A cultural energy crisis?

Mark Fisher argued in Running on empty that I discovered in the New Statesman online that culture lacked the energy it had in previous decades: the noughties are encompassed by a sense of cultural deceleration. He argues that cultural changes were driven by technology and that these technologies gave cultures their indelible mark: what he calls a ‘technological rapture’ that is absent from present culture.

The present moment might in fact be best characterised by a discrepancy between the onward march of technology and the stalling, stagnation and retardation of culture.

He characterises the web in its ‘web 2.0’ incarnation as regurgitating older media forms and having a parasitic relationship on ‘old media’ forms and that web 2.0 encourages us to ‘behave like spectators’. That web 2.0 deprives cultural movements of a ‘laboratory’ to evolve before hitting the mainstream and the networked world provides us with a broadly homogenised culture. Fisher summarises that ‘that technology will not deliver new forms of culture all on its own’.

I think that Fisher’s rhetoric is first-rate, many of the assertions can be disproved (if we had a homogeneous culture, then why is Clear Channel’s radio business going through a long and lingering death spiral)?

I find his point about technology not delivering new forms of culture all on its own most interesting though as I don’t believe that it ever did deliver new forms of culture. It helped them certainly, but it is only one ingredient in cultural change.

The 1960s and the 1970s were as much about a new individual consumerism and a disillusionment with government as much as technological leap forwards. The acid house and rave movement, whilst influenced by cheap computing, digital samplers, MDMA manufacture and cheaper analogue synthesisers it was also influenced by the depressing soulless nature of the 1980s.

Secondly, I’d argue that technological innnovation is ‘lumpy’ at the moment there isn’t one ‘world changing’ paradigm shift recently. Recent ones would have been the ‘web, affordable jet travel, the contraceptive pill, colour television, desktop page layout software and the ubiquitous mobile phone.

Many of the energetic sub-cultures that Fisher describes had a similar parasitic nature on old media and cultures that he attributes to web 2.0. Jungle would have been nowhere without the Amen Break from the b-side to Color Him Father by The Winstons released back in 1969. Acid house pioneers saw a clear lineage between themselves and electronic music pioneers like Kraftwerk. House and garage were as much about recreating in electronic means the sounds of the Salsoul record label as they were about blazing a new trail. And I haven’t even mentioned Andy Warhol or the way rock music raped and plundered rhythm and blues.

Finally maybe cultural progress or energy has moved from being a linear track of occurrences: hippies -> progressive rock -> glam rock -> punk and disco -> new romantics -> rave to a massively parallel cultural shift as we can access and tune into Japanese music, Korean films and read about Finnish design in a moment-by-moment way that wouldn’t have been possible before?