In December of 2019, my friend Cassandra was worried about a virus in China. She preached a certain doom, which is her wont. She described a collapse of society and often talked about how everyone was deserving of this impending debacle, much like a street preacher transforming the Book of Revelations and Anglo-Saxon Protestant guilt into opprobrium. She told us to stock up on gas, guns, and other essentials for life as she saw it. This clown world is mad, she said, and everyone deserves what’s coming because they refuse to look at the Wizard behind the curtain, the lies in the heart of Oz.
I felt no need to do any preparation, because I figured that we are always as prepared as we need to be for collapse, given that we are the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of collapses. Mankind, after all, has survived every Ragnarok, Armageddon, Kali Yuga, and world-ending sun after the first genetic bottleneck. And maybe there's a part of me—well, there definitely was a part of me—that, like her, secretly hoped for collapse. And so I fancy myself as prepared for the worst that could happen (“we will surely die”). Living in a bucolic town, having a solid social network, the delay between when people like my friend—a denizen of the internet raised on 4chan, simulationist games, and the metis of half-hidden cybersecurity-centric IRC rooms—were telling us to build an ark, and when public health officials and government dignitaries suggested we do the same thing, was approximately four months. And the distance between when those people proposed solutions, such as masks, or a vaccine, and when the authorities followed suit, was about the same, few months. The lag was enough to reassess the hierarchy of competence among groups. Surely, the old order was smarter. Surely, they were aware. Yet, we found them stumbling.
There was a streak of “Don't go back to normal,” echoes of a sentiment that whatever COVID was revealing was something to learn from. The increased amount of time that many people spent with either themselves or the people closest to them brought us a little nearer to the vision of the future that the internet had promised.
That promise lay pregnant for decades, supposedly miscarried by the slow paving of the information superhighway with virtual big box stores and “custom” experiences that were made and sold at scale. This was the dashed promise of Geocities websites, of Ultima Online’s forgotten ecological system (which was destroyed by players killing everything, so that it was never discovered and silently scrapped), of Bulletin Boards, multi-user dungeons that hinted at futures like Minecraft and Fortnite, and Warcraft III maps. It was the promise of a place where people brought themselves to the world with very little self-assessment of how that would make them look to a future employer, to their family (who barely knew what e-mail was), or to their future Tinder dates. They were prepared to share themselves with this wide new world full of hope, without a set series of norms about what you were expected to look like and how you were supposed to behave. There was space to Be, wide-open mental space to explore new modes of being: a frontier for the mind.
A generation grew up under the sound of the dial-up handshake, carrying its white noise silently out into the world, knowing the noise for nothing but signal. They linked their minds to a place within wires, seemingly beyond the divisions of nationality, class, gender, and race, only to have that questioned by the people around them; to have that attacked every day, as some kind of weirdness or inanity. To obsess over details, to hound books for information more than school required so that you could discuss it with other ‘obsessives’ online, these were all seen as signs of anti-social behaviour. It didn't matter that it brought people everywhere closer: being an internet user kept you a little different from the people directly around you. So we have this pattern, where people growing up with this new internet culture begin to connect with each other, and what they’re making there is quite unusual. What they're finding themselves as being is weird. And the world around them—the world at home, at work, at school—did not know what to do with these these internet users, these weirdos.
There was a time when internet use was considered pathological. It is still considered a pathology in many ways, though anyone who calls it that tends to be someone who uses the internet according to the standards set by the marketing algorithms that now dominate it. They are going to play social media games like Farmville, or pass time with Candy Crush, as opposed to using Wolfram Alpha, or the access that they have to the world's information through a service like Sci-Hub.
If the collective will of humanity is a sort of virus—a memetic virus—then it would appear that those who grew up with it came up with some sort of immunity, or maybe with something beyond that. In the same way that retroviruses are assumed to be behind a sizable portion of the human genome, memetic viruses spread and borne of the internet have entered the minds of the first mass internet generation as an adaptation. Much of internet culture is perceived as junk, in the same way that human DNA from retroviruses was once perceived as junk. It may be that the first mass internet generation incorporated that collective will into themselves through the experience of having grown up with/in it, whereas those who were less willing to expose themselves to that collective will now find themselves prey to its algorithms—the incentives from the internet—slaves to the whims of attention supply and demand. If you were making fun of people in chat rooms in 2001, chances are you are more likely to respond to an Instagram ad today than someone who was active in a chat room at the same time.
