I’ve avoided writing or talking about this for almost half my life. Sometimes, parts would seep out in conversation with loved ones, therapists, band-mates, or colleagues. This was scary because part of my irrationality posited the very act of talking about it would cause it to accelerate. A self fulfilling prophecy, a magic spell. But it isn’t. It is just a simple fear. Let’s go into the fear together and see what there is to see, eh?
Recommended listening for this post:
Shadow of the Towers
Why do we find dystopian futures so exciting? What is it about ruin porn and gritty action that gets us so titillated? Unfortunately, I think the answer is that we have been living in a dystopian future for some time now. Dystopian fiction either a comforting mirror (“hey, I recognize that!”) and or a validating salve (“at least things aren’t that bad!”).
It is comfort food for the brain. We get it. Dark future. Evil mega-corp. Conspiracy. Heroic character (usually white, male) ready to project yourself on to. Much has been written about this elsewhere, but here’s a shortlist of some of the messages this type of fiction tends to reinforce:
- Xenophobia: anything that isn’t human is dangerous and must be destroyed (ET, Independence Day, Men in Black, Aliens, The Forever War).
- Blade Runner Syndrome: The future will be neon and rainy. Advertising is everywhere.
- Human Rights Don’t Matter: Social and economical inequalities are not only tolerable, but inevitable. Those who live in the margins are expendable and don’t matter. See almost everyone in Akira or the sanitation worker in Ghost in the Shell.
- Fetishization of Violence: The fascist militarism of Starship Troopers and authoritarian police states of Judge Dredd are to be celebrated.
- Robots Are Scary: All artificial intelligence is evil and will Terminator you.
We create what we consume. We’re raised with these futures and then go about our merry way building them.
What do all these stories have in common? Besides Will Smith, most of these cast humans as victims to some type of “Other” force. An alien invasion, time travel mishap, ruptured conspiracy, or other MacGuffin triggers a call to action and eventually culminates in a paradigm shift. Things are changed forever. Through struggle, violence, and brainpower the scrappy humans prevail. Some brave new reality emerges; a reality without whatever bad guy just took a M79 grenade launcher to the chest fell into a of molten steel, a reality where the sun rises over the ruined alien motherships.
Before I started thinking critically about the media I consume and what it might be doing to me, I was a just another nerdy kid. I was really into science fiction movies, fantasy books, military video games… Independence Day and Men in Black were probably my family’s favorite VHS tapes, right behind My Neighbor Totoro. I’ll write more on what an incredible panacea that one is another time. In middle school I was already reading a lot of Lovecraft, Dune, Tolkien. I was 12 or so when I exposed myself to Neon Genesis Evangelion and the existential/eschatological horrors of the final few acts. My best friend and I were very keen on warning our classmates and teachers of the impending 2012 apocalypse.
Then an actual apocalyptic event happened, live on television.
During first period English class, our social studies teacher popped his head into the room and announced, “A plane has hit the world trade center,” and promptly disappeared like a prairie gopher. We were dumbfounded. What is the World Trade Center? Why did a plane hit it?
In the hall, our normally jubilant and compassionate health teacher was weeping. Her partner was apparently a pilot for American Airlines and flying the east coast that day. This was before cell phones.
I got off the bus and my mom was outside gardening and listening to NPR. She had a calm but wild look in her eye about it all. I was upset I couldn’t watch the Simpsons. News was on every channel.
The ramifications of what happened didn’t really dawn on me until two years later. Another Midwest overcast day at Wauconda High School with a hint of electricity in the wind. Another third period current events class. Everyone got a newspaper each day and we picked columns or stories to follow. Wrote about them. This, too, was before cell phones. I had been assigned the escalating tensions in Iraq.
March 20, 2003 via Chicago Tribune
I have this memory of listening to the radio as we invaded. And yes, that word “we…” I was a participant, suddenly.
