The Rise of Post-Pandemic Microcultures
Connor Misset: Lovers Leap, New Milford, Connecticut, USA, 2019 (Unsplash)
by Eric D. Lehman
In the 1990s the rise of the internet and the globally connected culture of the post-Cold War era promised a new world of unfettered freedom. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many people predicted “the end of history” and a “new world order” of light and hope. The advantages of the internet for this new world appeared to be legion, from keeping in touch with distant friends to helping to promote democracy itself. President Bill Clinton promised internet in every American classroom, and the United Nations pushed for the technology gap to be closed in Africa and Asia. This optimism has continued in waves, coming as recently as April 2020, when Vice included an article proclaiming that the pandemic was “finally fulfilling the internet’s promise.” Indeed, “zoom” classrooms and deliveries from Uber Eats were certainly blessings during the lockdowns and fear.
But what about after the pandemic? Will we continue to want to have “zoomiversaries” and virtual vacations? Now that we have had nearly two years of this sort of life, its shortcomings have become more and more obvious. In fact, people all over the globe have begun to ignore the limitations of the pandemic to avoid this virtual world. Even with the threat of imminent death, people are returning to bars, shaking hands, and trying to live a “normal” life. When that threat is gone or even reduced significantly, what will our reactions be?
No doubt there will be quite a few “real-life” parties. But more than that, we can expect a paradigm shift in the way people view the promises of the internet and the virtual world, and a move towards other options.
What might this shift involve? To figure that out, we might look at what the internet and global society promised but failed to satisfy for our human and planetary needs. Evidence abounds. We can scan any “content page” and find out how online news slips too easily into sound-bite punditry and art merges into outrage. The creation of virtual villages on social media is not as satisfying as we thought it might be a decade ago. The internet has allowed marginalised individuals in unpleasant circumstances find solace and help; it has also allowed and even encouraged the persecution and bullying of those marginalised individuals. The worst aspects of village life – like gossip and tribalism – are amplified, while the best – including physical contact – are absent or rare. The promises that fruitful cultures will be built in cyberspace have been mostly false. How many Reddit chat rooms have led to innovation and change?
But hasn’t the internet allowed us to keep in touch with distant friends and family members? Indeed, it has: I video-chat with my godson in New Zealand once a week through this wonderful technological marvel. And yet, recent studies have shown that loneliness is on the rise, despite our increased abilities to “connect.” The underlying reason for this is painfully obvious to biologists, psychologists, and philosophers alike – digital connection cannot replace human connection. An online chat group can undeniably be helpful to someone working through a problem and the crowdsourcing of ideas is useful to human progress. But our beings are not digital, whatever science fiction promises; they are physical and perhaps spiritual. The digital world is only an analogy for the actual one.
Likewise, the 21st century’s global problems, whether they are climate change or war, have not been solved by the digital revolution. The internet can provide ways to gather and resist, but can also lead us to feelings of utter helplessness in the face of incoming asteroids. The ubiquitous tagline, “Think globally, act locally,” is a perennial attempt to counter this reality, but does little to allay feelings of powerlessness in the face of a set of 10-billion-person problems. Anthropologists and social psychologists agree that there is a limit to stable social relationships, and to the number of other beings we can reasonably care about. Businesses have discovered that nurturing company cultures requires maintaining limited groups of employees. So, a global society accessed by the internet is much too big for our brains to handle. A million people is beyond our biological abilities to deal with, and a billion is beyond our comprehension.
The problems go far beyond feelings of dissatisfaction and vulnerability. For example, global nomadism combined with technological progress has proved deadly for the environment beyond the initial threat of the industrial revolution. Even early industrialists valued the land somewhat, because they were using it and even living on it. Nomadic hunters and agriculturists of course valued the land. But if an abstract virtual world becomes a substitute for the village, you get a society that does not value the environment, that does not value place. We still live on an actual planet, no matter how much time we spend on a virtual one.
