"I can recognise a culture in decline when I see it. America is now what anthropologists call a Kardashian Type Three civilisation: more than fifty percent of GDP is in the attention economy."This is a quote from "In the Ruins", a short story by science-fiction writer Greg Egan. There's an allusion there to Nikolai Kardashev, an astronomer who proposed measuring a civilisation's technological advancement by how much energy it is able to use for communication. A Kardashev Type One civilisation would be able to use all the energy falling onto its planet from the sun. A Kardashev Type Two could use all the sun's energy, not merely the tiny portion radiated onto its planet. It might do this by building a gigantic shell around the sun to capture the energy. And a Type Three would not be satisfied with one miserly sun, but could control the energy emitted from its entire galaxy. We are nowhere near being even Kardashev Type One. But there's another scale, the Kardashian scale, that we are fast ascending.
In Egan's near-future America, celebrity is everything, while being curious or interested in science has become socially unacceptable. The story's protagonist is a physics student: the only way she can make her studies socially acceptable is by live-blogging them as a kind of stand-up comedy show, while disowning pride in her cleverness by calling herself a "poopy-head" or "snot-face". Unlikely? It seems to me a logical extrapolation of a Daily Telegraph feature published in 2009.
The feature was headlined:
Research reveals how to be both clever and popular at school
Clever schoolchildren can avoid being labelled "nerds" if they follow fashion and have a "fall guy" friend who is badly-behaved, new research has found.
It went on to say that children who were both clever and popular tended to be good-looking and extrovert. Girls wore make-up to school and used lots of hair accessories. Boys were often had styled or gelled hair, wore their ties in a "jaunty" way, carried branded sports bags, and were good at sports.
There's no formal definition of the Kardashian scale,
of course: it's
a joke by Egan. Who, by the way, loves physics, is a skilled
mathematician, has just published a book called
Dichronauts which explores a universe
which has two space dimensions and two time rather than
three space and one time, and uses "In the Ruins" to teach
some nifty geometrical facts about
four-dimensional rotations and
electron energy levels in the atom. So you
can be sure that he does not admire civilisations that rank
high on the Kardashian scale. The Kardashians, of course,
specialise in grabbing attention: in being famous for
being famous, in being celebrity influencers.
And one of the things they
influence is denim styles.
I reckon we're up to Kardashian Type Two-and-a-Half.