The state of the world
So here we are, with 20% of the 21st century already behind us. Take a minute to reflect and ask yourself: What does the 21st Century feel like to you? What words do you associate with our age? Our generation? Our civilization?
I contemplate these questions under the aegis of a shelter-in-place in the Bay Area of California. Surrounded by millions of acres of wildfires, a high-stakes presidential election, a crescendo of racial tensions, and a global pandemic making its second rounds, it’s hard for me square the feelings churning in the pit of my stomach with the optimistic data suggesting that the world is getting better all the time.
It brings me little daily comfort to look back into history and feel grateful to be free of intolerant theocracy, inbred monarchs, or the threat of death from a small cut on my toe in an age before antibiotic medicine. Even as I marvel that, with a small computer in my pocket, I have more access to information, knowledge, goods, and services than did Alexander the Great, Gehngis Khan, or Louis the Sun King, at the present moment the world doesn’t appear to be offering many reasons to feel inspired, hopeful, or optimistic about the future. Instead, most of what that little pocket computer pushes my way suggests that I have every reason to feel myself a hapless spectator of the end times.
My cohort, Millennials, have a jaded sense of having been lied to as kids. We were promised a linear path toward progress and a better world. Our movies and TV shows were moralizing. Captain Planet always triumphed. The bad guys always saw the error of their ways. We were taught to be colorblind; “No underlying racial tensions to see here, folks.” We were taught that the good countries were mostly cooperative and that our old cold war enemies were starting to come around and play nicely, too. If we just go to college, recycle, and be nice to each other, everything would turn out just fine. And let’s be honest, we expected to have flying cars by now.
Not only do we not have flying cars, but scientists seem rather powerless to solve the most pressing existential threats of our time, from climate change to global pandemics. By some accounts, our planet is melting and it’s too late to do anything about it. By some accounts, group differences are insurmountable; a truly pluralistic, multicultural, cooperative society is a naive pipe dream. Not unreasonably, then, we retreat to our groups and socialize in our worldview-affirming bubbles on social media.
One of the consequences of this retreat is that we are becoming increasingly hostile to anyone who even slightly disagrees with our interpretations of this shared reality. The resurgence of nationalism with totalitarian tendencies across the globe, from the United States to Brazil and Italy to Japan, undermines the idea that liberal tolerance and cooperation have been successful. There was a hope that even the most illiberal opposition to the modern era—countries like Russia, China, and Iran—were coming around to the idea that zero sum power politics are obsolete for acting on the global stage. This hope has been undermined by the revelation that Russia has been quietly plotting to overturn civil society in the western hemisphere with an army of Macedonian hacker trolls peddling hateful ammunition to all sides in an increasingly toxic social media battlefield. The response from previous beacons of global cooperation has been to elect populist leaders who seem intent on unraveling the carefully crafted and hard won alliances of the 20th Century. The fact that the United States is now the laughing stock of the world, with its highest office occupied by what some consider a mischevious clown and others a dangerous, illiberal, and incompetent racist, is a breathtaking about face—and possibly the biggest scandal of the 21st century to-date.
In this context, we struggle to shape our identities—the identities we use to relate to each other and determine how to act in the world. We struggle to find meaning, both personal and shared. After all, without hope for the future, what need do we have for meaning? Does anything really matter?
The burden and responsibility of having built a pluralistic, multicultural society is that we now live amidst an overwhelming menu of ideas and identities that seems to have seized us with consumer paralysis. We resist our sense of powerlessness with the perpetual work of crafting ourselves through our visual aesthetic, hobbies, careers, and friends. This isn’t anything terribly new, but with the advent of social media there’s now the added imperative to constantly broadcast our identity for the approval of others. If you think this is an overstatement, I encourage you to consider the function of social medias’ “like” buttons. Our identities are under an unprecedented degree of social scrutiny. As a result, young adults are suffering from frightening levels of anxiety.
Why did the Information Age promise so much and deliver so little? We have orders of magnitude more access to information than any other generation in history, yet somehow, in spite of this, ignorance, bias, hate, bullying, and incivility are on the rise. How did the Information Age pave the way for the Age of Fake News and the “post-fact world”?
