The automobile is on its way out

Written by Sjoerd Bakker, august 26 2020

The car was one of the most important drivers of growth in the twentieth century. Yet we’re now coming to the realization that we’ve given the car too much space, both literally and figuratively, in our lives and living world. That’s why there’s growing momentum for reducing car ownership and use worldwide. This is a technological, institutional as well as cultural battle which will slowly unfold during the twenty-first century.

Our observations

  • The rise of the combustion engine and motorized transport was initially widely embraced and many saw it as a solution to societal problems. This was no wonder, as the car was universally introduced by manufacturers and newly established interest groups (e.g. ANWB in the Netherlands and the Automobile Club of America and the American Automobile Association in the U.S.) as the standard-bearer for progress and modernity.
  • The car was given all the necessary space and more and investments were made in highways. This was done out of political considerations regarding the stimulation of economic growth (partly as a component of the New Deal) and (as in Europe) to enhance political unity. Streets and entire cities were taken over by the car at the expense of other road users, but also of other infrastructures (e.g. bicycle highways in Los Angeles and public transportation such as trams). Especially in the suburbs (made possible by cars), the car was (and is) the only practical form of transportation.
  • The ousting of other road users and the growing number of (fatal) car accidents led to large-scale protests in the 1920s and ‘30s, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Car drivers were seen as an elite group that made life miserable for a much more diverse and larger group of non-car users with their “devil wagons” and “toys of the rich”. In some cases, tensions even led to violence against car drivers.
  • The American car lobby succeeded nonetheless, through education and other means, in convincing the population that the streets and roads were mainly meant for cars. Children were taught to be careful when crossing the street, as opposed to the driver exercising caution, and learned that they basically didn’t belong on the streets. While rules for car drivers were developed as well (such as maximum speeds, driver’s licenses and stoplights), the emphasis was on rules and bans for other road users.
  • In the Soviet Union, political ideology led the state to expressly prefer the development of public transportation (i.e. subway, trams and buses) and the (individualistic) car was given much less space. Many European countries also elected a more modest role for cars than they had in the U.S.

Connecting the dots

In hindsight, we can say that most countries gave the car too much space and that, in organizing our lifeworld, we’ve inordinately accommodated the motorist. As a result, the car, aside from all the good it has brought us economically and societally, has also led to large structural problems; unlivable cities, unsafety in traffic, unhealthy lifestyles, segregation, air pollution and climate change. Looking back, we can thus now say that laws and regulation for cars and other motorized traffic have remained too limited to solving or preventing (relatively) small problems and that we, society as a whole, have been insufficiently attentive to the structural problems increasing car use would cause. It is questionable, however, to what extent societies had any choice in the matter (in light of the economic and societal promise of this technology) and what measures they should have taken. Furthermore, a problem such as climate change (and to a lesser extent, local air pollution) could not conceivably have been foreseen.

Now, we’re experiencing the problems mentioned on a daily basis and momentum is growing to correct these historical “mistakes” and, with a certain sense of drama, one could even say that we’re waging a war against the car. Partly, the solution may take the form of technological fixes, such as the electrification of mobility (which would at least reduce direct pollution) or robotization (which could make the deployment of vehicles much more efficient), but we’ve also come to the understanding that technological fixes are nearly always limited and lead to other issues in turn.

There are also many initiatives to strongly discourage car use by means of charging motorists fees and car-free zones. Years ago, Barcelona introduced the model of “superblocks”, whereby four or nine residential blocks are made car-free and car traffic can only use the adjacent streets. In Utrecht, they’re developing a neighborhood of 10,000 houses (virtually) without parking spaces. In response to the corona crisis, London has chosen to make many of the city’s streets car-free in order to create space for the pedestrians and cyclists that, for fear of corona, want to avoid public transportation. To further discourage the car as an alternative to public transportation, the rush hour rate has been raised for cars in the inner city. Paris too, has invested in separate bicycle lanes at the expense of space for cars, which has led to a 54% increase in bicycle traffic in one year and a (much smaller) decrease in car use. Naturally, these kinds of measures lead to much resistance among car drivers (on practical and cultural grounds), but young people seem to be more open to new, cleaner, shared and more flexible forms of transportation with more room for bikes, mopeds and motor scooters, as well as traditional modes of public transportation.

In the longer term however, the total demand for mobility will also have to drop for the desire for cars to dwindle. A society with fewer cars will probably only be possible if we can manage to organize our daily lives on much smaller surfaces. This could be done by bringing physical destinations closer together in more compact cities instead of vast suburbs. In an extreme variation on this principle, China is currently working on so-called “15-minute life circles”,  in which nearly every imaginable destination (such as work, stores, education and healthcare) is within fifteen minutes’ walking distance for residents. This principle is applied, among other places, in the Tianfu New Area of Chengdu, a city of millions meant to serve as an example of a green megacity with high quality of life for residents. Possibly, virtualization can contribute to a structural decrease in our demand for mobility (hypomobility), as it enables us to engage in more practices from home.

Implications

  • Slowly but surely, space will arise for new mobility models that until now have failed to achieve a breakthrough (such as car-sharing), but the solution will mainly lie in renewed appreciation for old modalities such as bicycles and trains (which will increasingly become an alternative to short-haul flights).

  • It’s not nearly everywhere that the car has taken up such a dominant position (yet) as in the West. The (developing) countries where it hasn’t, may be able to leapfrog to cleaner and smarter forms of mobility without ever being encumbered by a car-dominated culture and infrastructure.

  • The history of the car may also teach us to more critically reflect on technology today. For example, in the debate on digital technology (and artificial intelligence in particular), there is strong emphasis on regulating excesses, but we don’t often enough ask what impact this technology will have in the long-term and to what extent we can put a stop to that if necessary. For this technology as well, a (more cautious) European approach could benefit our quality of life in the long-term, even if it is at the expense of economic growth in the short-term.

QAnon and knowledge

QAnon is a well-known conspiracy theory. It’s also a phenomenon of an era beyond the era of post-truth, in which we uphold the value of truth we are not able to obtain anymore: an era in which there is no truth. More and more people adhere to QAnon, but how should we understand this as a sociopolitical phenomenon?

