18Lecture10 min

Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper: “Hierarchy has finally collapsed”

About stability, boundaries and the future

Experts: Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper

Text expansion for the Lecture

Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper: “Hierarchy has finally collapsed”

About stability, boundaries and the future

00:16 – 03:04 What has changed in the last 25 years?

A lot, I think. On one hand we have gained: we have much more freedom. We lament that we’ve lost out in certain ways, but consider: in Moscow in 1989 you could be hassled for having long hair, for wearing an odd jacket, for walking around in shorts.

I think people were repressed in many ways. Now they are vastly more free than they were then. That’s why it is sad when some freedoms start to be rolled back.

What is there less of? Noticeably less of a sense of history among the educated. People just read less books, they understand less how these books relate to each other. It’s not that they're stupid and don't read books. Rather, their cultural map has become quite different.

That map ultimately collapsed — the younger the person, the most obvious it is. Any hierarchy or canon collapsed. So, you didn’t read Mayakovsky. Well, so what? Maybe you’re well versed in Snoop Dogg. How can one thing be said to be more important, better than another?

Stalin preserved a 19th-century gymnasium model of culture. It lasted much longer in Russia than elsewhere, though when I talk with Italian or Greek friends, I discover their schools had Latin or Ancient Greek until recently.

Still, there seemed to always be a canon since ancient times. Any late-19th-century man had to know how to ride a horse, communicate in Latin, fight an enemy with a knife if it came to it. These were obvious, basic things, yet none of them is now required to be an educated, well-bred person.

03:04 – 05:43 Where does the demand for stability come from?

It’s the fast pace of change, unpredictability. People despair at not knowing what’s around the corner, not in the far future but now, soon — so there is a sense of wanting to cling onto aspects of the reality you have, to keep your sights on them, because they are here now. You can cherish them. We’ve seen that grand new ideas always lead to bad consequences, ones very different from what was intended.

Technical and political changes are just as scary. It’s interesting: there has been a long epoch of revolutions, since the Reformation at least. Ever faster... There was a feeling of the end of times, the feeling that soon life will get better, more just. This was the feeling that drove countercultures, revolutionaries, romantics, avant-gardistes. But now we’re here and now. Maybe it’s the start of a big long trend into a new era: “Yes, it’s not a perfect world, things are so fragile, and we don’t know what’ll happen next, so let’s be careful about this, because much has already collapsed”.

In that sense, the longing to cling onto something is clear. You need to hold onto something, be told that something won’t change, it’ll always stay the same, and someone is sure of that, some authority figure. This creates attempts, however awkward they might be, to create some kind of canon, to say we will guard this and everything else can change as it likes. Out there is a caliphate, man-machine hybrids, horrible plagues, the whole ocean, and we huddle on a small island, our backs to a palm tree, and think “Maybe this storm will end someday”.

05:43 – 07:23 How does culture get around borders?

I’m always amazed how that works. I often wonder how many Beatles records were brought into the USSR in the late 1960s. Probably not so many. There weren’t many people who could travel, discover the Beatles, buy records, bring them back and brag to their friends. Those people were probably very few.

The Beatles weren’t shown on TV. Probably they were on foreign radio, but few heard them, even where people weren’t afraid to pick up foreign radio. It just happened that 250 million people — or at least the youth — suddenly discovered such music exists and they had to hear it. I don’t know how. Some foreigners came to a World Festival of Youth and Students in jeans, and now half the USSR goes crazy about jeans and makes their own.

It warms your heart to see how cultural viruses overcome barriers. They didn’t need much money to win people over. In a way, it’s like some Jews in Palestine making up a new religion, and bam! after a few centuries you see everyone has converted to it.

07:23 – 09:52 What will happen in the near future?

We are getting closer to turning into another species. At some point, man and machine will merge. Interfaces for exchanging information will become more efficient. We just don’t know what thinking, emotions people will have past that point. What you think of that depends on your personality. I’m not especially afraid of it. I think we’ll manage somehow. But I do understand people being horrified, because it’s something incomprehensible yet unstoppable.

But it’s just a matter of your mood, your general perspective, and not how things really are. We don’t actually know. There are myriad ethical conundrums we will soon face. I like this parable: you want to have kids, and a scientist in a white coat says, “Here’s a magical green pill. You can buy it for almost nothing. Before you have kids, you take the pill, and your children gets an IQ of 600 just like that”. You face an interesting dilemma: if you take the pill and your kid is IQ 600, he will see you as just an animal, you can hardly have any real exchange with him, for he’ll be far more intelligent than you. So, you probably shouldn’t take the pill.

But if you don’t, he’ll grow up in a society ruled by pilltakers’ kids. They paid the tiny price for the pill. Your kid is doomed to be a second-class citizen, or a total serf. I think we’ll have to confront these questions soon, and it will really shake us. Good thing I belong to a crazy generation who can think about this, but this conservative generation that’s a bit more than 20 years old, it will really shake them. I feel for them, I really do.