Reaction to: We're A Niche, We Just Didn't Know
A few weeks ago an essay by @TheAnnaGat exploded all over my Twitter-Blogger-sphere. It outlined a possible movement of people that she has noticed building. The essay landing, and the reactions, were so exciting that I quit my work contract and returned to full time thinking!
Here’s the original essay: https://medium.com/@the_i_i/were-a-niche-we-just-didn-t-know-9561f662e127
And Anna has set up a Twitter account for the tentatively named “Inter-Intellectual” movement, their handle is @whatistheii.
Here are my thoughts on the essay, and further ideas.
Firstly, I immediately felt that the essay described me, and my consciously selected Twitter friends. How exciting! My particular corner of Twitter is interested in the philosophical and psychological underpinnings of meaning in our current culture. It is also active in trying to create new answers to our culture’s problems. In this way me and my friends exhibit many of the traits that are listed in the essay.
However when I followed theii on Twitter I realised Gat herself and the other people following were nothing like my tribe of Twitter people. They were all startup cofounders, to the point where someone marvelled in my DMs that myself and him had zero mutual connections on LinkedIn. An unusual platform for someone like me to find friends. I started to hear other people wondering: who exactly is this essay trying to describe? Since the “values” could be shared by many groups.
The essay does mention a reluctance to be specific about sectors, and seeks to describe values or behaviours instead. The essay also has a poll after each “value”, to measure how much people agree. When I was reading the essay I made sure to vote in the polls at first, but quickly lost interest because there were so many values to assess, and I found I vaguely disagreed with more and more of them, but the poll seemed a little narrow in the way it phrased the question of agreeing or disagreeing.
So I started out very excited, but gradually became unexicted and confused. Still, that process itself was also interesting!
So what do I think?
Pessimistically, I think what Gat is describing is actually a mundane result of a number of venn diagrams overlapping in a bubble. The bubble being: generation X/Y, in the West, lived before and after the internet, likes reading/writing, middle class or well educated, with no children, who congregate on Twitter.
The generation born 1975-ish to 1990 ish have all had the same cultural and technological experiences. Living before/after the internet is a key factor, as is the fact that they are all now old enough to know themselves and have agency in the world. So they can travel, start businesses etc.
While I agree this group is age-agnostic, as the essay says, there are actually not many people who think/act in this group who are older than GenX and almost none who are younger than GenY. The older ones are people who: have no kids, are early tech adopters, are wealthy enough to have time to sit and think. These factors are consciously chosen.
The younger ones are not in the group because they lived after the internet, they don’t know how it works or how to maintain it and they don’t know a world without it, so they take it for granted (in some ways). That group uses the internet in amazing ways too, and they are all on Youtube and Periscope and Snapchat, so this means Gat’s people can’t see them. They are not yet old enough to have agency, in part because our economic culture so badly restricts wealth for anyone under mid-30s. These factors exclude them from the list of values defined in the essay. Not because they are not capable of having them, but because their life circumstances don’t permit it yet.
In sum, this “movement” could be said to be a mundane category of person. A category that is obvious, in retrospect.
This category of person is now also facing a couple of global problems: what to do after modernity fails (these failures have been pointed out by the postmoderinists) and the problematic human impact on the planetary environment.
It seems inevitable that a bunch of people with similar backgrounds, similar life situation, who are connected via the internet, all working on the same two problems, are developing similar “values” to work and knowledge share on the problems together.
I think if understood in this way, the “movement” is not a movement, rather it’s “just” an expression of some people having all these similarities and a nice serious problem to solve. It might be less exciting to think of it in this way than if it’s seen as a nascent “movement”, however it might also have its uses.
I realise here that what I’m doing is resisting the attempt or temptation to categorise, depsite my initial excitement.
Historically, people within an apparent intellectual movement have resisted any attempts to categorise, name and define them. I’m thinking here of The Bloomsbury group, the existentialists and the post-structuralists / post-modernists. To label thinkers into homogenous groups is to reduce, essentialise and distort what those people within it are attempting to transmit.
However, all of these thinkers were indeed a product of the interplay between their history, cultural context, problems du-jour, and the new ideas being developed as a result of it. As we know, labels serve the purpose of gesturing towards a nebulous categry of thing that is defnitely there and definitely happening and we need labels for pointers towards that sort of thing.
So on the positive side, this group of people who are emerging as a result of their inherited cultural context definitely are a movement of some kind, and to resist the labelling of themselves (myself) into a distinct category is to join the distinguished ranks of every other movement in history.
However, this landscape is clearly many and varied, or else we would not have become confused about which movement Gat was trying to talk about, and in my opinion a varied landscape is better and stronger.
For example I think it is good for this group of people to channel their energies into distinct organisations and entities with distinct contexts, interests and goals. I’m thinking here of orgs such as Extinction Rebellion and The Pyschedelic Society. These operate with many of the values in the Gat essay (I presume), but have defined, narrow, goals. I think it would be good to start more of them. One for every distinct problem we have. These entities can of course be networked together and knowledge-share, as far as that is useful.
Other, more vague groups should also coalesce and be given names, such as my more philosophical arm of friends who are currently wrestling with a few different names. I’ve mentioned on this blog that I identify with the term “meaning-makers” or “sense-makers”.
As a side-note I think that the group(s) whose main job is to help provide philosophical and pyschological underpinnigs for the groups who take action is a very important group, (of course I think that) and one which is slightly more meta to the others. Perhaps I’ll write further on this.
In sum, I think it is correct to be sceptical about the idea that one, big movement is forming. I think it is more likely that it’s just a bunch of people who have had the same experiences in life who all like talking on Twitter.
But nonetheless there is defninitely something happening amongst those people, and it’s ok to come up with a bunch of labels to gesture vaguely in its general direction. If that process means it seems more coherent than it really is then so be it. Frankly, it’s been ages since we had a non-ironic culture or a subculture with any kind of structure and I support the use of whatever tools we need to be able to join in the fun.
Image credit Aaron Burden aaronburden [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons