Retroscope 2019: Socio-cultural

December 23, 2019

Societies in the West and elsewhere continued to question their long-held truisms this year. This is true for politics, on the left and the right, as well as for the economy, in which scholars and companies are looking for alternatives to shareholder capitalism to better address today’s problems of inequality and climate change. On the individual level, many of us are looking for meaning and purpose and hope to find this in new forms of spirituality or the use of digital technology.

1. At the End of History, our socio-economic models are in need of a transition

According to the German 19th century philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegel, history can be understood as the gradual realization and development of the idea of freedom that resulted in the liberal world order as we know it today. However, liberalism is increasingly under pressure because of various factors, such as the rise of an authoritarian China, extreme right- and left-wing populism in Western countries, a return of nationalism and a “backlash” against globalization. Indeed, it seems that we have reached the end of Fukuyama’s end of history, and new ideas on how to govern our societies and economies as well as new business modelsare emerging.

For starters, companies are fundamentally rethinking their purpose and are drawing inspiration from the Rhine model of capitalism. Maximizing shareholder value cannot be their sole purpose anymore, as consumers and citizens are increasingly forcing them to change the way they do business. Driven by these worries about capitalism, stockmarkets are also rethinking their purpose, and are increasingly looking to the long term to make financial markets more anchored to the real economy. However, with artificial intelligence reaching mainstream adoption by companies and business, inequality as a result of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has become a major theme that is currently neglected by markets and governments alike, leading to a troubling rise in mass protests. It seems that economics is – again- conceived of as the “dismal science”. In response, new courses are being taught to give our future leaders a taste of new “principles of economics”. This could lead to new ideas and fundamental tools for economic policymaking, such as the radical rethinking of monetary policy of the Modern Monetary Theory, a fringe economic theory that states that governments shouldn’t worry about debt, which is entering mainstream discussions. Another new theme is the calibration of our current fiscal taxation system to the challenges posed by digital disruption by, for example, the implementation of automation taxes. And new economists and sociologists are already pondering a future in which we will no longer need to work and are asking whether we could live without a job. As such, this paradigm shift in economics will eventually lead to new economic models, theories and thinkers.

2. In these uncertain times, we long for radical change

We are living in uncertain times, as many abstract and immense changes (e.g. globalization, digitization, financialization, urbanization) are profoundly affecting our life world. Externally, they change the pace of our lives and the material substrate to our societies and economies. However, many people are experiencing psychological difficulties dealing with the accelerating changes of our time. Secularization, nihilism and political disaffiliation meanmany people no longer have a stable moral foundation and spiritual framework from which toorganize and appraise their lives. This, in itself, leads to further discussions on societal and moral issues; indeed, we live in a time of moral outrage as more and more previous certainties are being challenged. Furthermore, higher social mobility and the subsequent decay of traditional and communal life have led to a new phase of individualism. Thus, people are gaining freedom to develop their individual identity and autonomy over their desires, feelings and thoughts, which is considered a process of “liberation”. This starts at a young age, as childhood is changing and younger generations are being raised with different values, ideals and beliefs. However, the quest for autonomy in the digital age is becoming all the more relevant, as digital technologies and surveillance capitalism undermine our idea of personal freedom, privacy and autonomy. In response, many people are becoming convinced that Big Tech companies and internet platforms have a societal duty besides their business responsibilities; that the internet is in need of transition. However, it is not (yet) clear what should be done and how, although consensus is emerging that a “deep” political transition will be necessary, meaning that our political and societal assumptions and concepts will require a major overhaul, and that public policy will see radical changes in the coming years. The codification of public policy means that governments are already increasingly using software to develop and execute public policy, causing policy-making to look increasingly like coding. However, a similar problem is emerging, as it is questionable to what extent code can replace laws written in natural language and how we can codify norms and values. In our times of uncertainty, about the external world and our inner dimension, we will increasingly long for themes and leadership to provide a stable basis and imperatives for our daily lives.