I talked with my mom about becoming a conscientious objector should they reinstate the draft. I knew the events of 9/11 precipitated this event, and yet other events precipitated 9/11. A long chain forged in time immemorial. Oil, money, freedom. We’re the good guys, right?
As an aside, I still don’t really have an opinion on American foreign policy, 9/11, or any of the conflicts we’ve been involved in since. A cowardly stance perhaps, but it is not something I’ve studied. I think I know just enough to admit I don’t really know what is going on. And maybe that’s what everyone says and maybe that’s part of what the problem is. On the other hand, I do have an opinion on war and the suffering it causes. I think we fight too much. And I think we ought to try and be kind to each other during our brief time together.
I didn’t know what to “do” with the Iraq War. Support it? Protest it? Talk to people about it? Enlist to a military academy? Is that even a thing? Those stern looking fellas from the Army and Navy sometimes have tables setup in the cafeteria. Surely they’d know what to do?
My closest mental model was all the action and science fiction films I saw. Needless to say, it wasn’t a clean 1:1 mapping. Iraq is sorta like Arrakis and oil is sorta like the spice, right? But… then we’re the Harkonens? That can’t be right. Maybe this was more like Starship Troopers? Err, there’s some problems there too…
I learned about the Iraq War before I learned about World Wars 1 and 2.
Studying the war in real time caused my narrative and framing of America and humanity as a whole to shift. I learned about the Iraq War before I learned about World Wars 1 and 2. With grade school only 3 years behind me, my mental history of America was largely dominated by folksy tales of George Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River and Paul Bunyan digging out the great lakes for his ox to drink from. Yeah. Vertigo.
9/11 quite literally coincided with the end of my childhood: I turned 13 that year. My entire adult life has been in its the shadow. I share this not to paint myself a victim, but to illustrate how I relate to the world has been utterly warped by it. It has become so overbearing and inescapable to the point of becoming forgettable.
If my life were to be made a movie, 9/11 would be the MacGuffin. That cataclysmic event or hyperobject that happens in act 1 and drives action for the rest of the ride, unquestioned, uncontested. I would venture this is true for all us millenials in the states.
Somewhere in my confusion and anger I fell down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole. I was obsessed with finding the truth and the answers to everything. After school and work, I’d come home and continue the real work. I’d merrily bounce from learning about true age of the Great Pyramid to the machinations of secret societies, from archaeological proof of alien civilizations on Mars to 9/11 conspiracy theories, from harrowing tales former Area 51 employees on Coast to Coast AM to… you get the point. I was extremely convicted to the veracity of my newfound knowledge.
You can make any data prove your point if you work backwards.
It took a while to let go of these beliefs. And hey, just because I’m no longer convinced aliens built the pyramids, it doesn’t mean I’m not open to it, yeah?
I now understand engaging with conspiracy theories is a compulsion and coping mechanism. By imposing eldritch architectures onto the world, the conspiracy theorist regains a modicum of (illusory) control over the world. They become simultaneously victim, outcast, savior, and Last Action Hero. Tragically burdened by the knowledge of the truth yet tormented by their inability to share with with normal people who, “wouldn’t understand.” They withdraw into themselves.
I am thankful I had a good support system of family and friends. I worked through everything in my head, a little shaken but ultimately OK. Let go of a lot of things. My healthy outlets for venting outnumbered my unhealthy ones. Music has always been at the core of all my catharses.
Me performing, circa 2008.
It is wild to think that 2008 is closer to 2001 than 2019 is to 2008. Time’s funny like that, ain’t it?
Things happen fast now. Maybe faster than they ever have. Or maybe the amount of things that happen has remained constant, but we just hear about a whole lot more of them. With this apparent increase of speed can come a proportional increase of anxiety. The harder we try to grasp the world, the more abstract and amorphous it becomes.
This grasping is the suffering that Buddhism talks about. Attachments. The moment you adopt a belief, you become responsible for it, you attach your ego to it. Or perhaps it attaches itself to your ego? Either way, the fewer beliefs and attachments you have, the less you will suffer. For the most part I’ve embraced this Tao of the empty, but this one thing keeps nipping at my heels…
The fear, this thing I’ve avoided confronting for almost half of my life, is the fear that another MacGuffin is happening or about to happen.
