. The few ideas that do have legs tend to explode, but even these frequently just feed off of human universals — our lowest common denominators — often dressed in shiny digital clothes.
Still, some progressives in Silicon Valley have seen the writing on the wall: there's a distinct lack of great ideas and great execution. Or something's changed at least. Part of the problem is that the Silicon Valley effect is not well understood. Nicholas Colin has some pointers.
To encourage more progressive thinking, in perfect alignment with the progress studies mission, Collison's Stripe launched a publishing outfit, Stripe Press, to highlight ideas with broad utility. This means hard cover books on new progress themed material, but also re-imagined collections and republications of previous works that "have remained relevant over time or have renewed relevance today".
For example, my hero Bret Victor has given his seal of approval to this enlightened pursuit. Victor often speaks about purpose and meaningful work in his talks, particularly in his post-Apple days meditation Inventing on Principle (2012). For Stripe Press, Victor wrote a foreword for Richard Hamming's memoir lecture series, encapsulated in the book The Art of Doing Science and Engineering (1996). The final chapter of the collection is the inspirational address You and Your Research, which contains the essence of Hamming's progress and future oriented thinking.
More recently, Marc Andreessen of Why Software Is Eating The World (2011) fame wrote on the institutional failures of the global COVID response in It's Time to Build (2020). Like the progress studies pitch, this call to arms was well received at least in certain corners of the Web. Martin Gurri, a colleague of Tyler Cowen at the Mercatus Centre, wrote a piece in agreement (2020), calling for structural changes to the institutions that across the board failed to deliver in the critical weeks of the present crisis. Less societal "deep freeze", more "displays of energy and ingenuity" is apparently the cure.
I disagree with Andreessen and Gurri, at least on priorities and timing. Sure, we should relearn how to build great things, and yes, institutions everywhere are in desperate need of an upgrade, but the root problem is not "desire" or "inertia" or "regulatory capture" or "will" — or even a complex of structural problems. The real problem of our time is the poisonous culture of undermining, dismantling and discarding, as perpetuated by postmodern thinking.
As long as postmodern culture prevails, no amount of building or reforming will deliver a categorically better, more functional world. It is simply not possible to build lasting things on that quicksand. Conversely, if it's possible to share and so amplify a sincere belief in a better world, no amount of inertia can hold back progress towards it.
"One will weave the canvas, another will fell a tree by his ax. Some will forge nails, and others will observe the stars to learn how to navigate. And yet all will be as one. Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea, by the light of which you will see nothing contradictory, but rather a community of love."
"The problem is, I think postmodernism has, to a large extent, run its course."
"'Irony only has emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.' This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It's critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony's singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks."
Others have made the case against postmodernism much more eloquently, and none better than writer David Foster Wallace, the prophet of at least one generation of (male) literature nerds. In Wallace, people who grew up in a media landscape dominated by self- and meta- and pop culture referential TV, found a voice that was able to cut through it all and speak truly about the Real World.
Through clever humour and human understanding, through his creative journalism and fiction, Wallace showed us another way of looking at things, always trying to progress beyond postmodernism. His thesis was that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective techniques, but that they are equally "agents of a great despair and stasis" particularly in American culture. Instead, writers should shake off self-conscious analysis and look to earnest experience for inspiration and insight. The task always is to communicate "what it is to be a fucking human being".
This post-postmodern trend gained some momentum during the 90s, and soon became a minor cultural movement under the label New Sincerity. Various music groups, writers, film folks have since been linked with New Sincerity, the aim of going beyond irony being the unifying thing. Culture makers from Don DeLillo to Father John Misty and from Sufjan Stevens to Wes Anderson have all been so labelled. The critical and commercial success that "the sinceres" have enjoyed suggests that there is broader demand for expression of this kind.
New Sincerity is only one of a small set of overlapping responses to postmodernism to emerge since the 1990s. As the age of postmodernism is still far from over, it's difficult to articulate what follows, but transcending postmodern irony seems to be key. This can be done through various means, for example through dialogue, performance, or indeed sincere expression.
Metamodernism is a more developed critical theory that covers much of the same ground as New Sincerity, but emphasises a certain oscillation between modernist and postmodern ideas. The argument goes that a 21st century reader needs to be able to navigate both the postmodern landscape and modernist ideals, to sail boldly between melancholy and hope, between irony and sincerity, between personal and political. We must be like like pendulums swinging between countless opposing poles. Recall how movement is progress.
