"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“I think in view of all that has happened in the last half century, that it is likely the ship will sink.” – Lewis Mumford
What follows is a true story.
People regularly ask me: “so, what do you work on?” It’s the type of question that you get used to answering when you do academic work. People already know “what you do” (you spend a lot of time doing research), but this question aims to get at a more specific answer. It’s a dangerous question to ask. After all, those who devote a large portion of their time to doing research are generally happy to speak (or drone on) at length about their research. Therefore, many people perfect a one or two sentence summary with which they can succinctly reply to this question. It’s the proverbial “elevator pitch” – though nothing is actually being pitched in this case. Nevertheless, the attempt at brevity flows from the recognition that most of the time this question is being posed out of politeness and not necessarily out of any real interest.
I get asked this question a lot.
Here’s how I reply: “I study the end of the world.”
Sometimes I change it up a little bit. Instead of “the end of the world” I’ll say “impending doom” or “the apocalypse” or I’ll just scream at the top of my lungs. Well, maybe not that last one. Occasionally, if I can tell that this answer hasn’t been sufficient, I’ll provide a bit more specificity: “I mainly focus on technological pessimism, the belief that humanity’s romance with technology has us all locked into a course that is leading us towards some sort of final catastrophe.” Granted, most of the time, just saying “end of the world” is enough.
Here’s how people generally react: they politely change the subject, they blandly say “that sounds interesting,” they stifle a derisive laugh, they roll their eyes, or they decide to talk to someone else.
I’m used to these responses. I’ve been getting them for years.
But something odd happened in 2016.
You see, I spent the first ten months of the year encountering the standard (above mentioned) reactions. But at some point in the year, things changed.
After November 9th, people no longer rolled their eyes or laughed derisively when I told them that “I study the end of the world.” I’ve received many interesting replies in the last two months of 2016, but my favorite (which was voiced sincerely by a distinguished scholar) has been: “That is very relevant and important work.”
But, if I’m being completely honest, I preferred it when people rolled their eyes.
It’s not actually particularly comforting to tell people “we’re doomed” and have them agree.
The end of the year is always a time for retrospection. We look back on the days that have gone by and have a chance to reassess what we did and what we didn’t do. Did the year meet our expectations? Did we meet our own expectations? In many respects, 2016 was a rather normal year, life went on: books were read, people got married, babies were born, people graduated, people moved, relationships started, people traveled, people died, relationships ended, people stayed put, people watched too much television, people started new jobs, people did A, people did B, people did…well, you get how this work
I know many people for whom 2016 was a pretty good year. For some of them it was even a great year. However, as 2016 comes to a close it seems that many people are eager for the year to be over. There’s a fairly pervasive sentiment present that it hasn’t actually been a particularly good year. It does not require much in the way of mental straining to figure out the events that have cast such a pall over 2016. Indeed, the hateful deluge that victoriously broke through the floodgates in 2016 is what many people will remember 2016 for – this trumps any positive things that an individual may have experienced in their own life during the year. This leads directly to a concern, seldom spoken aloud, that 2017 will probably be worse than 2016. And there’s a general suspicion that things won’t drastically improve in 2018 either. Thus, as 2016 comes to a close many people aren’t looking towards 2017 with hope and excitement, but with anxious dread. The future looks pretty grim and it has people worried.
And it is fine to be worried.
In times such as these, it is the absence of negative emotions – not their presence – which is abnormal.
That may seem like an odd, not terribly reassuring thing to say, but I mean it. Right now, people should be worried. Frankly, they should have been feeling that way a long time ago. Though I will openly admit that it isn’t particularly enjoyable to feel this way.
You can trust me on that.
What follows is a true story.
In 2016 I had the opportunity to talk to a scholar whose work I’ve admired for a long time. The conversation took place many months before November. It was a rather informal conversation, but it lasted for several hours. The core of the conversation was our shared concern for the future. We were both trying to answer the question of how to live a meaningful, ethical, life while being convinced that society is racing towards a catastrophe. And we were trying to think through the ways in which our work could actually make a difference in the world. It was an enjoyable conversation. Really.
Towards the end of the conversation (I had a train to catch) we turned towards the topic of hope and how to carry on in the face of uncertainty. Here I deployed my favor quote of all time, Max Horkheimer’s comment:
“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.”
I explained to the scholar that for me these lines captured it all – the need to leave space open for hope within a tragic conception of the future. To me, these lines represent an entire cosmology captured in twenty words. The scholar laughed, and told me that it was very telling that this was my favorite quote. And then, as our discussion drew to a close, the scholar said something to me that will haunt me for the rest of my life: “this is lonely and depressing work, but I think you know that already.”