3. Individuals are in search of transcendence

One way for people to deal with the challenges brought by the end of end of history and psychological uncertainty is to find purpose in life by actively looking for transcendence. This often entails spiritual practices, such as mindfulness, which promises a healthier, happier,well-rested life by helping us live more mindfully. Furthermore, many of these practices for the masses are being enabled by digital technology, such as meditation apps or brain-sensing technologies. However, this contemporary spirituality is all about the self, instead of the relationship between the subject and the objective world. Digital technology is also changing our relationship to nature. We’re trying to reconnect with our biological and most foundational constitution and digital technology can actually help bring us closer to nature. Generally, this taking care of nature for the sake of nature provides us with a grand narrative that gives meaning and a moral compass to our daily lives. This is also reflected in theincreased value we place on physical health, as we learned from Zeroing in on 0.0% beers, or the consumption of psychedelic substances that provide high hopes for holiness. In all these practices, the so-called “bifurcation” of man and world, subject and objective world, is sought to be broken in our quest to overcome the isolated and alienated feeling of modern man. And digital technology can help us with that, with interfaces that allow for brain-to-brain interaction that enable networked identities and immediate information and experience exchanges, for example, or augmented reality, which holds much social promise. This has led to new subcultures, which have their own cultural references and symbolism, in which communication occurs increasingly through images, videos, emojis and which have developed their own online grammar. Furthermore, virtual experiences also open up entirely new ways of “being” and interacting, resulting in more fluid identities, new ways for communities with shared ideals and goals to join forces and new types of meaningful experiences that are not possible in real life. Similar to the 16th century discovery of the New World, we are setting foot in a New Virtual World: a vast space with extensive resources and new species and things to discover and explore. However, as we increasingly come to rely on the digital world, the ontology of the digital world is becoming a new field of study that will enable us to anticipate and explore new possibilities in the digital realm, both for ourselves and to make the world a better place.

4. Sustainability risks: getting stuck between false hope and despair

At the end of last year, we noted that climate fatalism would be a likely result of political inaction and the diminishing chances of humanity actually curbing climate change. Yet, the European Green Deal, China’s efforts to become a global climate leader, and the fact that businesses are finally starting to pay a meaningful price for carbon emissions do offer a gleamof hope (as would a Democratic U.S. president). Also, things are changing in sectors such as construction, packaging and fashion, in which new ways of thinking and new traditions could reduce our environmental footprint. Businesses in general feel the need to behave more responsibly, and those who won’t or can’t, have an increasingly tough time explaining their inaction.

Still, climate change, and environmental sustainability in a broader sense, is obviously a major cause of political polarization (with populists on both ends). Moreover, the climate debate also makes for a deep cultural rift between those who are very vocal about climate change and those who don’t seem to care so much, but act relatively sustainably by default. In the end, the key question remains whether better technology (e.g. solar power, geo-engineering, massive reforestation or other forms of carbon capture) or a wildcard such asglobal depopulation can solve the problem of climate change without us having to sacrificemuch or whether we are facing fundamental limits to growth and have to change our way of life. This is also the case in the Dutch nitrogen crisis; while there may be some partial technological solutions, we might have to conclude that our current agricultural system is fundamentally unsustainable and that we have to switch to a new system of production that is more in line with ideas about deep ecology.

5. New generations set the tone in social and traditional media

We have always taken great interest in (supposed) generational characteristics and intergenerational dynamics as they are major determinants of politics and culture. From a media perspective, for instance, last year’s success of TikTok can be seen as a sign that Gen Z is taking over social media from its millennial predecessors for whom Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat were go-to platforms. In a broader sense, Gen Z, supposedly a sensitive and conservative generation, is about to take center stage as it reaches adulthood and enters working life. Also, the next generation, Alpha, is already in the making and these kids areraised on, and increasingly by, artificial intelligence as they are surrounded by digital assistants and increasingly smart toys and classrooms. As such, these kids may become the genuine “digital natives” who have extensive experience in making digital technology workfor them (e.g. in virtual practices experienced in Fortnite). Yet, we should not forget that older generations have also spent quite a bit of time with digital technology and that they may have a much deeper of understanding of how the technology works  “under the hood” and couldactually teach their younger counterparts a thing or two about what technology can and cannot or should not do.

In the meantime, traditional media are still very relevant as they increasingly take a stance in debates on social values (e.g. DC’s Joker and other popular franchises) and reflect today’s Zeitgeist. The current golden age of horror, for instance, can be linked to the fact that we live in uncertain times and these movies help society reflect on issues related to technological change, racism or the collapse of modern civilization.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The Tool
Category: Objects
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The Machine
Category: Objects
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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