Our observations

  • QAnon first appeared in October 2017 on 4chan, an online forum popular among alt-right and far-right adherents (it later moved to 8kun, a similar website that used to be called 8chan). The identity of the founder is unknown – all messages on 4chan are anonymous – but this person, who calls himself “Q Clearance Patriot” or just “Q”, claims to be a high-ranking official in the Trump administration with information about a conspiracy to overthrow the president originating from deep within the state. Since October 2017, the anonymous person or group known as “Q” is responsible for 4,600 posts, or “Q drops” indicating that the world, but especially the U.S., is controlled by a “deep state” that Trump is attempting to fight.
  • QAnon originated in a discussion on several platforms on social media and has become something of an “omnispiracy”, encompassing different conspiracy theories. The problem is that its belief systems are intertwined systems of different beliefs that are codependent, so that the many conspiracy theories and beliefs within QAnon can mutually reinforce each other, which is how others can be persuaded to accept new beliefs. As such, QAnon offers an integrated whole of correlated conspiracy theories and “fake news” notions. To deal with QAnon, the whole information ecosystem should be dealt with. Otherwise, any solution will remain local and QAnon will keep cropping up. This could be done by attacking the distribution system of misinformation by informing users about manipulation and fake news, combating echo chambers and tunnels for algorithmic recommendations and actively highlighting contradictions and opposing perspectives, and breaking trust in conspiracy theorists and theories by demonstrating how wrong they are.
  • Though it’s unclear whether QAnon has attracted more adherents than other conspiracy theories, the difference is that with QAnon, those in power spread the theory and thus confirm that its adherents aren’t crazy or outlaws. The community formed by QAnon has helped it to linger longer than other conspiracy theories, while the community works together to ascertain the real truth. Moreover, it plays into the desire for apocalypse and the complete collapse of society and its institutions. At the moment, there are over 35 politicians in the American Congress that have in some form or other proclaimed themselves adherents of QAnon.

Connecting the dots

For a number of years, especially since the election of Trump, we’ve had to deal with fake news. This is, however, only a phase we’ll have to go through. We’ve always relied on certain authorities that brought us truth, such as religious leaders, politicians or other persons whose knowledge we took as gospel. This led to a concentration of power, which also resulted in corruption or tunnel vision (whether consciously or subconsciously). QAnon has emerged from this and shows us a glimpse of the dynamic between media and a “post-truth” era. How can we now understand the rise of QAnon as an exponent of this?

First of all, digital technology now gives people the means to investigate for themselves and to share their insights at low cost and high scalability. This is visible in the stories and decodings of Q drops. Furthermore, the filter bubbles and echo chambers of digital media provide people who have extreme ideas with a platform and the means to broadcast their ideas. As such, QAnon and its narrative belong to the postmodern condition of deconstruction, debunking and false consciousness. Think, for example, of the critical theory of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud – the “masters of suspicion”, according to Ricœur – and this discourse is where QAnon fits in, with its alleged criticism of elites and the technocratic system (i.e. the deep state). QAnon thus appeals to a group that suffers existentially-economically, feels wronged by the leading elite and political systems, and therefore criticize these powers, which takes the form of accusations of corruption or running illustrious networks and systems (e.g. a pedophilia ring).

We’re also living in a time of latent desire for apocalypse and collapse: a preference for chaos in the system over the maintaining of the status quo. That is also the proud message of QAnon’s Awakening and Calm before the storm. Furthermore, QAnon is a meta-conspiracy theory, feeding into all kinds of anti-government sentiment and aversion to centralization of power. This matches the libertarian, anarchist movements in American culture. Corona has had a radicalizing effect on all this anti-government sentiment. Lastly, QAnon is mobilizing the strength of anonymous movements without a leader (e.g. Anonymous and Guy Fawkes, Bitcoin by Nakamoto).

But we shouldn’t just dismiss QAnon as an unnecessary conspiracy theory that wants to criticize, or as an absurd religion. In a broader sense, we’re living in systems in which we mainly take for granted knowledge and convictions handed down to us, or which we’re unable to verify. This isn’t necessarily a problem, as long as we have faith in these systems, instruments and knowledge production. Not every person has to verify for herself whether the earth is in fact round, and we don’t have to continuously engage in philosophical reflection on the knowledge instruments of a hospital to assess a form of treatment. And that means that we’re living in a time of “conspiracy” of interrelated propositions and intertwined ways of knowledge production. And it isn’t just in periods of great change and internal criticism that conditions for truth become apparent and clear. That makes QAnon a metamodern phenomenon; it constructs a narrative with an entire meta-narrative and idea of the Good Life, the political system and truth. At the same time, it’s an undesirable outgrowth, because it’s not committed to the epistemological conditions of falsifiable and coherent theory. Metamodernism is specifically supposed to guard us against that.

Implications

  • Effectively combating QAnon requires a broader view of our “ecology of knowledge production”, in which we include more aspects than a merely theoretical-discursive approach to knowledge production would (i.e. knowledge production as the formulation of true propositions and convictions). An increasing amount of research focuses on the way truth and our beliefs come into existence (e.g. the importance of feelings, the broader knowledge system of propositions and mutual coherence between them, or the way digital media manipulate our rational capacities).

  • Besides the strong focus on how knowledge arises “in ourselves”, we must take a broader view and consider the structural factors that contribute to the belief in conspiracy theories. We’ve written before about the significant demographic and political variables that influence the belief in conspiracy theories. But we should also reflect on the way we achieve ignorance instead of knowledge. The study of “agnotology”, the construction of ignorance and its manifestations, can also be helpful in understanding how conspiracy theories play into this.

The evolutionary impact of the crisis

Many ascribe revolutionary qualities to the corona crisis and think, or hope, that it will lead to entirely new ideas, rules or structures. It is, however, more realistic and useful to understand the crisis from the point of view of a continuously evolving world. In this world, the crisis is the cause of mutation, thus of new variations, and induces (temporary) changes in the selection environment. But there will be no sudden radical changes either on the variation or the selection side. This implies that changes resulting from the crisis may be significant, but not revolutionary, and that they will be restricted to matters directly related to the crisis itself and the way we respond to it.