For the present discussion, we need not dive any deeper into the choppy waters of literary criticism. The point is that there is already a counterculture fighting against irony and sarcasm and postmodern misery. We need something with which to fill the void created by the totally deconstructing force of postmodernism, and New Sincerity and the metamodernists show us how.
Will Schoder's brilliant video essay on DFW and the problem with irony is a far better articulation of postmodern ills than what I can muster here. New Sincerity is also the driving force behind YouTube phenomenon the Nerdwriter. For a taste of metamodernism, check out Craig Pollard with That Future Islands performance... (2014), about the beyond glorious Letterman performance of "Seasons" (2014) by Samuel T. Herring and friends.
"I'm proud to be part of an archive of passionate people saying sincere things, and I'm convinced that what we do is contagious."
Culture of Stagnation
We are living through a weird time, certainly the weirdest of my life so far. Nothing makes sense, terrible news before and during the lockdown all play out without deeper meaning. Fun is rationed as we wait for the great resolution that never arrives. There's something wrong with our culture, there's a void in the middle of it. Something is blocking or slowing down our efforts at a better world.
It's kind of like that story of institutional memory where a group of monkeys get hosed with cold water if they go for the banana in the room. After a while, the monkeys figure out that the banana is off limits, and so when one of the monkeys is replaced with another, what remains of the original group can make sure the new guy also doesn't go for the banana. Little by little, you can replace all of the original group, and be left with a group of monkeys who have never been hosed, but know to aggressively block all attempts at getting at the banana.
We are the monkeys, of course, all of us. The banana is progress, a better future. How we treat those who speak of progress and prepare for banana missions is our culture. But what about the hose?
The cold water is all the adversities of life, the large and the small. We'd rather avoid it. Our culture is to go about our lives in that little room, sans banana, trying to make the most of it. Once we collectively lose the memory of the hose and the water, we have no reason, no motivation for the fruitlessness of our lives. The banana is still right there. Maybe we actually want it, this eternal banana, but we know we cannot have it. It's not clear why. All we have is second or third hand knowledge of some adversity.
In the little room, we invent all sorts of new problems as we grow tired of our fellow monkeys and our corner of the room — because that's what monkeys do. "You're bananas!", we deride the deviant thinkers who wonder about the forbidden fruit. "Hairiness is just a construct!"
Maybe the hose is still there, maybe not. Maybe the water isn't cold anymore. Maybe we could withstand the water pressure just enough to grab the banana. Maybe we could work together in an elaborate banana ploy to win the prize. Maybe there are monkeys among us willing to sacrifice their comfort for others' sake. Maybe the experiment will end once we reach the banana and we can all return to the jungle. Do you remember the jungle?
Culture of Progress
"Why put brakes on a car? You don't put brakes on a car to go slower, you put brakes on a car to go faster — safely."
In the great weirding, we have rationed fun and have taken on a postmodern appetite. Forget the bananas for now.
We need to return to fun, we need to start enjoying things again, but also we need to experience the water hoses of our daily lives anew. We need to let ourselves be "goo-prone and generally pathetic" as Wallace would have it. We need to let ourselves fail, to let ourselves be human.
We need a cultural intervention that moves us from postmodern misery into a brighter future, a culture of hope and Enlightenment and progress. We need to discard the discarding, destroy the destroying, iron out the irony. We need to fill the void with sincere expression and root for those who make things move.
We need stories of a future worth aspiring to. Perhaps we already have enough dystopias in our fiction. While cautionary tales are valuable, we need to remember what is worth pursuing and why. Some say we need to celebrate progress more, to reinvigorate our world fairs and properly mark our greatest achievements — why not. It is a question of how we choose to spend our resources and our energy, and progress is as good an investment as any.
We need to stay on course with global progress, along the measures we carefully track. We need to work on our economic systems and build cities and societies that are fit for purpose. We need to boldly experiment with progressive ideas at every level of our communities.
We need to study and better understand the practice of progress. We need to relearn how to work together on big things. We need to learn from Mistakes and avoid Conflict for its own sake. We need to build, yes, but first we need to find the antidote for the poison that drains our energy.
We need to re-engage with our humanity and the humanist tradition, the humane arts. We have flourished in the past, and surely we can flourish again — and in a more just, more prosperous society. We need to revitalise our institutions, prime them for progress.
All this begins with the individual who chooses the path of sincerity over the postmodern promenade.