‘When humans lose their ability to make sense of rapid global change and the old story collapses and leaves a void, we need new ways of thinking, and we need them fast. At present, though, we are still in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger, in which people lose faith in the old story but before they have embraced a new one. This is the Trump moment.’
These are the concluding words of an article written by the eminent historian and social commentator, Yuval Noah Harari shortly before the D bomb got dropped on North America. I don’t think it’s an over-simplification to seek for a new story, but it is also a dangerous idea to think that there are indeed any new all-encompassing alternatives to replace the old one.
The world feels fractured beyond repair as we deal with the consequences of a subset of institutions that have all started to reach the outer limit of their probability. Democracy (so called), organized religion, even nature itself has gone beyond the probable into a place ungoverned by old rules and certainties. They all contain their own narratives but the only common factor is our human agency in their future.
As ever, it’s tempting to look for simple solutions to complex issues but now more than ever, it seems that we have reached a confluence of complexities, which even the greatest storytellers on the planet seem unable to fit into workable narrative.
Technology is largely lauded as our saviour, and in some sense, it is. We live in an age of abundance thanks to multiple technologies, some of which are already solidly in place and others rapidly evolving in directions which we may or may not be able to control.
But this age of abundance is a temporal one nevertheless and will not stand, even if our future has been conditioned and to a greater extent determined by technology.
Disillusionment and anger are natural expressions of humanity thwarted from what it wants (while seemingly having it all). Harari suggests that the present moment of crisis is a direct result of one particular event; the dropping of the atom bomb and its logical consequence: mutually assured destruction. From this emerged in the West, the Liberal Story, which Harari alludes to in his article.
Despite its success, it always had that threatening narrative at its core. The seeds of nihilism were already there. Already in 1962, Marshall McLuhan predicted trouble in our global village in his book ‘The Gutenberg Galaxy’:
‘Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as in an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and super-imposed co-existence.’
It’s clear today that we are suffering the worst consequences of the panic terrors McLuhan predicted. Faith in the future has been replaced by nihilism as the logical conclusion to the age of disillusionment and anxiety. We, the audience have become participants to a debacle of our own making and our only solution to the immense gravity and suffering we ourselves have created, is to retreat into fictional realms looking for the new story.
In literature, there is a convention of suspension of disbelief — it’s a vital process for immersing yourself in any story that cannot be taken literally. In the realm of fantasy literature, this suspension is all the more important.
In this world, without belief, or its suspension, stories collapses upon themselves and reveal their ugliness.
One of the most powerful stories running an influential portion of the planet right now is the one lauded by Donald Trump to ‘Make America Great Again’. It harks back to a time of rising consumerism, confidence and seemingly unstoppable growth.
Nostalgia sells for a reason but it cannot mask the present truth at the end of the old story that we are all still teetering upon mutually assured destruction — only this time further compounded by forces beyond our economic, political or scientific control.
In truth, you can never return to the place you left because the place has already changed. There are no saviours, religious, secular or supernatural to turn things around at the last minute in this story, nor can the old conditions be tweaked to fit. To quote a line from a recent show:
‘You don’t put the Pope in a Speedo and you don’t take the cream out of the Oreo. Take away one little thing and you are going to force the conversation with the audience they don’t want to have.’
We, the audience, as consumers, global citizens and above all else, humans need to have an uncomfortable but above all, honest conversation with ourselves about what is missing in this story before we can write a new one.
That story requires no suspension of disbelief, has no underlying political agenda, no heroes write large and no happy ending. It’s a story about self-reflection, transformation and in the worst case scenario, survival.
And it starts right here, with you.