May 12, 2012

Chris’s State of the Zeitgeist report for 2012

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:07 pm by Chris

Hello (tap tap) is this thing turned on? (clears throat) Yes, look, Iknow it’s been a while. Positively forever, by Internetstandards. What can I say, I’ve been been busy. My job uses the same mental muscles as blogging, although it also takes me to places that inspire leanings to the original travel-blogging purpose of these little pages. Of which more perhaps. In the meantime, I’m not here to make excuses: I’m here to stick my finger in the cultural and memetic air, stir the entrails of the collective unconscious with the pointy stick of association, and generally report back to you, my dear reader (whomever of you may be left after all this time) on my findings and feelings for the year behind and ahead. I’d like to point out that I’ve got a bit of form on this: I was muttering about things reminding me of the 1920s as if I’d been there while I observed the million-dollar cars and general opulence that were quite fashionable in the early 2000s (if I’d known more history I might have seen what was coming after), and my most-read-ever post mostly consisted of telling things like they were in a fashion guaranteed to irritate people.

Zeitgeist it is, then. And not particularly cheerful viewing on theflickering old infero-scope, this season. A small part of my lack of enthusiasm for things internet in recent months has been that the internet just hasn’t been very interesting of late (I’ve also moved into dial-up land… of which more anon). The hum and fizz of whacky ideas and new outlooks that characterised my browsing circa 2006 has been absent for a good couple of years now, and I think the reason is pretty simple, and also pretty brutal: those people either have real jobs keeping them busy, or they no longer have the spare resources to maintain a space on the web. “Real life” has intruded, and when people as diverse as Josh Ellis, Brian Schulz and Raj Patel are just using their websites as a drive-by dumping ground for stories about what they’re really doing, you know something is up. I think also illustrates something that should be obvious to any commentator who doesn’t have their head up their arse: dot-com millionares aside, we have yet to see a really seismic shift in most people’s lives from the widespread existence of the internet. Not really. Not yet, anyway: certainly no cultural upheaval to compare with the impact that photography had on the art world (bearing in mind that took about 100 years to be over!). Bruce Sterling may think otherwise, but Bruce is a has-been, and he has been ever since The Fortunate Fall came out in 1996 and nailed down the lid on cyberpunk’s coffin by pointing out that if you can plug your brain into the Web and look out, then the Web can plug into your brain
and look in.

Laurie Penny seems to me to be right, when she points out that the end of the world is much easier to imagine than dealing with a world that doesn’t end, that just grinds along making a mess of people’s lives in unphotogenic fashion that won’t require you to get the distressed leather and the sawn-off shotgun out of your closet. Life goes on, and in my prognostigorical opinion life is currently very much local and applied for a lot of people. And that may not be a bad thing, in the long run, but it means that if you want to find out what’s really going on in the world, you’re going to have to go get your feet and hands dirty, or at the very least go the to the library and do something as unspeakably old-fashioned as read a book. Because guess what? It turns out presented a detailed, exhaustive and well-researched argument about something important is still something that’s better done in print. Hands up when you last deliberately sat down to read something longer than 1000 words on a webpage? Well, actually, if you make it to the end of this little essay you can put your hand up, but the point is that this little essay is just that: if you want to read something that you need to digest, that will genuinely change your life, I suggest “Stuffed and Starved” …most of the contents of which you would have to know existed before you could find them online. I was feeling the stirrings of all this some time ago, but for nearly a year now I’ve been living in what’s effectiveness no-net-land (at least for modern definitions of the net), in a rural area between the foothills of the Hunua Ranges and the Firth of Thames, where internet is either slow and unreliable dialup or expensive and unreliable satellite and 3G. And I’m sorry, folks, but a revolution you can only feel in the middle of well-connected metropolises is no revolution at all.

Leaving aside, then, self-congratulations about writing long pieces for my blog, let me strike boldly out for some definition of this zeitgeist thingy, as I perceive it sloshing dangerously around in the hold of this great ship of civilisation. As I said, it’s all about the physical this year, for the simple reason that the physical is intruding with uncivilised firmness upon most people’s lives. Only complete nutters are attempting to deny that peak oil has in all probability come and gone, and that the ridiculous car-centred lives that so many aspire to are starting to look even sillier than they did before. We’re yet to see any of the real repercussions of this, of course, fossil fuels still being an unfeasibly cheap source of energy until they get to be truly scarce: but everything from the bitter struggle over the Keystone XL pipeline to companies like Porsche and Jaguar coming out with electric cars says that the world has the wind up it about energy in a fashion that we haven’t seen since the Seventies.