Our observations

  • From the first weeks of the corona crisis, we’ve been flooded with predictions and ideas about a different, and often “better” world, that would emerge from this period of misery. Of course, many thinkers mainly expounded their wishes or their own hobbyhorses, regarding themes such as sustainability, societal inequality, or our view on technology.
  • Historically, we see that a(n) (economic) crisis rarely leads to a completely different world or radically different outlooks. Inasmuch as a crisis can lead to any significant change in direction, this is a slow process which builds on a motion already initiated before the crisis. In that sense, we must understand a crisis mainly as an event that could potentially, and to a certain extent, contribute to a process already underway, because more actors are supporting it or have stopped resisting it.
  • Tensions between China and the U.S. are rising because of the crisis, but the crisis as such is unlikely to lead to entirely new conflicts. In Europe too, the crisis has resulted in increased tensions between North and South as well as East and West, but none of these tensions are new or solely caused by the crisis.
  • Digital means are taking flight (though that will prove partly temporary as well) and in healthcare, for instance, we’re seeing a considerable increase in the use of telehealth After the pandemic, the immediate need for these applications will be gone, but chances are that doctors and patients will become accustomed to them and come to see their value, leading to rapid improvements in these apps and regulators and insurers taking these solutions more seriously as well (e.g. as a way to keep care affordable in the long-term).
  • The corona crisis has boosted the (hoped-for) decrease in car use. Our car use, historically low at the moment, will almost certainly increase again after the crisis, and it is plausible that the effect of the crisis will ultimately amount to no more than a few percent. Even if this seems puny, such a shift would be enormous compared to the minimal reduction we’ve seen in the past decades. Moreover, a single percent decrease would reduce traffic congestion by three percent and the effect on traffic flows would thus be even bigger.

Connecting the dots

Each crisis entices people to succumb to wishful thinking and parading around their hobbyhorses, but ultimately, changes caused by the crisis won’t be revolutionary and will be limited to matters directly related to the crisis and the challenge of tackling it. The consequences will thus be found mainly in the direct, and largely unavoidable, measures taken in response to the economic problems, changing geopolitical relations and the adoption of new technology during the lockdown. Other forms of change, purposely brought about after reflections on (the causes of) the crisis, are much more unlikely or will only gradually arise in the long-term. It’s therefore best to understand the crisis from an evolutionary perspective; as an event that influences continuous processes of cultural, economic, (geo)political and technological evolution, but that is at the same time rooted in these very processes, which is why it will fail to lead to radical, revolutionary change.

Evolutionary processes are characterized by a continuous dynamic of processes of mutation leading to new variations (e.g. technological innovations, new revenue models, political movements) that may or may not fit into a dynamic selection environment. This environment is made up by the conditions under which something can continue to exist, grow or die. In a societal (i.e. non-biological) context, the process of variation and selection is far from blind or random; actors expressly anticipate possible changes in the selection environment when they develop a new innovation or idea (i.e. quasi-evolution). And selection criteria only adapt when presented with the right variations (e.g. emission norms for cars follow the pace of technological innovation in the industry). This mutual adjustment between processes of mutation and selection limits the possibilities for radical change and leads to path dependence; choices made in the past reduce the number of possible choices for the future.

From this perspective, we may wonder how the corona crisis could be of influence. As stated, this influence will remain largely restricted to the direct effects of the crisis itself and the path-dependent way we’re responding to it. Partly, this will be visible in new (incremental) variations in terms of new technology or new practices. But what’s more important is the way it’s leading to other and new selection criteria that determine which of these new (and existing) variations will be permanent or at least have more momentum temporarily. This of course applies most clearly to working from home and, very specifically, remote doctor’s visits are now suddenly deemed adequate. And yet, these types of changes in the selection environment aren’t radical or stand-alone; they add momentum to existing trends. On the international stage, we see that the crisis is leading to a heightening of the Chinese-American conflict and that neither country really has any other choice, they can’t suddenly view the matter in a different light. After all, this conflict is part of a larger and longer-lasting hegemonic battle and the path dependence within that meta-conflict is much stronger than the corona crisis as such.

The kind of large and virtuous societal change that is widely discussed and written about but that holds no direct relation to the crisis itself, is more difficult to imagine from a (quasi-)evolutionary framework. Ideas about this have, after all, been around far longer and the crisis will not directly result in new, more promising variations on these ideas, because there is no immediate reason that it should. More importantly, the selection environment for these kinds of ideas will not immediately change as a result of this crisis. Like any other crisis, the corona crisis is open to several interpretations and its nature, size and cause will remain hotly debated (politically) for a while to come. Without any clear consensus about this, different groups in society will project their own ideas and interests onto the crisis and it will fail to lead to any radical shifts in (political) ideals or convictions.

Implications

  • Lasting change as a consequence of the corona crisis will derive from a changing selection environment in which new practices (from high-technology to diplomacy) are better able to thrive. First and foremost, this selection environment, and the applied criteria, will be shaped and reshaped by the crisis in all its manifestations. Only in the longer term will our reflections on the crisis (e.g. concerning its causes) actually affect the selection environment.

  • Even temporary changes in the selection environment (e.g. temporary lockdowns) can lead to lasting change. Various solutions (i.e. variations) are given the opportunity to be developed further, thanks to extra means, attention and goodwill, and will in time also be able to survive when temporary selection criteria don’t apply (as much) anymore. For instance, the direct restrictions on working at the office will probably cease, but the ongoing development of applications for working and having meetings from home will eventually lead to working from home being considered a full equivalent to working at the office.

Gen Z in The Fourth Turning

Gen Zers are experiencing their formative years against the backdrop of the former financial crisis, the corona crisis and the climate crisis. In the famous book The Fourth Turning, the authors posit that in this time, the last turning of a generational cycle is unfolding. A period marked by crisis. According to this model, a generation growing up in this kind of time will develop in a certain way. How does Generation Z fit into this theory?