The pandemic has amplified these unsatisfied promises. The global connections so lauded in the 1990s are the sources of fear and anxiety now. The “information age” internet was exposed not just as hopeful fiction, but as sometimes actually deadly to human progress and health. It is just as easy – maybe easier – to spread misinformation as it is knowledge, to promulgate conspiracies rather than content. The internet gave the promise of global cohesion, but the reality of schism and apostasy.
And so, technology seems to promise something, and when it delivers something else instead, we adapt. One thing that might emerge during this adaptive paradigm shift is the return of – or move forward into – a world of real microcultures. These might be defined as small, adaptive cultures, the size of a neighbourhood or smaller, with unique identities that develop from or around their locales. We have been living under the assumption that a global communication network would make locality and regionalisms obsolete. But instead, the increasing population of the megalopolis has conversely put more focus on each neighbourhood. Great cities retreat into smaller units – Camden Town, the East Village, Akihabara – and then break down further into groups of friends and colleagues.
This could be a positive move. After all, throughout history we perennially see how microcultures – not global societies – produce great athletes, great chefs, and great engineers. A local society, an actual place, might produce one professor, one coach, one doctor. A tiny artists’ colony nurtures a group of painters that influences an entire generation. And as the world population grows with every passing year, we find these small areas more and more important, for both personal identity and cultural understanding. For an individual life, there are hundreds of potential centres, hundreds of thousands of possible nodes in the great actual web of human connection.
Many people can and will continue to conduct their business meetings in cyberspace, build relationships with other humans, and even live nearly electronic lives. But just as a romantic relationship must take the next step and become tied to place – a beach, a country hotel, an apartment bedroom – a culture must finally develop in a locality. The computers we use as tools in this regard are developed in Silicon Valley, not in cyberspace. The cultures of large platforms, even beautifully designed ones like Instagram, are spreading fungal cultures at best, deadened flat cultures at worst. Recent attempts by Facebook to promote its “groups” function and the rise of Nextdoor are frantic attempts to counter this problem.
However, the pandemic has made it painfully obvious that virtual chatrooms and organised forums are useful tools, not places to live. The internet may help to find a specialised subgroup that shares our ethos and dynamics, but we now see the limits of leaving that group as an abstract, virtual one. The unit must move into the real world, into a “neighbourhood” that might be a literal one or one spread out over a hundred miles. This neighbourhood-level, place-based thinking might satisfy the biological need for “home,” as well. The nomad aesthetic of global citizenship can certainly feel more comfortable than the compromises of local identity, which can be just as alienating as the more traditional national or cultural sort. But now, the pandemic has made the nomad suspect, and drawn us back into our districts and families.
As we know from the rise of nativist sentiments in western nations, this retreat can be damaging to individual psyches and to society at large. Worse, the politicians who understand and fulfil this growing need are too often populist types with radical, extremist solutions. Perhaps this damage has been done because we have allowed an undeniable human need to be harnessed by political activists, rather than acknowledging its existence and promoting ways for it to grow. By ignoring it, we have allowed the need for community to lead people into oubliettes of opinion, creating localities of unassailable “truth.” Talking politics on the fever swamp of Twitter to anyone outside your limited political spectrum makes the disconnect painfully obvious. How can this person believe such things? More distressingly, though, these sorts of “information localities” are not created cultures; they are only criticisms writ large. If the failure of the internet to fulfil our human needs is acknowledged and if alternatives are proffered, perhaps people will be less likely to fall into conspiracy theories and look for extreme solutions.
Even before the pandemic we saw the emergence of more positive ways to embrace the microculture rather than the global culture. In America, the rise of local breweries in the 2010s is one example of this urge to return to, or move forward to, places and beverages made by neighbours, by people you know or get to know, to become part of places “where everybody knows your name.” These breweries provided for a need people didn’t even know they had, and quickly became gathering places for all sorts of people from every social class. The movement seemed to create a “brewery” culture that was national in scope, but in fact, the reason they worked so well was that each successful business created its own locality, with its own loyalty, argot, and identity. During the pandemic, cultural nodes like these have suffered, but will soon rumble back to life and be celebrated more than ever.
