August 29th, 2006


The zeroes

Today is the first day of the rest of the zeroes.

While it's far too early to get a big retrospective sense of what this decade has been "all about", something in the autumnal air, as we approach September 2006, tells me that we ought to have quite a strong inkling of the basic narrative shape of this decade by now. By late 1996, for instance, quite a lot was already clear about the stories we'd tell about the 90s. One of the things I notice in my own life is that I "get" a particular decade towards the end, and start feeling comfortable with it -- or at least with my filtered, personalized version of it. What I'm comfortable with in 2006 is mostly a series of values opposed to the mainstream culture. That wasn't the case ten years ago, when I could really get behind relatively mainstream things like the dot com boom.

First, though, some caveats. This decade doesn't even have a generally-agreed name yet. I'm calling it the zeroes, others call it the 2000s or the noughties. We also have to say that the idea that a cultural story can be told in decade-long chunks is nothing more than a convenience, a narrative convention. Big cultural changes have often happened mid-decade; think of UK punk rock in 1976, when trousers, lapels and ties went from fat to skinny, rock went from slow-complicated to fast-direct, hair went from floppy to spiky, and peace signs changed to anarchy signs -- all more or less overnight. I remember cutting the wing collar off my leather jacket before I went to university; it was utterly crucial to show that I was on the right side of the cultural revolution we called New Wave.

It also has to be said that we're living in a time generally seen as lacking big, dominant styles. Things have never been more fragmented, thanks in part to technology and the cultural bastardization brought by globalization. What does it mean to talk about the "one big dominant style" of a decade in which memes fly and die at unprecedented speed, and "everyone is famous for fifteen people"?

But I think it would be wrong to say that we're all now free to do whatever we feel like or that it's "every man for himself". We only don't see what we have now as a "style" because we're too close to it. Travelling -- and simply being around in as many different decades as I have been -- has made me a bit of a cultural determinist. A decade, a nation, a city or a generation always thinks it has no accent, and that the way it does things is natural. The more you travel, and the more you age, the less you believe that. Things do have specific styles, with borders. They are fairly determinant of what you'll find people doing and saying and looking like in any given context. People want and need to conform, to agree. It's a pleasure as well as a danger.

So have we got it yet? What is the style of the zeroes?

The Wikipedia entry on the 2000s makes a bold, if rather scattershot and American-centric, attempt to sum up the story so far. In 2004, we learn, the video game industry's profits overtook the movie industry's and internet usage overtook TV viewing. Religion made a surprisingly strong comeback during the decade. Whereas Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand continued to become more secular, religious groups increased their hold on the US and the Middle East. Music was dominated by the "rogue stereotypes" of hip hop, which overtook rock in cultural importance. Interracial dating became more widespread. Mesh caps were worn backwards, then forwards or to the side, then backwards again (a nice example of a deck with only one card, which can nevertheless land on the table in various different positions).

The Wikipedia's coverage of non-American styles is sadly limited. It notes the rise of ostalgie -- the nostalgia for communism -- in Eastern Europe, along with anti-Americanism and a trend for hip hop influence in J-pop and K-pop. It says nothing about Slow Life or LOHAS, ecological concerns, a shift to organic food, or the stunning success of international art biennials. For coverage of the neo-folk boom we have to turn to Pitchfork, which notes "the ongoing profusion of new and reissued folk-related material. Complicating matters is the fact that the current international folk revival is less a unified movement than a series of smaller, overlapping sub-movements that might include any variety of American Primitive guitarists, free-form avant-folk collectives, ramshackle campfire pop, medieval-tinged electronica, or wayfaring acoustic singer-songwriters."

We're getting closer to the memes I'd understand as "the face of the zeroes", but of course I have really too much of a vested interest in things like "medieval-tinged electronica" to know if rooting for it would be anything more than insider trading.

So how have your zeroes been so far, I hear you ask? (It's not as if I don't answer this question every single day in these pages, but I'll pretend you asked anyway.)

Music: I feel like the proliferation of available music has corresponded with a personal need to listen to less, and for that music I do seek out to do less. I've wondered if my taste for ambient avant garde or raw roomtone recordings represents a "hatred of music" or just a move into bobo organics. I've also travelled, electronic banjo in hand, on the neo-folk bandwagon, and got interested in weird World Pop (currently Cambodian 70s and Thai 90s). But sometimes I think that music is dead for me, except as something I make. Although it's a bit embarrassing to admit, I love listening to my own music; Ocky Milk is undoubtedly the record I've listened to the most this year. Maybe, amidst a cascading plethora, I became self-sufficient in music. Famous for one person.

Cinema and TV: Hollywood and terrestrial TV are pretty much stone cold dead in my zeroes. YouTube is where it's at: the other day I played a sequence of Associates and Telex videos and danced around my room in complete ecstasy. Nothing shown in cinemas could take me to that place, although I've certainly ridden the documentary trend to some extent, enjoying non-fiction movies like "My Architect". I've never seen Reality TV though. I refuse to watch it. For me it's 90s, because I got pretty involved in the really early series of MTV's The Real World back in 1996, but have no interest in seeing that turn into something beyond Charlie Booker's wildest nightmares. Oh, and speaking of Charlie Booker, my television of the decade was his Hoxton satire Nathan Barley. Obviously.

Fashion: Basically I continue to see thrifting, which I started to do seriously from about 1997, as the only valid fashion. Recycle, recontextualize, play, and avoid snobby, expensive, conformist, ugly, vain, top-down fashion while you're at it. Though Japan has declined in its influence on me, it's still more acceptable in its mainstream than other nations. I've shifted from an interest in trendy Japanese street style to trad Japanese flamboyance: kimonos can still get me very excited.

Art: Art and visual culture have become more and more central to my life, becoming something between a religion and a career for me. Except that it's a weird career where I skip about on the edges of an ever-more-monied scene, making no money whatsoever despite appearing in the Whitney Biennial or authoritative surveys of "emerging artists". There's something odd about my relationship with the art world, but the distance I keep from its commercial engine allows me to keep the sparkle in my eyes. Who's my favourite artist of the zeroes? I couldn't possibly say any one person; I think I just love biennials. But my favourite photographer is Rinko Kawauchi.

Technology: I seem to have a technology column in Wired News, but to be honest it's hard, in a post 9/11 world, to feel as shiny-eyed and gung ho about the inherent goodness of technological progress as one might have done in the 90s. And, just like those Japanese street kids, the Apple computers I use now (a new white laptop every year or two, pretty much the same as the last one) seem less colourful than they did back in 1998 or so. One doesn't cry with joy during Steve Jobs' product roll-outs any more (and yes, I really did used to do that). I don't have a cell phone or an iPod, although if I could have a wifi laptop sewn into my cranium I'd do it tomorrow. Believe it or not, I had my first proper intercontinental video call last night, with Hisae in Osaka. It was mind-blowing.

Politics: Oh God, don't get me started. What a fucking disaster this decade has been. Imperialism, fundamentalism, terrorism, war war war. And my hunch is that it's all going to get much worse. I don't see any signs that the ongoing rightward shift towards oligopoly, theocracy, the paranoid security state and "fascism lite" is going to swing back towards Enlightenment or egalitarian values any time soon.

So how have your zeroes been, friend? What's the story of this nameless decade? Are you getting comfortable with it, or just waiting with gritted teeth and drumming fingers for the damned thing to end?