Surviving Metamodernism, Part I

"For everyone else, it would resemble mind control."

Last week, I mentioned metamodernism in my letter encapsulating the 30+ 2020 Year in Review reports.

Metamodernism is incredibly dangerous because of its authentic power, its disregard for the norms of previous epochs and the velocity with which it accelerates change. It is arguably more dangerous now than at its birth circa 2000 because of the exploitative nature with which most of us have been introduced to it, Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

Today, I begin a series in which I attempt to explain

  1. what metamodernism is;

  2. why it is currently so destructive;

  3. how to turn it into a teachable communications framework; and

  4. how to harness that framework to overcome the nihilistic forces wielding metamodernism and to realign capitalism and democracy for the benefit of society.

Metamodernism is a weapon but not yet a tool.

As with other technologies, metamodernism is first being used as a weapon. Until we identify and learn to use the tools of metamodernism, with the intention of building instead of destroying, there will be no repercussions for those that would use them for rent-seeking. What would otherwise be a powerful force for good in the right hands, is currently one of the most destructive forces ever known to humankind.

We can readily find an example of the scale of destruction that the metamodern toolkit can reap in the ongoing carnage of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States, where cynicism and disinformation have already cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

What is metamodernism?

Before we settle on a definition for metamodernism, it’s helpful to know what you’re looking for. There are two lenses through which to understand metamodernism: (1) as an evolution of nuance (linguistic), or (2) as the epistemology of an epoch (linear).

1. As an evolution of nuance (linguistic)

Imagine that modernism is black-and-white television. Then postmodernism is color television. Color television was a linear improvement in the density of information being delivered. It was closer to the reality of what was being filmed.

Metamodernism is the equivalent of a hologram sent by telepathy that not only includes the picture and the sound of a television show, but also encompasses the lived histories of the actors and the writers; the cultural context of each episode; and the cultural signaling of the time in which it was filmed, and all the times that came before it; layered on top of one another, each discretely accessible and deployable. It is an exponential increase in the “realness” of the message.

A metamodernist television show would carry with it more information than would be literally displayed on the screen, voiced by the characters or implied by the ominous sound effects. More complex yet, that meaning would change in real-time based on the contexts of the viewer and sender, and their interaction. 

For those in on the joke, it would be a meme. For everyone else, it would resemble mind control, a la The Social Dilemma.

One can demonstrate the existence of our new framework with a brief study of gender fluidity through the eyes of a conservative white male.

In the 1990s or early 2000s, the lens through which he understood gender would have evolved from a dichotomy (male/female) to a spectrum (many different definitions of gender with a variety of partner compositions). He may have been exposed to the notion of gender fluidity within the last few years, he may not. The delta between a static spectrum-based lens and a dynamic fluidity-based lens might produce an unsettling reaction. Fluidity, by its very nature, is not settled. For someone who may have just learned to accept and even love on a static spectrum, the dynamic nature of a fluidity-based lens could produce a seemingly unjustified and unjust reaction.

The connected world is experiencing just such a reaction, across multiple narratives, all at once.

2. As the epistemology of an epoch (linear)

There are few authors in this space. One of them is Lene Rachel Andersen, a Danish economist and futurist from the University of Copenhagen. Her first entry into the cannon was Metamodernity: Meaning and Hope in a Complex World, in 2019. In what amounts to one of the only attempts of articulating the metamodern framework, she uses cultural codes to compare metamodernism to previous epochs.

Indigenous [Epoch] Code: Stone Age hunter-gatherers, pastoral nomads and the earliest agriculture

Pre-Modern [Epoch] Code: Bronze and Iron Ages with city states and empires

Modern [Epoch] Code: industrialized nation states with science, universal human rights and democracy

Postmodern [Epoch] Code: stable and prosperous industrialized societies confronted with a multicultural world and realizing that all truth is context-bound, which leads to an intellectual, often ironic deconstruction of previous codes and what they represent

Metamodern [Epoch] Code: integration and appreciation of all of the above

Her description of the Metamodern Code is deceptively simple and insidiously positive sounding because you, as an internet user, do not find the idea of having historical information available at your fingertips to be unnatural. However, compared to previous epochs, it is a revolution whose repercussions are only now beginning to surface.

Throughout the rest of this series, I will focus on the linguistic aspects of metamodernism and only use the linear or time-based epochs framework as a descriptive tool.

A New Linguistic Lens

By its very nature, one cannot fully describe metamodernism using words and pictures, but I'll attempt a summary here in order to start a more fruitful conversation.

Metamodernity is the current moment in time. It was preceded by the indigenous, premodern, modern and postmodern epochs. Metamodernism is the lens through which we are learning to view the world. Metamodernity is the first epoch in which we can interact with the immediate aspects of cultures and subcultures and their respective lived histories. Seth Abramson, New York Times best-selling author of the “Proof” series identifies that “[Nascent] AI makes it understandable. The network makes it amplifiable.” Metamodernism is multipolar and allows for “merging but fleeting power centers”. Communicating through metamodern modes allows for a transmission of layered information that would otherwise be impossible to articulate in mere words or pictures. 

It is a communications framework, with the characteristics of an internet worm, whose creator has let it out of its box and now has no means of controlling it.

More to come.

Next Week: Imagine if you could exploit metamodernism as a communication framework in Surviving Metamodernism, Part II: Meta-Meta Narrative and the Example of Donald J Trump, or There is only one way to win at the game of chicken: take your steering wheel off, in plain sight of your opponent.

Update: This article is part of a series. Read the next one here.



Metamodernity: Meaning and Hope in a Complex by Lene Rachel Andersen