Where I live in Connecticut, in a land of small cities and spreading suburbs, our three-and-a-half million inhabitants often gather in small units around local institutions. Hundreds of historical societies, social clubs, and community centres build real-world relationships. Food trucks run by neighbours or town libraries with family art programs become nodes that form the living connections, the warm, breathing, physical world in which new ideas and new creations thrive and grow, as they always have, nurtured by a like-minded community. The people I know who have embraced this model of life are happy – a chef who has built a community of friendly people around his farm, a local historian whose investigations have made him loyal friends in every nook and corner of the state, a schoolteacher who has found her own people at a seasonal campground. All of them use the internet as a tool to enhance their lives, but none of them live there. They each have their sorrows – who doesn’t? – but they each have something so many of us have lost: a real community that nurtures their hearts.
Some of this will likely be amplified by the continued threat of future pandemics. A small bar is safer than a big stadium for a concert. An outdoor art show safer than the crowded mega-museum. Some people might see this movement to microcultures as a way to escape the patriarchy or oligarchy, others might find a lost audience for art. Some might find in these local movements a symbol of socialism, while others see an expression of small-business capitalism. Whatever the case, whatever the pursuit, place-based microcultures might provide a balance to the plague-ridden globality of the technologically connected world.
Technology, which at first promised global reach, could assist the local resurgence of abundant microcultures. The internet might flatten things out, but it also makes the old centres of supercities less essential for musicians or entrepreneurs. And so, we move forward – not retreat – into regions, into towns, into neighbourhoods. Even a few hundred years ago, only the populations of major cities could sustain arts, education, and business, but now a small city is the size of an ancient world metropolis. The Greek city-state ideal of 100,000 seems about right, give or take.
This does not mean that people will suddenly stop using technology, or we will Balkanise the world into tiny territories. After all, global trade will not and should not stop. The internet is not going away. Not everyone in a suburban cul-de-sac will suddenly become friends and start eating locally grown food. Those sorts of back-to-the-land fantasies are both unrealistic and undesirable. Furthermore, the super-rich at least will continue to live in the global society that nurtures them, and will try to pretend that this is the most important and vital way to thrive. Some will believe them and continue to try to follow their lead despite decreasing resources and unfulfilled promises. We may also experience more corporate-controlled portions of our lives, and global surveillance states will no doubt continue to expand.
But as the watchful virtual world increases in power, we naturally wish to make our actual worlds smaller, looking to locally trusted sources for care and comfort. Many will return to the worlds people have always lived in – the village, the watershed, the county. At the very least, post-pandemic localism will grow as a counter-culture, or rather a hundred-thousand counter cultures. Those who embrace them may find a more balanced and healthy life as part of a locality, instead of a vague, internet-fuelled global “society.” In short, some people will react by beginning to behave like real human animals, in the real world. Our biology and our psychology both evolved in and continue to be genetically suited for microcultures, and that is unlikely to change for at least another hundred thousand years.
This should be noted as a natural progression of ideas and behaviours, not some reactionary backlash. Like all changes, some will be good, and some bad. Part of this movement may lead to negative consequences, such as tribalism and prejudice, especially if the health of this move is not acknowledged and guided by cultural gatekeepers with our best interests at heart. If the pandemic does indeed shift society away from virtual-world globalism, the question is, will humans retreat into a morass of distrustful tribes, or advance into fruitful microcultures?
At its core, the next phase of culture will develop from what people care about. Will we continue to care about the far corners of the earth via the virtual world of internet media? Most likely yes. But we will (and have started to already) care once again about our local community, about our neighbours, about the landscape we act in every day. Balance may return to our compassions. We may have an opportunity to turn our backs on the false promises of the virtual world, and search again for what it means to be human.
About the Author
Eric D. Lehman is an expert on Connecticut culture and history and is an Associate Professor at the University of Bridgeport. He is the author of twenty-two books of history, travel, and fiction, including New England Nature, A History of Connecticut Food, Shadows of Paris, and Becoming Tom Thumb, which won the Henry Russell Hitchcock Award from the Victorian Society of America and was chosen as one of the American Library Association’s top university press books of the year.
A version of this essay was first published in A Plate of Pandemic during the pandemic. Republished here with permission.