All these elements of internet culture have reached deep into our lives, so much so, that it's not really possible to describe what it was like to live in a time before smartphones, or Amazon, to someone who did not experience it first-hand. We can show them through movies, and they might form an idea, but they wouldn't know that, about as much as we know what it was like to live without cars, unless one happened to have been in a rural area at some point, without them. Similarly, if you spent some time in communities without internet access, then you may have a notion of what a different pace of life that was. And that pace is part of what feeds so much anxiety today. If you were used to having ten tabs open—or multiple browsers, before there were tabs—or multiple devices, then you are accustomed to the barrage of information you have access to today, and you can make sense of it. Your filtering process, or lack thereof, is now trusted—and tested. But without that, the world might seem overwhelming.
And so people are reaching for a sense of what life was like before COVID, because what really happened to make people scared during the pandemic was not the disease itself. We have, after all, weathered thousands of pandemics, even millions, if we go back to our history before we walked upright on two legs. The terrifying part of the pandemic was internet culture’s attack on the rest of the world. When WallStreetBets made their move, it was a sign of that culture coming out, reaching out and touching the rest of the world, in the same way that a Native American warrior like Joe Medicine Crow— a World War II veteran who engaged in feats of daring against German military personnel—might count coup on an opponent. To count coup is to make it obvious that you could take your opponent if you want to, but you chose to avoid doing so out of an appeal to honour. It says, “we’re here, and we can take you—do you really want this fight?”
You might be familiar with David and Saul from the Bible. A young David finds King Saul (who is hunting David out of jealousy) asleep, but chooses not to kill him. Instead, David takes Saul’s spear and his water container, as a proof of intent. “We, the denizens of the internet, have strength; we have ability and intelligence, and we're reaching out to touch you—now. Whatever the old institutions are, we're saying we have the ability to take you”. No individual person might have felt that until recently, which suggests that there are probably thousands of us out there who are feeling it right now. But for the most part, this was all once done by the collectives that we are a part of. And so, it's a game between collectives. Let's not call it new money versus old money, since it's more than that. We'll call it new prestige versus old prestige. Y Combinator versus Harvard. Netflix versus Universal Pictures. Amazon versus the Federal Government. Patreon versus Penguin/Random House. Trump versus Biden. Chance the Rapper versus Beyoncé. Logan Paul versus Floyd Mayweather.
The New Creature (I hesitate to call it a ‘New Order’) is testing the waters. It used the pandemic to do that, which is why we had the series of protests we did, with a seemingly American object in mind. But it’s really a global collective. Social justice flourished through social media pressure, through the internet. This may seem contradictory to the skull-fucking shameless frontier-world of the early internet, but it is nonetheless part of it. Some of the same people who might have been trolls in the 2000s found God, so to speak, as a liberal modernist god of social justice, and proceeded to become a new class of priest that went on to enforce this new standard on the rest of the world; partially powered by the guilt of realising the very real emotional hurt they may have caused through their internet activity. We now live in a world where a dental hygienist in her fifties who married her high school sweetheart (and who has been happily with him ever since, living in their hometown), will police herself according to norms derived from a culture that became virulent online. This virus will die out, like all forest fires, but the smoke it leaves could make life quite frustrating. Paired with grandma asking us how cryptocurrency works, we’ve got a world ripe for a turnover, though we don’t know when exactly it’s going to happen; if it will happen, like most systemic changes, one millisecond at a time in millions of places, or if there will be a dramatic tipping point that we can all mark in a Wikipedia timeline someday. Perhaps we won’t get a dramatic collapse. Perhaps we’re seeing what we get—a slow symbiosis of old and new, as sure as the wars between viruses and our ancestors.
“Collapse is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed,” someone on Twitter said. So perhaps that’s what we glimpsed in 2020, the seething face of a mind connected through a billion people. The mirror is always traumatic, at first, so it is no wonder that every institution forces a smile as it tries to draw the curtain back shut, reassuringly nod and insist that, “according to an intergovernmental panel, scientific evidence is unequivocal that the Emperor has clothes and the Wizard is all-powerful”. Yet I can’t help but wonder: aren’t the Wizard’s parlour tricks cool? Isn’t the Emperor’s nude body beautiful?
Image: Angus, Simon. “How novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is putting a strain on global internet networks.” Impact. Melbourne: Monash Business School, 2020.
Ray Doraisamy is a communer at Foretrek, a group exploring the frontiers of kinship. You can follow him on Twitter @forshaper.