We Never Stopped Being Modernists

Image: @thoughtcatalog, Unsplash

Thanks to odd scheduling issues and particular professors’ pet projects, I spent more time reading Modernist authors in college than I liked.

I didn’t grasp what made Modernist authors “modernist” at the time. I learned how to parrot back phrases like “rejected traditional norms” in order to past tests. But at 20 years old, my perspective on history, human behavior, and everything else was too limited for me to really grasp what was being rejected and what was being embraced, or at least attempted, in its place.

It took me another 20 years, and an entire career writing about artificial intelligence, SaaS, and work issues, to realize: We still have the same problems the Modernists did — and we are no closer to solving them.

In college, I learned that Modernism was a repudiation of the two major movements that preceded it: Romanticism, with its longing for the past and its emphasis on feeling, and the Enlightenment, with its certainty that human reason was equal to any and every task set before it. By the turn of the century and especially by World War I, Romanticism had been revealed as a bleeding-heart fantasy and the Enlightenment as a self-absorbed fraud, leaving the Lost Generation to figure things out on their own.

Enter Modernism. But while college literature classes gave me the impression that Modernism wrote on a blank slate, it didn’t. No movement does.

Modernism wasn’t merely a repudiation of Enlightenment certainty and Romantic escapism, a hard reset on art and literature. Rather, Modernism was an attempt to express the unprecedented and frankly terrifying consequences of reaching adulthood in the early 20th century with only the Enlightenment and Romanticism to lean on.

The Enlightenment and Romanticism birthed and raised the Industrial Revolution. The Enlightenment made the Industrial Revolution possible; Romanticism grew up alongside the Industrial Revolution and in many ways existed as a reaction against it.

But while both the Enlightenment and Romanticism bear responsibility for the Industrial Revolution, neither one was equipped to deal with it. Both were grounded in a time when “certainty,” rational or emotional, was based on understandings of human power in events (from plowing to warfare) that hadn’t really changed in centuries. Neither the Enlightenment nor Romanticism, as ways of framing or navigating the world, had any idea what to do with the machine apocalypse they had jointly created.

The Enlightenment and Romanticism were, in short, bad parents — or hapless ones at least. And it was, to paraphrase Randall Jarrell, from their sleep the Lost Generation fell into a world where machine power could and did replace human endeavor. For the first time in human history, we faced the question: What does it mean to be human when humans had replaced themselves as the primary doers of precisely those things we thought made us human?

Whatever meaning lay in art, or in the making of art, could no longer be grounded in technique or nostalgia. Meaning had to live somewhere else.

(Unfortunately for literature students everywhere, “meaning” for the Modernists turned into an aesthetic navel-gazing in which fiction, poetry, art, and music were as much commentaries on themselves as anything. Unfortunately for me, this essay is probably more of the same.)

So: Modernism as a movement found itself born from and raised by parents who, having lived their entire lives in a world that no longer existed, were ill-equipped to offer meaningful guidance. Modernism had to go it alone, and Modernism knew it.

Swap in “Gen Z” for “Modernism,” and we’re in the same place. And Gen Z knows it too.

For many of my students, this sense of loneliness and alienation in a brave new world is a driving force for their behavior, conscious or otherwise. The rest of us grew up in what has been charitably called the “f*ck around” century; Gen Z is the first to have lived their entire conscious lives in the “find out” century.

Meanwhile, in the world of AI thought leadership where I make my living, we grapple subconsciously with what it means to replace ourselves not only as doers — as the Industrial Revolution did to the Losts — but even as thinkers or creators. Picasso embraced Cubism because photography could capture scenes more realistically than painters; today AI gives us photos of people who don’t exist and raises questions about whether we’ll make human writers and artists obsolete altogether.

Half of what I write are reassurances that AI can’t replace people, and for good reason. We’re already testing AI’s ability to make moral judgments and fascinated by how AI tries to make meaning.

The Modernists searched for meaning in a world where mechanization had replaced the certainty of human endeavor. Yet the Modernists never asked whether their efforts were replaceable in the search for meaning itself. To the Modernists, the idea that humans are the only meaning-makers remained a certainty shared with their Enlightenment and Romantic forebears.

We no longer have that luxury. The questions before us now are: What does it mean to be human when machines can do anything we can? What does it mean to make meaning when machines can do it too — maybe better than we can? If meaning is not a human endeavor, what is it?

I can’t say I’m looking forward to the pursuit of answers. I can say that if we don’t ask these questions, something in us that is irreplaceably human will be irretrievably lost.

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