Historians used to write and talk about the “march of civilization.” You can find books by that name on Amazon, and learned quotes that use that phrase on any search engine. The underlying notion was that the story of humankind was a continuous upward journey from barbarism to the glories of the modern world. And the implication was that the march would inevitably continue to ever greater heights of achievement and refinement.
I don’t think the “march of civilization” concept holds true anymore. The idea presupposes that human beings will continue to work hard and focus on bringing on the better world with its greater accomplishments and magnificence, and these days it seems like we are a lot more interested in being distracted than in knuckling down. You might say that we are in the midst of a “march of trivialization” instead.
Consider what happens when you go to the Google app on your phone to look for something. Before you can type in a word you’ll see snippets of a series of curious stories, like the ones shown on the screen shot at the top of this post, that are designed to pique your interest, get a click, and divert you from what you were going to do in the first place. And the stories that are featured are breathtakingly banal and ultimately pointless, like the story above about the “viral video” of a woman stepping out of an Amazon truck and how people you don’t know on social media have responded to it. Typically there are multiple stories about social media videos or feigned outrages, photos of celebrities and members of the British royal family, sports world “reactions” to a play or announcement, and speculation about when a fourth (or fifth, or sixth) “stimulus” payment might be made. If you went solely by the stories on the Google front page and tried to draw inferences from them, you probably would conclude that we live in a world where there are no real, significant problems that constitute news, which is why TikTok videos and celebrity fashion dominate.
Of course, that inference would not be correct. There are lots of actual problems out there that could be the subject of the Google front page stories–but they aren’t. Why do you suppose that is the case? Is it because Google once tried to feature actual news and saw that it garnered far fewer clicks than the junk stories, or that Google figured at the outset that people typically use Google for trivial purposes–like trying to find the actual name of the character called “the Professor” on Gilligan’s Island–and therefore would prefer the amazingly inconsequential fare that we see today?
Whatever the reason, the march of trivialization continues, distractions ever multiply, and the insignificant crowds out the significant. Social media has replaced religion as the so-called “opiate of the masses,” and is keeping people from paying attention to what actually counts. It’s a weird and troubling feature of modern life.