Modernity isn’t what it used to be

I was thinking (vaguely) about  J G Ballard and his seductive apocalypses: empty swimming pools, crashed Zero fighters, abandoned atomic test sites, Sputnik-era satellites, disintegrating artistic communities in decaying Californian villas.  And it struck me that modernity itself was seductive in the mid-twentieth century. Deadly, perhaps, doomed, toxic, even unspeakable, but nevertheless very sexy.

And it struck me then that modernity is no longer sexy.  There’s nothing sexy about these tablets and phones we fiddle with so obsessively.  They’re desireable, no doubt, but not in a dangerous or sensual or edgy way.  Their appeal is to the anal desire for neatness and tidiness, the kind of gratification that, according to Freud, begins with the pride taken by our infant selves on seeing our little toddler turds safely deposited in the potty.

Ballard said, apropos of Crash, ‘I think the key image of the 20th century is the man in the motor car. It sums up everything: the elements of speed, drama, aggression, the junction of advertising and consumer goods with the technological landscape.’  He wasn’t saying this was a healthy situation, but there’s no denying its glamour.

It struck me that the equivalent image for our current era would a person immersed in rearranging the icons in their smartphones.

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A slightly different thought that also came to me was that, in spite of much trumpeting about the breakneck pace of change these days -the way the world has been turned upside down by the internet, vastly greater computing power and so on- in fact my own experience (I was born in 1955) has been that the pace of change over the period of my life has actually been much slower than in my parents’ generation.   The attitudes and mores of the current generation of young adults are much more similar to those of the generation (mine) that reached adulthood forty years ago in the 1970s, than were the attitudes and mores of the 70s generation to those of the generation forty years before them, which reached adulthood in the 1930s.  The idea of the ‘generation gap’ was current in the 1970s, for instance, but we have no equivalent term now.

Think of generally accepted attitudes to race, social class, sexuality or marriage in the 1930s, the 1970s and the 201os, and surely it’s obvious that the 1930s are the outlier, meaning that the pace of change has slowed.  (In fact, in some respects, the 2010s show signs of things moving back towards older forms.  My children’s generation have much more conservative ideas about marriage, for instance, than were the norm in their social class in the 1970s.)

Or think of popular music.   Who could deny that the music of the 2010s is much more similar to that of the 1970s, than the latter was to the music of the 1930s?   In fact music from the 1960s and 70s remains well-known and liked by the current generation of young adults, and the music of the 201os is still played within a similar framework (look at all the bands at Glastonbury which still use the electric guitar/bass/keyboards/drum format that was typical of 60s and 70s bands).  But in the 1970s we knew virtually nothing at all about the music of the 1930s.

So it looks to me as if computers and the internet may have been slightly less earth-shaking, culturally speaking, than we often imagine.  Perhaps in the long-run, they will been seen to have been much less instrumental in changing social attitudes than mid-twentieth century innovations like television, cheap air-flight and (the biggest of all in my opinion), reliable contraception.

All of which could explain why present day modernity seems so much less sexy than the modernity of forty years ago.  If cultural change is indeed slowing down rather than speeding up, then one would expect the new to seem less shocking and exciting than was case back then.  We have many new conveniences, it’s true, but convenience and glamour are very different things.

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This isn’t good news for science fiction writers, I’m afraid, and perhaps explains why the genre no longer has the prestige it had in the days when Ballard started out.

Moonshots once seemed like the beginning of the future, but now are receding into the past.  And, however hard we try, ever more sophisticated devices for organising information just do not have the same allure.

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