imomus (imomus) wrote,

Mister narrative of the decade

Didn't it go fast? We're coming up to the end of the decade. Pretty soon whatever magazines and newspapers are left standing are going to be making their master narratives of what happened in the noughties. All that'll be possible at that point will be responses of the "me too" or "I disagree" variety. So I thought I'd get my own account of the decade in early, while it's still all up for grabs. (Actually, I've already had a stab at it, back in September 2007.) Since all such attempts are going to be partial (in the incomplete sense and in the biased sense), I'm not actually calling this a master narrative. Let's call it a "mister narrative" -- one man's view.

The big picture I see this decade is the decline of Western self-confidence. If the 90s witnessed plenty of "irrational exuberance" in a "New World Order" following the West's triumph over its Cold War opponents, the 00s saw feeble attempts to define Islam as a worthy opponent, and a spate of misguided wars "justified" by the "wake-up call" of 9/11. But a cave somewhere in Afghanistan isn't the Kremlin, and Bin Laden isn't Stalin. Despite a naked neo-imperialism posited on an unholy alliance between Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilisations and the right-wing appropriation of liberal ideas like human rights and democracy, the neo-cons' New American Century lasted about five years. It was rapidly replaced by a more powerful meme: the rise of the rest, and particularly India and China.

Just as hemlines follow the economy, so design follows geopolitics. If the confident 90s could give us a computer that "comes in colours" (the iMac, which echoed the optimism of the 60s and was sold with a 60s soundtrack), the 00s returned us to self-effacing "I'm not really here" products embarrassed by their environmental footprint, getting the job done and playing it safe. Cars took on the colours of the road beneath, clothes were basic and functional, sold by puritan chains like Uniqlo and Gap, computers returned to black, white or grey, and the eccentricities of -- say -- digital camera design in the 90s gave way to formula and standardisation; gone were the flip screens, the weird cigarette packet shapes, the separation of audio and video; now all digicams -- just like the cars caught worldwide in Google Streetview snaps -- were basically the same bland box. Strapped by recession and hounded by eco-guilt, people didn't want to lust for consumer items, they just wanted them to last. Designers like Naoto Fukasawa made inexpressiveness into a philosophy: the "unobtrusive but indispensable" world of supernormal.

There were a couple of exceptions. When Apple released the iPhone I wept (and, since I was writing for Wired at the time, turned my tears of joy into an article). The iPhone (and iPod Touch, for that matter) was such a leap forward that I still feel, when I use it, that I'm in an episode of Star Trek. It was Jonathan Ive's Thomas Jerome Newton moment; its various technologies were so advanced, so neatly fused that you could no longer talk of mere incremental improvements: this was sci-fi, a tool from another planet. Google also amazed, becoming to the 00s what Microsoft had been to the 90s. There was Google mail, Google apps, the verb "to google", Google docs, Google TV (in the shape of YouTube), Google Maps, Google Earth, two Google operating systems, a Google phone, a Google motto ("Don't be evil") and a Google politics (don't rock the boat in China). When I first heard that Google mail read your mail in order to target you with ads, I was horrified. Five years later, I don't know how I lived without it. And I've never seen a single ad.

It was, in some ways, the decade in which pop music died. People started expecting their music for free, the big "we-are-the-world" type audiences built up by national broadcasters and MTV in former decades fragmented into a million tiny digital taste-channels. Demographics meant that the boomers (those pigs in the pipe) upped the age profile of the average pop consumer, therefore making the medium itself feel middle-aged, and critics continued to laud the late 60s and early 70s as pop music's artistic peak. The odds of bringing out, tomorrow, the best pop album ever made and changing the game forever grew ridiculously long. The chances of there even being a record shop to sell it in, if you did, also slimmed considerably. Meanwhile, the music industry committed hara kiri by sueing individual consumers for millions (the RIAA will "win" against Tenenbaum, but lose the entire game). Popular music felt played, but also unplayed. It was everywhere, yet, culturally, nowhere. It thrived live, but the death of "the king of pop" felt to many like the death of pop itself. It's certainly the death of a certain model of anglo-american-yet-global pop, a 20th century form of cultural imperialism which won't be reproduced in the 21st century.

Other things that looked dead or dying this decade: I personally stopped going to the cinema. Why sit behind someone's head in a fleapit when you can download all you need to see and project it at home? Copyright effectively died, overtaken, de facto, by events on the internet. Magazines and newspapers ended the decade looking very unhealthy indeed, although books seemed strong. Young people got a lot less interested in cars, leading some to label Japan a post-car society. Detroit pretty much collapsed. The polar ice caps melted rapidly; climate change is a fact. Banks -- having invented what they thought were clever ways to spread risk around, and play with planet-sized sums of entirely fictional money -- looked pretty shaky. As a result of the financial crisis, some declared the thirty-year neo-liberal project to privatize, incentivize and globalize over. Nicolas Bourriaud declared postmodernism dead, replaced by something he called the Altermodern. Attacks in the British press helped to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Moral panics were very much alive, but switched to video games. Television in the UK and Japan seemed not to die, although it went thin and flat. Best TV of the decade, for this mister, anyway, was Nathan Barley, by Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris. Folk music wasn't dead; it got re-invented (by me, ha!) as Folktronica, and then as Freak Folk / Weird New America. The art world resurrected Modernism, which became the key to oblique, personal shows like Documenta 12. Although Hollywood was on the skids, the genre of documentary film saw a surprising and welcome resurgence, with docs appearing on everything from fast food to the Helvetica typeface, and winning prizes. There was also a worldwide resurgence in national film industries, which came back from near-oblivion to take, in some cases, more than 50% of local box office -- one cultural consequence, perhaps, of the trend we started with, the decline of the West and the "rise of the rest". The financial crisis strengthened the European Union, as small maverick nations like Iceland saw membership as the only way to survive. The European project was vindicated by the successful launch of a single currency and its model of peaceful conquest by economic self-interest proved vastly more effective than the anglo-saxon neo-imperialist war model. But let's not forget the rebirth of hope via Obama. Whether his lucid and enlightened interventions can reverse the master narrative of American decline is another matter. It's interesting that his current hope is that China will become a huge market for American products -- in other words, that America will become to China what China formerly was to America.

I began the decade in New York, moved to Tokyo, then moved to Berlin. I got interested in glitch and microsound, became more left-field and formalist musically, collaborated more, and found a warmer reception for my ideas in the art world than in the music media. I started blogging in 2004, and it became the hub of my activities this decade, leading to jobs with the websites of Wired, Frieze and the New York Times. I did sound a cautionary note in one Wired column, though: blogging and bulletin boards represent "the wilderness of opinion", whereas I wanted to be "in the realm of the onion". That binary represents, perhaps, my new interest in the formal properties of sound and the non-verbal caress of fine art, so incompatible with the keyboard-centric, ego-centric vision of the world presented by online bloviation. By decade's end, though, blogging was imploding, whittling itself down to wispy microblogging and phatic status updates. The question "What are you doing?" has never been answered more, or imported less. Meanwhile, about 80% of the world's population aren't on the internet. What are they doing? Carrying water, and working for the Chinese.

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