On Decline by Andrew Potter (book review)

Do you think we’re* in “decline”. This book argues that we are. Basically, economic stagnation breeds zero sum (your gain is my loss) thinking, playing into political tribalism which inhibits reason. All this taking place in a media environment (social media, smartphones and everything else designed as “casinos”) intended to short-circuit critical thought. That’s the overall argument. It’s heavy on “the enlightenment” and lacks for political and social context. That said, I was well prepared to dismiss the book but it kinda won me over. The basics of the analysis are true even if much is true in addition.

More content not saying I agree or disagree: we’re lucky to live in the current day rich world where “survival” isn’t a concern but… status seeking has replaced survival resulting in absurd behaviours and beliefs detached from practical reality. This can be generalized to the level of countries (for ex. Canada’s mismanagement of Covid-19 is papered over by how rich we are). The political right is the new counterculture** (flouting rules and conformity) while the left imposes new social rules. Smartphones and social media are genuinely more bad than good. “Democracy, technology and progress” once aligned but we’re out of “low hanging fruit”. Decline is not a matter of apocalypse but rather many different smaller problems amounting to one giant slow moving disaster.

*Who comprises the “we” anyway? Always a fun and uncontroversial question.

**His point is that the whole concept of “counterculture” is stupid though.

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Print and mortality

Print media increasingly provokes a disturbing feeling of mortality. The definitive beginning and end of a book has the most obvious implication. By print media I mean words on “dead” trees. This type of media is increasingly seen as antiquated. Books are still acceptable aesthetically but only if presented in a way that implies high levels of cognitive vitality. Reading challenging material like a serious book taxes the brain in a way that no other media does. In that way serious reading reminds you of your own corporeality and its limitations. Other media are indulged in to provoke a superficial feeling of “living” without limitation. Your smartphone is alive in your hand and the scroll, stream and possibilities are endless. Media consumers conjure up “life” as in friends and lovers via podcasts, social media, video games, and adult content. They “binge” and gorge themselves within a fantasy universe of consumption in which there is no beginning and no end. If you try and turn from this frenzy of consumption to read a book the world has to “stop.” This “stop” is more liable than other moments to be a concrete marker in time separate from the infinite array of interchangeable moments contemporary electronic media produce. The “stop” can be greatly attenuated if you read books on screen rather than on the page. Smartphones provoke a “god complex” in that they mediate your capacity to make food appear at the press of a button along with the already noted friends and lovers. If the friends and lovers prove unfortunately ephemeral you can definitely make the food appear in any event, to compensate. Not all gods are immortal but it’s a safer bet. Hosts of podcasts and people on social media are alive, you can confirm it in real time any number of ways. When someone who is big on social media dies they simply fall away. The crushing, “crowding” and “swarming” inherent to the current moment fill any void. Authors are more likely to be dead. It’s harder to pretend you’re friends with a dead person and antisocial. Being the ultimate distraction, smartphones help avoid spontaneous encounters with different kinds of people, one of the main things that can provoke a consideration of mortality. The mania of activity that colours the current media context recalls a stereotype of childhood and adolescence. Audiobooks are increasingly marketed emphasizing “social” and active qualities. Someone alive is reading you the book and you can consume it while moving around. Books are heavy material and tie you to a particular place. When tied to a particular place you are more mortal in narrative terms.

The smartphone screen as railcar window

“With speed, there is quantitatively more for the brain to deal with. This is not specific to the railroad but part of modernity more broadly, including the rise of the city. The classical social theorist Georg Simmel described this urban perception as an ‘intensification of nervous stimulation,’ as opposed to slow, lasting impressions which ‘use-up, so to speak, less consciousness than does the rapid crowding of changing images.’ The modern condition was thought of as a general onslaught of things to pay attention to, newly positioning the urban railroad-riding individual as a kind of spectator to an existence slipping quickly by.

The railroad positioned the world for the traveler as some thing passing, distant, to be taken as scenery framed by a cabin window. Schivelbusch expands on philosopher Dolf Sternberger’s description of this way of seeing as a ‘panoramic vision,’ a view that foregrounds the back—the passenger barely noticing that which is most near, reduced to an incon sequential blur by rapidity—and detaches the passenger from this space immediately surrounding the train car. Opposed to slower travel, where the passing landscape can be lingered upon and seen in great detail, railway speed produced a panoramic vision where the landscape is not seen for as long or intensively, its particularities are instead taken in as a part of an ongoing flow instead of discreetly. Always quickly vanishing, the landscape becomes more impressionistic, evanescent; panoramic vision is seeing the world as montage. This panoramic vision produced by the rapid succession of imagery is a useful way to frame the contemporary type of vision that social photography encourages, both in how we make and consume the images. The social photo is often viewed through the grid, stream, or story to be finger-scrolled, swiped, and tapped. The images in their proliferation and rapidity create an emergent stream in aggregate, and for the person doing the swiping, there is a more panoramic view of social life, akin to the montaged scenery from the train window.”