By standard metrics, life today is as good as it has ever been, though global crisis and the ubiquity of information and connectivity has degraded both the joy that we can squeeze from life and the seriousness with which we address crisis. While popular culture’s “live fast, die young” mindset—picture Drake’s incessant shouts of “YOLO”—is hardly new, this renewed dedication to nihilism could bring about grave consequences for the future.
As useless as it is to try and define postmodernism, pop culture is often still stuck in this self-referential, tongue-in-cheek world. Nothing is taken seriously, least of all the fast years the first quarter of life. The Neil Young model of existence of “it’s better to burn out than to fade away,” is likely to accelerate in coming years.
This has left some questioning whether or not this generation would be capable of fording hardship like the “greatest generation” did before. This nihilism is common in American pop culture. What is different, however, is the substance of the problems we now face.
Even with the concerted effort of the dedicated, our environment is in shambles. The Earth will, barring a nuclear war, outlive humanity. But, we’ve severely handicapped our one and only home. As sea levels rise and storms intensify, it is hard to see how a sense of defeat or denial would be lessened.
Global climate change will inevitably increase the tribalism we see today, fueling isolationist and nationalist policies—so much so that the Department of Defense considers it to be a security issue. Think “V for Vendetta” or “Children of Men.” These imaginings of science fiction are coming more into focus.
The proposed solution to this dire planetary predicament is science and technology. Here, these forces of innovation can be our saviors but technology has also made unity increasingly unlikely.
Why? Because our addiction to the Internet as a divine source of information has made simple agreement on objective facts an impossibility.
With the presence of digital misinformation, you have a situation in which the likelihood that someone believes that climate change is a real threat to humanity is dependent upon which news station they choose to watch. One consequence of instant connectivity is that we can find the corner of the world most comfortable to our delusions and find others who drink the Kool-Aid as well. Nothing legitimizes crazy quite like that.
There are also exists another segment, as embodied by our popular culture, who can use the Internet for a form of denial. Articles on climate change, geopolitical breakdown, disease and famine are widely circulated. Some believe clicking ‘like’ to be a legitimate effort toward solving crises. Alternatively, some believe that the endless stream of people enjoying themselves is evidence against growing dangers.
In either circumstance, millions have had their unserious image of world problems legitimized by the digital age. This “live young and die free” or “ignore and forget” reaction to the problems of the world is not new to our popular culture.
Now though, in our present circumstance, there is a literal existential threat to such thinking. There has never been a shortage of engaged, future-minded youth who take the issues of the day to heart—whether it be civil rights or environmentalism. However, unless the vast majority of today’s youth, the avid consumers of popular culture, take notice and concern for the consequences of today’s mistakes, the future won’t be too bright.
The problem of climate change, the problem of misinformation and the problem of digitally centered denial are going to grow exponentially in the future. Criticizing popular culture may seem pointless or petty but, for problems that require the attention of the majority, there can be no more popular outlet. The solution to our current crisis will not arise spontaneously or through technology and science alone.
Though we have the ability to trick ourselves into forgetting the future through popular culture, when the future arrives we will have no such luxury.