Our Return to True Normal
I don't want to live in the world y'all think is inevitable; it's time to consider the social costs of our trajectory; let's talk about the post-pandemic world we want to live in—not the one on TV
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It is fair to make jokes that I am ‘extremely online’. When you’ve posted as many times as I have or use slang such as ‘poast,’ ‘gf,’ ‘gm,’ or speak enthusiastically about NFTs in 2021 you deserve it.
Almost all of the current projects are focused on the internet, it’s how I’m currently paying my rent, and how I’ve met most of the friends that I interact in my day-to-day life in Austin. I even think Bitcoin may be the most important technology that will be invented in my lifetime. But I actually do not love the present acceleration into the digital world that is being imposed on us through a combination of technology, media, and deliberate policy choices. I still aspire for a return to true normal—it would be great if more of us logged off and spent our time trying to rebuild society and genuine offline community, one barbecue and little league game at a time.
I don’t want to live in ‘the pod’. I don’t want a world where everyone is staring at their screens for 10 hours a day. When I listen to transhumanists and rationalists, many of whom I count as friends, talk about the telos of technology and the inevitable consequences of our current technological progress, I hope that they’re delusional and wrong.
But if I’m honest, they’re spending a lot more time thinking about the future than everyone else I know, their assumptions about the future do seem to resonate with current trends, and a lot of them are building this future one line of code, tweet, and barely-readable, 5,000 word blog post at a time.
One of the bleakest podcasts that I’ve ever listened to was an interview with Roko Mijic, some random guy on the internet known for his forum posts in rationalist circles. In the episode he makes a compelling argument for how we’ll end up living in a world that’s comparable to a combination of Ready Player One, Brave New World, and Children of Men (my allusions not his).
People will stop having children due to antinatalist memes, environmental toxins, porn addiction, and emergent social behavior that will lead to the proliferation of incels and femcels. The large suburban homes which were briefly filled by families with 2.5-6 kids and a signifier of having joined the middle class will instead be populated by 40 year olds, aging and childless, who spend most of their time living in virtual reality. Automation will have left these ineffectively educated, non-specialized workers behind and they will subsist off of a Universal Basic Income and minor revenues received by playing video games, the odd donation, and consuming advertisements. They will not be depressed per se because they will have access to much better, less risky, drugs than we currently possess, immersive digital worlds beyond our present imagination, and perhaps even direct brain interfaces.
For many currently living in our world, this is tragically better than their present life. At least they won’t be depressed, they will live with people their own age and have shelter, the video games and content they consume will have higher resolution and better user-experiences, and they won’t have the stress of worrying about how to pay their bills. They’re already atomized and living their life as a digital avatar in 2021. Many of us got a taste of what this life would be like for at least some part of the last 20 months. I did. And having come on the other side of that, I never want to go back.
This downer of a Seeking Tribe was spurred by my continued reading of Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs. Queue up the track again because it’s a banger.
The greatest stress on parents and children, judging by protests, has been aroused by school closings—dozens of them, with more continually threatened...Once, schools were relied on as community centers, but youth groups and other volunteer community service groups are now charged so heavily for classroom use for meetings, and for gyms, cafeterias, and auditoriums for other activities, that groups like the Girl Guides and Boy Scouts can’t afford the fees. Community use of schools dropped 43 percent between 2000 and 2002. In 2003, 350 after-school courses, ranging from piano and art lessons to computers and graphic design, were cut: no more “lifelong learning” for retired people, immigrants, and other citizens. New fees were added even for groups using outdoor basketball courts and baseball fields…By such measures, a culture’s social capital is systematically squandered.
If Jacobs’ analysis of this situation is correct, what social capital has been and will be destroyed by our community use of schools dropping ~100%? Charging people fees and creating burdens through additional bureaucracy—and outright closures—are both a form of friction. They both decrease demand for services by making it more costly to realize your intended visions—from running a free after school program to teach students the piano to hosting a German club at the local library. These are public goods that any great community wants to be encouraging, they are the kinds of activities that create the bonds that make life deeply meaningful.
There are many regulations that people, at least a vocal minority, are calling for and hope to remain permanent—masking, proof of vaccination at events, a recent negative coronavirus test. Every additional check box to utilizing a community space will lead to fewer events and attendees. Our time spent disconnected from the public and in new, asocial routines has the potential to normalize. Even the pervasive cultural emphasis on the supreme value of safety and fear-inducing rhetoric will have effects which echo into our future.
The New York Times’ polling says that many people’s fears are not at all aligned with our present reality.
If we want to live in a future that is different than the one that Roko outlined in that episode, we’re going to need robust communities and institutions. We will need to create close relationships with people who were once strangers, built through shared experience, and in a psychological space where we consider them a potential friend, not primarily a vector for disease. Our present trajectory will take us into the world where people are increasingly atomized and their lives are predominantly digital. A non-trivial amount of people are never going to socially recover from the stresses they’ve endured the past few years—this is a great tragedy.
If you don’t want to live in that world, you need to be able to discuss when and if we’re going to exit from pandemic mode and reinstate a true normal. These decisions should and will be made locally. Certain localities in their day-to-day operations are already more or less returning to normal, while others are experimenting with expanding these social frictions. I don’t know what’s right for you or your community and I have no desire to impose my will on you.
But I want all of my lovely readers to understand that many people do not share our incentives or tolerance. They do want to impose their values on everyone and they personally benefit from it—in a perverse and delusional way. The world they’re creating will not be as good as they believe it will be.
There are people who never wanted to go in public and want an excuse to never leave the house. They don’t want to go back to the office, they like working five hours a week and spending the rest of the time watching Netflix and scrolling the internet. They don’t want to go to Thanksgiving with their family ever again.
There are also people whose net worth will continue to balloon if they can keep the rest of us clicking, glued to our screens, and fearful. Their houses are large. They have nannies and private tutors to take care of their children while they work. They’ve been traveling since they got vaccinated and haven’t given it a second thought—regardless of what they post on Instagram. If they get sick, they’re going to kick the coronavirus in 3 days like Joe Rogan did—it took me a week despite me being 27 years younger. They can afford the best nutrition, doctors, personal trainers, and whatever the doctors gave Joe and Trump that did the trick.
These are only two of the types of people who would be quite happy if ‘new normal’ persisted. There are many more of them. Do not let them decide the future of your community—make these decisions with the people who share your values and incentives, with the people who will help you to rebuild civil society and your in-person, face-to-face community.
We used to talk about the world we would create after we had a vaccine and the pandemic was over. The vaccine came and it didn’t quite end—although the deaths and hospitalizations have plummeted. I think it’s time we all start talking about when we’ll exit from pandemic mode and the world that we want to live in with our new perspective. The noisiest visions for our future do not seem well-aligned with the kind of life that I personally think is conducive to prosperity and a robust civil society.
What do you think?
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This is normal!