Weirding Diary: 11

This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series Weirding Diary

We’re barely seven weeks into 2020, and it’s already the weirdest year in my living memory. We’ve been through: Australia on fire, a near-war between the US and Iran, a sound-and-fury-signifying-nothing impeachment theater, a primary election mess in the US caused by a Bad App, Actual Brexit,™ and now we have the snowballing Covid-19/SARS-CoV-2/coronovirus crisis (revealing that officials can’t even agree on a name) driving an entire empire into some sort of lockdown, and slowly starting to freeze up global supply chains. All these stories were decades in the making, and none of them is even close to over yet.

Danielle Baskin wins the Q12020 Weirding Way award for coming up with these N95 masks with your lower face printed on them, to allow facial recognition based phone unlocking to work in a world full of coronoviruses and smoke from Australia burning. A whole new meaning to “put on your happy face.”

View image on Twitter

Lenin reportedly said, “there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen.” Every week in 2020 so far has been one of those decade-weeks. All you can do is put on your happy-smile N95 mask.

I haven’t updated this blogchain since last September, so let’s do a quick reorientation. In fact, let’s step back a bit beyond that, and talk about strategies for mapping and sense-making the weirding.

The Real Future Shock

When I was a kid in the 80s, nerdy adults were all talking about Alvin Toffler and his Future Shock thesis. I read his breathless trilogy (Future Shock, 1970, Third Wave, 1980, and Powershift, 1990) but frankly wasn’t feeling it. As a 45-year-old with pretensions to more cultivated futurism tastes now, I think Toffler was kinda full of shit. There was no future shock in 1970-90. Just the normal tumult of ordinary history unfolding with some extra pageantry, like the moon landings.

Toffler’s writings had no meaningful conception of actual shocks of any sort informing the sense-making. Iirc, it was all just superlatives and breathless excitement about “acceleration.” He was the Tom Friedman of his time I suppose. He died in 2016, just before what I’d call an actual shock wave hit. The one I’ve been calling the Great Weirding.

I do wonder though, if the weirding is merely in my head, as a middle-aging X’er, or whether there is something real going on that’s affecting everybody. On balance, I think there’s something real going on. People much younger than me, everywhere in the world, seem as shell-shocked and disoriented as older people. This was not the case in the 80s when Toffler’s works were zeitgeisty.

In other words, this time around it’s real. Not just a case of aging minds unable to keep up. Ironically, Toffler died in 2016, just before the real Future Shock happened.

Two senses of the word shock are worth thinking about in relation to the events of the Great Weirding. The first is shock in the sense of fluid dynamics: a discontinuous boundary in a fluid flow. The second is shock in the sense of the immediate response to trauma.

Both apply, but I’ll stick to shock as in waves for this post, and save shocks as in trauma for a future post.

Shocks as in Waves

Shocks as in waves are something I can claim some modest, mostly forgotten expertise in. Back in 1997, when I showed up for grad school, they assigned me undergraduate fluid mechanics to TA. Later, I also TA’ed a junior laboratory course that included shock wave experiments in wind-tunnels.

Now, 23 years later, I’ve almost entirely forgotten all the technical stuff that I once knew well enough to teach. But a visceral appreciation for the power of shock phenomena has stayed with me. That visceral appreciation inspired a Breaking Smart newsletter on Feb 24, 2017 (almost exactly 3 years ago, soon after Trump’s inauguration) titled The Birth of Magic. It included this shockwave-inspired cartoon. Despite the craziness since, the “transition to magic” thesis has held up well I think.

To quote myself from that newsletter:

In this supersonic regime, far from history ending in the sense of no more surprises, there are now so many surprises, coming at us so thick and fast, that we are being forced to invent something like a supersonic narrative technology, where mere “history” is a kind of subsonic narrative technology. The events of 2016 were, in a sense, the sonic boom marking the end of history and the birth of what is beginning to replace it: the creation and consumption of magic.

Three years in, I have a better sense of what that kind of shock wave transition boundary we crossed in 2016, and what it means to live in an age of magic. The big difference before/after 2016 is that classical, history-based sense-making processes have decohered, and you need a more magical discipline of sense-making.

Sense-makers vs. Map-makers

I want to propose a definition of a shock, and frame the Great Weirding as a a particularly big one, via a distinction between map-making and sense-making.

Map-makers try to make one map that accounts for everything they see happening to things they care about. Then they try to craft narratives on that one map. Maps can be wrong or incomplete, but they aren’t usually incoherent or entropic, because they represent a single, totalizing, absolutely interested point of view, and a set of associated epistemic, ontological, and aesthetic preferences.

Sense-makers on the other hand, try to come at the territory using multiple maps, as well as direct experience. Theirs is not a disinterested point of view, but a relative, multi-interested point of view. We want various points of view to agree in a certain limited sense, lending confidence to our hope that we’ve made sense of reality through triangulation.

No individual map is sufficient or necessary, and together, they can be more than just wrong or incomplete. Unlike a map, sense-making — which is a ongoing process, a flow of situation awareness, rather than an object — can also be incoherent and entropic. Like a fluid flow, sense-making can experience shocks, sonic booms, transitions from laminar to turbulent, and so forth.

As a sense-maker, you can say the world makes sense when the views afforded through different maps harmonize well, both with each other and with direct experience. The various narratives — associated with the different maps as well as the gonzo-narrative of direct experience — sort of fit together in something like a laminar condition. The harmony is an epistemic and ontological one, not an emotional or valuative one. A world can make sense, but the maps involved might exhibit emotional conflicts among themselves.

