By adding very little to philosophers who came before him, Francis Fukuyama made a great argument that the Western world as we know it is the best system of government that we’re likely ever going to have. Skipping over much of the intellectual underpinnings, he argues that by outlasting communism, capitalist liberal democracy proved that it is a better way of organizing society. Its key ingredients–the importance of individualism and the free market–made for a more dynamic system that was able to grow so quickly that the USSR imploded just trying to keep up. In the battle of ideas, capitalism won.
But capitalism wasn’t perfect, and the first generation to come of age in the new order, the baby boomers, saw much with the world that they disagreed with. In rebellion they turned into hippies. But then something interesting started happening: business realized that hippies were just yet another consumer segment, and so they started offering products and services that spoke to the needs of this new generation. Capitalism was dynamic enough to profitably embrace individualism.
Seeing this, the next generation became intent on not selling out. The young people of the ’70s and ’80s rebelled in even more visibly, these were the punks. They tried to make their rejection of mainstream society so obvious that they went so far as to cover themselves with tattoos and wear spiked leather just to stand out. Capitalism of course didn’t care, and learned to treat this second rebellious cohort as yet another consumer segment. For more on this, check out Heath and Potter’s Rebel Sell.
After the punks came my generation: Gen Y, the baby boom echo, the net generation–or whatever you want to call us, we’re self-centered enough to reject any collectivist name.
But, by virtue of us all being born after all the big fights for individual freedom were picked and “won” by past generations, we have very little to rebell against. Someone born in a Western democracy can pretty much live their life however they’d like to: there are products and services for every lifestyle, and no one much cares what you do so long as you don’t make a mess.
This leaves us with a tricky question: what the hell are we supposed to do?
Adbusters has a snide answer. Lacking anything substantial to do, our generation has started appropriating and remixing the counter-cultural relics of past generations and created the hipster movement. When I say hipster, I don’t mean it with any judgment either positive or negative, they are just the people who, for better or worse, are participating in this remixing and representation of past cultural ideas.
But there’s a wrinkle: our culture cherishes individualism, but actually doing something new to distinguish yourself is very difficult. Instead, people express their individuality by remixing the ideas that have come before. We have enough history that the number of possible permutations is almost literally limitless. The problem is that as soon as an idea catches on, by definition it’s no longer individualistic. With the internet, this can happen faster than ever before. This drives people to go back to the bin of past cultural ideas to dust a few off and stitch them together into something we’ve never seen before–hoping to get some mileage out of it before it becomes the next thing. For better or worse happens entirely under the gaze of marketers and is great for consumption.
But dank bars and after hours concerts aren’t the only place where we see people exhibiting this behavior. It’s also thriving online, and Reddit happens to be a great example.
If you look at the way the Reddit community behaves, everything about it is geared to allow people to behave however they want, and it even has an economy with which to reward whatever happens to be most popular. But very little of reddit is actually people creating anything new: posts on the front page tend to be little more than links to off-site articles, images with text on them, screenshots of atheists arguing on facebook, and prolonged community question and answer sessions. None of these really constitutes creation.
In order: Linking to offsite articles is clearly just showcasing someone else’s content, and at best users feel as though they are curators of entertaining links, looking to be rewarded for their good taste. The images with text on them, (quickmemes, after the service that lets people make then with no effort) are nothing more but stock photos updated with new text in the laziest possible way to make a point. They’re barely even a remix. Screenshots of facebook debates are transparent attempts for people to feel good about conversations they’ve already had, and finally, the Ask Me Anything forum is a highly structured way for people to talk about themselves. None of this is real creation, it’s just slight tweaks to earlier derivations.
When people consume content on Reddit, their broad consumption recognizes no difference between a remix and an actual creation: you just click a link, then whether or not you like it you then close the tab and move along. There’s no incentive to actually make something new when everything is examined for at most a minute. Instead, they load up a picture and photoshop slightly different text on it, hoping that others will like it and award them karma. In this way it’s the most self-centered community imaginable. None of this is necessarily bad, Western liberal capitalism is equally self-centered, and indeed that’s one of its core strengths.
All the same, I can’t help but be disheartened that the “creative process” has been thoroughly robbed the need for actual effort, especially given the power of the tools that we have today to express ourselves. There’s certainly an argument to be made that everything is a remix, even the great works of art in the past. It’s just that it used to be a lot of work to take an old idea and make it new. Now it’s effortless, and people seem equally satisfied with the result.