Our observations

  • Gen Z was expected to enter an economy characterized by growth and historically low unemployment. Because of the corona crisis, this image was suddenly turned on its head as it is now predicted that a huge economic crisis will unfold with historically high unemployment, in which young people will be hit hardest, according to Pew Research.
  • Traditions give a society something to hold onto, but precisely in these uncertain times, traditions, some of which centuries old, cannot proceed. Traditions such as Easter celebrations, Ramadan, and weddings, funerals, birthdays, graduation ceremonies and cultural festivities (such as the Dutch Kingsday or 4th of July in the U.S.) have not taken their usual form because of the corona crisis. In addition, many cultural events such as music festivals, art events and theatre shows have been cancelled altogether.
  • Naomi Klein holds that this crisis has made us more aware of interconnectivity, giving rise to more compassion and a sense of communion. According to Business Insider, this especially applies to Generation Z, 87% of which claim to be feeling more connected to others because of the pandemic.
  • We’ve written before about The Fourth Turning (1997) by Strauss and Howe, in which predictions are made based on cyclical patterns they perceive in modern Western history. According to this model, there would be a crisis around 2005; in 2007-2008 a global financial crisis occurred. A crisis mentality would be maintained until a new cycle begins in 2027. Especially in light of Brexit, populism, growing isolationism, protests, the climate crisis and of course the corona crisis, this theory seems worth considering.
  • Before the pandemic, we already wrote that Generation Z would grow up in a time of crisis. Initially, the financial crisis of 2007-2008 was identified as this crisis. However, now that the corona crisis and the climate crisis are here, notwithstanding the fact that the timing of these events is arbitrary to a certain degree, the members of Generation Z appear to be in the midst of an even larger crisis than was predicted.

Connecting the dots

According to the theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe, a generational cohort meets three criteria. First, they are in the same age stage (from child to young adult) when an important historic event and/or social trend occurs. Second, this event or trend shapes the world view of this generation, resulting in certain collective convictions and behaviors. Third, all of this leads to a sense of community. Each generational cohort follows a cyclical pattern with four turnings (The High, The Awakening, The Unraveling, The Crisis) that each last about 20 years. In accordance with the cyclical pattern of Strauss and Howe, Generation Z is growing up in a time of crisis and will therefore be categorized as the archetype of “The Artist”. Previous generations of this type were the Silent Generation (who grew up during, or right after WWII) and before that the Progressive Generation (who grew up during or right after the American Civil War). What these generations have in common is that they are known for their quiet image as children and young adults. This is because their parents are overprotective and they are consumed with worry about the crisis that’s unfolding. Generation Z has indeed been characterized as responsible and virtuous. A generation that prefers to stay home, uses drugs less, has sex at a later age and is more environmentally conscious than previous generations. The way they were raised and circumstances have made the “Artist” generation a sensitive generation. Generation Z has been characterized as a generation with mental health problems such as depression, anxiety disorders and loneliness. The frequent use of social media especially is identified as the cause of this sensitivity. It makes members of this generation aware, at a young age, of global problems such as climate change, inequality and scandals involving large-scale abuse, more so than previous generations. Now that the corona crisis poses a threat to their dreams and opportunities, their mental health problems seem to be getting worse.

If the archetype is correct, members of Generation Z will become flexible, consensus-seeking adults. They will aim to solve the crisis they find when they leave the nest, being conscience of co-dependency. The most positive attributes of this generation will be pluralism, expertise, a preference for fair play and political inclusivity. Their most negative attributes will be a sentimental personality with an inclination to complicate matters, and a certain degree of indecision. How would these attributes apply to the current Generation Z? What specific convictions will they display when it’s their turn to shape the world?

Elements of the fourth turning currently taking place leave Generation Z to clean up the mess made by the previous generations and their lifestyles. An economic system geared towards ever-more growth, which mainly benefited baby boomers, has turned out to be detrimental to the environment and the division of wealth. Previous generations are held responsible for the overheated housing market, insecure retirement benefits, student debt and the climate crisis Generation Z is presented with. And the coronavirus outbreak is attributed to an uncontrolled and thoughtless form of globalization and an irresponsible way of dealing with nature. Values that were crucial in the crisis, could therefore be reassessed by Generation Z. The collective conviction of this generational cohort could be that an economic system should not be geared towards growth but towards circularity, with respect to both humans as well as nature. Freedom of the individual, which was long held to be the highest good, may have to give way to solidarity. Generation Z has shown solidarity with those confronted with racial discrimination, gender discrimination, but also with future generations when it comes to the environment. Because both the corona crisis and the climate crisis are global, young people around the world seem to be feeling more connected and therefore feeling more solidarity with each other than with previous generations.

Implications

  • To achieve solidarity or stimulate, for example, a circular economy, young people will indeed, in accordance with their archetype, have to be flexible. They will have to weigh their own interests against those of others. Striving for consensus, also an attribute of the archetype, seems crucial to creating a world where people seek to uphold political inclusivity and responsibility for the environment and each other.

  • The corona crisis has so suddenly and deeply affected the daily lives and traditions of all world citizens that the vulnerability of life as we know it is burned into our minds. Young people are hit especially hard by the corona crisis; they’re losing their jobs, are unable to go to school and are missing out on a lot, such as a graduation ceremony or social events that usually herald the summer holiday. Many of them expect to have slimmer chances of finding permanent employment, and think they’ll have to work freelance. It’s therefore been predicted that Generation Z will strive for security and stability over personal dreams, money or freedom. This could eventually lead to an embrace of, for example, basic income.

A time of Westlessness

We’re living in a time of “Westlessness”. Within the Western world, oppositions have become so great that our idea of “the West” is not clear anymore. But history shows that we’ve been here before. If the current period of Westlessness creates space for a new liberal project, we may be in the process of building a better world.

Our observations

  • Westlessness is the title of this year’s annual report of the Munich Security Conference (Münchner Sicherheitskonferenz). New power relations are making the world less Western, but Westlessness also refers to the West itself becoming less Western, according to the report. Great oppositions within the Western world raise the question what we mean when we speak of “the West”.
  • In recent years, “illiberal politics” have arisen as an ideological alternative to the liberal idea of individual rights. Illiberalism advocates a closed cultural community with stronger borders. Examples are President Putin and the Chinese state model, but illiberal politics are in fact also a specifically Western phenomenon (as exemplified by the American President Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and governing Polish party PiS).
  • Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin describes the universalist thinking of Western man (such as the idea of universal human rights, which should apply to everyone, everywhere equally) as “metaphysical racism”. Dugin considers universal ideas to be attempts to impose a certain way of thinking on the rest of the world.
  • Fundamental tensions between Western countries, a manifestation of Westlessness, are increasingly resulting in international conflict. While the U.S. and the EU clash more and more frequently, the EU itself lacks a unified stance towards the U.S., China, Russia and Turkey.

