So this post is late, what do you expect from the 2010s? Ten years ago Time Magazine dubbed the 2000s the “worst decade ever,” but in retrospect that was such a carefree time, wasn’t it? Even the end-of-the-decade collapse seemed full of possibility, promising a truly cataclysmic civilizational implosion if nothing else.
In contrast, the 2010s weren’t just another failed decade, they were the decade of shit. All the hype and excitement led us to a universal dissatisfaction. Left, Right, and Center, we’re all pissed off about where we are and not enthusiastic at all about where we’re going. Even the proponents of doom are disappointed. The whole ZeroHedge crowd has been left trying to cover their short positions as the economy lurches onward and the doomers are facing expiration deadlines on their MREs as they wait for TEOFTWAWKI. Now sure, this year we’ve already had firestorms the size of Austria ravaging Australia, a rain of rockets in Baghdad, Ukrainian jetliners getting shot out of the sky, a deadly pandemic in China caused by people eating creatures that they really shouldn’t, and the failure of the Senate to uphold the rule of law, but the banality of it all is crushing. While the Dark Mountain set drinks wine around a campfire, gets henna tattoos, and sings along to songs about the end of nature, for the rest of us, it’s just an exhausting, daily slog through the unrelentingly alarming headlines.
We finish the decade with network culture in its last days. Back in 2010, when I was working in earnest on a book on network culture,* I made the following prediction:
“Toward the end of the decade, there will be signs of the end of network culture. It’ll have had a good run of 30 years: the length of one generation. It’s at that stage that everything solid will melt into air again, but just how, I have no idea.”
Well now we know how. All the giddy delirium about the network and globalization is gone. We’ve got our always-on links to the net in our hands all the time, we’ve got our digital economy, and with it all we’ve have entered a period of stark cultural decline. It’s an empty time, devoid of cultural monuments. Name one consequential building of this past decade, one!
Well, there is this great project by architect Valdas Ozarinskas (who didn’t make it through the decade), a massive dark summation of our failures. But culture’s not doing well. The easy appeal to dopamine receptors provided by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Netflix, and YouTube has undone our ability to focus. This is the golden age of cat videos, nothing more. Any sustained thought is gone and bottom up efforts have dissipated.
A decade ago, my blogging comrades and I were plotting how to take over architectural discourse. But this amounted to nothing. Those blogs, and many others, have been silenced, absorbed into garbage sites like Medium, Facebook, Forbes, and BusinessInsider or just left in whatever state they were in, circa 2014, as their creators went on to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or just premature (or belated?) fin-de-siècle ennui. Podcasts are the one flourishing outpost of real DIY content on the Internet, perhaps because they distract from the world around us, but in all other respects the DIY ethic is on the wane. The most interesting publication of the 2000s, Make Magazine, went under in 2019, at least temporarily. Kickstarter is the metaphor for the decade: a lot of promises, a lot of crap that we’ve thrown away, a lot of outright lies, and a feeling of dread that somehow we’ll be sucked into its maw and participate again.
But its not just banality, as Bruce Sterling points out at his State of the World 2020 at the Well, we were always too optimistic about what bottom-up efforts could do. Network culture gave birth to the vilest of viral propaganda, some of it from state actors, some of it genuinely home grown. In Bruce’s words, “Our efforts had evolved an ecosystem for distribution of weaponized memes.”
Network culture didn’t usher in a new world of Free! Open Access! Networked Culture!, rather it ushered in the first phase of the Jackpot. That’s a phrase I used often these days, lifted from William Gibson’s 2014 The Peripheral, one of a handful of genuinely insightful cultural artifacts from the last decade (note that William Gibson’s Twitter name is @GreatDismal). The Jackpot refers—not so cheerily—to the end for some 80% of the world’s population, rich and poor, developed and undeveloped (largely the former in each pair).
Time for a lengthy quote from Gibson:
No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves. And all of it around people: how people were, how many of them there were, how they’d changed things just by being there. …
But science … had been the wild card, the twist. With everything stumbling deeper into a ditch of shit, history itself become a slaughterhouse, science had started popping. Not all at once, no one big heroic thing, but there were cleaner, cheaper energy sources, more effective ways to get carbon out of the air, new drugs that did what antibiotics had done before…. Ways to print food that required much less in the way of actual food to begin with. So everything, however deeply fucked in general, was lit increasingly by the new, by things that made people blink and sit up, but then the rest of it would just go on, deeper into the ditch. A progress accompanied by constant violence, he said, by sufferings unimaginable. …
None of that … had necessarily been as bad for very rich people. The richest had gotten richer, there being fewer to own whatever there was. Constant crisis bad provided constant opportunity. … At the deepest point of everything going to shit, population radically reduced, the survivors saw less carbon being dumped into the system, with what was still being produced being eaten by those towers they’d built… And seeing that, for them, the survivors, was like seeing the bullet dodged..
Now amidst modernization, two World Wars, massive pollution, and unprecedented environmental cataclysms such as Minamata bay, Chernobyl, or Bhopal, the twentieth century was hardly a cakewalk and when it comes down to it the salinization of the Fertile Crescent is likely our real original sin (won’t someone start a green Church around this as the fall from grace?). But the Jackpot officially began on 9 November 2016, a day that reminded many of us of the outrage followed by the blank numbness that we experienced on 9/11. A new emergency was declared by never-Trump neoliberals, anti-Trump leftists, and, outraged by all the outrage, the pro-Trump neoreactionaries and neo-Nazis who had stocked up on guns in case HRC was elected and then had nothing to do. There would be no turning back now.
