On when the modern world was invented
Well you note that 2012 was the year that smartphone usage crossed the 50% threshold. Guess what? 1972 is the year that more than 50% of households had a color TV for the first time.
When 50% of the population adopts a new technology, what that really means is that virtually EVERY urban and adolescent-middle aged person has it. It just takes a few more years before the rural people and 70 years olds get there.
Transitioning to a society where suddenly you got to look at in color, moving images of drama and beautiful people and constant advertising was a cataclysmic change. For the first time, you weren't comparing yourself to people in your neighborhood or school or at work. But to actors and models who were there all the time, in your own living room. TVs are desire and comparison machines, providing mesmerizing images of all the ways your life could or should be, and all the stuff you should have. It's when we became more self-centered, more greedy, more inwardly focused, and less likely to go out to the bar or sit on the porch or play cards with neighbors, and instead sat inside watching strangers on TV. You can trace basically everything in those 1971 charts to that, from obesity to no more labor unions to more divorce. TVs also made people more tolerant and less provincial, as they saw sympathetic portrayals of all kinds of people and got more used to people who are different from what they might come across in real life.
Smart phones did all of the same things, but multiplied by a factor of 10. Now we all get to see everything and everyone in the world, half of it fake, much of it either horrifying or fantasy. Our brains aren't evolved for this.
So, that's a pretty simple and clear cultural theory. Though I could give a pretty simple and clear economic theory regarding 1971. Which is simply that that is the year that the labor supply began a sharp upward tick from the lows of 1940-1970. We had almost no immigration in those years, and the immigrant share of the population plunged from the high teens down to a low of about 5% in 1970, then back up to the high teens again today. Women hadn't yet entered the work force in droves, and started in the 70s. And all those kids the baby boomers had in the 40s-60s hadn't yet grown up and went to work. So the labor supply was incredibly low in those decades, and low supply of labor means lots of leverage and bargaining power, so naturally we saw the lowest income inequality that ever existed in those years. More women, more immigrants, and more kids turning working age starting in the 70s and accelerating over the next few decades vastly increased the size of the workforce. More workers means way more competition and way less power, so of course wages stagnated and everything else bad we've seen economically, with those at the bottom hit the worst.
Didn’t the Mayan calendar warn us about this? We’ve just been running around with our heads cut off ever since
My completely non-scientific guess would be that widespread adoption of 2 things, the Like system on social media + smartphones, means a global competition for attention and relevance, which leads to the normalization of all sorts of terrible behaviors. Social justice-based allegations are one of the best clean-hands way of rising above the faceless mass and also cutting down rivals. There's also just straight-up lifestyle showboating via vacation pics, hot selfies, etc., which contribute greatly to bad moods and crumpled self-esteems. Being extreme and nasty are also a prime way to achieve online stardom, as you yourself pointed out in your piece about how there will never be a well-mannered social media platform.
Machine learning approaches to AI--and more specifically deep learning--becoming viable in 2012 because of the explosion of Big Data, and especially social media, seems to me to be significant factor lurking behind a lot of these different trends. AI's influence on culture through social media algorithms (and its concurrent intensification of political extremism) and its influence on what we buy (or its ability to cajole us into buying stuff we don't want) I think are major factors in this "vibe" shift. This panopticon of "surveillance capitalism" (Zuboff's book, etc) can maybe help explain the prevailing sense of losing control and world-chaos that people, especially young people, increasingly feel.
This is so good. I always thought 2008 was the year, but this makes sense.
I call things like Barbie and also the novel Yellowface ConfusionCore. They are designed not to offend people by confusing what the political slant actually is, but embodying enough sides of the aisles so much that no one is clear on the film’s actual message, so they can’t fully be offended and then the work is protected from cancellation. But I ponder what we lose when nothing is clear and artists go for muddy instead of a thematic statement. Though maybe it’s better because real life isn’t clear either.
Also, will we look back on Mark Zuckerberg like Hitler?