In “fact,” we seem to be post-everything. The optimism of the 90s came to an abrupt halt on September 11th, 2001. The attack on the World Trade Center revived old culture wars and religious tensions across the world. A few years later, in 2008, the economic largesse of the 90s and early aughts imploded. Mortgage defaults and growing distrust in complex and opaque financial instruments sent seismic waves across global society, leading to an economic collapse followed by an occupation of Wall Street. Culture may never have fully recovered.
Amidst this cultural downfall, America had a brief period of hope with the emergence of a new hero narrative. Young people had a new American Dream. Early twenty-somethings with some computer programming knowledge began building the websites and early mobile apps that would become the most powerful companies in the world, turning barely developed young men who wrote some code into multi-billionaires. A cultish culture sprung up, composed mostly of awkward young men and the slightly older, Lands End sweater vest-clad venture capitalist community ready to hurl other people’s money at them. This culture, emanating from Silicon Valley all the way into Ivy League business schools across the country, encouraged young, privileged, tech-savvy kids to “move fast and break things” and “disrupt” anything that could be disrupted with a shiny new company ending in .ly or .io. Politicians during the Obama era were seduced into praising these happenings as economic development and a new kind of American exceptionalism.
This, too, has very recently come crashing down. It has been aptly dubbed the “Techlash,” and just about every week a new memoir or journalistic expose reveals what’s behind the veil of Silicon Valley: a wealth- and status-obsessed bro culture of business-illiterate amateurs. Red flags were raised high when it was exposed that companies like Uber and WeWork had questionable business models that, despite being propped up by excessive and irresponsible venture capital, were not actually profitable. Worse still were cases of complete fraud, like Theranos. Venture capital started looking less like ambitious investments into a better future and more like pyramid schemes or games of investor hot potato, not entirely dissimilar to the financial instruments that had collapsed the global economy in recent memory.
2016 may have signaled the beginning of the end for techno-optimism. When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, journalists began to uncover the role social media had played in the election and others around the world. Big tech has been under harsh scrutiny ever since, being repeatedly dragged before congress only to give the vaguest and most insincere answers to questions surrounding their responsibility and complicity. When Facebook bought the upstart social media app Instagram for an unprecedented amount, the gold rush to be the next big app or platform shifted into hyperdrive, attracting ‘entrepreneurs’ more interested in getting rich quickly than building something of social or civic value. By 2018 it had become widely known that the self-esteem of young adults, amidst their critical social developmental periods, were suffering at the hands of this wanton gold rush. We’ve experienced how tech has moved fast and broken things, and we’re increasingly skeptical of the world it’s built from the salvage of its disruptions.
In the wake of all this, we’re now left to ponder the real values of social media, the advertising model that powers free apps and search engines, and the monopolistic concentration of power around Amazonian ecommerce. We’re left asking ourselves whether we should accept a world in which we’re anxiously glued to our mobile devices, whether we should give all our personal information to opaque technology companies with questionable morals and business models, and whether all this development, prosperity, and promise is just a gaseous illusion. And we’re left wondering: What’s next?
To circle back, we seem to be post-everything. Post-techno-optimism. Post-influencer. Post-civil society. Post-liberalism. Post-modern. Post-post-modern, even. Everything to which we pay our precious and dwindling attention cycles in a matter of months.
Move fast, break, disrupt.
The most bookish among us roll our eyes at the enthusiasm people seem to have for whatever the next thing is. Any glimmer of meaning is written off before it even starts via Reddit shitposts, Twitter hottakes, and YouTube takedowns.
The most we can hope for is that we’re witnessing the growing pains of a liberal, globalized society’s adolescence. But the question haunts us: Are we on the path to an enlightened human utopia or the brink of collapse?
This is the world OSCILLATIONS was born into. OSCILLATIONS is a global network of artists, scientists, technologists, academics, artisans, patrons, entrepreneurs, investors, and media professionals. What started as a few dozen performing artists interested in creating with new technologies has grown to over 200 signatories and allies united by a desire to launch something huge and necessary.
OSCILLATIONS believes it’s imperative that the most dedicated artists and deepest thinkers come together to offer the 21st Century a vision of hope, a message that counterbalances the prevailing ills of modern society and the vapors of hopelessness they leave for us to choke on.
The antidotes to the modern world’s sickness, we believe, are expressions of human potential; daily doses of media that demonstrate incredible new creative technologies being brought into the service of human expression, cooperation, learning, and cultural exchange.
