Would you say that life has become more or less “civilized” as societies have evolved? Let us consider only the last few decades of cultural shifts to get a handle on this question. Michel Foucault famously wrote Madness and Civilization. Norbert Elias identified the Civilizing Process. Where do we stand on how civilization and madness evolve today? I would claim that we need an updated version of these theories, one in tune with the advent of Internet Society:
- Digital Madness, that drives forth a…
- Pornographic Civilization.
Let us get into the weeds of this updated diagnosis of our time and let us begin to consider what can be done about it.
Civilization Found—Innocence Lost
“as society ‘advances’, people and their values become less barbaric, more universal and abstract, but also more XXX-rated, more pornographic in every (sexual an non-sexual) sense of the word.”
On the one hand, we can observe obvious signs of what the older generations can only recognize as a kind of cultural decay: pop culture has become cynical and crude with popstars like Billie Eilish glorifying suicide for young people or Lana Del Rey romanticizing infidelity and daddy issues; children increasingly exposed to, misinformed by, and traumatized by online (sexual) pornography which itself draws wider and wider swathes of the population into some kind of prostitution (which also spreads to more and more young people); sexual debuts creeping to lower ages and especially young girls increasingly being pressured to partake in harmful sexual activities; hard drugs being the stuff of casual conversations of middleclass 13-year-olds, and that’s when they’re not talking about sex and carrying knives (real story, that one, overheard on a local bus in a “nice” neighborhood); the average kid spending 8+ hours by a screen each day and the activities there becoming increasingly based on addictive dopamine hits with apps like TikTok and Snapchat; more and more of us trying psychedelics and other drugs, bought from criminal gangs; celebrities and Netflix shows casually showing and joking about hard drug use and death by drugs; realistic, violent computer games; de facto decreases of people’s real competence and skills, including a reversal of the average IQ scores in developed countries; attention spans, even among adults, dropping like lead balloons; weaker and less motorically developed bodies in the average population; the spread of online conspiracy theories of savage and sadistically imaginative detail…
Cultural decay, right? There’s no other word for it.
Well, on the other hand, consider all of the following: the all but absolute collapse of norms that held it to be normal and healthy to beat children; the reduction of brawls and fistfights as part of growing up and being a young man or out in the nightclubs; the shift from an exceedingly homophobic society to the almost unanimous unacceptance of homophobia; the shift from extreme racism and white supremacy towards firmly established anti-racist norms and serious taboos against racist jargon; the establishment of feminism and gender equality as normal and justified; the extreme increase of environmental awareness; the rise of concern with animal welfare, animal rights, and veganism or at least vegetarianism; the collapse of ideals of authoritarian leaders in organizations and the embracing of egalitarian organizational cultures; the increased resistance to war and the view of it as inherently barbaric and outdated; the vastly increased tendency to learn from religions and spiritual traditions other than one’s own; the rise of liberal, open-ended pedagogy where each person is expected to find their own path and learn critical thinking rather than parrot a fixed curriculum; the de-stigmatization of going to the therapist or otherwise having mental health issues; the shift away from indoor smoking and beer drinking during work hours; the much more solid traffic safety regulations that literally save thousands of lives; teen pregnancies down sharply; alcohol consumption down sharply; on it goes…
Well—so there is another word for it, after all: Cultural progress. Right?
So, which one is it, then? Are we evolving into a more refined and civilized culture, or is there widespread cultural decay?
Consider the following examples:
- In the 1950s, the most action-packed scenes were to be found in black and white western films. The violence was not particularly graphic and consisted of little more than the occasional fistfight and someone raising their hand to the chest and falling over pretending to have been shot. Not much blood. Today there is no end to the gory details with massive amount of splattered blood, guts and brains and carefully choreographed gun- and martial arts fights. Torture and rape are no infrequent occurrences either.
The people of the 50s would probably have been shocked and felt sick to their stomach were they to watch an action or horror movie from today. The people of the 21st century, on the other hand, tend to be appalled by the way Native Americans are portrayed as brutal savages and merely cannon fodder for the white male hero and the way in which women merely serve the role as someone for the hero to save in a in a typical western movie from the 50s.
