2018-03-17 epistemologybest

Why postmodernism superseded modernism

This speech by Larry Wall, titled “Perl, the first postmodern programming language,” had a strong impact on me. Many thanks to my former manager Taro for recommending it.

As the creator of the programming language Perl, you’d think that Larry is extremely specialized in computer science, perhaps to the exclusion of anything else. But that is not the case at all: Larry Wall is incredibly well-read, down-to-earth and funny.

What’s great about the essay is it’s really not about Perl - it’s about a way of thinking. That way is postmodernism.

Postmodernism succeeded modernism, and while modernism had its appeals, it also had its flaws. Larry describes these as The Cult of Spareness, The Cult of Originality, The Cult of Seriousness and The Cult of Objectivity.

You can read more about them in the essay; I won’t rehash them here. The point is, there were some core tenets of modernism and, for a while, they were very popular. Why no longer? Why postmodernism now?

In my mind, there’s a reason why postmodernism took off when it did. And it has to do with globalization and the advent of the information age.

modernism #

There was a time not too long ago when knowledge did not dominate, or at least, not to the extent it does today. Hustle, confidence and pedigree went a long way. If you weren’t fortunate enough to have an elite education, you could still make it. Knowledge was important, but not paramount.

In this world, modernism excelled. We could aspire to timeless ideals of beauty, elegance and objective truth. With the complexity and messiness of the world abstracted away, we held fast to our better angels.

Modernism was Spare and comprehensible. It was Original and thought-provoking. It was Serious and unquestionable. It was Objective and unimpeachable. “The Truth” was concise, unitary and unambiguous.

But this truth was an illusion. The world is messy. Globalization and the information age revealed just how messy it is. They exposed the ductwork.

In the information age, “The Truth” is a competed resource. Truth is fragmented, evolving and mutable. And, with physical borders no longer a constraint on ideological reach, those who control the truth wield exponentially greater influence than before.

The rise of blogs, niche news outlets, podcasts, YouTube and social media reflect this competed landscape. Truth has gone from table d’hôte to à la carte.

But when everything may be true, so too may nothing. When everything started looking Spare, Original, Serious and Objective, then nothing did. When everything was modern, nothing was modern. Modernism extolled the virtues of Truth, but sowed the seeds of its own destruction. In a world of divergent and contradictory truths, modernism cannot survive.

Fred Wilson writes: “Fake news, hacked systems, bots, ad systems gone haywire, and so on and so forth. We collectively lost trust in social media and technology and became angry about it.” There is a foreboding feeling that someone, somewhere, is preying upon your ignorance - be they cyberhackers in Russia, scammers in rural India, or unctuous real estate brokers in New York City. In the knowledge world, those without knowledge are prey. And they feel it.

To those with knowledge, its fruits; to those without, nothing. “Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”

I paint a precarious picture because I believe it is one. How do you defend yourself in such a predatory world?

enter postmodernism #

Postmodernism is the show-me-your-sources of the information age.

Postmodernism shows the ductwork for what it is. It closely monitors the build-out and asks you to leave some things raw and unfinished. It’d rather see things for what they are than what you want them to be.

It’s fearful of things which are “too perfect,” because that’s what Modernism said. “Just trust me,” so spoke the devil.

Postmodernism asks a lot of questions, because nothing is too Serious that it can’t be questioned. Nothing is too Objective that it can’t be challenged. Postmodernism lets things be Complex, because that’s how the world is; and it doesn’t mind Copying because that’s what humans do.

Postmodernism is staunchly open-minded yet unrelentingly critical. It’s inclusive, yet selective: postmodernism even includes modernism, but only the parts it wants. As Larry’s daughter Heidi said, postmodernists say “‘Tsall good” just about as often as they say “that sucks.”

the future #

I think it’s tempting to think that in an increasingly knowledge-dependent world, growing your knowledge is the only way to survive, let alone succeed. You need to learn more, faster. Intelligence reigns king.

I firmly disagree.

Everyone is selling the truth. That’s the modernist’s modus operandi in the information age. But that will only lead to greater fragmentation and polarization. My way or the highway.

In fact, what we need is postmodernism. In the postmodernist’s handbook, knowledge - while important - is not paramount. Rather, transparency, critical evaluation, empathy and integrity are. You need to win people’s trust by being genuine and empathetic, not by obliterating them with your intelligence.

It’s not always pretty, but we’d rather see the mess than be burned by “The Truth.”

Postmodernism then is not just an artistic zeitgeist, it’s a methodological approach to living - an ethical framework.

And in a postmodern world, intelligence alone will not win. It’ll be authenticity, relationships, reputation and critical thought.