Paradigm Shift

Back in 2010, in a post about changes in urban life, I quoted Neil Pierce, who had written that “for humans, displacement from their known settings may be exceedingly painful…the psychological impact of forced removal from a familiar neighborhood is like a plant being jerked from its native soil.”

For “neighborhood,” substitute “reality.”

The world is in a state of flux, what scientists might call a “paradigm shift,” and the pain and discomfort that undeniable fact is causing is manifest in our communications, our economy, and especially our politics. (How else do we understand the angry and frightened voices insisting that they want “their country” back and the belligerent demands to “Make America Great Again”?)

In 2015,  a site called “The Big Blue Gumball” discussed paradigms and paradigm shift:

Among the biggest paradigm shifts of the last 10 years have been the transitions from analog to digital, and from wired to wireless. These revolutionary technological changes have led to major sociological and behavioral modifications that impact our everyday lives – from the way we live and work, to the ways we entertain ourselves and engage with others.

True enough–but only a small part of the changes we’re experiencing.

All of us develop worldviews– paradigms–as we are “socialized,” into seeing and accepting the “way things are” as understood by the cultures into which we are born.

In The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport’s seminal book about the roots of bigotry, published in 1954, Allport pointed out that most  prejudices come from relatively unthinking acceptance of what “everyone knows”–Jews are “sharp” businessmen, blacks are lazy, women are emotional and illogical. The dangerous haters had twisted psyches, but most people weren’t emotionally invested in these negative social stereotypes–they didn’t really think about them, any more than they thought about the fact that we call the color of the sky “blue”– and Allport thought the misconceptions would erode with greater familiarity and more contact.

We’re still working on that. Social change is painful and very slow. (Granted, a global pandemic may speed things up…)

I’ve been particularly interested in a change that has been less noted, although several of its consequences have been subject to expressions of concern. I think we are beginning to see the demise of consumerism. Not consumption, necessarily, but consumerism.

Most pundits attribute the recent struggles of retailing to the Internet, the assumption being that we are simply taking our consumerism online. I think there is more to it.

When I was young, people viewed a trip to the mall or shopping district as entertainment; there was intense interest in what one’s friends were wearing, what “this year’s look” was, what upscale car the neighbors had purchased…and all these things were markers of status. There is obviously still an enormous market for personal purchases, especially for electronic gadgetry, but we are also undergoing a very real change in public attitudes about stuff. 

What that shift means for our economy, which is driven by consumption, remains to be seen, butthere are signs that those attitudinal changes are accelerating,

For example, I found this article from the Guardian significant.It was a report about a new downtown development in the Dutch city of Groningen–an example of the movement to reinvent urban hubs for the post-consumer age.

The €101m, trapezoid Forum building is part library, part meeting space, part science museum and part recreational hangout – a 10-storey “multi-space” designed to resonate with citizens who know that shopping is not necessarily the answer. It’s a new-look department store that doesn’t actually sell very much.

But with high streets feeling the pinch across the developed world, with shops shuttered and town centres wondering what they are for any more, the Groningen experiment is being closely watched.

The lengthy article is fascinating; it describes the Forum as an effort to build community, not commerce.

The Forum seeks to orient all its cultural activities around a common thread. Whether it’s the current exhibition on artificial intelligence (recently on show at the Barbican in London) or Spike Jonze’s futuristic film Her at the cinema, everyone is collectively inching towards the same page (“optimism about the future”, in the Forum’s case).

Social change is inevitable. Unfortunately, thanks to the current pandemic and the economic disaster likely to come in its wake, our paradigms are likely to change far more rapidly–and challenge us far more dramatically–than many of us can handle. What will come next is a question for social scientists–or perhaps science fiction writers.

At a minimum, it will be interesting….