- Two generations ago, it didn’t get much wilder than Tarzan and Batman (in color, if you were lucky) comics if you were a 12-year old boy. Today, boys that age typically play ultra violent videogames about killing soldiers or zombies (or zombie soldiers!) with super photorealistic graphics. (The games of today look so realistic that they are often mistaken for real-life footage. Whether by mistake or design, images from video games are shown in TV-news again, and again).
Yet, safety measures for children have increased extensively since the 1950s. Back in the day, children could buy fire works, cigarettes and Lawn Darts™ (which were practically small, potentially lethal throwing spears!). Today, few parents allow their children to ride a bike without a helmet—and that’s only if they live in a quiet rural area or a suburb without too much traffic.
- If you were a young man coming of age in the 1950s, it’s likely that the most arousing images you could get your hand on was lingerie commercials or similar. Today, by the age of 14, most boys, and many girls too, have already been through Pornhub’s vast archives and acquainted themselves with everything from vanilla sex, to gang bangs, BDSM, and gagging.
At the same time, contraception is widely available and today’s teens tend to be well informed when it comes to preventing STDs and unwanted pregnancies. Two generations ago, girls were much more likely to become pregnant out of ignorance and people were less likely to seek treatment for STDs out of shame.
And we can go on. You can even hear drug addicts talking nostalgically about the good old days before Fentanyl, how innocent the world felt when it was just pure heroin out there on the market. At the same time, drug addiction has never been less stigmatized, and designated areas for drug consumption have even been made available in many cities around the world with clean needles, nurses and other necessities.
On the one hand, things that were taken as self-evident just a brief few decades ago are today viewed as nothing short of medieval. On the other hand, things that were entirely unthinkable and viewed as excessively vulgar just a brief moment ago are today being touted as edgy and cool to very young audiences and participants.
Decay or progress? The answer to this conundrum is perhaps simpler than it seems.
But let us first put aside the two “dumb” answers to the question. One is the conservative (or reactionary) one: “It’s not progress at all! If it weren’t for all those anti-racists, feminists, and vegans, our culture would still maintain its moral fiber and common decency”. It’s a popular answer, of course, but it has very little merit. It’s well known, for instance, that the Bible Belt has the highest consumption of pornography in the Unites States, that the Catholic Church is a cesspool of debauchery, that gender inequality is linked to lower marital satisfaction, that higher empathy is linked to caring more about social justice and the environment, etc. So, no, it’s not that if we simply stopped all of those “progressive” developments from occurring, we would also have a more decent and respectable society.
The other dumb answer is to simply deny just how vulgar, cynical, weird, confusing, and out-rightly pornographic our society is indeed becoming. Despite the measures of quantitative progress (higher global GDP and so on), it is undeniably true that we are, globally, on a sharp downwards spiral in terms of mental health and that young people are hurting: The Mental State of the World Survey, spanning across 20 countries, recently revealed that in the age group 18–24, as much as 44% of the population are in the “clinical/at risk” category in terms of mental health—as compared to 6% for those 65 and older. Between these extremes, there is a steady downwards staircase: the younger the cohort, the more compromised their mental health. It’s the opposite of a stairway to heaven.
It’s not just me; when I was a 13-year-old in a middle class suburb, talk of knives and hard drugs were just not part of the mix. A cultural pornographization really has occurred, and it all but indisputably affects the mental health of the young.
What, then, is the better explanation? It’s that cultural evolution simultaneously drives forth two interrelated processes of transformation:
- More civilized, universal, and non-violent values.
- Innocence lost, a more penetrating and revealing gaze and imagination, including a more disenchanting and critical viewpoint.
Simply put, as society “advances”, people and their values become less barbaric, more universal and abstract, but also more XXX-rated, more pornographic in every (sexual an non-sexual) sense of the word. As such, even if society escapes the ecological dead-ends of modernity, we are headed both towards a cute and idyllic future of softer and more inclusive values (take the bike-path to the vegan café run by a now fully respected minority!), and towards a rawer and more cynical culture (sit down in the same café and discuss psychedelic deconstructions of reality, the inescapable unfairness of life, the profound meaninglessness of most jobs, and the rarity of relief of sexual ecstacy).
The social logic behind this is that the two cultural properties—universal values and a penetrating, revealing, critical gaze—are both generated by the same variable: the degree of mediation of society.
Exploding prevalence of solarpunk visions on the left; rising mainstreaming of BDSM on the right—two sides of the same coin?
