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.
- According to Sterling, the twenty-teens are defined by Dark Euphoria, a cultural temperament of exhilarating unthinkableness.
- 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.
I. Dark Euphoria
Dark Euphoria is what the twenty-teens feels like. Things are just falling apart, you can’t believe the possibilities, it’s like anything is possible, but you never realized you’re going to have to dread it so much. It’s like a leap into the unknown. You’re falling toward earth at nine hundred kilometers an hour and then you realize there’s no earth there.
That’s a dark euphoria feeling. It’s the cultural temperament of the coming decade. (Bruce Sterling, 2009)
Different cohorts experience the 2010’s differently. Until now, the loudest historical frame for this decade in America has been primarily about Crisis Capitalism and the plight of the aging baby boomer in the Rich Old World. This is a story about shock among old people, as the social contract they thought they had secured begins to unravel. Borrowing from other writers, we can rephrase this narrative in a more antagonistic way if we want: standards have risen incredibly quickly in the recent past, and expectations have also risen beyond the realm of the reasonable. Boomers lived in complacency and are irritated by increasing dynamism and uncertainty.
The other big sociopolitical narrative of the moment regards the ‘emerging countries‘ (BRICS, if you’d like), and the dawning discovery that there are cultural/technological/economic paths other than becoming more like the idealized West. This is sometimes a story about globalization without “progress”, sometimes urbanization without industrialization, oftentimes capitalism without human rights. (Whether these stories are fair or even ‘true’ is beyond the point- counterpoints by Steven Pinker and the late great Hans Rosling are strong but not prevalently espoused.)
In the smaller, future-facing historical narrative that’s emerging, there’s Dark Euphoria, often espoused by the under-40 set in my experience. (Those above that line are overwhelmingly trapped in the “Crisis Capitalism” script, emulating mid-20c middle class behavior to the grave. Change is hard, and gets tougher every year.) In the Dark Euphoric mode, though, “anything is possible”, usually meant as a warning now instead of as an expression of wonder.
Broadly, (via Kissinger) social order is maintained through the twin pillars of legitimacy and a balance of power. One without the other is fragile and likely to hemorrhage authority. From Martin Gurri’s Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millenium:
Every great institution is justified by a story. That story connects the institution to higher political ideals and ultimately to the moral order of the world. It persuades ordinary people – you and me – that, if we wish to do the right thing, we should act as the institution requires of us. The story bestows the authorizing magic I have called legitimacy.
(Note: I am not focusing on the main thesis of Martin Gurri’s book right now, but still highly recommend.)
As Gurri notes, “Once the external pressure applied by communism was removed, democratic countries lost their internal cohesion, and began the slow descent into negation.” Cable news and the internet hastened the spread of alternative narratives; the monopoly of information by the Trusted Authority has been crumbling for decades. Some of the supposed effects are good- there is genuine corruption in the centers of power that warrants exposure to sunlight. It seems that many abuse scandals were suppressed that cannot be as easily suppressed in an omnichannel world. Some old narratives were simply corrosive and incorrect- I am pleased to see assaults on Confederate revisionism as Noah Smith describes here, the possible beginning of the end of a suboptimal cultural bargain that America made with the cultural American South in order to cohere into a unified national culture at the turn of the 20th century.
But of course the omnichannel world as designed also breeds nihilism, tribalism, misinformation, and a politics of negation. No examples necessary, really. You’ve clearly been on the internet. The Experts aren’t trusted but unvetted bloggers command angry hordes; countless humans fail the Turing Test on Twitter. Gurri:
Uncertainty is an acid, corrosive to authority. Once the monopoly on information is lost, so too is our trust. Every presidential statement, every CIA assessment, every investigative report by a great newspaper, suddenly acquired an arbitrary aspect, and seemed grounded in moral predilection rather than intellectual rigor. When proof for and against approaches infinity, a cloud of suspicion about cherry-picking data will hang over every authoritative judgment.
The cohorts adapting to this social reality have opted either to:
- forego institution-building in favor of charismatics and theatre
- Denial of reality, either through continuing old scripts or descending into nihilism
- Opportunistic “koolaid production” to encourage heroes/martyrs to do Hard Things like institution building
- heroically jump into the trenches in the long gamble that new, superior institutions can be built to protect their interests and build a better world. Often high cost, risky business.
More on these behaviors shortly.
II. Life Scripts in an era of Dark Euphoria
Bruce Sterling’s “Dark Euphoric ” cultural sensibility comes in two aesthetic flavors. I’m going to take this time to shit on whole swaths of people based largely on when they were born, so please read with the appropriate pinches of salt:
- Gothic High-Tech: Beautifully designed walls and rotting guts. Centralized, powerful, but being eaten away by cancer. Things fall apart but anything’s possible. Leaders put themselves in the narrative but build no infrastructure. This is the Generation X temperament- kept out of power, Gen X leaders tend to be cheerleaders. Sterling pointed to Sarkozy, and Obama as the eminent Gen X leadership totems. The Gen X is the Goth generation, dressing up and “acting dead” by practicing old scripts in order to avoid the taxing realization that the ritual is cargo cult behavior.
