I feel like this is a time when it is necessary to write, so that I may connect with you who sit behind the screen. It is very unlikely that these words will be printed, written by hand, or even spoken aloud by anyone other than myself as I edit them. There is something a bit sad in the privileging of text over dialog, but that immediacy of question and answer was lost long ago with Plato. I may hazard that we gained more than we lost, but writing appears to be something of a faustian pact. Fast forward a few millennia and this odd disconnection from physicality in our age of bit and pixel seems to define the reality around us more than anything else. Our models of the world look almost nothing like what appears to be happening. Still, we view them, and they control us.
We call these models a number of names: narrative, media, culture, and so on. More than anything they are simply maps: small, simplified versions of the real world that we use to predict decisions. We build our models out of our own observations and rumors on the wind. For a while, it seemed like telecommunications was making it easier to integrate rumors into our models. Then Donald J. Trump won the presidency, and nobody really saw it coming except those who wanted to believe. On all sides of the political spectrum, there were people telling stories that they wanted to be true as though simply telling them would make them true. There is something terrifying when prediction is itself a political act. Collaborative navigation of possible futures becomes impossible. In this era, all information is corrupted by the instrumentality of ambitious hope. The world conforms to post-Truth. I hope this essay does not. Still, I know that because the world rewards post-Truth strategies at this moment, this information will cost more to reproduce than it will likely regain in energetic profit.
In the last few months, I’d crossed enough political and geographic boundaries to tell that people were telling very different stories from place to place. The narratives differed, thus I knew that I could not know what to expect. Though the narratives use different terms, their structure converges. Almost all of the stories that I heard told were ones of demographic apocalypse: barbarians of various flavors at the gate. There is a sense among most Americans, and, indeed, most people of the world, that there is a need to defend their very identities from some outside malevolence. We do not seem to understand what that malevolence is, or how to properly fight it. Instead we assume that that malevolence has to be human. It must be just like us, only evil, like an orc. This line of reasoning lacks empirical strength. We do not remember the last eras where identity seemed under siege, nor the circumstances that led to such periods. Collective memory itself is in crisis.
In my present America, that of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, there are no well-kept scribes who remember the nature of the message in each letter with their styluses put to clay tablet or papyrus. There are no mnemonic architectures with diligent monks illuminating scriptures and preserving text. There are people who hoard books in archives, but they do not have the time to study them. Nobody with much power listens to them anyway. There are people who read books, but they are mostly trying to keep up with the ever accelerating pace at which they are published. Rarely does the information in the new books actually matter all that much. There are people who are paid to know what to do, but it’s mostly all Vision Thing and although valuable, it is a kind of magic, not the analytic potential of a science. As one of those people who are paid to know what to do, I can confirm that we are mostly kept around to confirm the feelings of our employers.
For people who aren’t in a position to employ court philosophers, ornamental or otherwise, there is only the screen and its instant delights. To live in a world that has privileged code, media, and abstraction is to live somewhere that left behind itself. The disease is akin to an anorexia of the land. We feed on media’s answers when we simply need food, homes, and companions with whom to live, study, work and play. Even the answer that media isn’t the answer has been repeated so often that this conjecture is repetitive and mildly annoying.
Modernism brought about an artificial plenty. With that, we balkanized the functions of individuals into extremely specified jobs they didn’t really understand. It became easy to rely on bits of personal outsourcing: the supermarket over the victory garden. The outsourcing didn’t work very well in the long term, but it kept us prosperous for a while. While we were prosperous we forgot how to build the world. We left behind art and industry. We picked up advertising. We made a world for the idea of people, rather than people themselves. The last few generations were thus raised in a world of poverty without scarcity. There is quite a lot to go around, but none of it was made with you in mind.
On the news there were rumors of collapse. There were countries that were burning, consumed by conflict or natural catastrophe. Future existential risks, either environmental, technological, or human, loomed over the horizon from time to time. With these images of futuristic violence, there was a great sense of scarcity, but nobody was really sure if it was real. Regardless, if it had even a shred of truth, it was time for action. But if we were to try and act, we couldn’t just go out and build the stable and decent world that we wanted. Anything at scale would be devoured by the political bogeymen most relevant to our model.
At least, that’s what the screens told us. There was a sense that the future did not belong to us, whoever we were. Someone else must have already stolen it, else other people like us might already have won. We had to figure out who they were, and how to get them to stop. The process of securing ownership of the future was deflected to the campaigns of an ideological war carried out primarily online.
We created narratives that explained the malice that we felt in the world. We became retail level missionaries, trying to redeem the people in our immediate circle who bought into a different narrative. Sometimes it worked. Most of the time we just fought and got angry with each other. People started to look like demons. None of the narratives that demonized others really made sense, but they were simple enough that people could agree about them.
The only idea that really held water was people getting up and saying “Please don’t kill me or ruin my life for who I am.” They were scared; the world was made for them even less than others. People demonized them anyway. The sense of scarcity was so strong that anyone who wasn’t like you looked like a threat. It didn’t matter how things actually were, it mattered how it felt. The saddest thing was that everyone was making the best decisions with the information that they were rewarded for using.
