And I do think there’s something of a loss-of-individuality problem emerging. This has been covered elsewhere, of course, but I see it more and more as time goes on. This is the age of the crowd, the blob, the mass, even as we convey ourselves through tiny windows and custom-branded digital avatars.
I think of Tim Wu’s great piece in the Times a few years back, “The Tyranny of Convenience,” in which he dissects a prime mover in the 21st century. Convenience (for the sake of it, often), automation, templated speech patterns… This is obvious, right? It’s how we communicate with one another and, more importantly, with ourselves. We communicate conveniently.
“The paradoxical truth I’m driving at,” Wu writes, “is that today’s technologies of individualization are technologies of mass individualization. Customization can be surprisingly homogenizing. Everyone, or nearly everyone, is on Facebook: It is the most convenient way to keep track of your friends and family, who in theory should represent what is unique about you and your life. Yet Facebook seems to make us all the same. Its format and conventions strip us of all but the most superficial expressions of individuality, such as which particular photo of a beach or mountain range we select as our background image.”
Here’s where I would say, “Nailed it.”
I’m not sure what else is driving this, however, in terms of culture. Why is this mass individualization so… massive and shitty? The internet is a cause, certainly, but I wonder too if there are other forces at work, from the late 20th century onward, that have restricted our collective sense of creativity. Because of the all-consuming second-life habitat of the internet, the boundaries of our actual reality are growing tighter, narrower, more rigid. More rules are placed on adolescents and young adults than ever before (whether this involves financial instruments, debt, capitalist materialism, social norms, standardized testing, police militarization, etc., to say nothing of our society’s deeply beloved racial and classist inequalities). And “rules,” the way a child understands them, are oppressive and claustrophobic and, the more you relent, very difficult to surmount. On a long enough timeline, the most extreme rules are normalized and replaced by an ever-narrower set of social expectations. To whatever degree you hope to self-actualize in this culture, at this time in history, well, good luck.
That’s vague and not well thought out, sure, and it’s somewhat early, yeah, and I’m listening to Kid A again, but my point is that the two trend lines are converging, asymptotically, to create a wary, oversocialized and antisocial sense of community. We’re atomizing as we’re coming together, fusing increasingly crisp carbon-copied stamps of ourselves onto the next moment, inching forward into a future that we’re too eager to describe as a memory before we have a chance to experience it. It’s more convenient that way.