Connecting the dots

In recent decades, “the West” came to have a certain meaning; a culture in which individual human rights are paramount. But what we understand to be the West has changed with time. The Western world has also always known different forms (e.g. differing democratic systems, forms of capitalism). Our time of oppositions (“Westlessness”) raises the question whether the meaning of “the West” can change again. What comes after Westlessness?

The illiberal camp within the West represents more than populism; it’s also a movement with an alternative understanding of “the West”. To characters such as Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán, the West is defined by cultural, ethnic or religious criteria. Contrary to the idea of the liberal West as a beacon of individual human rights, they see the West as a “closed” (white, Christian) community. This is the source of the illiberal criticism of immigration. In addition, the extremist version of illiberalism is taking shape as the far-right terrorism that wants to protect “the West” from its “enemy” (and kills more than extremist Islamic terrorists do). At the same time, there are moderate variants of illiberalism that are increasingly well-represented in Western democracies.

It should be clear that within the West, criticism of liberal ideas goes back centuries. Liberalism is a school of thought in which freedom of the individual is the highest good. It arose in 18th century Britain, where more and more groups were liberating themselves from the grip of the state and crown. From then on, liberal ideals, from which stems the idea of the West as an open liberal world, have often been criticized in the West itself. Especially German and French intellectuals, as well as international political movements, tried to debunk liberal ideas in the 20th century. Present-day alt-right figures are again rebelling against the idea of the West as an (open) liberal world and speak of “post-liberalism”. What’s unique about our time, is that non-Western voices opposing liberal ideas now also have a lot of influence, which further heightens the contrasts within the West (e.g. Russian influence in Europe).

And yet, our “time of Westlessness” may lead to a better world. Illiberalism, with its alternative understanding of the West, is rooted in the failure of political, economic and social systems. Think of growing inequality, weak social mobility and corruption. This means that the liberal project with new “inspiration”, such as the battle against inequality and climate change (which Europe is already headed for), may breathe new life into the idea of the liberal West. A new “liberal coalition”, for example, between Europe and the United States is a possibility, a coalition to more actively protect liberal values in the rest of th

Implications

  • The Münchner Sicherheitskonferenz report also identifies Westlessness beyond the Western borders. International cooperation between Western countries is becoming increasingly difficult (e.g. between the U.S. and Europe with respect to Russia or China; between Europe and France regarding Turkey). Before a new coalition is established, we will remain in this period of Westlessness.

  • Since the Iraq war, the protection of Western values has become a controversial theme in the rest of the world. It is, however, likely to gain more momentum in the coming years, possibly because of a new American government.

No science is sacred anymore

What happened?

After testing positive for the coronavirus, the Brazilian president Bolsonaro publicly took a tablet of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. This drug, however, has not proved effective against COVID-19 and its use against it is not approved anywhere in the world. This move, alongside President Trump’s embrace of the drug, illustrates how politicized research into this drug has become and how a next step has been taken towards the politicization of science as we know it.

What does this mean?

From now on, we should be mindful of the fact that any study may be called into question and that this will be increasingly based on the intentions and underlying interests of the researcher. Sometimes, we are right to doubt; we know, for example, that funding, even in medicine research, can influence research findings (i.e. funding bias). However, we seem to be taking it a step further, which is diminishing our shared knowledge base. As a consequence, in the future attempts to combat fake news (and the broader infocalypse) could become even more futile than they are now.

What’s next?

And yet, it’s understandable that health insurers want to bond more with consumers and to have a more proactive role in the health of their customers. To a health insurer, more data on patients and treatments equals more possibilities to organize care more efficiently and cost-effectively for society. That’s why insurers are seeking alliances to improve their customer retention through cooperation. Big tech companies are crucial in appealing to the homo ludens and promoting a vital lifestyle. Better adjustment to the services and ecosystem of big tech, as for example Vitality health is adjusted to Apple Watches, appears to be a strategic route. To generate trust and security around health data, insurers are more focused on cooperation within the healthcare domain. Digital companies such as CareVoice or apps such as Stresscoach and MS Sherpa could fulfill an important role for the insurer, but caution remains warranted regarding their revenue model and the responsible use of health data.

Today’s class of uncontrollable technology

How can we understand the rising complexity and uncontrollability of technologies? Here, we explore and compare the cases of synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, two disruptive technologies that produce outcomes that are not fully controllable or predictable and whose impact on society will only grow in the following decades. These disruptive technologies will furthermore challenge basic aspects of human self-understanding, including our notion of autonomy.

Our observations

  • “The world is getting more and more complex.” Although it is rather a non-starter, the expression is widely used in different contexts today. As we are trying to get a grip on everyday changes that we witness, the expression needs more specification. In our research, we explore uncertainties in the geopolitical, socio-cultural and technological realm and how they are influencing and reinforcing each other. For instance, how the internet is influencing global power dynamics.
  • When looking at the rising complexity in new technologies in particular, the challenges and fears concerning their complexity are often related to the feeling of losing control over our own technological inventions and the consequences this would have for our society. Science fiction often tells us stories of technological innovations getting out of hand (Frankenstein), computers that are controlling us (The Matrix), or human-made viruses that threaten the entire world population (The Walking Dead). The rising complexity of technology, and more specifically, the uncontrollability and unpredictability of today’s technology is explored here by introducing philosopher Jan Schmidt’s concept of “late-modern technology”. Instead of trying to explain the uncontrollability and unpredictability of individual technologies, the concept helps us to see them in a wider class of technologies showing the same characteristics, such as the seemingly different innovations in AI and in synthetic biology (the scientific domain that involves redesigning organisms for specific uses by engineering them to have new abilities, such as cell factories).
  • According to the classic-modern view of technology, uncontrollable and unpredictable outcomes of technology are undesirable. Man gains control over his environment by making use of technology. Constructability and controllability, including a clear input-output relation, are key in this regard and technology was traditionally equated with and defined by stability. Think of cars that are made in a production line.
  • By contrast, late-modern technologies are a class of technology in which this idea of stability is abandoned. Late-modern technologies confront us with our ideas about autonomy and control over our own inventions. Autonomy can be regarded as the most celebrated outcome of the Enlightenment and makes up the foundation of moral philosophy that is still dominant in today’s moral theory.
  • An entire class of “autonomous” technologies is in the making or has already been deployed, from autonomous vehicles to autonomous weapons. These increasingly guide our behavior at a time when human human autonomy is challenged by the distraction and information overload in our digital age. As we described before, technological decisionism confronts us with the fact that our decisions will increasingly be supported, if not steered, by artificial intelligence. As non-living or non-human things are increasingly actively participating in and shaping our environment, we cannot ascribe autonomy to humans only anymore, as is acknowledged in the theory of new materialism.

