Tether, Part I
reality crash, and a new state of being
“Are we living in a simulation?”
The logic seems to indicate we can’t rule it out, but —
“Ok, if we are living in a simulation…”
That’s a little fast, we still don’t —
“Can it break?”
“Has our simulation broken?”
As we enter the third decade of the Twenty-first Century, we enter with less a common sense of what is real than at any other point in modern history. That two people can watch the same thirty-second video of a teenaged boy in a red hat laughing and see — actually observe, and know to be true — two entirely contradictory versions of what “really” took place is today as undeniable a fact of life as it is fundamental; from the science of holiday travel and the clash of armed combatants on the streets of Portland to Sunday football and the components of a healthy diet, our failure to agree on some basic sense of ‘what is true’ permeates almost every aspect of our social lives. Technology liberated us from the failures of a single, national narrative, but in so doing immersed us in a chaotic, kaleidoscopic dream world of new stories, new identities, and new faiths, with an ever-accelerating trend toward total social fragmentation. This is more than a period of confusion. Our civilization has transitioned to a new state of being.
The corollary of ‘reality collapse,’ and nothing is “true,” is anything can be true. The optimistic teenager in me whispers: that means anything is possible. True. A world of chaos, and the incredible danger inherent of chaos, is also a world of creativity, and our 21st Century human civilization could be a dream world. There is opportunity here. There is a path towards greatness here. But it’s a narrow path, and at the moment we are clearly lost. Amidst such confusion, we are also losing the tools that have for centuries helped us make sense of the world.
Let’s talk about the dictionary.
In October of this year, on the second day of Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Barrett said she had “never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference.” A writer for the Huffington Post tweeted the phrase “sexual preference” was offensive to his 990,000 Twitter followers, implying this was obvious, and further arguing that journalists needed to provide this essential context while covering the hearing. Of course, many journalists themselves — everywhere from the BBC and Reuters to NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and ABC — had used the phrase “sexual preference” in recent memory, as had significant, presumably gay-friendly institutions and figures ranging from the NAACP and the Advocate to Barack Obama. Senator Mazie Hirono nonetheless picked up on the evolving drama while the day’s hearing was still in session, publicly challenged Barrett on her “offensive” language, and began a national debate.
Bizarrely, the question that divided the internet had nothing to do with the substance of the exchange, but was rather when, exactly, the phrase “sexual preference” had become offensive. All public parties retreated to their respective, tribal “sides,” either insisting the phrase “sexual preference,” despite all evidence, was and had always been highly-offensive, thus implicating Barrett in bigotry, or insisting the phrase “sexual preference” was and had always been the proper, popular phrasing for sexual orientation, thus vindicating Barrett of bigotry. America was not having a debate on morality, or law. America was having a debate on the nature of reality. This was also somehow not the most unusual aspect of the conflict.
As we were ostensibly having a conversation about words, the dictionary was consulted, and a new drama blossomed from the pit of our discourse Hell: Merriam-Webster changed its online definition of “preference” in real-time, on the very day of the Barrett “preference” drama, to include mention of its now-officially offensive connotation. It was as if the English language itself had come alive, just in time for the November election, and told the world that it was voting for the Democrats.
Welcome to the future.
For thousands of years human knowledge was written and bound and stored in volumes. These volumes were stored in libraries, or places of worship, where they were guarded, and cherished. History, philosophy, science, mathematics, literature: this is our canon. Over time, as we learned, and over periods of robust, sometimes violent discourse, elements of the canon were challenged, and new knowledge in new volumes was added to the sum of “what we know.” This knowledge was bound and stored and, itself, occasionally challenged. After the printing press, with the incredible new abundance of potentially new knowledge that technology facilitated, knowledge-based human conflict increased, but so did both the pace of our achievement, and the permanence of our record. A fire set to the Library of Alexandria would never again expunge full chapters of human history from memory. At least, this is what we thought.
From the advent of the written word, the process of growing human knowledge has been possible, and that process has been, relatively, slow. It has also been imperfect. But no matter a wrong turn taken, or an error unearthed, we have always had a line of thinking we could follow almost directly back to the beginning of our recorded history — a tether.
This is no longer the case.
