We’ve all been there. A team meeting, financial update, annual report…
“Well, things are going to be tough this year. We’ve got to make budget cuts and I’m not going to lie, there are some tough decisions that’ll need to be made. We need to save X thousand on this or Y million on that. But I just know we’ll get through if we all pull together.”
The first time, maybe it’s a shock. The second, it starts to sound a little familiar. And on it goes. There are only so many times you hear this sort of things before it clicks:
This is not exceptional, it’s the norm.
And if you have the wherewithal to zoom out a little, you can see that pattern repeated everywhere. News. Technology. Biosphere. “Things are really different this time.” “We’re in uncharted territory.” “This is a game changer!”
It’s a way of representing the present moment as truly different. A kind of prurient ultramodernism, a red-hot, momentary exceptionalism. The cult of the cult of the new.
The field of activism is no ‘exception’ either. It often dangles the carrot of a millennial moment upon which everything hinges, whether that’s a revolution or an epochal danger. It’s how you get people out (even if the nuts and bolts of prefigurative living are demonstrably more effective).
Here’s the thing about getting sucked into this momentary exceptionalism: it fluffs the ego. But the truth is that every moment is exceptional, and not just in the glib way that might sound.
Imagine living in a novel where technology is at its apex, or starring in a film where you have to use all humanity’s accumulated knowledge to determine its future. Well congratulations! Tech is always, by definition, the most advanced it’s ever been. We’re always standing on the shoulders of the past. Time is always speeding up in a series of ever-diminishing millennia.
And whether that’s being told that “this is the climate election — our last chance to save the planet” or being sold a revolutionary product that fundamentally changes the way you live (allegedly), that kind of narrative places us at both the centre and pinnacle of history, even if it’s often at the sharp end. Let’s be frank enough to admit it: it’s flattering.
But it’s also draining. In ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, psychologist Daniel Khaneman makes it clear that subjects who are tired and depleted are more likely to be influenced by empty persuasive messages such as commercials. Urgent situations demand ‘system 1’ thinking, the kind of quickfire gut-level stuff that’s a world apart from the “uncertainty and doubt (which) are the domain of system 2”. So it’s pretty obvious that our suggestibility increases in line with a situation’s uniqueness. There’s no map on unknown terrain, which is why any good sales pitch will try to discombobulate you with new terminology and sexed-up numbers.
One obvious aspect of momentary exceptionalism is the field of communication. We’re often told that the advent of the internet was a step change unmatched since the invention of the printing press — the immediacy of contact, the diffusion of information, the ease of transactions. It’s repeated in Shoshanna Zuboff’s ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’, amongst others. I think it was David Harvey (citation needed, as they say) who contested this view, in my view correctly, by pointing out that the invention of the telegram sped up communication on an order of magnitude that’s far, far greater than the web’s later changes. After Samuel Morse, intercontinental communications that had taken weeks or months by sea and road became near-instant, with vast impacts on trade in particular. At a stroke, the world got so much smaller and faster that the internet’s tinkering can barely put a dent in it.
The crux of Zuboff’s tome (and it is a tome, one that could easily be half its size with no loss of substance) is that the increase in surveillance through ‘smart’ devices in our pockets and homes has been driven by an insatiable desire for data that can be harvested by advertisers to manipulate our behaviour. Oddly, it seems to be written for two groups of people: “Hey, you’ve heard of the internet but have you heard of… capitalism?” and “Hey, you thought capitalism was bad but have you heard of… the internet?” There’s not a great deal of nourishment to be had for the multitudes who’ve heard of both, besides a heaving tray of anecdotal entrees.
In similar territory is ‘The Twittering Machine’ by Richard Seymour. Both books read like a joke that’s all setup and no punchline, in the sense that they tell you in detail all about the proclivities of the internet, but have precious little to offer on what they imply or what one can do in response to this heaven-storming horror. (Given their active Twitter accounts, it seems the most obvious step hasn’t been taken by either author.)
But I digress. The point being: we’re always in remarkable times. There’s always another little millennium that feels exceptional. And of course there’s a relevant spectre haunting this particular post — the spectre of coronavirus.
I absolutely don’t want to get into conspiracy here — the virus is real and will have devastating effects on many, particularly the elderly, the poor and those with underlying health conditions (for obvious reasons to do with the economy, stupid). But what is absolutely crucial is to pan out from this specific crisis to understand what a constant diet of crises implies and how it affects us. I contend that being constantly thrown from one uncharted territory to the next leaves us floundering, understandably, for a map.
Suggestibility is certainly one effect, as I’ve mentioned. In desperate times, perhaps it’s ok for legislators to break from the norm, for pillars of justice or fairness to erode a little, for the burden of proof to lighten somewhat. Exceptional times call for exceptional measures, exceptional(ist) leaders who chart the way for us with steely resolve. This first implication’s implications should be obvious.
Reliance on the news cycle is another — an obvious map for the lost, and a standard bearer for the cult of the cult of the new. By contrast, I recently took a week-long news holiday. In the midst of Brexit, elections, planetary collapse and everything else going to pot, my life was absolutely no worse and was in fact clearer, calmer, better. I didn’t know less about the fundamental facts, I just had a very good oxygen mask to help with the suffocating detail. It was a lot like abstaining from social media: difficult at first, because FOMO, but quickly realising I was MO on SFA. Again, let’s question what this second implication implies, beyond hoary “Yoinks, don’t trust the news” ramblings: an ever-itching annoyance, the urge to check a phone or a website instead of being present in the moment. A grating dissatisfaction with the here and now.
During the 2008 crisis, as Harvey is fond of quoting, the bigger cheeses in the financial sector were fond of the maxim “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” The hamfisted counterpoint is to turn each crisis to our own advantage, but that fails to address the wider issue. There’s a sanguine hint of ‘seen it all before’ in the bankers’ phrase, so the third and most vital implication is, i think, just to echo that stoic disconnect, to know this phenomenon of the little millennia for what it is. To understand the ocean we’re in, instead of getting caught up in each wave.
Now that could be exceptional.