This month I’ll be starting a new series exploring modernism and postmodernism.

I’ve become more and more convinced that the distinction between these two ways of seeing the world is one of the most significant cultural distinctions in our society, and that understanding the differences between the two is invaluable in understanding the world we live in.

Le Corbusier, a famous modernist architect, said that houses should be ‘machines for living in‘.

The swedish company Ikea I believe has applied this exact same philosophy, and created a ‘machine for shopping in’.

I love the Ikea experience, in part because of the fascinating way that the company has taken the idea of a production line and applied to it to retail. Just imagine your last trip to the store. You arrived in the front door, dropped your kids of at the Småland and then were guided carefully along a pre-planned route, following a pattern designed and refined from uncounted time-and-motion studies. Every corner, every display, the length of time taken to walk through the store, has been planned to make parting with your money as comfortable for you as possible. And even though you came in to just pick up a few dish towels you walked out 2 Billys, a Duktig and a Skärpt.

However, if I’m really looking for a bargain, I don’t go to Ikea. I turn to Freecycle, or Kijiji, or eBay. In these environments, the distinction between vendor and consumer is much more blurred. I might be selling a couch but buying a bike. I’m not dealing with a single efficient corporate entity like Walmart, but an uncountable number of individuals. The experience is less organised, less controlled, more inter-connected, and perhaps more chaotic.

If Ikea represents the pinnacle of Modernist design, then I expect that decentralised internet marketplaces may be the post-modern equivalent.

Postmodernism recognizes that there are many different perspectives on the world, so rather than trying to present formal definitions of these two philosophies, I’ll instead be taking a meandering journey through my own observations. So, first some characteristics.

Characteristics of modernism and postmodernism

  • Moderns look to experts for advice. Postmoderns look to their networks.
  • Modernism is structured. Postmodernism is organic.
  • Modernism cares about being efficient. Postmodernism cares about being healthy.
  • Modernism talks about principles. Postmodernism tells stories.
  • Modernism is a symphony orchestra. Postmodernism is a drumming circle.
  • Modernism is linear. Postmodernism is fractal.
  • Modernism is ordered. Postmodernism is chaotic.
  • Classical physics is modern. Quantum mechanics is postmodern.

Where I’m going

So, I have a lot of ground to cover. In the coming months, I hope to at least touch on: the Enlightenment, Francis Bacon, the Industrial Revolution, Henry Ford, the production line, the rise of modern sanitation, healthcare and education, Newtonian physics, the Ultraviolet Catastrophe, determinism, thermodynamics, the Holocaust, quantum mechanics, Schrodinger’s cat, chaos theory, Kurt Godel, modern architecture, Le Corbusier, Conway’s ‘game of life’, the Toyota Production System, the concept of ’emergence’, and probably quite a lot else.

In doing so, I hope to demonstrate how Postmodernism isn’t ‘anti-modernism’, or a passing fad, but rather a logical and inevitable consequence of modernism.