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Our Cultural Surrender To Screens Has Bred An Entirely Unserious Generation

One gauge of our decline is the vanishing of public intellectuals and a swelling number of wired celebrities, influencers, and pitchmen.

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“We are becoming sillier by the minute.”

Such was Neil Postman’s judgment in 1985. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, he warned against the consequences of the decline of a print-based culture in favor of “a television-based epistemology.” That meant a retreat from the mental effort of traditional literacy in favor of a mind-altering technology. “As culture moves from printing to televising, its ideas of truth move with it.” The truth of things is easily missed in the screen’s succession of images and spectacles with the lifespan of a mayfly.

By now, silly is too mild a word. Cell phones and social media have done more than accelerate the transformation of reading into viewing. They displaced it. The swap stunts culture at its source. The word “influencer” is no longer an ordinary noun; it has become a career goal. To some 26 percent of today’s young people, it eclipses occupational choices that require training and formal qualifications like a college degree. The thrill of online affirmation, measured in followers, crowds out time-honored pride in useful work.

One gauge of American cultural decline is the vanishing tally of public intellectuals beside a swelling number of wired celebrities. Influencers are social media performers, pitchmen for an infinity of purposes from brands to lifestyles. They capitalize on the investment of young audiences in their own self-image as knowing consumers of attitudes and gear trending in their social scene.

By contrast, public intellectuals were reflective writers, editors, and trained and tested scholars who addressed an informed, morally self-aware adult audience. Their essential métier was criticism. From the politics of culture to ethics and economics, they presented principled arguments about rights, responsibilities, and the health of the social order. Such names as Irving Howe, John Kenneth Galbraith, Dwight MacDonald, Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, C. Wright Mills, Reinhold Niebuhr, Daniel Bell, and Hannah Arendt, among others, had an effect on political debates and public affairs. Differences aside, they willed the common good and set the intellectual standards by which historians judge an age.

What will historians make of the American mind when they look at their successors? Heading the list of this year’s Instagram influencers are Kylie Jenner (398 million followers), Taylor Swift (270 million), soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo (601 million), and singer Demi Lovato (157 million). Kourtney, Khloe, and Kim Kardashian boast a combined total of 898 million followers. And that is only Instagram. All influencers post across different platforms: TikTok, Facebook, Twitter (recently rebranded as X), YouTube, and Snapchat.

We still have carriers of the older tradition — Victor Davis Hanson is one — but the roster is short, and the audience limited. The term “public intellectual” is as obsolete as a TV antenna. To a generation weaned onto smartphones, the digital world is the real one. A flickering cosmos, it can erase the foundations of a coherent culture — a civilization — with the click of a mouse.

For adolescents and young adults with little life experience, the kick of peer attention trumps knowledge of the historical inheritance that supports their well-being. Few online celebrities contribute to the public conversation. Most are digital spawns of Vance Packard’s “hidden persuaders.” No longer behind the curtain, they shill openly for products — including identities — in the multibillion-dollar influencer industry in which persons, too, become brands.

Intellectual discipline is increasingly resented. Traditional reading skills are denigrated as elitist, anti-democratic, and even racist. Deep reading is too slow, too demanding. Yet no such thing as deep watching makes up the deficit.

The vacuum showed earlier this month in Manhattan’s Union Square when celebrity influencer Kai Cenet staged an event. The most subscribed Twitch streamer on the planet summoned his subscribers to a giveaway of webcams, PlayStations, and other paraphernalia for getting in on the game. The smash-and-grab community showed up, joined by wannabe influencers. When the freebies dried up, the mob did what you’d expect from a rudderless, youthful, almost entirely male crowd with nothing to do in the middle of a workday. They rioted.

Rebecca Sugar, writing in The NY Sun, had a sharp comment on consumers of Cenet’s schtick:

These young people will emerge from their basements and swarm the streets for a glimpse of a guy who makes his money off of their time spent in their basements, but they won’t leave the house to go to work and give themselves a shot at a life as anything other than Kai Cenet’s enablers.

The shot they want is a chance to become another Cenet. They dream of being “content creators” who get paid by subscription plus collaboration with brand managers. Influencers showcase products that promise to make fans more like themselves.

Only 21 years old, Cenet has earned some $10 million since he dropped out of college to hustle “content” — filming himself watching video games and playing pranks.

He uses the lingo and poses of rap culture to entertain more than 6 million followers on Twitch and several million more on other platforms. Along the way, devotees eyeball his Tesla Model Y, his Nike Jordans, and hoodies by Armani and Burberry. They develop a taste for Kanye West’s limited edition Yeezy Foamrunners, produced in partnership with Adidas.

Advertising is nothing new. Neither is celebrity endorsement. What is new is the annexation of youthful aspiration by what Gil Bailie calls “the howling winds of cultural aimlessness.” They whip up an appetite for online approval that elevates hyping oneself to a life goal.

Being applauded for your personality is proof of celebrity, a bankable credential. It attracts subsidies from merchandisers looking to install themselves in the buying habits of a receptive audience.

Consider Demi Lovato’s arrangement with Fabletics, a manufacturer of fitness and workout clothes, and Girl Up, a United Nations Foundation program for female empowerment. Girl Up encourages female adolescents to see themselves as a force to “change the face of leadership for generations” on matters from so-called menstrual equity and body positivity to gender justice, climate change, and sustainability. Girls can signal their status as world improvers by sporting tops, leggings, bras, and jackets inspired by Lovato’s music.

The drag queen look gets a boost from rising makeup stars. Three of the four “beauty influencers” featured by Neal Schaffer, a digital marketing consultant, are men in makeup. James Charles, with 22.8 million Instagram followers, was the first male spokesmodel for Cover Girl. Manny Gutierrez, Maybelline’s first male model, makes himself up to chat to 4 million followers about gay issues. Self-described nonbinary beauty mogul and makeup artist Jeffree Star began wearing makeup to school in junior high. Now he flutters artificial eyelashes at 14 million Instagram followers, and 16 million YouTube subscribers.

Schaffer urges merchandisers to leverage the mushrooming power of social media. Influencers convey an “authenticity and human touch,” an “emotional resonance,” that beats conventional print advertising. Moreover, “The barriers to content creation and its publication and distribution have never been lower.”

The American Influencer Council was launched in 2020 by content creators to advance influencer marketing. It helps match producers of branded merchandise with social media personalities who have cultivated a “relationship” with their audience. These present themselves as someone whose image and income their audience aspires to emulate.

Four decades ago Postman compared the visions of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. … Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.

In the surrender of youth culture to technology, the Huxleyan prophecy has been fully realized.


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