Inertia: objects in motion will stay in motion; objects at rest will stay at rest.
I don’t blame my parents for sending me to public school, and I don’t blame the baby boomer generation for abandoning their children to the system. They assumed that the institutions and culture that they experienced remained intact and unaltered; there was never an assumption that in the years between 1970 and 1980 education in America would be totally converged into politicized indoctrination camps. There was never an assumption that universities would become value sucks whose certifications gave no economic security. Of course, you have to go to school, go to college, etc. – that’s what it takes to be successful.
Perhaps I should correct myself; the wisest among them were aware of the shift, and indeed the shift was the result of the boomer generation itself gaining power over the institutions. The arrogance of the Boomers was that all their changes were for the good and that their “reforms” were positive rather than negative. There was the belief that things would just keep getting better forever—if the next generation was struggling it had to be something they did wrong.
The misplaced belief in the continuation of things is what I call Conceptual Inertia.
Successful mastery of the environment requires predictive models. Those predictive models are based on past experiences and observations. Our ancestors knew how the sun rose and set, how the seasons passed, and how animals migrated, which they used to survive and thrive. They figured out how to shape stone and how to mine and shape metal. We do the same thing today with even more complex phenomena, including social systems. Ideas like etiquette arise from experiencing how people want to be spoken to and then creating a model to use in future encounters.
Conceptual Inertia occurs when there is a change in the environment, but it goes unrecognized because the change isn’t immediately impactful to the individual. Most Boomers didn’t realize their local school was a failed institution because they didn’t attend it. They may have even worked in a school and continued on with the belief that the school was fulfilling its primary mission (“education,” though if you learn the history of public schooling, making children knowledgeable was always secondary to other goals). Even when it wasn’t doing a good job teaching kids, at least it was “socializing” them properly, right?
Unless a person is actively seeking to revise their predictive model, they will experience conceptual inertia. It takes more energy to get a ball rolling than to keep it rolling, and more energy to slow the rolling ball than to keep it still. It takes big changes for the model to be discarded or even revised. A great analogy is the frog in the boiling pot. It never jumps out (supposedly, I’ve never tried it myself) because the temperature changes are slow, so by the time its bath becomes deadly the frog doesn’t realize what has happened.
The Baby Boomers are not the only victims of this kind of friction to slow change. Modeling is a basic human process, so we are all at least potentially at risk of missing the ball. As a musician, I was keenly aware of how the entire industry was turned on its head between 1999 and 2009, between the rise of Napster and the economic collapse of Obama’s first term. For those outside of or merely adjacent to the industry, assumptions about how things worked persisted. I made a video a few years ago about how musicians were quitting the industry—big-time touring musicians—because there was no way to make money in it. Casual viewers found it unbelievable because they were still thinking of music existing the way it did during the era of Brittney Spears, in which an artist could sell millions of albums and be set for life. It doesn’t even occur to these people that they themselves have not bought an album in years.
My generation was all about pirating music and there was never an assumption that would affect how things worked. What’s the big deal about pirating a Metallica album? They’re millionaires! And they can always make money playing live… but the live industry has collapsed as well. In 2008-2009 every venue but one I had played in the 2000s closed. And think about the post-covid scene!
Conceptual inertia is also present in the political spheres. Lefties tend to yammer on about the importance of “pride” and accepting gay people, forgetting that their worldview has been dominant for two decades. Will and Grace came out in 1998. That’s more than two decades of flaming, effeminate gay men as cultural icons in everyone else’s face. Lesbians who were getting comfortable with things are suddenly finding that their niche is disappearing due to so many women being convinced that they are actually transgender. Feminists suddenly find themselves canceled because they think “woman” as a category means something. And of course, “Minor Attracted Persons” as an identity is rising, but that’s not a serious part of the alphabet soup brigade. Or so they think.
Likewise, right-wingers still pontificate on the conservation of culture forgetting that the culture they wish to conserve has been completely obliterated. They don’t want big daddy government telling private enterprise what to do, but meanwhile, they are kicked off the internet by a cartel of megacorporations for jokes that would have been tame in the 1990s.
The world moved on.
This is why it’s hard for me to give dating advice (which people do ask me for from time to time, believe it or not). It’s been 10 years since I was trying to find a partner, and in that time, we’ve gone from eHarmony to tinder, and we’ve had Covid, which has changed everything about relations between people. I think it’s safe to say my model for meeting good women is not as reliable as it once was (if it ever was).
Being aware of this phenomenon, I’ve also noticed it profoundly in the area of health care services. It’s hard to describe just how much health care has changed since 2008, and if you weren’t an adult prior to that you may have no real memory of how health care in the US used to be—not only how good it used to be, but how cheap it used to be. Since the “Affordable Care Act” (a total misnomer, as with most government bills) was passed, costs have gone up and quality has gone down (I used to pay 60 dollars a month for health insurance and see whatever doctor I wanted), but more importantly, the system doesn’t function as it used to function.
The old mentality of “something is wrong, I’ll go to the doctor” is no longer accurate. Now you may not even see a doctor. You might see a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant who will write a prescription for what ails you. If you go to the emergency room, you’ll wait in line according to a computerized triage system designed to maximize the throughput of the system. It’s the system you interact with now, not doctors. As such, the new model will become one of being your own doctor and learning to get what you need by massaging the system, rather than relying on over-worked experts whose decisions are controlled by the government and large insurance companies. Already I see certain kinds of people like bodybuilders ordering their own bloodwork and learning to interpret the results rather than trying to interact with a doctor to get what they want.
This is not to say the old way of doing things was perfect, but it was a predictable expert-based system, and because most people don’t frequently go to the emergency room, it can take a long time for reality to force a given individual to update their mental model of the system. And things have accelerated after COVID, where even going in to see the doctor can take weeks (or months) and require masks, tests, or submitting to experimental vaccines depending. It can be a good thing, though. Taking charge of your own health rather than waiting for a doctor to “fix” things is better than the baby boomer approach to seeing a doctor and getting a cache of pills for every ailment.
The last example I’ll mention is one that is relevant to most authors and content creators—the “algorithm.” If you’ve tried selling books in particular categories on Amazon, you might already be aware of this, but the complex systems that are supposed to show us what we want as consumers and help us find customers who want our products as producers is becoming dysfunctional. Amazon book categories are filled with misplaced titles, either by accident or by design (authors can request their books be put into specific categories to try to get a “best seller” badge in a low-sales area where their book doesn’t belong), which frustrates readers. Simple and specific searches show a plethora of unrelated products. Half the page is ads, which means that those sweet 70% author royalties are actually much lower because you have to spend money, and more importantly, time (spent learning the semi-broken system and cultivating hundreds of keywords), advertising to cut through the noise of the Amazon’s broken sorting system.
The same applies to big social media. I remember people complaining that Facebook got rid of its chronological feed. That was 10 years ago, and yet people scroll as if the site works the same way it did 10 years ago. The viral power is much more limited than it used to be—even on YouTube. The AI future is mostly one of confusion on the one hand or giving you what you don’t want on the other.
Be sure to check out my book on creative productivity. Also please take a look at the free Generation Y book edited by JD Cowan (including essays and stories by me) and Pulp Rock, edited by Alexander Hellene, which includes one of my “2 hour books.”