Growing up, students like myself were amazed at the obvious fracture: great art, symphonies and books all belonged to the past. The stuff our teachers told us was good in a contemporary sense was gimmicky foolishness and rarely had the depth of the past, with a few exceptions like Tom Wolfe and Michel Houellebecq.
In the meantime, there was always a trend afoot. Some book was the most recent Hunger Games and was flying off the shelf, to inundate used book sales barely a year later. Some movie was a constant source of pop culture references, or kids were listening to some album, but they never endured more than a decade at best.
Through this, early on we were introduced to the knowledge that our society had once been great, but now was not, and that our current “culture” consisted of little more than temporary fascinations which had no significance. With this in mind, it was hard to take anything seriously but hedonism and careers, since nothing had any meaning at all.
Since that time, most of us have become accustomed to the thought that as every year passes, every thing — institutions, art, culture, products, machines — would cost more and be less functional, but would be correspondingly even more over-hyped. It is like Moore’s Law for decay.
You may wonder why things are so wretchedly awful and getting worse. Here are three good reasons:
Ahierarchicalism. In the old days, there were editors on every level who selected the best of what was before them and kicked that upstairs. For this reason, by the time a book hit the readers, it had gone through many gates and was likely at least a candidate for good. As this model became unpopular, writing underwent a “democratization” process by which mediocrity was equated to quality. Now, anyone can publish, and they all do, which has resulted in a flood of books, blogs, magazines, and papers that no one has time to read. Where previously a few hundred thousand “power user” readers sifted through fifty books a year, now they face thousands of books being released per year, almost all of which are terrible and equally over-hyped. Even the famous sources of best-seller lists can tell us what is trendy, but not what is good. As a result, junk proliferates because it is competing on the basis of novelty and ironic uniqueness — a surface trait — alone. This is true not just of books, but all cultural objects and any products, including technology. Innovation has died, replaced by reconfiguration of known tech into new consumer objects. What we do have barely works. Refrigerators that once lasted decades now barely last for ten years. Microwaves fall apart while units from the 70s are still going. Cars seem to work OK if one buys an older design, but the newer trendy ones disappear within the decade.
Government. Government does nothing right. At every level it introduces waste and moves slowly, and when it does act, it screws up the natural process of life and business and replaces it with a bureaucracy that rewards the idiotic and punishes the intelligent. Whole fields are now essentially paper-pushing experiences in which new false targets are established by regulation and fear of government interference. Wherever government goes, the markets slow down and those who attempt quality are punished not just by the high cost of all the paperwork, but by the risk involved in going beyond what others are doing that is officially approved. In addition, government demands ever-increasing taxes to keep up with its bloat, further stilling innovation and markets.
Education. How can you be against education? That is a modern heresy like saying you are opposed to science. And yet, education produces people who cannot think for themselves. They are good at being taught a task, memorizing its many variants, and working away at it in that low-intensity modern way that involves lots of detail work and almost no analysis. As a result, they pass along blatantly unrealistic ideas as verified truth and fail whenever confronted with something outside of the script that they were taught at school. Think of the blank looks on the faces of European leaders when the migrant crisis exploded, or the number of companies that have fallen into senescence by failing to keep their products relevant. Look at Radio Shack, which vanished without a fight, or even Apple, which cannot seem to invent any new technology so keeps updating the past. Notice the number of district attorneys who prosecuted absolutely hopeless cases, or failed to prosecute necessary ones. Or even the vast amounts of corruption, tax cheating, and general lawbreaking which goes unnoticed and unacted upon. We have created a system that promotes the obedient far beyond their abilities, and then has no response when they somewhat predictably cannot figure out anything that they were not taught.
All of these are secondary to the primary decay of the West, of course. Once upon a time, we chose our best people and put them into a hierarchy, assigning them power and wealth as tools to be used toward the end of advancing civilization. For several millennia we have backed off from that approach, and as a result, every year we are less good and less competent, but more cocksure and pretentious.