OSCILLATIONS aspires to build a media presence that features a body of creative work that, along with a surrounding conversation, jointly provide a renewed sense of purpose. Together, we can transcend everything that bogs us down and reset our sights on a sense of pride in our shared human potential. Consider: What if “White Mirror Stories” were as popular as “Black Mirror” ones?
While we know from the psychological sciences that humans are hardwired to attend to bad news, shock value, scandal, and other negatively charged information, OSCILLATIONS doesn’t believe that it then follows that we should supply these demands. There are plenty of opportunists more than willing to do just that. In the same way that it’s easy to sell sugar to a species that evolved under sugar-starved conditions, it’s easy to sell bad news to a species concerned with its survival in what has historically been a cruel and indifferent world for the majority of its ancestors.
OSCILLATIONS wants to do the hard thing. We want to supply real value—hope, inspiration, creativity, and knowledge—to a society accustomed to binge-watching the lowest common denominator of storytelling. Just like fast food chains don’t care much about your BMI, cholesterol, or daily exercise regimen, most corporate content creators don’t care about your well-being, productivity, or whether you come away from their content a better human being in one way or another. OSCILLATIONS, in contrast, is optimizing for exactly this.
But what if it's “not cool” to be hopeful anymore? What if it’s de rigueur to persevere through life with an ironic detachment; a skepticism of anything too sincere, too optimistic, too celebratory, or too proud? What if there’s less room these days for wonder, mythology, values, and meaning?
OSCILLATIONS believes in carrying the torch for these things in spite of the trends. To understand where we’re coming from, let me read a few of my favorite quotes:
Sergei Diaghilev said:
“Of all the wonders that the world had to offer, only art promised immortality.”
Beverly Sills said:
“Art is the signature of civilizations.”
John F. Kennedy said:
"...I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit."
John F. Kennedy also said:
“Art is central to a nation's purpose and the test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.”
Notice any themes? When we consider what actually remains from human history—what’s displayed in our museums and taught in our classrooms—it’s not as much the stories of flawed figures that drove historical change and human innovation as it is the great works of art, thought, and invention they left behind. As Ford from WestWorld said, “Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin never died. They simply became music.”
We benchmark history to the accomplishments of societies that showcase the maximal human potential of their respective eras. What matters more than our daily struggles and fears is our collectively constructed meaning. What makes us remarkable is what we aspire to; what makes us immortal is what we create.
Our individual lives, even the most impactful among them, are unlikely to amount to more than a paragraph in a history textbook. What will immortalize us is the signature we sign together—the collective dream we project onto the world as we strive to build a better future for subsequent generations.
Art is political in that it creates meaning and influences how we act. Far from being passé, collective meaning is really all we have. What we hold dear determines how we approach our interactions with the world, and those interactions collectively shape human history.
Ideas are human transcendence.
I would add to Kennedy’s statement that the arts are not only essential to the quality of our nation, or even a globalized civilization, but also to human beings. We are a species for which art, beauty, meaning, communication, and anticipating the future define our nature and our well-being.
Clearly, then, it’s imperative that we prioritize these things. Especially now, as the arts are among the first casualties of economies trembling under the stress of a pandemic, as we become increasingly groupish and divided, and as we find ourselves post-everything, wondering what kind of future we might look forward to.
But how should we go about doing so? What does OSCILLATIONS aspire to create? And how can you, dear listener, participate? Over the next two episodes, we’ll outline how you can become involved. To first provide some context, I’ll conclude this episode with a bit about my story and what led me to found OSCILLATIONS.
Inspiration for a better world
As the son of two Russian-trained ballet dancers, I grew up on stories of a performing arts company, active in the first half of the 20th Century, called the Ballet Russes. It’s hard to overstate the impact that this itinerant dance company imprinted on society, culture, and the arts. It emerged at the dawn of modern globalization, pulling together aesthetic ideas from around the world into service of what art critics and historians call “total art” or “gesamtkunstwerk.”
Total art is where all the creatives involved in a project are pushed to new heights of their talent through novel kinds of cross-media collaborations. The sum is meant to be greater than the individual pieces, capturing the ethos of the time just before that ethos actually arrives. It speaks in the voice of movements, collectives, breakthroughs, and revolutions. At its best, total art is a collision of creative powerhouses at a unique and opportune moment in history.