Connecting the dots

When thinking or talking about technology, we often use words that describe the mechanical characteristics of technology. Not seldom is technology in books or movies depicted as machines or robots. Indeed, in our language this machine image is also widely present. The machine metonym is closely connected to an ontological assumption: a machine is assembled by humans, built up from parts to a whole, it has controllable and predictable characteristics. This is a classic-modern view of technology.

However, when turning to present cases of technological advances such as synthetic biology, this becomes problematic. Even if the goal was to create synthetic organisms as controllable and predictable entities, a living organism, whether “natural” or a product of human intervention, by definition evolves and interacts with other organisms and the environment in multiple ways. These characteristics do not fit the part-whole view and make organisms less controllable and predictable than machines. This complex interaction of technology with other technological or living systems creates complexity. In addition, organisms reproduce and grow, something that the machine metonym does not imply either. As a result, using machine metonyms might blind us from the implications of creating new life forms, such as synthetic organisms, as happens in synthetic biology. In the case of Artificial Intelligence, similar problems arise when using the machine metonym. AI, and more specifically machine learning, is confronting us with a case of technology that shows more autonomy than the machine metonym suggests. So, what are these cases of technological innovation showing us? How are they different from technologies that better suit our more mechanistic and predictable view of technology?

Already in 1985, philosopher Hans Jonas envisioned a historically new technoscientific era when technologies would show different characteristics than the previous class of technologies, such as a certain degree of autonomy and limited predictability. In current philosophy of technology debates, scholars differentiate between modern technology, or classic-modern technology, and late-modern technology. We can understand synthetic biology and AI as cases of the latter. Late-modern technologies differ from classic-modern technologies in two fundamental ways.

First, they show self-organization, autonomous behavior or agency properties. In the case of AI, an autonomous system goes beyond the behavior programmed in the initial algorithm, as it can learn by itself from data and environment, its behavior transgresses the initial objectives and conditions set by its creators (i.e. human engineers, computer scientists) and therefore gain a lower degree of predictability. Similarly, an organism created by means of synthetic biology, starts to interact with and “learn” from its environment in a way that makes it hard to predict its behavior. In both cases, the technology autonomously interacts with an open-ended and uncertain context, the real-world environment, and is thus less predictable than technological systems that merely react to human input and are otherwise passive. In that sense, technologies are sometimes regarded as “black boxes”, as insight into their input and output processes is difficult to acquire.

Second, in the case of late-modern technology, the technology no longer appears in its modern way, rather, technological traces are disappearing. Culturally established borders and modern dichotomies such as “natural” vs “artificial” are becoming blurred. For instance, a synthetic cell has an artificial pathway, but shows no traces of technology: it cannot easily be distinguished from “natural” cells. Similarly, the thinking of AI can sometimes hardly be separated from human thinking or decision-making. In 2018, Google gave a demo of its voice assistant calling a hairdresser to make an appointment and shocked the audience when the hairdresser did not notice that she was not talking to a human. Indeed, this novel kind of technology appears human or natural to us. This is what is called the naturalization of technology. However, moral debates about these sorts of technology, such as the debate about acceptance of GMOs, are often still framed in modern terms, with a strict distinction between us humans, the technology we use, and the natural environment.

Late-modern technology is thus difficult to predict and control, difficult to separate from the context and environment of its application, it can be said to “have a life of its own”. The fact that human beings are surrounding themselves with more and more technologies that are less controllable and show autonomous features, inevitably gives us the sense that we are facing greater technological complexity, losing control over our technology and that our notion of autonomy, which we regard as a fundamental human trait, is being challenged. Late-modern technologies such as AI could even undermine our autonomy, as its ubiquitous deployment could steer us implicitly and explicitly in our behavior. As is often the case with new technological developments, late-modern technologies force us to define and reframe values and views that used to be implicit and unchallenged.

Implications

  • Seeing advances in AI and synthetic biology in a wider class of technologies is also helpful in discussing the challenges for both. For instance, in both areas, a centralization of knowledge can lead to negative consequences for society, e.g. that not everyone can benefit from or even be involved in their creation. In AI and synthetic biology, there are efforts to organize knowledge and IP in open-source governance structures, such as the OpenAI initiative and open source seed initiatives for (GMO) seeds.

  • The rise of artificial intelligence or technological decisionism might teach us something about our human thinking. Similarly, synthetically created organisms might tell us something about living organisms. In a sense, late-modern technology can give us insights into fundamental concepts.

Humor in the 21st century

The ability to laugh and joke is a human feature that helps us to view issues from a different angle and put things in perspective, making it an important biological-psychological skill. The combination of humor and comedy, as a broader societal phenomenon, reflects underlying societal and cultural values and has corresponding qualities and effects on society and groups. Analyzing the new form of humor that has arisen will give us a better understanding of underlying social, political and cultural developments.