All of the narratives had to be simple enough to transmit over the net, ideally in memes. You had to be able to show that you were on the side of the One True Way by attaching your identity to it. Nobody had time to actually look through nuanced positions because the high cost of living meant nobody had time to read. Symbols, ideologies, historical periods, slogans, demographies, ideas, and strategies, began to feel clean or unclean based on the response of those around us on the internet and in real life. To avoid the shun, you had to be on the right track, politically correct, or taking a hardline stance against political correctness, itself a flavor of political correctness. As nothing else could be easily transmitted, xenophobia began to take ground.
If we could just get the outgroup to agree with us, we’d be able to wash away the sins of the past to prevent the sins of the future. We couldn’t agree because we couldn’t communicate well enough to disagree profitably and build shared truth. We abandoned complexity because our political economy didn’t reward it. A strange authoritarianism without leaders kept us from actually building the future. Communication was a risk that wasn’t worth taking. If you ended up on the wrong side you were marked. There was no incentive to learn, only to have already learned before it was necessary.
The inherent vices of our cultural and telecommunication systems divided us. Facebook, over the last few years, has reminded me more and more of some kind of Maoist struggle session, where the sousveillance of the mob was far more oppressive than the far off surveillance of disinterested and overworked state bureaucracies. Shame and the threat of isolation was enough violence to amputate the possibility of dialog. Twitter was actually dangerous. There’s nothing quite like learning that people you know and like have had to take shelter from doxxing mobs.
The other option was to exit the conversation. Your voice wouldn’t be heard, and you’d be even further away from this future that never seemed to come. At that point, it really does feel like someone else stole the future from you. You get angry, and bitter. You’re more ready to fight back next time, so that maybe you’ll have a chance at silencing them. If you could just get the people who were wrong out of the way, then maybe you’d have a shot.
At this point, your strategy transitions from communication to coercive persuasion, then to implicit or explicit violence. Right now the only people who seem to get bitter enough to lash out with fatal explicitness are young men hyped on testosterone and alienation who feel as though they have no future: the mass shooters and other terrorists of this age. What happens when there are more of them? What happens if the bitterness spreads to other demographics, entire tribes rather than just bored young men with nothing to do?
Our experiences in this realm of media have been a sort of rehearsal for the coming phase. They are echoes of a future yet to pass. It must be stopped. Unless we take drastic action to reshape our cultural and telecommunications infrastructure, the validity of a future plan will always be secondary to the number of people who agree with you for meaningless reasons. Provided you have enough other people sharing your memetic acculturation, debate is essentially rendered decorative and predetermined. Demography triumphs over dialog. Mobs may be called with the right invocation of memes, and their positioning is something of a chess game for the few individuals who can see through this mess whose motives are opaque. Additionally, the chessmasters likely lack other chess players with whom to try and build truth. An empiricist in isolation is dangerously likely to turn into a cult leader or callous villain, which just perpetuates the entire system.
Julian Jaynes, in the wonderful and flawed Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, wrote that “Civilization is the art of living in towns of such size that everyone does not know everyone else.” This reveals a rather important notion: the idea that one might extend the hope of prosperity to others with less-immediate relation to yourself.
Civilization is Xenophilia. We have learned methods by which we can see the strange and unfamiliar as an opportunity or an ally, rather than simply something worth raiding or a potential predator necessary to neutralize. The thing that we call Civilization is our ability to identify with something greater than our own anatomy. It is our ability to understand that the success of another can be the same as ours. It is symbiosis itself. First it was family, then tribe, city-state, nation and global humanity. Logically, this terminates in honoring intelligence and experience itself, regardless of its origin. Through this process, the individual gains new possibilities for autonomous action through association with the collective, and each cardinality of the collective gains further capacities in the same manner as the individual.
We are capable of recognizing similarity of ourself to others from genes or memes. The greatest civilizations have been able to privilege memes such that they were able to begin to integrate lives of legitimate difference into their community without forcing those lives to conform and assimilate. To conform and assimilate is to sabotage civilization, and lose the advantages of symbiotic diversity entirely. I wish to clarify here that no past Civilization has ever lived up to the level of inclusion and coordination that I would consider responsible. Additionally, asking individuals to abandon barbarous and violent practices that interfere with communication is not the same thing as asking for needless conformity. America herself has failed to live up even to her founding Declaration and Constitution. Rome doomed herself by failing to integrate the Auxillia properly, and this is to say nothing of the Mamluks who rightfully broke their chains or the Mayans who owed no loyalty to the Aztecs and saw Cortez as an opportunity. In the same patterns as before, civilization is dying and being replaced by aggressive tribalism. Even if we have failed in the past, it is not time to abandon this most necessary of dreams.