In re-reading that last sentence several dozen times, I suppose this could be some form PTSD, though that acronym has always carried a compassionate, dignified, respectful association I might reserve for those who have seen active combat or suffered severe abuse. Perhaps this is a slow breed of PTSD? One from witnessing the trauma of the 21st century unfold over the years? I’m not sure I buy it, but it is the best theory I’ve got. 9/11 changed everything forever, and it is only a matter of time before another big one.
I’ll be going about my day, and then I’ll read a bit of news. Sometimes just a few words will do. My imagination leaps to, “It’s happening, isn’t it?” Recently, these anxious fantasies have been about the singularity or AI. A decade or so ago it was about aliens or the return Quetzcoatl. It is always global, always theatric, always unabashedly science fictional. Just yesterday I was hanging out in a video call with one dear friend and another who I hope to soon call a dear friend. We were talking about our hopes and dreams and aspirations and The Fear got triggered in me. Earlier in the week, yet a third friend had told me about Transcension Hypothesis as a possible answer to the Fermi Paradox:
The transcension hypothesis proposes that a universal process of evolutionary development guides all sufficiently advanced civilizations into what may be called “inner space,” a computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter, and eventually, to a black-hole-like destination. Transcension as a developmental destiny might also contribute to the solution to the Fermi paradox, the question of why we have not seen evidence of or received beacons from intelligent civilizations.
For whatever reason, I thought that there was some link between these conversations and humanity was about to hit the asymptote and go Transcension. As if the very act of having the conversation was the magic spell that would trigger some type of Human Instrumentality Project. It was a violent, almost physical sensation. I was shaking. I took some deep breaths, pet my cat, and pushed through the fear.
I contracted a similar affliction around 2012. Whenever I read the word “AI” I would have a panic attack. I had nightmares that a recursive algorithm I wrote at work went haywire and became self aware. I had to do deep work on myself to get over that one: mainly reading and learning about the different types of AI and what leaders in the field had to say about it. I went into the fear and came out wiser and calmer.
One time this happened it was actually a positive experience. In 2010, one could be forgiven for reading the headlines about GFAJ-1, the supposed “arsenic based life form”, as proof of alien life. First I felt the stabs fear and anxiety, but they were quickly replaced by love and acceptance. I spent the next few minutes in a state of utter rapture and joy. It is still among the top three the happiest moments of my life (the other two being when I accepted my mortality and when I married Sage.) I was alone in my bedroom and laughing aloud. If alien life was proven, what would that mean for all of humanity? What would that mean for all our wars and religions and differences and struggles? How powerful of a unifying force would such knowledge be? In my minds eye, I played out the next weeks, months, years. Unification, a new grand project. We’re going to space and we’re going together.
Alas, perhaps a different time line.
Together - for this post would not have been written without knowing you internet folk are out there - we’ve successfully simplified my formula of terror down to something like:
31 years of sci-fi media
Traumas of 21st century
+ iPhone or internet
I might also add a fifth addend of “Eager to see a change”. I deeply desire to see the world change, to get kinder, to be more compassionate and accepting. In some ways, these MacGuffins that creep up on me are a type of wish fulfillment. Shortcuts to a new and different Earth. And ultimately cop outs. A concession to another power or agency.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how I can help build the next Earth. As always, I’ve been pouring myself into my music and art, but the context and audiences have shifted. Sage is teaching me how to write music, like with quarter notes and treble clefs and stuff! At work, we’re increasingly focused on working with mission driven organizations that are actually making a difference in the world. I’ve been practicing yoga.
I don’t have a neat conclusion or pithy axiom to offer you, but I can say that for the first time in my life I feel like I’ve started to sort this one out. And that is pretty incredible for me. So if you have something you’ve been trying to figure out, I encourage you to write about it!
Until next time,