Is Society Stagnating?

Man sitting introspectively by the ocean

Although our technology is progressing, can the same be said for areas of human activity unrelated to the digital landscape?
(Image credit: Bigstock/Splendens)

A Generation Stuck in Neutral

We like to believe that with each passing generation, we as a society are progressing to advanced levels of intellectual and cultural enlightenment. It seems that the natural order of things dictates that human thought and activity should get better over time. Maybe this isn't always true, nor does it happen in an orderly and linear progression, but we’re happiest when we can tell ourselves that our society is on an upward trajectory.

But is this really the case anymore? Have the past few decades truly seen Western society continue to develop and improve itself? An examination of some of the primary cultural touchstones suggests that our culture has grown stagnant in a number of troubling ways.

Today's Music Ain't Got the Same Soul

The 20th century was a period of constant innovation and development in popular music. From the early 1900s with the development of jazz and all its variants to the hybridization of blues producing rock and roll, the musical landscape was evolving in new and exciting ways nearly every decade. Legendary performers like Elvis, Michael Jackson, Freddy Mercury, Prince and Jimi Hendricks emerged in the United States, while acts like the Beatles, David Bowie and The Rolling Stones came from England and participated in the great American musical tradition. Each era of music had a distinctive sound, whether it be 1950s doo-wop, Motown, 1980s hair bands, or the grunge era of the early to mid 1990s.

However, the 21st century seems to have stalled that musical progression. In contrast to the previous century, much modern music tends to have a somewhat generic and overproduced aesthetic. Some of the blame for this can be attributed to how commercialized music has become. Major studios today use focus group data and historical trends to micromanage popular music with really only the bottom line in mind. This results in music that’s superficially pleasant and enjoyable to a wide, generic audience, but an entire artistic component of the music goes missing.

Meritless Role Models

In the 20th century, we also had celebrities. Invariably, they were people who rose to the top of their professions in fields like athletics, music, acting and other high-profile fields. Their merits introduced them to the public and they became icons to the nation. Joe DiMaggio was a legend in baseball, John Lennon was a giant in music, and Elizabeth Taylor was a household name in the world of film. Certainly, the public grew fascinated by the details of these celebrities’ personal lives, but the foundation of their fame lay in their phenomenal talents.

But some time in the past few decades, it seems that certain people have figured out a "stardom shortcut." With the aid of social media and the rise of reality TV, we now have a generation of celebrities who have somehow become famous simply because...they are famous. Possessing no discernable abilities, many of today's "role models" have managed to convince a large percentage of the population that their actions are worthy of acclaim simply because they’re on TV.

Less Plot, More CGI

In the past decade plus, superhero movies have been unquestionably the most commercially successful and culturally buzzed-about movie genre. It’s notable that the genre which is carrying Hollywood as a whole is based on comic books, which in the 20th century were regarded mostly as a hobby for children and teenagers. This isn't to say that superhero films aren’t enjoyable, and some of them have risen to the level of emotional impact and drama comparable to non-genre fare. But for the most part, the bedrock of the superhero movie is CGI bedazzlement creating a frenetic and action-packed narrative that patches over many of the shortcomings in character and plot development.

Once again, commercialization and the quest for every last dollar seems to be a prime driver for trends in modern film. Studios make the movies they know will make money using time-proven formulas. The only casualty in all of this is artistry, itself, and the unfettered vision of a director or scriptwriter. Many directors have often complained that studios no longer allow them to take risks with their films as they once had in the past.

Group of people using smartphones

Some studies suggest less than 20% of people actually read the articles they find on the Internet. Could technology and information overload be a contributing factor to a troubling new era of aliteracy?
(Image credit: Bigstock/imtmphoto)

By many of the measures connected with artistry--music, film and celebrity--it seems that we’ve reached a point of stagnation. And yet when it comes to technological development, we’re proceeding at a breakneck pace. Nearly everyone holds in their hands a mobile device more powerful than any PC at the start of the 21st century. Artificial intelligence and advances in robots are allowing us to automate more and more mundane jobs formerly held by humans. The proliferation of the Internet brings us closer to people all over the country and the world (though many people report higher feelings of loneliness brought on by social media use).

The interesting question is whether this rapid advance in technology is unrelated to the seeming stagnation in culture and society, or if it’s actually a contributing factor. It’s difficult to say definitively, but it’s arguable that "Big Data" and the rise of quantitative analysis has allowed large commercial interests to more efficiently make money by tapping into and co-opting our culture.

Look no further than the rise of social media. On the surface, the Silicon Valley social media giants appear to be tremendous tools for keeping you in touch with your friends and loved ones no matter how far apart you are. And on some level, that is what they are. But on another level, some social media sites represent some of the largest and most sophisticated data mining operations ever undertaken in human history, harvesting the details of our lives and selling them to marketers and other interests.

Hold Higher Standards

It’s always a little dangerous to try to predict what lies ahead, but the last decade has perhaps given us a glimpse into what we can expect in the near future. The masses increasingly appear to demand less and less in terms of artistic quality from their sources of entertainment, so expect for movies, music and other popular culture to become even more refined in terms of its bland, focus group-approved appeal.

If anything, the vapid culture of the celebrity famous-for-their-own-celebrity will escalate, as ‘viral moments’ will transform people into mini-celebrities over any little event, with the most opportunistic and clever managing to leverage that into a brand.

If you were hoping for this condition to change in the near future, I'm afraid you're in for a bit of a disappointment. Unfortunately, there’s really no indication that our society will return to some of the norms of the 20th century anytime soon. The stagnation we’ve observed in Western society seems likely to get worse before it gets better. The best advice I can offer is to only support those musical artists, films and television shows that seem to value quality in terms of their storytelling or performances, and reject the obvious cash-grabs. If enough people demand higher quality from popular culture, the studios and artists will listen. The problem is, you're going up against a tidal wave of people who seem totally content with mindless banality.