Is Culture Stuck?

Things Have Been Looking the Same

Film studios decided to just release new movies on streaming sites because theaters will be in a state of lockdown and openings in 2020 and probably 2021.

It made me think about what was the last good new movie I saw. I think it’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Why did I like it? I don’t know. It wasn’t because it was about the plot which centered around the Charles Manson murders. The film seemed to use it as an excuse. An excuse for what? Just to transport you to Tarantino’s lavishly reconstructed LA in 1969 with cars, drive-ins, hot hairy hippie chicks, Margot Robbie’s starlet blonde, Bruce Lee, Brad Pitt playing a cool guy stunt driver and DiCaprio as a former cowboy on his own TV series but is now on a downward career arc. The viewer is transported to a place and time that was filled with cool characters. People looked different, talked different and there was cultural trends happening that were specific to that era.

1969 was the year of Woodstock but also the last year of the Cowboy Era, when Hollywood made Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit, and The Wild Bunch. The western was a great American genre that went away after decades.

Another film gave me same reaction: Chinatown.

“Chinatown” is also a great movie, right? It was filmed in 1974 but it is supposed to depict LA in 1937. The film is in the noir tradition of looking at what’s going on underneath the sunny narrative of American life. But would “Chinatown” be made today? I don’t think so. I can’t imagine a film like Chinatown being at the theaters. You just drift in the hypnosis of that film because it’s this beautiful rendering of Los Angeles — great characters keep appearing and unfolding, and Jack Nicholson is magnetic. But that movie is about the unknowability of anything, the impossibility of affecting anything. It’s the most cynical movie ever. You’re telling me anybody’s making that movie today? No way.

“Mad Men” is cotton candy compared with “Chinatown.” I’m not saying it’s not interesting, but it’s a different beast. “Chinatown,” you have to sit and be patient. If you’re looking for pacing, if you’re looking for plot, those are not the pleasures of that movie. It’s being transported to another time in American history where people wore suits when they left the house, and talked differently. Go read Raymond Chandler, does anyone speak like that anymore? This is another America we’re peering into.

Films in 2020

It’s hard not to notice the epidemic of sequels coming out of Hollywood for the past 15 years. It’s almost like every other movie is some sort of prequel or sequel. I remember the superhero movie genre starting in the early 00s and it was a pleasant surprise. Then it kept going and going and going. We’re still in it. It’s 2020.

In 2016, half of the Top 50 movies released were a remake or a sequel representing a 312 percent increase since 2000.

It seems like this era of sequels started around 2005. The mid 2000s are an interesting time that is not discussed much.

Mid-2000s

A lot of things that shaped society came out right around the mid 2000s.

Wikipedia really started growing in articles around 2006

The first iPhone came out in 2007. The cell phone still looks like this basic design. We all still use the original iPhone, even if its called something else.

In fact, Apple basically “improves” every new model by adding another camera to the back. Much like razor companies release a new razor by adding a new blade.

Youtube came out in 2005. But back then there were dozens of Youtubes. All of a sudden people started gravitating toward this particular Youtube after Google acquired it in 2006. The internet was a different place pre-2005. Forums, emails, websites. The internet was a bigger place then. People had hundreds of favorites in their bookmark folder. Since then, the internet has shrunk. To only a handful of places users visit every day.

Facebook came out in the mid 2000s. I remember having an account when you could only join if you had a school email address in the late 00s.

Twitter came out in 2006.

Netflix was around since the 90s with dvds. I remember using them back then. That isn’t what Netflix is now, though. It’s a different service. This online service began in the mid-2000s.

Amazon started to grow fast in the mid 2000s. They went from a company just selling books to selling everything. From 2005-2009 Amazon launched Amazon Prime, Amazon Music, Create Space and the Kindle. They moved into the cloud computing area with Amazon AWS, as well as the crowdsourcing area with Amazon Mechanical Turk. They dominated the cloud computing scene.

The internet as we know it today was created in the mid 2000s and we’ve been there ever since. But is it just the internet?

Take a Look Around

The problem with being down so long is that it will start looking like up to you. If you are under the age of 30 you may think things are normal. But to someone who has lived 3 decades or more you may notice something odd: we haven’t had a shift like we did in the past. Culture is frozen. Throughout the 20th century we had changes almost every decade. Changes in fashion, in music, in aesthetics, hairstyles, style of comedy, television shows and movies. It sort of felt like someone was directing society from the top down, dictating a big shift every 10 years to something new. A director. If I show you a photo or play you a song from the 20th century, you’d probably be able to guess the decade. It was that clean of a break.

But I haven’t felt that change since the mid 2000s

All they would see is a luxury iPhone that was only released to a select few. But the hairstyles, clothes, slang and temperament are the same.

Tattoos

A lot of people have tattoos. This wasn’t always the case. I remember when almost no one had them in the 90s and early 00s. They were considered a costly in group signal. Think of criminals, gang members, artists, sailors or tough guys. Then, somewhere along the line everyone had them.

Even this tattoo artist started seeing something change in 2005.

Skinny Jeans and Athleisure

Athleisure (Nike, Adidas, Lululemon, etc ) and skinny jeans are still here. Both trends started in the mid 2000s.

Was it always like this?

Are we able to identify fashion trends by decade dating back to the 1600s or did it take longer in the past for fashion to change? They did not jump every decade like they did in the 20th century.

Fashion in the gentry did change, but it happened slower, less rapidly and the intervals weren’t spaced out in 10 year intervals like we saw in the 20th century. Fashion was transmitted again through travel, usually by someone being at court, or visiting other gentry. Envoys that traveled, or marriages to persons from a different area would bring fashion statements from one place to another. Important events would bring large groups of people together and thus start trends that works travel throughout the area when participants returned home.

Here are redditors struggling with how to remember the 2010s in fashion. They are struggling.

Music

People are figuring out Pop music sounds the same.

Why did rock n roll die? Simple business calculus. Rock n Roll has historically been a white person’s genre, both performers and audience. The music industry wants to make as much money as possible. If black and Hispanic audiences won’t listen to rock n roll, but white people will listen to hip hop. Why give up 30 percent of the audience? Hence, Hip Hop is pop music. This is Nassim Taleb’s Minority Rule

Algorithms

So what’s going on. Why is culture stuck? I have two arguments

1) We lived in a 20th century media monoculture where the culture changed every decade from the top down. This was done by the handful of radio stations, television stations, hollywood and fashion houses. Then, the real internet came along in 2005 and decentralized everything. All of a sudden, small groups online have innovated and changed. But the big media monoculture has stayed the same. Why? Because the current model makes money, and why change it? Why risk it? Not everyone is going along with you like the previous century where people had no choice.

2) Algorithms

Culture is no longer made. It is simply curated from existing culture, refined, and regurgitated back at us. The algorithms cut off the possibility of new discovery.