Last week, I saw the end of civilization. Turning the corner of Dodge from Low Steps to 116th and Broadway, I saw a man trudging down College Walk with the familiar stooped gait of someone sending a text message. This guy was enthralled by that even rarer breed, the iPad. I watched him proceed, eyes still fixed on the flashing screen, and walk at full pace into a row of passersby. Not pretty. It was a sad footnote in the history of supposedly connective technologies, but more than that, the man and his iPad were the latest casualties in what I like to call the Postmodern Clusterfuck.
Postmodernism has captured us. The way it obliterates hierarchies can be liberating, but the mistrust of any boundaries, the openness to literally anything, leads to a dogma of blind acceptance (emphasis on the blind). Tolerance and open-mindedness should be our highest values insofar as they promote egalitarianism and outright celebration of diversity. But those very virtues are tempting for the intellectually lazy. Openness becomes misconstrued as a disdain for opinion or judgment, and egalitarianism of ideas becomes an excuse not to stand for anything.
Human beings need standards by which to sort out right and wrong answers to life’s questions, whether mundane or world-historic. There are myriad standards that have proven both arbitrary and narrow-minded. But we haven’t replaced outdated-but-clear standards with better standards—we’ve done away with standards altogether, leaving us at sea. The most obvious examples from our lives seem to be in relationships: they can be open, polyamorous, “complicated,” hook-ups, or otherwise ambiguously committed. The Postmodern Clusterfuck has merged with radical politics to create a unique pressure that compels people to pursue relationships on terms that confirm their political ideals. The problem is that while we may have done away with harmfully restrictive sexual mores, we haven’t replaced them with any framework. It’s wonderful that norms about sexual relationships are being blasted away and that our cohort is open to a variety of choices. If you’re polyamorous, more power to you! The problem lies in the difference between understanding, even loving, the existence of myriad solutions to the same problem, and getting tangled in emotional knots trying to act out intellectually ideal politics within our emotional bounds.
Thus, we arrive at the political result of the Postmodern Clusterfuck: the ascendancy of opinion. If all truth is relative, then the natural tendency would be to elevate opinion. Infinite possibilities to connect to other people await, but nothing can be evaluated as better or worse than anything else. We’re left in an echo chamber of global proportions, shouting at people about how we feel. Opinion cannot be refuted except on the facts, and those are all topsy-turvy anyway.
The implications on technology are enormous as well, and not just for personal safety when walking near people operating seductive Apple products. The advent of truly portable Internet will change the very definition of knowledge. Google reps often talk about “cloud computing”—the idea that instead of storing personal files on PCs, people will start storing data “in the cloud” online.
Forget cloud computing—we’re heading toward the age of cloud knowledge. As the barriers to accessing data become lower and lower, there is decreasing pressure to retain any information in our heads. Cloud knowledge means that capability will be measured in an individual’s ability to find data and to synthesize multiple sources rather than to retain and improve upon information on their own.
How can we judge in this environment with the pressure to access existing data? Why actually think through an issue if I can find six opinions between Wikipedia and JSTOR? There are obvious problems with this trajectory. If all things are equal, how do we distinguish between instant messages and face-to-face interactions? It’s not such a futuristic nightmare anymore to imagine full human lives conducted online. The Postmodern Clusterfuck traps us in a corner, unwilling to say that text messaging is cowardly or that cell phones in public are rude.
Columbia is not immune to the Postmodern Clusterfuck, as we simultaneously champion the Western canon through the Core Curriculum and the most prominent criticism of the Western canon through our fantastic array of critical theory/subaltern/postcolonial studies classes. These are the big questions that confront our society in an age of collective cognitive dissonance where screaming Republicans and cutesy kittens have the equally insidious effect of distracting us from war, economic collapse, and social and political injustice. At the very least, let’s debate these issues in an open forum, one in which we can look each other in the eye. If trouble arises, just Google it or something.
Sarah Leonard is a Columbia College senior majoring in history. Kate Redburn is a Columbia College senior majoring in history and African studies. Shock and Awe runs alternate Mondays.