The horrifying truth underlying the Jackpot is that it isn’t just an accident. We used to think that global inequality was based on structural poverty, but now it’s becoming clear that automation will ensure that vast numbers of people are no longer needed. Couple that with climate change and you have the Jackpot. Entire swathes of the world—Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, South Sudan, and Yemen—have already been rendered nearly uninhabitable by drought and continual war waged by the United States, Iran, Russia, and their proxies for strategic purposes. Trump’s America is full of individuals who have no future whatsoever and, with self-driving vehicles on the way, millions of truck and taxi drivers are about to find themselves as in demand as coal miners in West Virginia. Moreover, even as we continue to belch out carbon at an unprecedented rate, it’s only a matter of time before jobs in the fossil fuel and traditional automotive industries disappear as well. New jobs will appear, of course, but there will be far fewer of those and the idea of teaching coding to coalminers proved not to be that sound.
The newly disenfranchised have little to lose: the cracks are showing. It’s not that the containment can only last so long, it’s already breaking everywhere. We can see the collapse of the Paris Accords not just as a deliberate step further into dark acceleration, it’s a lizard-like reaction to the Jackpot, part of a new strategy, national government as survivalist retreat.
Sure, the Trump administration is largely composed of knuckle-dragging defectives, but we can discern a strategy if we look carefully enough: rather than making sacrifices to survive the Jackpot, they will do what they can to get the biggest piece of the pie for themselves and their cronies in the colossal redistribution of wealth it represents. And don’t get your hopes up about a socialist revolution in the next round of elections. My academic leftie friends impute way too much to old Frankfurt School notions of ideology: the reason Trump and his cohort of populists have been elected isn’t because the poor have been duped and only need to see the way, it’s because they know there’s no hope for them. There’s no standing in solidarity behind a neo-socialist boomer, they all know that’s not going to work and if they’re going out, they’re going to drag down the elites with them. Americans elected this grinning, Adderall-abusing droog and will most likely do so again, just like the rest of the populists rising to power worldwide. In the words of Joseph de Maistre’s (and Julie Mason’s) words, “every nation gets the government it deserves.” Who better than the “King of Debt” to show us that the Jackpot is here?
If anything, not only has the Left failed to come up with a convincing counter-argument, it’s gone down the entirely wrong route with identity politics, which has all but taken over not just Left politics but also the academy and museums. Identity politics isn’t-anti-Trump, it’s high Trump, embracing the idea that the Jackpot has started and the next step is to redivide the pot in favor of your tribe. In the art world and the academy, it teams with an exhausted neoliberalism looking for an alibi while it also helps sell culture to a new generation of oligarchs even as it further exacerbates the rampant tribalism in our society. Steve Bannon understood it well, if the Left fights on the basis of identity politics, his Right wing identity politics wins every time. But for many on the woke Left, this is hardly a problem: a Trumpian government gives their screaming more legitimacy and feeds their fevered dreams of revolution.
Against the rise of identity politics on the Left and Right, the Center is left floundering. Neoliberalism is exhausted, its most appropriate cultural manifestation being is overtourism. As the decade started, I repeatedly tried to launch a major research project on the phenomenon in the academy, but the project fell on deaf ears. I wasn’t surprised. Universities are just like travel: there is an appearance of diversity and difference, but it’s a generalized sameness, a gray nothing in which you won’t ever encounter anything new, just another Starbucks serving poor quality beans over-roasted beans so that you can’t tell what they are and some screaming about how special the place is.
My sense is that if there’s to be any kind of hope in the next decade to get out of what Bruce Sterling appropriately calls “the New Dark,” it’s going to be to achieve the impossible: throw out identity politics (left and right) and turn back toward a grand project—what academics used to criticize as a “metanarrative”—that most of us can get behind.
As this decade showed, there’s little question that this is climate change and toxins in the environment. Here’s where the Jackpot has its upside: the deaths of billions of humans pales in comparison to the species-cide we are undertaking to species left and right. Have you listened for the dawn chorus of birds lately? A hundred years from now the biggest news of this decade may be that this is when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring became real as birds and pollinators died off in massive numbers. Here on the Northeast seaboard, we’ve bid goodbye to the ash tree and are watching for beech leaf disease, white pine needle disease, sudden oak death, and hoping the spotted lanternfly doesn’t cross the Delaware. It seems like the only place nature really thrives anymore isn’t in national parks, it’s in radiation exclusion zones.
But dead birds and trees don’t matter much to the average person who doesn’t have anywhere to shop besides the Dollar General Store and hasn’t seen fresh vegetables in years. The key is probably going to be luck, bad luck (and what is the Jackpot about if it’s not luck?). Maybe, just maybe if a series of truly awful major environmental cataclysms hit the key countries involved in carbon production—the US, China, India, Canada—they might, be alarmed enough to do something about it. We aren’t talking about a category 5 hurricane hitting New York City. Nobody will care about that, we are talking flattening a good portion of Florida and the Southeast, plus a good bit of Texas, maybe a good Dust Bowl 2.0 coupled with massive flooding in the Midwest then doing that five or six times over worldwide in the space of a couple of years. That’s a horrible, terrible thing, but if luck isn’t with us and it doesn’t happen, what are our chances of avoiding much worse conditions? And even if it does, will we be too late to turn back the clock?
*Never finished because a publisher botched the project to the point I quit working on it in disgust. But you can read an early essay (circa 2006) on network culture here.