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The Way Things Were Going
In which I definitely cannot hear the falconer
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The Second Coming
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
I do not recall exactly when I first read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but I know that for the last few years, the preface to that book, and the opening essay of The White Album have been constant companions of my mind. Her essays capture the unease and discord of the late Sixties, as if the world were on a precipice; the lack of frame and reference; the confusion and vertigo. The world was changing, and us along with it, but in some unknowable way.
History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes, I am told. Didion was writing during the upheaval of the Sixties, referencing Yeats’s poem The Second Coming, written in the aftermath of World War I and during the subsequent 1918 flu pandemic. Today the arc of history looks uncomfortably like a full circle.
I wondered whether every generation reaches a point where things fall apart: The Great Depression, World War II, the Sixties. Once again, it seemed the center was not holding. There was, of course, another once-in-a-century global pandemic. There was economic stress and the question of “transitory” inflation. Partisanship and political disengagement. Yet these alone were insufficient to account for the aura of disorientation I felt.
It seemed as if in the span of a few years an entirely new vocabulary had been deployed upon the public, and that to navigate modern online life required a severely updated dictionary. A sample of the dizzying array of words now crashing through our collective consciousness: meme stocks, short squeezes, blockchain, NFTs, generative AI, de-dollarization, disinflation, reshoring, quiet quitting, hybrid work, chatGPT, SPACs, metaverse, ESG, mRNA bivalent vaccines.
Collins Dictionary’s 2022 word of the year was permacrisis, a fairly self-explanatory term that “perfectly embodies the dizzying sense of lurching from one unprecedented event to another, as we wonder bleakly what new horrors might be around the corner.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s word for 2022, chosen via public vote, was goblin mode which I offer only as an example of precisely the way things were going.
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Like most people, I lived online. Zoom calls, Google docs, email. Work and everyday life continued apace. In between work I would find myself chatting on Discord or Messenger or WhatsApp – which was to say I was constantly chatting because there was no longer any separation between Work and Not Work. I was always online. Somewhere I had determined that fully plugging myself into the great social computer in the cloud was the only way through permacrisis.
For many people the internet is a lagging indicator of reality: what happens in the real world is reported online, curated and shared on Instagram, sold on Amazon. But for those of us who were already living online before the pandemic, this was backwards: Discord, Reddit, and Twitter were the bowels and engine room of the future, not simply a reflection of the present. Modern vernacular was forged online; goblin mode was born in the darkness of the internet. Goblins did not actually exist in the real world as far as I could tell.
Resultingly I spent a lot of time in Discord (an ironically named chat product for gamers, itself built out of the ashes of a failed game) talking to strangers; mostly pseudonymous strangers brought together by belief in crypto, NFTs, ponzis, self-sovereignty, technology, and unprecedented amounts of liquidity injected into the financial system. Most of them wore unidentifiable usernames like geggleto, momo, hrwBOONJILegend. Large amounts of money were invested into various crypto projects, which were usually not outright scams, but felt like they might be revealed to be at any moment. One person had fled from Ukraine to Amsterdam in the early days of the invasion. Another had moved to Puerto Rico to escape taxation on his newfound crypto wealth, but struggled daily with the power going out. Everyone hated Gary Gensler.
Talking with strangers represented by cartoon avatars seemed wholly normal. This was the communal mind on hyperdrive, propelled through the particle accelerator of lockdown:
Previously these communities were imposed on us, along with their mental weather. Now we chose them – or believed we did. A person might join a site to look at pictures of her nephew and five years later believe in a flat earth.
Sure, it sounded ridiculous to believe the world was flat, but weren’t we all buying into something? At least the flat earthers weren’t nihilists.
I found myself collecting stories about how modern life was evolving, as if I needed proof that the way things were going was increasingly bizarre. A National Guardsman was accused of leaking classified US documents in a Minecraft Discord server. The community of AI Dungeon, an AI generated text adventure, was “in chaos over moderators reading their erotica”. Grimes offered to share royalties with anyone who AI-deepfaked her vocals into a new song as long as it was within the current Overton window of lyrical content. “Like no baby murder songz plz.” I knew exactly what each of those words were, but could not tell you what they meant.
It became clear to me that no one knew what any of it meant. There were no answers to be found in history. As Vonnegut said, “History is merely a list of surprises, it can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.” We know now that we ultimately beat back the rough beasts of the 20th century, but past performance is not indicative of future results.
There is a quintessential Australian comedy from 1997 called The Castle. “Practically every Australian has a favourite line from The Castle”, writes The Guardian. Though I’m not Australian, my wife is, and as part of my cultural indoctrination, I have enjoyed the film. The story is of a Melbourne family’s battle to save their home (the castle in question) from being expropriated and destroyed as the local airport expands. There is a particular moment in the film where the hapless local solicitor Dennis Denuto finds himself out of his depth arguing the case to save the family’s home before the Supreme Court of Australia. When asked what section of the Constitution has been breached by the airport, Denuto delivers his classic line of argument: “Section? What section? There is no one section… it’s just the vibe of the thing.” He loses the case.
Though the film is a comedy from the ‘90s, and uniquely Australian, it maintains a certain relevance today: Denuto is lost, incapable of providing a coherent argument for his case, resorting to “the vibe of the thing” being wrong. Presently capital-W weird developments were unfolding, but lacking any logical narrative.
I could not make sense of the way things were going, but more than ever it seemed that contrary to the court judgment in the film, it was about the vibe. Denuto loses the case but wins on appeal – sometimes the vibe is correct, if not backed by logic. This generation’s rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem remains hazy; I could witness the events, but take away only the vibes.
And the vibes were way off.