- Although it has no predictive power, the Strauss-Howe framing fits this sort of categorization of Gen X: Nomads, underprotected by their self-focused parents, matured into alienated adults, now becoming mid-life steerers of the Crisis times [at the local level, so far- Boomers continue their tight grip on the wheel at the very highest levels]. In order to take this role, Sterling believes they’ll need to shed some bad habits. They can’t live as the Boomers did- the world increasingly no longer supports the complacent, static Boomer lifestyle.
- “Acting Dead” is treated as a virtue by the Gothic Gen X, but it will turn out to be maladaptive
“Now, how do you know if you’re acting dead? […] The Great-Grandfather Principle. You’re saying: I’m going to do something morally worthwhile that’ll make me feel proud of myself. But does your dead great-grandfather do a better job of it than you? […] [Y]ou’re told to save water. All right, your dead great-grandfather is saving more water than you. You cannot possibly save any more water than a dead guy.” (Sterling, 2009)
- Saving and economizing that way is also not social, as you’re basically starving someone else by reducing the volume and intensity of your transactions.
- Instead of austerity, Sterling suggests we “do things that matter” with the time and material we have. We should “treat objects as frozen social relationships”. Spend money where you spend time to improve yourself with great ROI and make a positive difference in the world. Buy a great bed and a great working chair (‘trade up’). Abandon or reduce everything at the fringes. No fine china necessary unless you actually use it. Record and remove sentimental things if you can (if they’re not of the premium “give to your children” category, anyway).
- Favela Chic: Self-assembled internal structure but no walls. Action is cheaper than control. Downmarket of GHT, Favela Chic is aesthetic without capital, social media integration without steady meatspace relationships- or money, career, health insurance, children… but it’s a “cool place to be!” Favelas are always in beta- not insurable, no inspections, no regulations, no titles. Adherents of the Favela Chic aesthetic may be flailing about in a less-predictable world, but at least they aren’t acting dead.
- Again, while Sterling makes no explicit mapping between the flavors of Dark Euphoria, there is a mapping to the Stauss-Howe generational framework. The Millennial generation are marked as Heroes (lol), pragmatic, civic-minded team-builders who are raised as increasingly protected children during a cultural unraveling (postmodernism, culture wars), become optimistic young adults during a crisis, and are destined to become overconfident stewards of new institutions (and eventually elder apologists for those institutions in their twilight). I’m not sure if I see myself in the description, but it is the heroic optimism and pragmatism and the abandonment of the old institutions for the new that are the salient bits.
Maya Millennial and Friends (recommended) exist at a cross-section between the two aesthetics. On one hand there is a consciousness that something isn’t working in the story about how they should live; on the other, there is a calculated understanding that the institutions perpetuating this story are the best we have for now, and need to struggle along for longer. The egregore is gambling that a better future might come along with enough effort and hope. Venkat describes the life script of self-manufactured millennial ‘normalcy’ (recording a great-looking life even when capital is scarce) as a theater with intended audiences:
(1) as a pride-saving mechanism for their parents:
It’s why it’s worth paying that premium dollar to reassure the parents that the kids are alright. Because that’s the only way the kids can know that the parents are alright, and will live out their lives relatively untroubled by futile concerns they can do nothing to address.
Because the harsh reality is that the kids are largely on their own. They are beyond the ability of parents to help.
My parents still think I’m the reliably and steadily occupied suit-and-tie McKinsey-type consultant rather than an opportunistic skirmisher on the edge of that world. They think I am a dead-trees type writer rather than a traffic gambler. They aren’t entirely sure what a blog is. They think it’s my hobby. When I tell them I made a bit of money investing, they think stocks, not blockchains. I’m not even going to try explaining bitcoin to them. They don’t need the aggravation.
(2) as a mechanism to crank up the efforts of would-be Heroes; as a martyr factory:
Because you see, while it is somewhat important that everybody drink some kool-aid, it is absolutely crucial that the leaders drink a lot of their own kool-aid. The geese who lay the golden eggs must not be killed by despair at the slow rate of progress. If they want to believe the wealth being created by the new economy is largely a consequence of their brave, individual, Randian striving, then that illusion must not be disturbed too much.
[…]The Randian strivers will continue putting in their 100-hour weeks figuring out obscure cryptography and machine learning problems and 3d printed tiny houses so our premium-mediocre free-riding gets just a little bit more sustainable every year.
You just have to laugh while you eat your salad alone. Except you’re not alone. You’re being watched by people who sincerely want you to enjoy your salad so their work feels more meaningful. The emotional labor serves a psychological purpose.
Smile, you’re on millionaire Instagram.
The Favela Chic aesthetic is the maker/hacker aesthetic. Gothic High Tech culture is more legible, and has more concentrated power and wealth. Those who navigate both cultures find themselves practicing aggressive Favela Chic signaling- “faking it ’til they make it”, using phrases and wearing clothes to highlight them as potential Heroes in the Favela Chic mold, hoping to attract capital or opportunities from the world of GHT capital.
