Posted in essay

Is this decade worse than the ’80s?

A few nights ago, I watched The Dirt on Netflix. It’s a silly film about the rock band, Mötley Crüe. All silliness aside, the opening line is brilliant:

The 1980s… the worst fucking decade in human history.

The Dirt Movie PosterI laughed when I heard that because it seemed so true. The 1980s was, in many ways, a cultural dead zone. It was a period when even the best artists temporarily turned shit. Even Dylan and Springsteen were awful during the eighties. Synth took over music, cocaine blinded the formerly creative people, and movies… well, ok, movies were fine, but think how good they would’ve been in another decade. Scarface, for example, is one of the greatest films ever, but how much better would it have been without the wanky guitar licks? The same goes for almost every other movie of the decade.

I laughed and laughed and then stopped laughing. Actually, the 1980s wasn’t all that bad, was it? I mean, it lacked all the best of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘90s, but it could’ve been worse. Yeah, it’s hard to think of a worse decade than the ‘80s, but then… what about this one? What about this decade we’re living in right now? I don’t even know what you’d call this current decade, but I suppose it doesn’t matter much. It’s almost over, and no one is going to look back and say, “Gosh, weren’t the _____ great?” No, it’s unlikely anyone will ever say that.

What is there to remember from the 2010s? If the ‘80s were shit, at least they had amazing movies like The Goonies, Die Hard, and Stand By Me, to name but a few. Nowadays we just remake movies, and if we’re feeling particularly edgy, we make the new cast all-female. And if it’s not a shitty remake, it’s another bloody comic book movie. I’m not entirely opposed to these, as they certainly have their place, but they seem to have become the cinema staple in the last decade, each pretty much the same as the one before it. It shows an utter lack of imagination, a disrespect for the movie-going public.

(That said, the movie-going public apparently likes it just fine. They clamour for more. But then again, these are the same people who’ve made reality TV popular and then placed one of its stars as president of the United States, so maybe we shouldn’t be giving the people exactly what they want.)

80s fashion
What were they thinking?

It seems to me that the ‘80s were such a cultural wasteland primarily because of the rise of cocaine. In previous decades, drugs had lit up the imaginations of creative people, causing an immense output of artistic creation. Cocaine… not so much. It deadened the imagination, or at least gave people confidence in their shitty ideas. It told them that synthesizers made music better and dumb guitar licks played over panoramic nighttime cityscapes could turn any terrible film into a great one. It told them that tracksuits, perms, and shoulder-pads were cool.

This present generation is not blighted by cocaine, but something far more addictive and destructive: technology. The internet has connected the world, and it has brought us little of real worth. People all over the globe are becoming more similar as our cultures are washed away by this unification of people. Facebook and Instagram are making us all emulate each other, while at the same time causing stark rifts between groups of people. The so-called culture wars taking place between left and right wing factions in the west is a prime example of something that has been exacerbated to an unimaginable degree by the advent of mobile devices that can connect us at all times to the internet. We now shop for news like we used to shop for music. “Metal is the best… fuck everything else!” used to sound so pathetic, and yet now look at us. We choose a political position and believe anything churned out by the fake news-generating meme factories. Orwell couldn’t have made this shit up.

Politics aside, it is disgusting the extent which everyone – myself included – is addicted to their phone. We panic without it. We cannot function without GPS, Google, Wikipedia, and Whatsapp. It has castrated us and lobotomized us. Our powers of concentration, of reasoning, of being able to amuse ourselves or sustain a conversation – all these things are fading quickly. This new technology has developed faster than anything in human history, and its impact is spectacularly far-reaching. I hate to sound like an old fart prophesying doom because of a new invention, but it does not look good.

I am glad that I grew up in the era before the internet, before social media, and before smartphones. Although I am as utterly reliant upon these inventions as most folks, I remember what it was like to live without them, and I think we were better off. Technology is not inherently bad, of course. Smartphones are not innately problematic, and the internet is actually a wonderful invention. But they are like opiates – designed for a noble purpose, but utterly abused.

phone and spine health
Source

In the 1980s, we did not have an epidemic of people taking selfies. We did not have tens of millions of people flying around the world, annihilating cultures and ecosystems just to get photos for their social media accounts, and people did not have an easy platform from which to spread ignorant views to an audience of potentially billions. Nowadays, you are “creative” if you remake a meme you saw on Reddit, “philosophical” if you copy someone else’s Twitter post on your Facebook account without attribution, and we all worship “influencers” who became famous overnight because their clickbait is better than the other ten thousand people who do exactly the same as them.

