Since leaving politics in 2016, I have spent my time helping startups build business strategies and the technology that supports those strategies. With automation and ease of access to the global marketplace making it easier than ever for side hustles to become day jobs and a global pandemic that has brought into focus our individual priorities, the load-bearing structures that western society relies on have become overstressed.
In recent years, we have learned that much of our communal infrastructure relies on trust. When that trust breaks, there are precious few institutions prepared to defend the unwritten agreements necessary for society to thrive. We know from game theory that cooperation requires rationality, but rationality is no longer dichotomous in the metamodern age.
Further, the characteristics that comprise a successful entrepreneur have evolved — just what success is has progressed. New modalities through which we communicate our values have emerged. Some of my contemporaries may even argue that the importance of promoting values in business has itself been devalued. Are statements of value the lowest common denominator required of every brand, whether they even attempt to live by them or not? Or are they so cliche as to be a dead giveaway that inauthenticity is at hand?
It is easy to misidentify the events that have weakened our social structures, but they are mere waypoints in the ineluctable march towards a new cultural epoch. This epoch is called Metamodernism, and it is the most disruptive communications paradigm shift in the history of humankind. More disruptive than the printing press because of the speed with which narratives travel and evolve. More disruptive than the telephone because of its multiple modes. It is more disruptive than the Internet because of the layered characteristic of memetic communications, though the Internet is the medium within which metamodernism spreads.
Where previous disruptions like the invention of parchment or the printing press transformed city-states and eventually diffused throughout the world via trade and face-to-face knowledge transfer, the Internet allows for the global, instantaneous transmission of the written or spoken word and images. In the march towards hyper-efficiency, classical communication on the Internet is drowned out by memetic communication, wherein entire conversations can be represented by a single graphic. Enclosed within each meme (the atomic unit of culture) may be a salient point about a political issue, grief, cynicism, and sardonic humor all at once.
There is no cow too sacred to be culled and no business fundamental so hallowed that it cannot be undermined if only for the lulz. The elections of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson represent the exploitation of metamodern communication in western politics. The GameStop fiasco and “the Squeezening” illustrate the same but in financial markets.
Where will metamodernism strike next? Discovering the opportunities for destabilization and exploiting them will crown new queens, albeit fleetingly. Developing a framework for thwarting — or, more appropriately, inoculating disciplines against — the negative aspects of metamodernity is necessary for the preservation of democracy and the future of western civilization.
In developing a new communications framework, we must learn from history. Maximillian Robespierre will be remembered not for his exaltation of virtue as the foundation of a thriving republic but instead for his unrestrained use of force in defense of virtue. To paraphrase Robespierre, If the tools of terror can be employed for evil, is it not more just to put them to use in defense of virtue? That hollow justification ended in the Reign of Terror and the execution of more than seventeen thousand of his countrymen by guillotine.
Throughout history, others have sought to use the tools of communication to manipulate in the pursuit of power — and have justified their actions as ethical. Presumably, this is how all wars start. Nevertheless, in the metamodern age, destabilization is globalized, and only those willing to enforce speech restrictions with authoritarian bluster can succeed in doing so, leaving democracies at a disadvantage.
That is why, today, I am announcing our new venture called CHANNELSHIFT. At Dialect, we have always been and will remain a team of marketing, communications, and technology veterans dedicated to helping businesses, governments, and not-for-profits build strategies for thriving in a time of flux. However, that’s no longer enough. We must devote substantial time and resources to producing actionable research and developing a toolkit to stabilize the foundations of communications without resorting to censorship or cynicism. In this effort, we extend our hands to academics and practitioners alike to counter the cynical, if not the downright diabolical expression of metamodernism, restore integrity to the professions that reside under the umbrella of communications, and build an enlightened capitalism that is honest about its shortcomings and even more so with its solutions.