pirate wires #86 // the hits of 2022; have a merry christmas, and a happy new year
THE HITS OF 2022.
Wait I think the theme was hope. That very first Covid summer of 2020, as America descended into madness, I conceived of Pirate Wires as my kind of ship to navigate the clown world. Psychonautics, fantasy, war — I was an explorer. I was a crusader. I was alone in my house, as the world around me rapidly decayed, with a lot of time on my hands. My intention was to pull back the curtain of power, point out all the lies and secret meanings in the discourse, and laugh. The work connected with readers, and Pirate Wires grew. It also attracted a tiny, lovingly committed band of haters among whom my criticism of the present order is often taken for a more general pessimism. But the broken things I often write about have never been my point. I just want us all to be amazing. Civic rot, industry stagnation, and media malpractice are threats to our potential, so I tend to cover these topics. This week, however, on paging through the Pirate Wires archive for our grand recap, it was clear such obviously broken things were, if a focus, not at all the theme. In 2022 there were signs, everywhere, of something new. It may have been subtle, but it was steady, and it was unmistakable: the thread between the stories of our world was a whisper of change.
Let’s take it from the top.
Back in January, the one percent most neurotic people alive still controlled the public health discourse (Neurotic). But after twenty months of insanity, my colleagues and I decided postponements on living were over. It was time to host Hereticon, a conference for thoughtcrime, smack in the middle of what would become the actual peak of Covid. When I first wrote about the conference in 2019, I was accused by our then-dominant industry influencers of (I swear to God) white supremacy. In my introductory piece, I mentioned aliens, biohackers, sex workers. This was an attempt, our straight critics further argued, to kill gay people (surprising news to my boyfriend, my gay ass friends, and my famously gay boss). Sure, the attacks were insane. But that’s the music that was playing in 2019. In 2022, however, it was a party. There were wild debates, and copious amounts of alcohol in an opulent, theatrical, beach-front locale. Two babies were conceived (both happy and healthy today). Backlash? None.
The cultural winds were shifting.
2022 was by any measure a year of incredible conflict. From the ongoing fallout of January 6th, to what appears to be America’s total culture war, and a multi-polar battle for control of speech that now consumes our country (Let’s Burn Books). Up north, in Canada, we watched this battle spill into the streets, ultimately squashed by a transparently authoritarian government crackdown (Shock and Awe). Then, across the Atlantic, for the first time in eight decades it was real war, returned to Europe, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (War). But even in something so ancient as war there were interesting hints of the future.
In a surreal series of developments, the decisions of Mark Zuckerberg quickly seemed to matter more than the decisions of most world leaders. The technology industry was abruptly, obviously important to a degree even I — writing this would happen — was somehow not prepared to see (Social Media’s Slow March to Oblivion). For years my concern has been this fount of major power, capable of challenging and balancing preexisting power, was captured by the state, and power in total alignment leads inevitably to authoritarianism. But while the dangers of alignment are still very real, the story of 2022 is more obviously the story of one man stepping out of alignment.
With the iron grip of political censorship tightening, and the nice guy Stasi shit showing no signs of ever abating, the country’s decentralized state censorship apparatus — which could not be challenged, ever — was challenged, fundamentally, by Elon Musk. In April, the billionaire shitposting king of tech began his improbable journey to take Twitter private (King Shit).
We followed the entire saga, from the moment Elon’s bid to join Twitter’s board became his bid to buy the company. We covered the saga’s important intellectual background with a portrait of the press’ evolution from a pro-speech class to a pro-censorship class in Freedom is for Nazis, and we followed the unique degradation of both the press’ ethics and its free speech values in What the Hell Is Going On at the Washington Post. This chapter of our story really just reduces to a classic power struggle, and we interrogated the formidable alliance of American power in One Party State.
But the story of Twitter and Elon, which intersects politics, culture, and technology, is massive. After a brief backtracking, and a few months of will-he-won’t-he dancing with the company, details of the inevitable court battle between Musk and the company’s board were inevitably revealed, and a new industry mantra was born — what did you get done this week? Just before Halloween, we followed Elon’s very first day, and then immediately — that night — the war of activists and “journalists” to break the platform. We looked at the shape of Twitter’s greatest threat, in the early signs of a Tech Civil War, and finally, with shorter term victory secured and at least a year of (relative) stability likely, the public was finally given its first look at the internal workings of our speech platforms. Elon granted a handful of journalists access to the company’s internal communications, and major stories have been breaking since.
In the Fifth Estate, I covered the substance of the Twitter Files, and everything we now know in terms of censorship and social media (it is real, it is significant, it is highly partisan). I also considered the deeper nature of technology. It was in this, my final piece of the year, that the story really came together for me. Yes, technology is a major, new fount of power. But it is also a fundamentally different kind of power — a kind of anti-power, or failsafe, that challenges legacy founts of power by nature, and ultimately replaces itself. It is a change agent reactivated in what appears to be, more obviously by the day, an emerging period of change.
In Debt Babies and American Hustle: Microchip Edition, the failure of government, from a navigation of the student debt crisis to concerns over our existential dependence on Taiwanese microchips, reduced to the following single point: our politicians are spending more money than ever, in exchange for less. Waste of this kind — not only of resources but potential — has been a steady beat of mine since Trillion Dollar Paint Job, when I read our trillion-dollar infrastructure bill and saw it provided no meaningful path to improvement of the nation’s infrastructure. But the difference in 2022 is how many people, from all political camps, seem to see this and agree that it’s a problem. The Orwellian language — “save the kids act,” let’s say, in which the kids are devoured — isn’t hitting like it used to. Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike are asking ground floor basic questions like “where is this money going,” and “why is everything broken?”
Wonderfully, gratefully, blessedly, this slow American awakening brings me to Tom Cruise.
Maverick had one hell of a year, okay? These are just facts. Cruise produced his highest grossing film ever, and it is a good film. But a considerable part of the film’s success appears to be America has finally forgiven the Pope of Scientology for being kind of weird, and for saying lots of crazy shit. In particular, for saying lots of “crazy” shit about psychiatry, and medication for mental states like depression, which we don’t yet fully understand. That “crazy” shit? Sort of vindicated in the year of our Lord 2022. In Dark Plots and Secret Explanations, Americans began to accept the basic fact that we’ve been wrong about our pariahs too many times to turn them all away, and our fact checkers have been wrong too many times for us to blindly trust them.
Today, most people are open to something new. Another word for that is change.
Now, in the cold, the technology industry weathers a bear market (Surviving and Thriving in Tech’s New Winter), and the only way out of a bear market for an industry that makes new things is new technology. With foolish pursuits very much in hibernation, only serious endeavors remain, and nothing so greatly embodies the seriousness of technology as artificial intelligence, which has seen an incredible year of advance. That advance is promising. That advance is dangerous. But it is undeniable, now, we are standing on the precipice of paradigmatic transformation (Demonic).
This year there were new heroes. There were great men, taking huge risks, for great and noble goals — struggles of literally historic consequence. There were the early hints of a nation no longer tolerant, broadly, of ineptitude. There was a technology industry challenged by a brutal macro environment to really work hard for the first time in years, a burning away of rich kid nonsense, and a new focus on the old gods of tech: actual, meaningful, world-altering innovation. I suppose this is cause for anyone who enjoys our current system of power to be afraid. But, for me, a new path sounds like hope.
Have a merry Christmas, and thank you all as ever for your time and thoughts. Writing for you this year has been my absolute pleasure. Godspeed, and see you in the new next.