Bring on the 2020s. I genuinely hope that it brings about an awareness of the damage we have done to ourselves. I hope that Facebook and Twitter fade away, and that people begin to reject the technologies that have come to rule their lives. I hope that it these devices and platforms are used more responsibly while they still exist, but that they pitter away and people find that it’s not normal for us to be living such public lives, connected to so many thousands of people, and bombarded constantly with so much information. Yes, we are living in a decade that makes the ‘80s look pretty damn good, but while ‘80s bullshit was shattered by the likes of Nirvana at the beginning of the ‘90s, let’s hope we transition quickly into a better decade very soon. I cannot imagine people putting down their phones, getting offline, and returning to a state of mental awareness, but I really, really hope that it happens.

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Using the Internet in China

Today I woke up and saw that the internet had gone done across much of the Western world… or at least that’s how it was presented. Twitter and Reddit were down, and a ton of other sites. It had all happened while I was asleep because I live on the other side of the world, in China.

Where did I see this news? The same place people get most of their news these days – Facebook, Twitter, Reddit. In this hyper-connected world of ours, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the internet, and in particular social media. I wonder what would happen if the attack had been bigger… much bigger. How would people survive? How would they even know what’s going on? Of course, those of us who lived pre-Facebook would adapt pretty quickly, but the others? For them, it would probably feel like the apocalypse.

I don’t need to use much imagination to get inside the minds of those who tried and failed to get online last night. Living in China, not being able to get on the above mentioned websites is pretty common. For me to visit Facebook this morning, or, for that matter, almost any website I regularly use, required me to use a VPN. I pay about $100 per year for this service, which I think is very reasonable. Overall, it’s pretty good. I’m able to check my e-mail and do most basic things I need to. Sometimes, I’m able to watch videos on YouTube – although it can be slow and frustrating.

Without a VPN, the websites that you can visit from China are pretty limited in number, and those which are technically open are usually excruciatingly slow. Sometimes, it can actually be impossible to get any functionality from them whatsoever. To be honest, I don’t even try any more. If my VPN is down, I take a deep breath and then spend my time doing something offline – like going for a run or reading a book. It’s particularly aggravating, however, when I need to do something – like answer an important e-mail, prepare for class, or do some research. It is terribly frustrating to know that I need to do something, yet the rules made by a group of corrupt sociopaths in the government to keep their populace in the dark about their shady practices ensures that my work sometimes needs to be hindered.

But it’s best not to think about it when possible.

The internet in China is not all bad. I live in a small town in the middle of nowhere and yet I get a relatively fast connection at home or via 4G. This place is almost third world, yet even here amidst the poverty and ancient superstitions, we can stream music or movies. Assuming I want to use a Chinese website, it works great. Of course, that severely limits my internet use. If I want to use WeChat to talk to friends, great! If I want to download music from QQ or KuGou, fantastic! Taobao and Alipay are brilliant apps, too. Beyond that, the Chinese internet is sort of like the more vapid parts of the real internet – aka what you can access beyond the Great Firewall. Imagine the idiots you went to school with, for whom the most important thing in the world is who won last night’s celebrity-reality-variety-chat show, or whatever gossip has inexplicably gotten its way onto the front page of the tabloid “news” papers. Imagine the sort of vapid crap that they post on social media, and then tone its intellectual level down even further, translate into Chinese, and add more noise and bright colours. Thanks to censorship, there simply is modern culture in China.

Of course, it goes without saying that being offline is no bad thing. I loved traipsing through Southern Africa or sailing along the Indonesian archipelago, completely disconnected from the internet, with absolutely no way of getting online – no notifications, no pings, no bleeps. It felt great. But that’s not really possible or desirable in day-to-day life, even out in the boondocks of China. Surrounded by the majesty of nature, technology can seem an unpleasant distraction, but in the polluted, grey, backwards wastelands of Anhui Province, it is more like a lifeline. Moreover, I’m a teacher and if I need ideas or resources for class, I need the internet. I’m a writer and editor, so I need the internet to research or publish. I live on the opposite side of the globe from my friends and family, so I need the internet to communicate.

There are innumerable reasons why living in China can be difficult, and the internet may seem like a trivial one, but it really isn’t. I can’t abide censorship, and when that censorship – perpetrated, like all censorships, for spurious reasons – negatively effects my life, my business, my ability to teach using the best available resources… well, that is what I consider intolerable living conditions. If the government announced tomorrow that they were cracking down on VPNs, I’d be on a flight out of here the next day – or at least I’d try, but without access to SkyScanner or eBookers it might be difficult.

So, looking across the world at the turmoil of a temporary disconnection from the internet, I do feel a certain empathy. It’s easy to mock, but being forced offline when you genuinely need to be online can be more than an inconvenience.