The Geist in the Zeit

Henry Allen (2013) complains that there hasn’t been a distinctive Zeitgeist since the 1980s. To him, it’s as if “reality itself is dwindling, fading like sunstruck wallpaper.” On the contrary. Reality is being augmented. Mr. Allen is merely doing what we all do after a certain age – he is falling behind the times.

Back when the times could be characterized by serial trends in music, fashion, movies, and art, the media were controlled by gatekeepers who determined what they would bet their precious capital on presenting to the public. The result was a sort of monoculture, in which one trend followed another.

Today, digital media and the internet make production and distribution cheap. The gatekeepers have been bypassed. The market for culture, the social reality, has fragmented. Multiple genres of music, fashion, video, and art now exist side by side. The last bastions of monoculture are film and Broadway, where distribution to theaters is still limited and production is still expensive.

The phenomenon that has led to the fragmentation of social reality is also leading to its augumentation. We are about to go from carrying our social network in our mobile phone to wearing it in our accessories and clothing – Google Glass being the first of many attempts to get this right. Eventually we will wear our social network in our implants.

Even now, researchers are trying to develop brain-machine interfaces to help the blind see, the deaf hear, and amputees to control prosthetic limbs the way people control their natural limbs – with their minds. The implications for change are indeed Biblical, when wireless networking meets the mind-machine interface. People will communicate by exchanging their thoughts and mental imagery.

Social reality is going to get much richer and denser. Reality is not fading away. Mr. Allen is. And so are we and our history. When people stop using language to transmit their thoughts, only the most compelling parts of prior human knowledge, history, and literature will be transcribed into the new media.

Perhaps we shouldn’t get so worked up about so many of our contemporary problems. Most of them are destined to be forgotten.


Allen, Henry. 2013. The Disquiet of Ziggy Zeitgeist. Wall Street Journal. August 2. A 11.


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