By “the degree of mediation of society” I mean the sheer amount and variety of thoughts, messages, images, symbols, and other information that are being sent and received throughout society (in our case, planetary civilization).
Digital society produces more information in a few days than all of human history prior to the advent of the Internet. This means that there is always an immense abundance of information vying for attention—and to gain more attention, a meme must recombine what has hitherto been communicated in a manner that carries forth an element of surprise. You get simulacra of simulacra of simulacra, to speak with the terms of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. If people have already said A, B, and C, you can make a whole career out of saying D. And so, everyone scrambles to figure out how to say what follows from A, B, and C. That propels a rapid and powerful cultural evolution towards universality (if you’ve said “free all slaves”, and the Dalai Lama says “all sentient beings”, I’ll add “free all non-human animal slaves”, and so forth)…
… and it produces pornographization (if ABBA was racy in the 1970s by wearing wide, colorful pants, popstars in the 1980s started showing more skin, until Rihanna, the idol of every little schoolgirl, starts singing about how BDSM excites her, and Billy Eilish finally declares that she, the musical and cultural child genius, is the bad guy, not those older creepy guys out there, Lana Del Rey singing nostalgic farewell hymns to an America who’s innocence is lost… all of which is of course matched with, well, unimaginable amounts of literal porn—i.e. more and more extreme images of all kinds, anything that stands out by being more explicit, more real, more raw, more revealing, from weird and degrading sex to social realist reality soaps). You even have a combination of the two tendencies in the kind of critical theory popularized by intellectuals like Slavoj Žižek, which penetrates the perversion and all-too-human patheticness of us all, manifested as capitalist society. And, of course, Žižek makes his own movies, all about revealing other movies. Increasingly revealingly detailed news and journalism do a similar thing to our people in power and positions of prestige. Behavioral science and the social sciences make short notice of the rest of us: we’re revealed in our all-but-dignified gore and grime.
The emperor is not only naked. He’s downright see-through. You can watch the emperor’s skeleton, his whole wardrobe, when he’s taking a dump, and so forth. It’s the meta-naked, X-rayed emperor, and everyone competes to be the pointing kid in H.C. Andersen’s iconic tale. Or that’s the point we’re heading towards. Surveillance capitalism or China’s social credit system are just extensions of this same tendency.
To remake the point as simply as possible: Our grand-grandmother was fairly barbaric, but also quite endearingly innocent, as compared to people today. She was all for beating children with a belt (or a slipper if in a good mood or she couldn’t find the belt), she warned us of the child-abducting gypsies, she thought everything in life was about getting more food, including the pet rabbit that she viewed as a piece of potential pâté and did everything in her power to fatten for the same reason. But her “sins” amounted to reading romance novels and fawning over a game show host in a nice suit. Her entertainment was the circus, literally.
And she was, despite having lived a tougher life, relatively mentally stable and emotionally healthier than most of us. She could be relied upon.
As society complexifies and shifts in “effective value meme” (we go from traditional values, to modern ones, to postmodern ones, and perhaps on to metamodern ones), we become more civilized, less violent, less bigoted, but also less innocent. Where does this leave the minds of younger generations?
The Best of Potentials—in the Worst of Worlds
“Not only are you always stuck as an observer to other people pushing the (pornographic) boundaries; you are at a far distance from all that truly matters, from all “real relevance”.”
I have long maintained that the “metamodern mind” is one that marries irony to sincerity, in so-called “sincere irony”. Hence, the metamodern mind is one that labors to straddle the paradox of 1) wide-eyed and uncompromising belief in idealism, and 2) “innocence lost”, coexisting in one culture, in one social network, in one person, in one situation.
This splitting-of-the-mind-into-two-increasingly-mutually-distant-realities could, in a perfect world, offer the ultimate dialectic for human growth. I say “dialectic” because one side would drive the other: the progress of civilized and ethically considerate behavior would allow for greater playfulness of the carnal and “Freudian” sides of existence (while sanitizing our shared everyday life to the extent that people would long increasingly for transgression and the raw); the play with further spiraling revelations, critiques, and perversions would allow for a solid psychological basis of a hyper-civilized society by means of deep embodiment and catharsis as well as increased transparency, inescapably radical honesty, and the mutually applicable self-knowledge that grows from recognizing the vulnerabilities of our naked and darker selves.