The last edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica was published ten years ago, which, ten years ago, seemed positively fine. As early as the early 2000s, Wikipedia was already becoming something bigger than an encyclopedia, and more important. Its scope was broader, its ambition was greater, and it was free. What could possibly justify expensive, heavy, leather bound volumes of history, or a physical lists of words? Every piece of information that we needed lived in our pockets, just a click away. Physical books were a part of the old world, no different than record players, which is to say they were antiquated and useless. The consensus belief was the internet, our newly-ubiquitous digital information technology, consisted of everything we once had and more. A virtual world constructed of digital information shared online would therefore look exactly like our world of print, but grander. I used to believe this myself. In hindsight, I don’t know why. It is obviously, and totally wrong. The internet is fundamentally different than print.
Information online is malleable, ephemeral, and nonlinear. Contributing to the human body of knowledge online is also dramatically easier to do than it was in an age of dominant print, and with a cost to contribute at something very close to zero. Because of this, contributions are made far more often, and far less carefully. With billions of people now connected to the internet, our digital spaces are flooded with noise. But what really sets the internet apart from print is the speed at which digital information changes.
Information online is written and re-written rapidly, daily, across all manner of outlets, from the most respected, behind the most sacred veneer of the institutional, to the least respected, in the furious bowels of anti-establishment internet chat rooms. Reference back to some specific piece of information, which is the only way we know how to build on knowledge, is impossible if that piece of information has been altered, deleted, or buried in the months or weeks or even minutes since its “publication.” Then, with a hundred or a thousand alternate versions of every piece of information that exists, all at our fingertips, it’s difficult to even decide which malleable piece of information we should be looking at, let alone reach anything resembling broad consensus.
Here, it’s easy to extrapolate from current trends. Preexisting elements of our canon, where not already digitized, will be brought online, but they will be buried by more information than is possible to ever parse. New information will increasingly not appear in any physical sense at all. It will rather just be added to our ever-transforming “world” of knowledge, no longer a physical record, or a physical place where records are stored, but a realm we enter only in our minds, as if into a dream, that literally reshapes itself to suit our desires and our prejudices. Consensus in such a world will of course be impossible to reach, and increasingly so as the bulk of our knowledge is generated for transience. Our challenge here, which might be simply termed the incredible difficulty we now face in finding some basic common ground among people, has nothing to do with any particular technology company, which is to say there is no regulating ourselves out of this with the blunt axe of government. There are likewise no new companies that will be able to unilaterally make sense of our new world. This is just what it looks like when hundreds of millions of people start talking to each other at the same time, in the same place.
Eventually, if unaddressed, the hope for consensus will be abandoned entirely. We will forget general consensus was ever even possible. Strange beliefs about the past will bubble to the surface of our daily conversations, as we project ourselves back through time. The fractured nature of our society, now mostly comprised of wildly-divergent micro-societies, will be observed incorrectly as a fact of human nature, rather than a direct consequence of technologies we built and live within, as if life inside a room with no windows meant the world was dark. As if this weren’t concerning enough, a future world of this kind is also at meaningful risk of stagnation.
The physicality of print, specifically after the printing press, made it almost impossible to rewrite the record of what humans used to know, and used to be. There were just too many books to burn. This placed natural emphasis on “moving forward” rather than focusing on the past. Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message.” He argued the tools a civilization used shaped the civilization. Was print itself responsible for our entire culture of progress? For centuries, the question at the end of every chapter, and the end of every book, was always “what comes next?” Humans dutifully answered the call. More chapters were written, more books were published, and we constructed what would seem to our ancestors an imperfect world, certainly, but a world on the path to perfection.
What sort of world is the internet shaping?
The ongoing collapse of collective identity, with increasingly our rejection of consensus reality, are phenomena that underpin contemporary society’s entire discourse, from the cultural and the social to the political, the theological, and the scientific. As minor, familiar disagreements concerning the nature of reality have given way to serious departures from some common sense of truth, fragmented schools of perspective have tribalized and entered what is clearly a period of escalating information war. Highly-coordinated, often successful campaigns to disinform are met with further such attempts in opposition. Complete re-writings of history, enforced by mobs in our parks and editors at our most illustrious newspapers alike, have fashioned a kind of quicksand atop which whole new worlds of conspiracy theory, and readings on our present, are assembled, and populated. New faith structures explicitly critical of “reality,” from the primitive, nature-oriented wokeness to the futuristic, technological “theory” of simulation, are not only emergent but dominant. Our connection to each other has worn thin. It wears thinner by the day.
What happens when the tether snaps?
[Be sure to check out Tether, Part II, in which we take a wild ride through the realm of simulated realities, explore the nature of our present dream world, and consider a few tools for surviving and thriving in this new state of being. Subscribe below for future essays, wires, and podcasts.]