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Category: Narrative

Solastalgia in the 2020s

a/n: I don’t think the idea is fully fleshed-out yet, but I can always add and revise.


  • According to Sterling, the twenty-teens are defined by Dark Euphoria, a cultural temperament of exhilarating unthinkableness. This is the topic of the preceding post.
  • The tone of Sterling’s speeches in the past couple of years has moved on from anxiety to exhaustion.
  • Solastalgia is the feeling of dislocation without having gone anywhere, as a result of damage (natural or artificial) to your ecosystem.
  • Cultures can learn and adapt, which is why Sterling is a short-term declinist but not a doomsayer, fitting in the “Stagnated Future” category in this old taxonomy I used a few years ago.

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Dark Euphoria in the 2010s

Bruce Sterling has a knack for coining/adopting rich phrases to describe cultural sensibilities. I watched some of his recent (2017) talks, and I wanted to record some notes on them to share. I figured a good place to start would be on his earlier talks on the current cultural moment.

Bruce Sterling’s talks on “Dark Euphoria” span from roughly 2009 to 2012 or so. During this era,  he coined some unique categories about our cultural moment and the activity of the Stacks (Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Amazon), and while I won’t go into the Stacks bit here, a Youtube search on his name will bring up hours of engaging rambling.

I start with some concepts he has been tossing around for about a decade now, to set the scene, with some personal annotation and some tie-in to some great Ribbonfarm addenda. In a sequel post I’ll share notes on his more recent talk.

Transcript of Reboot 11 speech by Bruce Sterling, 25-6-2009



  • According to Sterling, the twenty-teens are defined by Dark Euphoria, a cultural temperament of exhilarating unthinkableness.
    • I associate this temperament with the opening of a torrent of alternative narratives that undermine the authority of our traditional information gatekeepers, h/t Martin Gurri‘s book.
  • Sterling defines four broad demographics, the two larger narratives about the “Shock of the Old” (Crisis Capitalism among the old+global rich, and Development without Progress among the emerging semi-poor) and two new generational demographics under Dark Euphoria: Gothic High-Tech and Favela Chic. 
    • I tie these ideas to a thread from Ribbonfarm about life scripts that spoke to me, and a thread from Gurri about the Nihilist, which I think is still an underrated archetype.
  • Within this cultural sensibility, it is worthwhile to examine our relationship with our work, with our government, and with our belongings.

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Today: Several riffs on options and “multivocality”.

Tomorrow: A little bit on “totalitarianism” and my recent readings.


I. Options

I’ve painted a worldview that’s very messy, but not so messy that it demands inaction and trembling. I do think that engineering drastic moves is dangerous when you can’t see very far. (I also believe that we can’t see very far.) Still, there are things worth doing and strategies worth pursuing. Some local actions are apparently better or worse. Some strategies involve discovering and holding many options. Other strategies are explicitly about culling bad options.

Playing: Exploring, opening options. Creative.

Gaming: Culling options. Actualizing a small set of options. Destructive.

Humans are not particularly excellent information processors, and so if presented with many options we automatically initiate behaviors to cull many of them and then apply some more deliberative thinking to deal with the limited set we have left. Again, the world is messy: any given situation has too many options to deal with pre-processing. Naturally, many of the options we cull will be bad options, and many will actually be good options that we have arbitrarily failed to consider for lack of good pattern recognition. On the whole, these culling strategies (heuristics, culture, folk knowledge, institutions) were at least wily enough to have survived. Some strategy sets have survived by sheer dumb luck or by their incidental relationship to actually-fit strategies (call them “Cargo Cult” strategies). Some successful strategies, to improve their reproductive fitness even further, have attached themselves to dumb (but memorable) stories. Nuance doesn’t preserve well. Some strategies were once fit but are no longer adaptive due to changes in the environment. We should not always presume to know which strategies are Cargo Cult strategies. Collisions between behaviors and reality are the most important test, much more important than abstract appeals to our fancy.

Option culling is usually more important to humans than finding new options- humans are very fragile, and many options are real’ bad. But, discounting restrictions of time and energy and information, a perfect and rational agent likes options and ought to want to have as many as possible.

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Mulling: The “Sheeple” Problem

(Relax, I’m not using that word seriously.)

I have a tendency to wax on a bit, especially when idea is still new and exciting to me- writing helps me crystallize things and turn them around in my hand.