Within the Ballet Russes, each contributor was a veritable rock star of their respective craft. They collectively invented and popularized contemporary dance. They propelled art nouveau and art deco into the mainstream of marketing, design, and the applied arts. They inspired great fashion icons like Paul Poirret and Coco Channel, who would later go on to design sets and costumes alongside Pablo Picasso. There was scarcely an influential composer, designer, painter, or art aficionado in the first half of the 20th Century who didn’t in some way encounter the orbit or reverberations of the Ballet Russes. If you know where to look, you can see evidence of their impact all around us still today. It’s influences echo in our interior design, architecture, dance, and visual arts.
The Ballet Russes signed the signature of the civilization it inhabited, capturing the rush of the industrial revolution, the excitement of new science and technology, the confusion of unprecedented scales of conflict and war, and the flux of identity as a new middle class was emerging to ponder itself and its meaning.
In 2016, I was in training to become a competitive aerial and circus artist. I spent 8-10 hours a day training strength, flexibility, dance, and circus technique. The more forms of movement arts I studied, the more I had visions of the connections between different movement styles, shapes, patterns, and phrases; a dancer’s equivalent of the concept from neurolinguistics called “universal grammar.”
Amplifying these visions was a steady stream of the world’s most talented movers and performers. Maybe you remember the video aggregators like “People are Awesome,” a YouTube channel that strung together clips of, as the name implies, people doing awesome things. The algorithms that Instagram personalized for me, fed me an endless supply of the most inspiring accomplishments of the human body, from every corner of the globe, and in every conceivable style of movement.
Instagram was just coming into its own as a social media sharing platform, and influencer culture was just beginning to democratize entertainment, celebrity, and engagement. Movement artists of almost unreal caliber were starting to amass huge audiences interested in short, inspiring doses of human potential. For the first time, an artist born in an underserved community, with little at their disposal besides a camera and an internet connection, could monetize their highly specialized talents. They could earn income to support their obsessive dedication to art and creativity. They were constructing and living the dream of the modern world.
This brings me to a final quote I’d like to share. When John Adams, second president of the United States and small town farmer from New England, was representing American interests in France during the revolutionary period, he was struck by the millennia of history, art, culture, and thought on display around him. He wrote a letter back to his wife saying:
“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
It inspires me deeply to know that one of the foundational ideas of modern nations and their politics is that the whole point of nation-building is to build a society so prosperous that the average citizen can pursue creativity, excellence, and beauty.
Say what you will about the demerits of social media, but as ugly as things can get, these platforms have gotten us far closer to this dream than humanity has ever been before. Of course, you wouldn’t think so if your attention was being algorithmically directed to more shallow, dark, or basic corners of the internet and its typhoons of frivolous content.
While mainstream culture was dominated by cat videos, stupid stunts and pranks, unboxings, ASMR videos, and young kids making money for being professionally pretty at Coachella, I was tuned in to the most incredible innovations in the modern world. For the first time in the history of our species, creatives from all over the globe could connect, exchange, collaborate, and riff on each other’s ideas at the speed of information. Human creativity and cooperation were suddenly on overdrive.
Eventually, I discovered that this Renaissance wasn’t just happening in movement and sport, but also in every domain of human creativity one can imagine. Cartooning, puppetry, rube goldberg machine-making, photography, music, design, makeup art, graphic art, the culinary arts… the list goes on and on. Even hobbies and crafts were being taken to such extremes that, under the auspices of organic connection on Instagram and YouTube, they were approaching the same level of dedication and sophistication as the fine arts. While many were passively consuming vanity, stupidity, and even hate, I was witnessing a world of unmatched beauty, inspiration, and potential.
The human species, I came to realize, is capable of the most heart-wrenchingly and awe-inspiring achievements.
What if this energy were harnessed into something more than just a series of disconnected entertainment products, or the lure on the end of a fishing pole designed to mine our personal data, or short bursts of dopamine from distracted moments of social media scrolling?
I began to wonder further: What would a Ballet Russes for the 21st Century look like? What if a movement in art and culture could capture the creative gestalt of now, and could connect this creative energy and human potential with investment capital, patronage, and global audiences?
I began to recognize the opportunity at hand: We could sign our signature in a way that communicated to future generations the creative Renaissance happening beneath the surface of mainstream awareness at the dawn of the 21st Century.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the works coming out of this movement would capture the attention and hearts of our generation. And there’s no doubt in my mind that they could broadcast international cooperation in the service of enormous creative works of art that reinspire humankind with a vision of the future worth aspiring to.