Hence, if considered under ideal bio-socio-psychological conditions, there could hardly be a better dynamic (or dialectic) for spurring the growth, maturity, and even reliability of the human spirit and thus of harmonious human relations. Think about it: From one side, our minds are always pushed to critique our current assumptions, always towards more encompassing and complex perspectives on life—towards “higher”, more universally valid values. From the other side, we are ever exposed to something that challenges and pushes us; pushes our buttons, calls forth our fascination or disgust, and lets us get in touch with our ever-present carnal, politically incorrect, and “Freudian” psychological undergrounds. Again, this can lead to sex positivity (or some more sophisticated life-affirming form of eroticism), to the release of tensions and taboos, to the breaking of prejudice, to emotional catharsis or healing, to self-knowledge, to embodiment of emotions, to spiritual exploration. Together the twain are braided into a way of life that is neither cruel nor lackluster.
Now, that’s in an ideal case scenario. The world we know, last I checked, is not perfect.
What happens instead is that children, and youths, and young adults, and even future-shocked older generations, all land into the brave new digital world like a face on concrete. The sight is not a pretty one.
People, often those with little or no education, fall into so-called online “rabbit holes” and end up believing the Earth is flat, that the American Democratic Party is run by pedophile, child-sacrificing Satanists and other absurd conspiracy theories. Young disillusioned Muslim men from Western Europe become radicalized on online fora and end up joining ISIS—and their white and equally disillusioned counterparts end up joining various far-right terrorist organizations, or at the very least gloat at harm to women in incel clubs. And older people end up obsessing about immigrants, reading article after article about how awful the world has become, spending countless hours arguing with strangers on Facebook instead of doing something nice with their grandchildren. And we have loads of young women obsessing about all the perfect images on Instagram and starving themselves to live up to the ultrathin ideals of the supermodel. And then there are the boys, lost to online porn and video game addictions, stunting their physical and emotional development. There are even the so-called “iPad babies” who get withdrawal symptoms when screens are taken away. And so on, and so on.
It’s much like with the Industrial Revolution. When Britain as the first country in the world industrialized, it didn’t have any countermeasures to combat the many ills of industrialization such as hazardous work conditions, social exploitation, child labor, unhygienic living conditions etc. The result was a significant drop in average life span and severe social unrest for the first quarter century of the Industrial Revolution. When France, Germany and the rest of Europe were to industrialize, following the British example, they wisely put measures in place to counter many of the unforeseen negative consequences that had been observed in Britain. The difference with the Digital Revolution today, however, is that it’s a global phenomenon hitting all parts of the world with the same impact at once. We don’t know which countermeasures to put in place before it’s already to late.
The mechanism that drives the ubiquitous decay of mental health as society “progresses” is thus fairly easy to explain, or at least to offer a strong hypothesis for. On the one hand, young and immature minds are simply scandalized and over-heated by stark, revealing imagery and language. Young people are misinformed, hyper-stimulated, addicted, obsessed, self-disgusted by “too much too soon”—and yet, very understandably, they cannot keep themselves away. Indeed, to impress their teenage peers, they need to appear to be casually familiar with stark and weird images and ideas. This, of course, distorts the view of adulthood and sexual relations, among other things. But most of all, it simply overloads the still-developing psychology of the young minds of our age. It’s traumatizing for eleven-year-olds to watch a woman being drugged and sexually abused in a pornographic movie. It does not bring about “growth”; it simply interrupts the innocent gaze of the child, landing him/her in a kind of “adult mind” but one which still lacks all of the emotional, intellectual, and practical capacities of adulthood. The child is stuck in a limbo, in a time between worlds; a place of utter loneliness and helplessness. And from there on, it becomes easy for digital predators—commercial, sexual, or cult-like ones—to target them.
We needn’t consider the other age categories; suffice to say that ours is a planetary society with the hitherto greatest potentials for inner growth, and yet with perhaps the worst conditions for it.
And then add the other factor: the universalization of values—the increasing abstraction of what is ethically considered, included, coordinated within human action. If the child is stunted in her inner growth due to the traumas of an over-explicit, over-revealing, hyper-pornographic, media-saturated hyperreality, how can she then muster the genuine emotional capacities to match such lofty ideals as acceptance of peoples of all creeds and cultures, the caring for the wretched in distant lands, the caring for weird people and the mentally disabled, for non-human animals, for environmental and ecological entities, future generations, and for inner development of love and compassion?