Our observations

  • In the past years, Netflix has invested heavily in stand-up comedy. Besides being a relatively cheap segment compared to pricey drama series and films, comedy is one of the three pillars of the content strategy. The other two are original content and acquiring film licenses.
  • The past years have seen a relatively large number of comedians going into politics. In April 2019, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won the Ukrainian presidential elections, in 2009, Beppe Grilo began the Five Star Movement currently governing in Italy, Jimmy Morales won the 2015 presidential elections of Guatemala, Marjan Sarec the Slovenian elections and Jon Gnarr was mayor of Reykjavik from 2010 to 2014. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have both frequently appeared in comedy shows and are ascribed a “clownesque” attitude by many.
  • Last week, we wrote that internet memes are a digital medium that allows for a message to be spread rapidly among large groups of people, and that for that reason, they’re actively used as a campaigning tool. Pepe the Frog is an internet meme that, since the American presidential elections of 2016, is associated with far-right movements and online forums (e.g. 4chan), and is worshipped in the Cult of Kek. This Cult of Kek is an internet religion with its own theology, artefacts and rituals (memes are honored in the official prayers of the Cult of Kek). The use of this meme is of a largely ironic and satirical nature, it’s a vessel for jokes about sensitive topics, that wouldn’t generally be permissible in the current climate of “political correctness”.
  • In 2017, we wrote that, as a consequence of postmodernism, our culture has become saturated with parody, satire, sarcasm and cynicism in the past decades. The naive and optimistic search for a collective truth and progress has given way to the view that everything can and should be ridiculed. This nihilistic and postmodern “structure of feeling” is expressed in popular comedy series such as Seinfeld, South Park, Family Guy, Married with Children, Viva La Bam, Jackass, Arrested Development, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Besides their ironic streak, there is little “redemption” in these shows, in the sense that developments and events don’t contribute to the personal development of the characters and the world around them, nor do they have any constructive effect on the viewer. Vulnerability, sincerity, doubt, uncertainty or spirituality thus have little to no place in these shows.
  • In response to this “parataxis” and deconstruction of postmodernism, which ultimately leaves us empty-handed, metamodernism is attempting to establish a synthesis between postmodernism and modernism by continuously oscillating between the modern, sincere, naive and positive search for truth, beauty, goodness and meaning and the postmodern skepticism and perspectivism. This is also expressed in “metamodern” comedy series in which – despite the presence of irony and sarcasm – sincere feelings and the development of characters are the main focal point, such as in the search for friendship and community (Community, Scrubs), the search for balance and meaning in modern everyday life (Modern Family, The Office), the exploration of existential questions (Master of None, Louie). Viewers are actively drawn into the emotional development of characters as well as being shown their flaws, e.g. their doubts, fears, prejudices.

Connecting the dots

In the classical age, the tragedy was a play with a fated and dramatic ending. According to Aristotle, the tragedy was concerned with how superior people relate to their fate and misfortune, and served to inspire pity and fear in the audience, in order to elicit “catharsis”: emotional purification. In contrast, there was the comedy, in which inferior and weak people commit blunders and make mistakes, but which ends well nonetheless, leading the audience to catharsis through laughter, humor and enjoyment. Since then, comedy and humor have seen a long path of development and the emergence of many new forms, but catharsis remains at the core. In fact, comedy in a wider sense is still invaluable in our time of political polarization, “culture wars”, growing uncertainty, doubt, fear, fake news and post-truth, which requires new ways to reach or maintain consensus, dialogue, intersubjective truth and commonality.

Humor, joking and laughing, serve an evolutionary purpose. Many important skills and lessons are learned by children and young animals through “play”; acquiring knowledge and learning how to comport ourselves and deal with our bodies, others and unforeseen circumstances. Think of the wrestling, playfighting and chasing of children and young primates. Sounds of laughter are important signs that this is harmless and pleasurable play rather than serious aggression or conflict. In a similar way, a smile shows that we don’t have bad intentions: when we smile, our jaws are slack and our breathing is uninhibited, signs of restfulness and relaxation (e.g. we’re not using our jaws to bite). This uninhibited breathing and the slack jaw and mouth muscles transformed into human laughter through primate sounds: from the “ah, ah, ah” of primates to the “ha ha ha” of humans. Evolutionary psychology has also shown that joking and laughing are signs of intelligence and adaptability to new situations.

From this evolutionary basis, humor and joking are important templates for more complex social and cultural norms: they help to alleviate tension when we meet strangers or find ourselves in unfamiliar situations. A well-chosen and well-timed joke can, for example, break the ice on a blind date, while a stranger’s failure to laugh will create a tense situation during a first meeting. Phenomenologically, humor plays with our mental patterns and categories. A situation is perceived as funny when we have a certain expectation but something else happens instead. In his third Critique of Judgment, rationalist Kant posits that humor and jokes are a kind of “mental gymnastics”, with reason being misled and sensations having an immediate effect on our state of mind. This approach resembles the strategy of “stand-up comedy”, as the set-up is the first part of a joke, meant to create expectations and the “punchline” conjures up a different image that defies those expectations. Eventually, this leads the audience to experience catharsis.

These elements of humor and comedy also give them an important social and even political duty: through comedy and humor, we can come to new views, see things in a different light and learn to put them in perspective by laughing about them. “Every joke is a tiny revolution”, George Orwell wrote, showing the disruptive element of humor and comedy. It’s no wonder then, that comedians and humor are often prohibited in repressive regimes, e.g. among many orthodox and puritanical religious groups, humor and laughter are to be avoided at all costs. In China, the meme of Winnie the Pooh supposedly resembling President Xi was banned. On far-right forums, memes are deployed to counter the left, as it is believed that “political correctness” has taken away all the fun and made many topics impossible to discuss in a breezy way. This shows that humor and comedy don’t merely have social and political aspects but are also morally charged, as the line between a joke and an insult, laughter and offense, is thin and fragile. And this brings us to the “dark side” of humor and comedy: as a political force, they necessarily entail a dynamic of inclusion and exclusion. Where there’s laughter, there’s always something or someone the butt of the joke, and this could take the form of “laughing at” people. Laughing at others is an important source of social recognition of groups and individuals (i.e. thymos): the group pointing and laughing is united around the object of laughter and in this light, it’s easy to see why so many comedians are successful in politics: in our postmodern condition which lacks objective truth and widespread social and political consensus, joint laughter is one of the last forms of collectivity and consensus. Online culture and far-right forums show that humor and certain types of jokes can be the epicenter around which broad social and cultural structures are organized. At the same time, the criticism that someone who doesn’t join in on the laughter lacks a sense of humor and is not funny, is one of the last universal insults: a human being without a sense of humor is not a real human being. The only rebuttal against this is to reject the joke in itself but from a different value than its funniness or humoristic quality (e.g. from a political, religious or moral perspective). That’s why many populist leaders who laugh and joke about women (e.g. Bolsonaro) or minorities (e.g. Trump about minorities), dismiss criticism as humorless or “sour” winging and whining. The irony, parody and satire they employ thus make them immune to any criticism directed at them. At the same time, we’re witnessing a movement from which a new structure of feeling and appreciation of comedy and humor is arising, an antidote to cynicism, satire and irony that actively seeks the catharsis that belongs to the genre of comedy. Humor in metamodernism has a high degree of self-referentiality; there is joking and laughter but also a self-conscious search for meaning in humor. And in contrast to the modern inclination to see perspective as absolute or the postmodern reflex of deconstruction and criticism, within metamodernity, reality and perspective coincide.