At this stage, we are seeing memetic conflicts that are beginning to possibly transition into genetic conflicts. If we keep moving in this direction, the mobs will continue scapegoating to explain why they haven’t been able to get everyone to agree yet. Their sense of threat from the other mobs will increase, and their violence will compound proportionally to their sense of threat. If this trend continues, they will act out this century’s first major instances of human sacrifice at scale. Cultures will die. Cities will burn. Thousands of crying voices in nights of broken glass. Either everyone gets tired eventually and tries to decide what the hell happened and what we’re supposed to learn like last time, or, worse, a single mob is left standing, perversely thinking that they might have been right all along in their manifest destiny, optimized for violence rather than learning, prosperity, or kindness.
We are experiencing a cascade failure of the fidelity of mental models at a scale unprecedented in all of human history. As a whole, we are not even wrong, just training our models on some parallel world crafted to make money and grab attention. We invent myths of poor provenance to explain the very real fear we felt; We navigate America with a map that might well be drowned Atlantis.
Our dominant strategies in this situation eventually encourage needless violence when there are easier routes to equilibrium and eudaemonia for all. These strategies of individual survival based in needless violence are the true enemies of an inclusive future, rather than any specific ideology or demographic. Collectively we may discover a counterstrategy, but only by engineering circumstances that make violence useless and unnecessary. We are ourselves and our circumstances, but in the end it is mostly our circumstances that push back, and define our behavior. We must struggle in moments of lucidity against the malevolent circumstances that make unnecessary violence logical: those stacked decks where demography triumphs against history. This is the malevolence we all feel: the theft of a common history.
All this is but an overture. We watch a sampling of themes that might take flight and gain their own movements as time goes on. Our media broke, thus we only know the broad strokes of the zeitgeist from rumor. It’s not clear where to go or who to trust. We are living in an environment of extreme information scarcity. I conjecture that our situation is far worse than the extreme information scarcities of frontier periods or Dark Ages. Almost no one understands that we’re in a period of extreme information scarcity. People assume everything is already digitized, and that there’s a competent global conspiracy running everything behind the scenes. Nobody knows what to do; anyone who says that they‘re sure is lying.
I know that all of this is a jump to conclusions, there will be people who tell me that I am simply overprojecting. However, I do not see any sociopolitical infrastructure that adequately hedges against the process of demography triumphing over dialog. The mobs will go to war if we don’t do anything about it, and in many corners of the world they already have. I worry that we are falling into something akin the Abeline Paradox, where everyone who wants to avoid another horrifically violent period ends up quoting Stephen Pinker and trying to convince themselves that someone else will handle it, assuming the best they can do is not rock the boat too badly. This is simply a method of playing into the mobs. All the effort that we spend trying to look like we are on the right side is lost, for it cannot be spent on trying to do the right thing.
So, what’s left when you know almost nothing besides legends from a far off past and the base principals of the sciences? What do we do? Where do we go? Who’s left to travel with, who hasn’t been bought by the mobs or had their spirit broken? We can’t know much more than our lives right now, but our own lives are enough. We will not be able to change the world in the way that we hoped with the revolutions of the Twentieth Century, but quite frankly none of those worked out very well anyhow. It’s probably too hard to change the whole world right now if our politicians seem totally disempowered, and populist movements on all sides of the political spectrum get hijacked by baldfaced xenophobic mob dynamics.
Go to those close to you, those souls who have been there for you before. Keep an open mind about those unknown foreign bodies who might be worthy companions in your travels throughout time and space. Find your people and start building. It is time to plant seeds and make homes. It is time to keep records, to do research, to draw maps. It is time to garden and to mine. It is time to heal the sick and purify the soil. It is time to reverse engineer that which you do not understand. It is time to lay down lines of communication, to build supply chains. It is time to learn how to fight. It is time to teach the young how to thrive. In all of this, it is time to build the conditions you need to trust one another, and from that, the strength of all Civilizations.
We must have an arrogant audacity that we can make the world a place worth living in, but we must also remember to play within the limits of control. To carve out a world fit for human flourishing, we must not overextend. Still, we must take as many people with us as we can carry, regardless of origin or identity, provided they are willing to join the long and laborious dialog concerning what a compassionate and strong community must be. To take fewer would be a great dishonor, to take more would be meaningless martyrdom and eventual collapse. Through strategy, curiosity, and empathy, we may forge a worthy home for another generation, and another after that. This must endure, until entropy is our only remaining adversary. There is no scorecard at the end of time that tells us if what we did was right. There is only our conscience in the present, the relieved smiles of those we can shelter through the storms. There is the beauty of looking out on what you have made and knowing that you would do it all again, replaying every heartbreak, for decency is its own reward.
I do not like to think that history is on my side, rather that I am on the side of history. I hope we may remember that history happened, and learn from the errors and triumphs of our predecessors. Though the heat has been turned up this time and we are in a more precarious position than ever before, we’ve rehearsed for this. All that we see approaching has happened previously. It will likely happen again. I only pray that we will stack the deck to be better prepared next time, and that we will persevere through this crisis so that we can have the chance of more days for humanity on this fragile, pale blue dot. The stars will not bear our marks if we do not reach them. There are lives worth living in the long tomorrow, we must simply build their cradle first.