Just as she/he is over-exposed to downright debauchery, the child of today is equally exposed to an ethics too high-minded, abstract, and confusing for her/his developmental psychology to fathom and genuinely embody. At least this will be the tragic case for the vast majority of children growing up today: They will oscillate between trying to identify with these higher values and force themselves to feel and to think what is beyond their cognitive scope and emotional capacity, often pretending to feel, or posturing to seem good enough—and rebelling against these same values in a reactionary rage that will appear to strike as lightning from clear-blue heavens. Trouble in paradise is always double the trouble.
This dynamic feeds the very same sense of helplessness. Not only are you always stuck as an observer to other people pushing the (pornographic) boundaries; you are at a far distance from all that truly matters, from all “real relevance”. You feel insignificant. As I said, this is the opposite of a stairway to heaven.
Squeezed from both sides, from darkness and light alike, the young mind deteriorates on a planetary and civilizational scale—as we have seen in the statistics, and as we see in the lives around us. If we deign to look, we can see it within ourselves, too.
To Counteract Madness, Don’t Fight It—Follow It!
“The farther we slide into a “hyperreal” and mediated society, the greater our need to grow the capacities for introspection, self-awareness, and connection to our genuine emotions.”
The answer, then, is to help people—across generations, but especially among the young—to develop a more “metamodern” mind. This is a psychology that is differently structured than the modern “individual self”.
Ladies and gents, esteemed non-binaries; heroes and anti-heroes—if it is true that we have cornered ourselves into a cultural spiral where innocence is lost, I call upon you to save the innocence of the world! Before it is too late. Because only that innocence can, in turn, save the world.
We are right to lose the childlike political “innocence” that marks the liberal mainstream mind: “As long as I didn’t make a bad political decision, I’m not to blame, I’m not responsible”. If you have read my book The Listening Society, you may remember my death sentence to the so-called liberal innocent. We must all grow up to feel responsible for society-as-a-whole, yes. But the innocence of the child, and of the child within each of us, must be kept out of harm’s way: The capacity to feel, to care, to learn, to grow, to play, to love.
How, then, can the metamodern mind—and its accompanying embodiment and emotional development—be cultivated within the population? How can innocence be saved so that it can dance through the dialectic between the darkness and light of life that was outlined above?
The first answer is that clarifying this diagnosis of our time is crucial, so that we may together invent a thousand answers. We need to rethink the role of digital media, of digital identity and nudging, of incentive structures, of informational architectures, of democratized algorithms, of user interfaces, of market regulations, of education and schooling, of an expansion of individual rights to “dividual rights” and so forth. And, of course, we need to cultivate institutions of governance and self-organization that are at all capable of grasping such issues—which today, alas, do no exist.
The second answer, and perhaps the more profound one, is that we must invest in what I have termed “the listening society”. We must have a society that matches the psychological pressures of hyperreality and the equal inner pressure that results from the extension of universal ethics with structures that support our capacity to reach inwards, to self-observe, to connect to the child within, and to listen to that child in the midst of the noise of so many, so seductive distractions.
In brief, we must cultivate our shared capacity for mental health, for emotional nourishment, and for spiritual attainment. This often means selecting a wide range of very simple practices of self-development and making certain that the opportunities and cues to practice them are as ubiquitous as the distractions.
Said otherwise, I suggest that we update the dialect between:
- Civilizational Progress and
- Innocence Lost,
- Support of Inner Growth.
The farther we slide into a “hyperreal” and mediated society, the greater our need to grow the capacities for introspection, self-awareness, and connection to our genuine emotions. If and when we connect to our primordial innocence, the better we can manage the onslaught of stark images and messages, and the better we can find an embodied grounding for our increasingly abstract, universal, and complex values and ideals. This inner nourishment is, I have come to believe, the missing piece of this puzzle. Thus, it is also the way to reverse the trend towards rising levels of anxiety experienced around the world.
Our civilization is driving towards madness—and it’s a fair guess that, soon enough, madness will be driving civilization. That drive will be nasty, brutish, and short.
To avoid this trajectory, we must follow where madness takes us—into the depths of our interconnected psyches. We must cultivate the institutions capable of supporting us so that we neither fall into denial of our darker realities, nor into blindness of our higher ethical potentials—institutions that pace that development in lockstep with our development as human beings.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.