It’s not a conspiracy in the sense that the Elders of Oligarchy, at a meeting in some aerie in Switzerland to plot their next step in taking control of the world, on the theory that children are more malleable than adults, decided to initiate a crash campaign, so swift that it wouldn’t be noticed, to infantilize people. (“People” being the vast and growing population politely referred to as “consumers” and privately, in the aerie in Switzerland, as “serfs.”)
Nor is it just a conspiracy of fate: a chance pattern in the genes of the 21st century society that has brought about its arrested development.
It is a conspiracy of conspiracies. No particular conspiracy set out infantilize society – neither the Amazon Conspiracy, the Education Conspiracy, the Google Conspiracy, the Facebook Conspiracy, the iConspiracy, nor the Health Care Conspiracy – but the combined effect of them all: the elevation of instant gratification from an occasional pleasure to a necessary concomitant of happiness, the commercialization of education, the substitution of information for knowledge, the erasure of the moral barriers against self-aggrandizement, the enabling of rampant LCD screen addiction, the encouragement of anxieties about sickness and death. All of these, together, have turned into a playgroundfull of children what 30 years ago was a community of adults who, whether they were good guys or bad guys, saw the world as adults and behaved accordingly.
Adult heroes wouldn’t boast about their heroism on Facebook; adult criminals wouldn’t upload videos of their crimes to YouTube.
Take a look at the society around you. It is a society of children – not unsupervised children, as in The Lord of the Flies, but prudently controlled and discreetly spoiled children. Controlled, spoiled children don’t become angry, they become petulant. When they have good luck they don’t modestly downplay it, they boast about it; when they have bad luck they don’t absorb it and move on, they cry and lose their tempers and call for help.
Until, let’s say, thirty years ago, the word “cute” generally was used to describe an attractive quality of someone of the opposite sex, or as an epithet, for a baby, as commonplace as “swift-footed” was for Homer’s Achilles. Of course, kittens and puppies were cute, and babies and pets could do cute things which were a pleasure to watch – for half a minute or so.
I am sure that thirty years ago there were people who collected pictures of cute animals behaving cutely and who spent an hour or two every day or so searching magazines for them and cutting them out and pasting them in scrapbooks, and who had similarly inclined friends with whom they would swap cute pictures, but I can confidently assert that the great majority of such people had not been educated beyond high school and likely had not made it onto their high schools’ honors lists.
Yes, I can imagine a college graduate who found herself immured as a bored housewife in 1956, 1966, 1976, and became absorbed in collecting pictures of cute animals, but it would have been a guilty pleasure or, at least, a private one. She might or might not have kept her predilection for the cute from her husband. Her husband, if aware of it, might have found it embarrassing, or charming. If the latter, he might have mentioned it at a gathering of close friends – to his wife’s chagrin. I can confidently assert, however, that the couple would not have phoned all their friends to tell them that they must get the latest issue of Collier’s where, on page 23, there was the most adorable photo of a rabbit and a cat eating out of the same bowl.
Of course, circumstances have changed. The cute is now available not as static pictures, but as videos which can be accessed at the touch of an index finger and which, with just a few more clicks, can be sent to all your friends and even people whom you have never met.
One might argue that if the denizens of 1956, 1966, 1976, had had the same instant access to thousands of cute videos and the same ease of communication, they too would have become absorbed in the cute. Well, I don’t know. Perhaps. It is within the realm of possibility. But that does not alter the fact – indeed, it bolsters it – that in 2016, by facilitating the proliferation of the bland and uncomplicated enjoyment that comes from observing cute creatures doing cute things, technology – that is, the internet – has infantilized a large swath of society.