That’s why humor is so important; new perspectives can be achieved through joking and laughing, and it can take the edge off tense political discussion and debate on divisive themes that involve groups that begrudge each other a smile. But to the metamodern comedian, not every joke is acceptable, rather the intent and the ability to occupy both the position of joker as well as that of the butt of the joke, determine the social quality of humor and comedy.

In this light, internet memes are also part of metamodern humor: there is a high degree of self-referentialiy in the sharing and modification of the original post, they often broach emotional (e.g. depression, loneliness) and political themes, have a high degree of intertextuality and perspectivism with an image and caption, frequently relay a hopeful message with a nihilistic streak, and make abstract ideas relevant to the reader by way of concrete and relatable images. By uniting these apparent contradictions, internet memes embody the metamodern oscillation between sincerity and irony and between perspectives and interpretations. In this way, they tie in with the positive energy of metamodernism, which seeks communion, meaning and catharsis in our times of uncertainty, fear and irony.

Implications

  • We may expect for “humorous” and “comical” archetypes to gain relevance in societal roles and debates. Think, for example, of the jester ridiculing political powers without legal or political consequences, the clown making a fool of himself or the harlequin making fun of local and common ideals, values and ideas. The most modern archetype might be that of the joker: the mysterious character that symbolizes both the diabolical and the genial in humans and represents a wide range of emotional and spiritual qualities. The playing card “joker” corresponds to the number 0 because he can be either all or nothing and can be played for “good” or for “evil”. The recent film Joker displays the title character’s destructive search for meaning and community, and illustrates how thin the line is between right and wrong when there is no social order to which the individual belongs.

  • Comedy comprises a template of cathartic themes that aren’t humorous or funny per se, and has a rich history. In Dante’s The Divine Comedy, for instance, comical-though-not-humorous elements are reconciliation and redemption, the hero’s spiritual development of a broader social and emotional consciousness, from selfishness and conceitedness to social obligations. These kinds of themes are important in metamodernism as effective value memes: templates in which metamodern values become relevant in economic, social, political, societal and cultural systems.

  • Internet memes are a relatively young information medium and form of comedy and befit our modern image culture. This category knows many subgenres, such as Dank Memes, Deep-Fried Memes, Wholesome Memes, Normie Memes and BoneHurtingJuice Memes, which shows that new cultural forms and templates for language, meaning and communication are continuously developed here as well.

Will COVID change young people’s quiet image?

What happened?

The average age of people who become infected with the coronavirus is dropping.  It’s increasingly becoming a disease for young people too, for whom it seems to be becoming more difficult to follow the prevention measures against the spread of the virus. Due to the lack of possibilities for young people to come together in, for example, bars or at festivals, there’s an increasing number of illegal parties being organized, in the U.S. and the U.K., for instance, marked as “superspread events”. Because of these events, contagious attendees, who make up 10% of the total number of infected people, are responsible for 80% of the spread of the virus. In addition, a lot of drugs are used, there are connections with the criminal circuit in organizing these events, serious acts of violence are committed and a huge mess is left behind.

What does this mean?

Younger generations, and Gen-Z in particular, has often been characterized as a generation that, in contrast to the standard view of “today’s youth”, is responsible and virtuous. For example, this generation supposedly prefers to stay at home, use less drugs, have sex later in life and be more environmentally conscious than previous generations. Moreover, in the past years, younger generations have levelled substantial allegations at older generations. Climate change, care and pensions becoming unaffordable or the distressed housing market are all attributed to older generations’ lifestyles, particularly that of the baby boomers. Now that younger generations also appear to be getting their hands dirty by needlessly complicating the way out of this global health crisis, this dynamic might change. Because it’s precisely on these issues that a longer duration of the crisis would have a negative impact.

What’s next?

As we wrote before, young people are hit hard by the coronavirus where work, social activities and future prospects are concerned. And although they’ve begun many constructive initiatives to improve those prospects, this recent development could tarnish their reputation. There have been multiple articles in, among other news outlets, The Guardian, in which young people are characterized as “selfish idiots” who might go down in history as the generation that knowingly aggravated the crisis. Since the behaviors that young people now exhibit are not much different from the behaviors that earlier generations have exhibited at a young age (partying, using drugs, cluttering), this generation may be judged harder on their behaviors than previous generations.

Trump’s 2020 strategy

What happened?

The Asia Times recently interviewed Steve Bannon, an important advisor of President Trump. Bannon explained how he helped Trump to power in 2016, and what form the campaign in 2020 will probably take. He introduces a contrary perspective on the elections in November, one that’s more alive to the less measurable elements of the electoral cycle.

What does this mean?

The essence of Bannon’s argument is his contention that the 2020 elections will revolve around China. According to Bannon, Trump’s success in 2016 could be explained by nationalist (anti-establishment) sentiment directed against the American political elite. But in 2020, this nationalist sentiment could be redirected towards China (and “Beijing Biden” instead of “Crooked Hillary”).  An important point Bannon makes is that Trump’s campaign (both 2016 and 2020) begins about 150 days before the elections, while his smear campaign of the Democratic candidate doesn’t start until about 90 days before the elections.

What’s next?

Bannon sheds new light on the 2020 elections. Although Biden is far ahead in the polls, he’s less suited to our Zeitgeist of distrust, he hasn’t had any momentum, and the Trump campaign is not underway yet. These are less measurable elements of the electoral cycle (compared to polls and “betting odds”), but they may become increasingly important as the elections draw near.