Hand-in-hand with concerns about energy comes an increasingly loud fuss about the nature of the world’s food production systems, for both farmers and the people who ultimately eat the food. For all that food miles are a gross over-simplification of the real issues surrounding food markets, you can expect the “eat local” movement to get bigger and louder in a town near you (and what that means if you live somewhere with a really short growing season, I honestly don’t know). I also don’t know how all this will play out in the long term, because as yet most people don’t seem to have joined the dots between the agro-business systems that upset them so much and the kinds of things the Occupy movement is yelling about: but the dots are there, and ultimately they’ll have to be joined to really make changes. I digress, and I don’t see that happening in a concerted way just yet. But when growing your own food has become a socially and politically subversive act in many places, the eventual results can only be interesting.

Climate change, or rather the awareness of climate change, is something that I do see emerging very strongly. And maybe you think that it hasn’t affected your life yet, but this is a the zeitgeist report, not the business pages. You just wait and see, especially if you have a house insured near sea-level (and as I type this, the only reason I’m more than a metre above high tide is that I’m upstairs, and quite happy to be renting this house thank you very much). Most people aren’t going to see real physical impacts yet, but they’ll feel the waves reflected through insurance companies governments as decisions are made with (mostly) an eye to the long term. If I could predict with any certainty what form those waves would take, I could probably get rich: as it is, it’s setting off my smell-o-scope quite firmly.

Getting rich, or more specifically just how a small group of other people managed to get rich, has been very much in the news and in the culturosphere for some time now, of course. You probably don’t need me to tell you that what we’re looking at right now is the glimpse you might get after the initial impact in a truly nasty car crash: the initial energies have all been entrained into a new and complicated system, but between the damage already sustained and sundry heavy objects still in motion, the final outcome is anyone’s guess. I have friend visiting Greece at this very moment in time, whose brains I shall pick when he returns: the default (or not) of Greece and its continued membership (or not) of the Euro zone seems to be a vital bell-weather for what happens in that part of the world in the next ten or twenty years. Beyond that? Your guess is as good (or rather, just as bad) as mine.

Good grief, you may be saying at this point: this is deeply depressing. You may be feeling an impulse to flee my blog and never return. The truth is I’m uncomfortable with unrelenting bad-news stories, and like the essay linked to above I think that the temptation to ruin and dystopia has been too strong and too easy in out culture for quite some time: I blame religion (no really, I do: take Judgement Day and keep to yourselves, please). That being said, then, what are we going on with here? What is there to be positive and upbeat about in the breeze as it impinges on the metaphorically moistened finger of your scribe? Well, just quietly, I find the Occupy movement and number of other groundswells of opinion to be extremely heartening. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that these things are much bigger than they’re currently perceived to be: every time I’ve been involved in something that was reported in the news, the coverage was so misleading as to be be laughable, and if any type of event was going to be prone to that problem it would be a protest was, at least in part, about how crap the news media generally are. And getting that many young, well-off people out into the streets to make a substantial fuss about how their lives are run is tremendously encouraging (especially in the States, where those are generally terrified of getting a police record). And if (looking a little further afield) the aftermath of the Arab Spring seems uncertain and problematic to you, that’s probably because you’re a citizen in an old and well-established democracy, and you probably never knew how long that democracy took to get established. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya: these places are never going back to the way they were, and though it may take them a generation or more to get to where they really wanted to be last week, they’ve still undergone a positive change. Which means their voices will be heard much more loudly in the global discussion than they have been in the past.

Given how much to the grief and strife in the world currently revolved around “exceptionalism” in various foreign policies when it comes to the Arab nations, I think this whole area is something to watch. Keep a special eye on Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich nations: the suspicion has always been that OPEC are over-stating their oil reserves, in which case the power base of the ruling elite in those countries is much wobblier than they’re making it out to be. Of course, I have a copy of Robert Fisk’s book about the Middle East sitting un-opened on my shelf, so I could be talking complete and utter bollocks. But then, the same is true of most of this essay: I’ll make a futurologist of me yet.

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