(On the idea of “faking it”: There isn’t very much of a “real thing” out there- heroes are mostly made, not born, but the role of luck must be downplayed for the sake of a legible and not-totally-soul-crushing story to fulfill. The more people striking out to make the future, the more likely the future- even though most people will individually fail.)
III. The Nihilist
Those who angrily point out the falseness of the narratives miss the point in the same way that New Atheists miss the point. Both hypocrite-pointer groups are probably essentially right, but the people who earnestly believe what the hypocrite-pointers ridicule won’t be swayed, and the people the hypocrite-pointers tend to preach to already know the game is a game, but see the value in playing it.
Failure has bred frustration, frustration has justified negation, and negation has paved the way for the nihilist, who acts, quite sincerely, on the principle that destruction of the system is a step forward, regardless of alternatives.
Gurri’s Nihilist generally doesn’t live a distinct lifestyle, but as a political actor he is a useful new character to add to life in Dark Euphoria. To me, the Nihilist is a more interesting political actor than the marginalized Hillbilly Elegy figure, because the Nihilist exists across the world and in all social classes, and is engaged in asymmetrical warfare against the institutions that support him and everyone he knows. While everyone else adapts to the rush of Dark Euphoria, the Nihilist makes no attempt to cling to a narrative, leaning into the wind.
Fundamentalism is knowing only one big story
Nihilism is losing the plot of that story
— Venkatesh Rao (@vgr) September 24, 2017
Gurri’s nihilist is a “child of privilege”, empowered more by a “radical ingratitude” than any kind of alienation.
His political and economic expectations are commensurate with his personal fantasies and desires, and the latter are boundless. He expects perfection. He insists on utopia. He has, in Ortega’s words, “no experience of his own limits,” at least not as something he should accept in good grace.
He doesn’t seem to have a new institutional scheme in mind, he only wants to destroy the institutions that stand in his way today. Easier to quote Gurri further, because the picture he paints is a clear picture of many people that I know:
The nihilist benefits prodigiously from the system he would like to smash. He’s not marginalized – not a street person, not a forsaken soul, not a persecuted minority. He stands in a very different relation to the established order than did, say, an industrial worker in Victorian England or a Catholic in Communist Poland. He’s not a sufferer in any sense, whether relative to historical standards or to the world today. On meeting him, you would not recognize him as someone alien to you. Talking to him, I would not necessarily think that he’s a different type of person from me. In the way such things get reckoned today – statistically, in the gross – he is you and me.Like the character in the cartoon, the nihilist hates the knotty branch on which he sits, and conceives the idea that it should be sawed off. Does he know he will plunge to earth and break his neck? Maybe he does know: nihilism is a suicide pact. Or, possibly, does he think he will levitate on the air, defying the laws of gravity? Maybe he does think this way: nihilism is a call for the obliteration of history, and, at its most obdurate, a declaration of war on cause and effect.
IV. Abridged Guide to Living in the 2010’s
I ended my draft with the words “burn it all”, but I decided to add a quick section to close out with something actionable from each of the three authors I’m pulling from (Venkat, Gurri, & Sterling). I can be positive!
- “Inventing the future means showing up to help sustain the fiction while it is being built out. It means taking risks to make money, meaning, or both.”
- Fundamental to the life scripts Venkat outlines is empathy and willingness to experiment. I liked this little paragraph towards the end:
[…] Underneath all the hustling and towel-based-personal-branding, behind the luck-making and laughing-salad-eating, there is a deep and essential kindness. Kindness towards parents. Kindness towards the talented who work harder because they have found more meaningful work to do. Kindness towards those unlike you in every way except willingness to play the premium mediocre fake-it-till-you-make-it MVP game. A cheerful willingness to pronounce strange names and try strange foods, in the spirit of learning your part in an emerging theater.
- (Inferred) You’re getting owned anyway. Don’t take it too seriously. Sometimes it can be fun.
I didn’t touch on the (even darker!) central premise of Gurri’s book, mostly using his conception of Legitimacy and the Nihilist. Still, some relevant stuff he brings up:
- Manage expectations. Presidents don’t actually control the economy. A lot of the power of any authority is really just glorified Meme Magic.
- Don’t conflate your personal story with “heroic illusion”. Do what good you can, where you can, but you’re an ant, and the world will probably go on.
- Don’t neglect local community. It is undervalued vs. global politics.
- See objects “in terms of volumes of time and space”- collect your most important belongings. Making yourself small will reduce your stress and make adaptability easier.
- Sort everything else into four buckets: truly beautiful things, things with emotional value, tools, and everything else
- With beautiful and emotional things, make sure they are irreplaceable, and that they are not emotionally blackmailing you- would you talk about or give it away? Otherwise, record it if you’d like, and get rid of it.
- With tools, ensure you have the best. Don’t hesitate, don’t hem. But make sure it’s real stuff you really use. Stuff you’re just “experimenting” with doesn’t count as a tool- As Bruce says: “It’s not an experiment if you don’t publish the results in some verifiable and falsifiable form, okay?”
- The everything else bucket? Virtualize it and store the data, if you’d like. Otherwise, burn it all.
(Lazy call-backs FTW)