CC Peter Turchin! :)
I think the key question is, where are we in the cycle? Did we pass the peak of "instability" and are now on the way back to relative stability? Or is the peak still ahead of us, here in 2023?
I think part of the problem in calculating this is that something actually unprecedented has happened: (hinted at by Stefan's comment about decades = 5 years) the penetration of communications technology is now so deep that it's possible these cycles (since the actual mechanism of cultural cycles is mediated by communication) happen in an accelerated way. (Similar to how changing beliefs/reality about the ROI of war led to relatively damped actual effects from the cycles of violence/instability). Sure, human generations still happen at roughly the same rate (or even perhaps longer in the developed world) but radio->TV->internet->smartphones (you're right to highlight it as an inflection point) have increased the rate (quality and quantity) of "ideas go from here to there".
What do you make of the idea that a decade is more like every 5 years now
FYI there is no "Mayan prophesy". That calendar just ends in 2012. That's like saying we have a "Gregorian prophesy" every December 31st because that's when our calendar ends.
Perhaps if we all agreed to act in a certain way, we’d be able to ensure the next decade’s vibeshift is a nice one?
I’m spitballing here, but maybe we could all paint our houses soft pastel colours, take up knitting, and bring back hats as a fashion item. We’d all act with more respect if we were wearing top hats, it just sets a classy vibe!
If not my favorite Substack post of all time, it is definitely on the Mount Rushmore. In 2012 I was halfway through college and the idea that all the data we produce was going to drive us mad clicked for me. Unfortunately I never took the steps to capitalize on this thought, but this article rendered a feeling of temporal vertigo. It all just really hits home. Great work.
I can recommend another take on decades that gives food for thought, from a perhaps unlikely source: the British TV series Back in Time for the Weekend.
This programme follows a family living through each decade from the 50s on, with some extensive historical research provided through spending census data etc.
Yes, it's fun to watch, but hidden in the show are some really deep implications about modern culture. We learn how technology, wealth, leisure changed cultures and in particular family dynamics, and we get the neat experiment of a family experiening culture shifts in real time.
The family in this case grew increasingly close during the experiment from the 50s on, peaking in happiness in the 70s, before the advent of personal entertainment in the 80s begins a decline in family cohesion. Long story short, they missed the 70s when the show ended.
In addition to the famous Mayan 2012 apocalypse idea, there was also Terrence McKenna's famous “Timewave Zero” theory, which likewise framed December 2012 has some kind of culmination and transition point in human affairs, a “strange attractor” at the end of History.
The idea or, as he might have put it, inspiration or revelation or transmission came to him independently of any information about the Mayan calendar. He received it from an “alien intelligence” during one of his psychedelic explorations in, I believe, the early 1970s. He only learned about the Mayan prophecy after his thinking had already developed. According to McKenna, something momentous was going to happen in 2012 that made that year a transition or transformation point. He said it wasn't clear exactly what would happen, but only that it would be definite a transformational change.
So, when I read things like this new piece by you, Eric, I can't help flashing on McKenna. Who, it seems, we may now say was right! Though not in a way anyone even remotely expected.
This tracks with my experience. I graduated college in 2011 but, having gone to a Great Books school where campus politics was comparatively minimal, I didn't really see much of this stuff brewing in my own neck of the woods. After a post-bac year and starting medical school in 2012, I saw things were starting to change.
Dazed and Confused was my high school. Every one of the characters reminds me of someone I knew. Somehow, I survived!
Absolutely irrelevant to economics and smartphones, and uncorrelated, but two more things I like to say that indicates the seventies are here again:
The return of Russian aggression and the discotheque is finally resurging
It's always interesting to see such a broad analysis in which so many different variables line up and feed off of each other.
If you're studying culture and psychology, you also by default have to study economics, war, politics, and everything else... because none of these exist or move in isolation. They're all just different expressions of the same underlying trends and phenomena.