Yes, that was something someone really said to me in 2016.
Confession: I have been told that I can be depressing to be around. And I’ve been told this enough times, by enough different people, that there’s probably some truth to it. One of my good friends refers to me as her “crazy doomsday librarian phd friend” (this is a direct quote), and she isn’t the only one of my friends who uses the term “doom” when describing me. Friends of mine have also claimed that I hate fun, that I never seem happy, and that I am a curmudgeonly old man trapped in a younger man’s body. And, lest there be any confusion, I’m not using the term “friends” dismissively here. Granted, these accusations aren’t particularly easy for me to refute – this website is a storehouse of evidence that bolsters the claim that I tilt towards a tragic conception of life.
I’ll admit it, at a certain point, in 2016, such accusations really began to grate on me. Following one particular incident towards the end of September in which I was told “you just never seem happy” (this is a direct quote) I began to reevaluate the subject matter that I research. After all, I reasoned, perhaps one of the reasons why I come across as depressing is because I spend so much of my time researching depressing topics. To put it simply: I spend a disproportionate amount of time reading things by (or about) individuals who thought that the sky was going to fall and who were denounced as pessimistic curmudgeons for saying so. And I was fully cognizant of the fact that I often read such works as being prophetic, it seemed to me (and still seems to me) that the world we’re living in is largely the one that many of these dead Cassandras warned us about. They said, in essence, “unless drastic changes are made we’re going to wind up at…” exactly where we are now. I’ve argued before that there is something prescient about pessimism – but I recognize that, to a certain extent, making that claim represents looking for prescience in pessimism.
Granted, my attempt to move on to a different research topic was not particularly successful. Though I should admit, I also didn’t try particularly hard to find a new topic. Much of this was because every new topic I began investigating I still wound up reading through the lens of “the end of the world.” And I should also mention that when I told my advisor that I was thinking of changing topics, my advisor countered with, “but this doom stuff is who you are.” Which was very reassuring.
I don’t want to construct a song of praise for doom and gloom. I definitely don’t want to suggest that it feels great to spend a lot of time dwelling on how bad things are and how likely it is that things are just going to get worse. And though I think it’s worth revisiting the arguments of the forgotten and forsaken pessimists of yore, I’ve got to say that a recurring feature in the work of many of those pessimists was that they knew they were being (and would be) ignored. But I have to say, expecting the worst can really help to prepare you for when the worst happens. This does not mean that one should welcome the worst (obviously), or that one should not fight against the worst (one should fight against it), but one should be aware that there’s no actual rule of history that says that things must improve along some sort of optimistic trajectory.
Some people look for signs in the stars and therefore see the heavens. Others look for signs on the ground and therefore see the ruins.
Evidently, I fall into the latter category. As my friends constantly remind me.
But, honestly, I’m okay with that.
People often ask me if I’m happy. I hate it when people ask me this. Because, frankly, I think it’s a pretty absurd question. It seems to bundle up the complexities of living in the world into something rather simplistic. The way that the question is posed, makes it perform an elaborate bait and switch whereby a temporary emotional state (“I am happy right now”) gets magically transmuted into an existential state (“I am happy [full stop]”). Granted, as we’ve established, my friends tell me that I’m depressing.
It seems to me that one of the things that many people are wrestling with at the end of 2016 is the unsettling of this existential state. Mass culture constantly berates us with the message “be happy”- a message which is usually fixed to a command that in order to “be happy” we need to buy something, have something, or look a certain way. But as 2016 comes to a close it seems that people are starting to wonder about what it means to “be happy” in a world where the forces of xenophobia, misogyny, and kleptocracy are on the rise. Even as the message “keep smiling…be happy” continues to be blared from the mass culture apparatus. After all, one of the major things that the normalization of xenophobia and misogyny accomplishes is that it allows people to feel as though they can go back to being “happy” in the midst of such horrors.
2016 was a sledgehammer of a year. It has mightily battered the optimistic edifice of happiness and the simplistic faith in progress. But I would argue that one of the lessons to take away from 2016 is that we should not rush to reconstruct these flimsy ideologies. After all, it was that religious commitment to optimism and that devout belief in progress that made many people so unable to see what was happening in 2016 until it was too late. As we move forward into 2017, we shouldn’t obsess over being happy, or optimistic – such moves serve to distract us from where we really are and from what’s really going on.
It’s okay not to be happy.
It’s okay to be worried.
And it’s okay to admit it.
What follows is a true story:
2016 was a bad year.
2017 might be worse.
And that “might” only becomes an “is” and then a “was” if we do nothing.
So let me end 2016 with another favorite line from Max Horkheimer:
“Because we are still permitted to live, we are under an obligation to do something.”