I wanted to be clear about a few positions before I start picking up another line of thought- I have two more notes on Bogosts’ Unit Operations to put together, and I have a couple of unbaked notes I wanted to play with. Then, somewhere soon, I’ll probably start talking about games and design.

Below, I wanted to re-articulate a few tangential points I’ve referenced recently.


Political arrangements are often different from policy preferences. I have some policy preferences. I think that policy matters. In the past (ex. at bottom of this post) I’ve mentioned political preferences of mine that are not popular. When I wrote about political landscapes [here, (IV)] I was arguing about different procedural/legal considerations, how governments choose to organize. Living under one blend of democratic republic with so-and-so properties is not inherently better than some other blend of parliamentary democracy or even something a little more taboo. Only actualized, existing political structures, effecting (yes this is a correct use of effect) particular policies can be judged, and we judge them by their effectiveness in preserving and promoting human well-being (or whatever other value you’d like). I meant to also suggest that environments matter, and that situations that make some arrangements untenable can also change. I also meant to demonstrate that getting to your preferred political arrangement should be part of your cost/benefit calculation. In early 20th century history and fiction, it seems that some utopians did factor the cost of political change into their equation, but if Utopia has incalculably great benefit, then these idealists were willing to suffer nearly-incalculable loss to achieve it. The peaks are farther than they think, or maybe not as high, the gorges are almost never shallower than you predict, and in the end it’s easy to roll downhill into an unsavory place. I’m very fond of the landscape metaphor, I wish I could figure out what questions I’d really want to ask about it, and play with it some more.

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Learning from Fictions

I wanted to make some broad strokes to tie together some previous posts before I move on from this thread of thought.

Below, two tangentially-related ideas.



“What is true is to be believed; what is fictional is to be imagined.”

-Kendall Walton

I have long talked about ‘apologetic‘ as an operation for cohering tribes. I also recently argued that it is plausible that factional politics (ii) may be the driver of any particular collection of values/narratives, which are then tied together via apologetic and made to seem coherent post hoc. I do not think that tribes or people have to be truly coherent, or particularly well-grounded, in order to accomplish whatever it is that they intend to accomplish- they just have to seem coherent. Ideologies evolve like anything else, as an assemblage of interacting ideas in a dynamic environment, (at the scale of the individual and the tribe).

Humans are analogical thinkers [Surfaces and Essences], pattern-seekers [eg. my last post] , and storytellers, and these three tendencies are tightly interlinked.

Fiction, like play, is a grounded in make-believe. I’m inclined to see the behavior as adaptive.

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Law of Unrecognized Novelty

I. “Nothing new under the sun.”

I think that any sufficiently new idea will be confused for a repudiated old one.

Nuance regularly dies in-transit from speaker to listener, due to lack of a shared episteme (and the social pressure to properly understand in the first place may not be there either).

An idea cannot be so freakishly new  that nothing can describe it. Probably, the new idea is shaped something like an existing idea, although maybe from a different discipline or with a discovered caveat. Often, the new idea is drawing from just one serendipitous connection between two established ideas. X is like some previously-distinct Y, with some new implication.

New ideas are also implied repudiations of an established idea, one that is either incomplete or incorrect in some way. If the correction is subtle enough, the new idea will merge into the old one, which will correct itself accordingly (the “incomplete” scenario). If the correction is not subtle, the challenging new idea will have to be identified. It will generally be compared to whatever other idea share’s its rough shape closely enough. Naturally, since the comparison-maker isn’t likely to subscribe to the belief the new idea is being compared to, she will likely already have stock arguments against the new idea.

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Unknown Knowns

Note: I thought that “Totalizing Views” was a perfectly cromulent and useful phrase when I first noticed it, when it was announced as the theme for Keith Adams’ upcoming blogging residency at Ribbonfarm. Since then, the Baader-Meinhof effect has been in full swing. I’ve certainly seen it from the anti-essentialist crowd, including in Unit Operations. I have myself used the phrase quite a bit recently, to describe how certain systems of thought can be used as lenses to describe the entire world, such as Haidt’s Political values and Lakoff’s language power to describe politics, or signaling theory in describing any social interaction. Hopefully I’ve been clear about what I mean about totalizing- I don’t take it as a value judgment so much as a description.



“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

– Donald Rumsfeld’s instant classic quote

There is a dark quadrant that went unmentioned: the Unknown Knowns.

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