When the world makes sense, the maps might disagree on particular details, and bring different values and proportions to the sense-making party, but they fit together. Kinda like the subplots of Rashomon do. They are conflicting, uncertain, differently weighted accounts of the same territory. Everybody has a stake in the same story.

But when the world stops making sense, something else happens. Instead of Rashomon, you get Seinfeld.

Weirding as Failed Sensemaking

Here’s a working definition of a systemic shock. A shock is when maps that were once co-extensive territorially start to point at different territories, causing sense-making to unravel and decohere. That’s what a weirding is. A sense-making failure in response to a shock. It is similar in many ways to the “collapse of the OODA loop” caused by a hostile adversary, but in the case of large systemic shocks, the adversary isn’t another player. It is the overwhelming complexity of the system itself.

Things stop making sense when it sounds like the different maps are about different territories altogether, and aren’t even talking about the same story. When that happens, sense-making fragments. Instead of an assemblage of almost co-extensive stories that refer to the same assumed underlying reality territory, it begins to seem as though entire diverging stories are playing out, which are only incidentally connected at the margins.

This is in fact what is happening. Faced with growing complexity, map-makers narrow their scopes of interest and end up retreating from a co-extensive territory of mutual interest to an isolated corner (there’s some sort of CAP theorem of distributed sense-making here). Imagine red, green, and blue translucent circles that go from perfectly overlapping to a Venn diagram to disconnected. You’d evolve from marginal misregistrations among maps to diverging, but entangled maps. We seem to be on the IV-V transition right now. Entangled divergence marks the sense-making process condition I’ve been lately calling the Permaweird.

Of course, the system or territory has always been complex. The co-extensivity of various maps was merely an artifact of a certain degeneracy. Now the complexity of the world we’ve build is beginning to manifest, as quiescent, degenerate dimensions start to go non-degenerate. The Great Weirding is in fact the world itself presenting us with a weird flex.

Sense-make that, I dare you, says Gaia. That’s the Permaweird.

The Permaweird is more like the plot of a Seinfeld episode than Rashomon. For the young ‘uns, Seinfeld often featured 4 unrelated stories happening to the characters. These often came together in a weird joke at the end. For example, in one episode, Kramer in a golfing subplot hits a ball into the blowhole of a whale that is then rescued by George, who is pretending to be a marine biologist to impress a woman.

Consider the coupling between anti-globalization, and the coronovirus, mediated by… pangolins. Wuhan is the home of an exotic cuisine featuring unusual kinds of wild game meat that play a role in rich people showing off. It is also an important logistics hub for China’s superpower ambitions. That’s one reason the virus presents such a grave threat. And the virus has certainly already hit global supply chains hard (besides driving a ban on wildlife meat locally). Apple, for instance, has announced troubles ahead. Expect plenty of other multinationals to follow. We can also now expect underground markets in pangolin meat in China.

Think about the weirdness: apparently pangolins affected the future of Apple. I bet most of you had never heard of pangolins before. It’s like George’s whale with a golf ball in its blowhole. Or Pablo Escobar’s hippos that now wild in Colombia. Or those pesky butterflies in Australia that keep causing hurricanes in the US.

Though the complex system effects will take time to work themselves out, and probably do many unexpected things along the way, it does seem like Covid-19 is playing on Team Trump, doesn’t it? Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross certainly lost no time in speculating that jobs would return to the US as a result.

The connection between the maps of the virus story and the anti-globalization story is peripheral, and possibly involves unusual wildlife, but is not random. It’s the epistemic/ontological equivalent of what on social graphs is called a weak tie. Here’s a picture: two mind-maps connected by a weak tie. An entanglement between map fragments that was not itself properly mapped in any major map, ex-ante. Now of course, we can expect theories of fragile globalization to be produced post haste. Someone will make the joke that you cannot spell panglossian without pangolin.

Ross’s gloating reaction is typical of map-makers. From any limited, totalizing, absolutely interested point of view, it is always possible to spin a confident story of being in control of the narrative. Even if it doesn’t make much sense to sense-makers. There’s only a problem if you want various maps to make sense at the same time.

Post 2016 shock, that’s increasingly hard to achieve. It’s a turbulent world where some things make some sense locally in time and space, but the pieces don’t fit together to form a holistic understanding of the whole, connected, territory, including weak ties mediated by pangolins. Consider the maps/narratives in play:

  1. Climate change
  2. Global ethnonationalist populist wave/anti-globalism
  3. Coronavirus
  4. Rise of China
  5. Inequality/resurgent populist socialism
  6. Economic boom
  7. Software eating the world and the techlash

Each of these is a fragment map of the world, with an associated narrative that some people pretend to in control of. Together, they are mutually incompatible and incomplete, but entangled via weird pangolin couplings. In the past, those who navigated by each map, driven by the interests represented on each, could talk to each other because they were talking about the same territory. Now they can’t really talk to each other. Instead, they merely disrupt each other via weird signals passing along unmodeled entanglement pathways between maps. Everybody has lost the plot, but nobody will admit it so long as they can cast the pangolins as playing for their team.

And as the entangled divergence continues, the local map narratives turn increasingly magical. Events from distant, unmodeled parts of the territory irrupt into the local consciousness, and get narrativized as acts of gods, demons, and fantastical beasts.

And the sense-maker must make sense of the real, by parsing a bunch of accounts of the magical.

Series Navigation<< Weirding Diary: 10

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. This rings true to me, but among people I know personally, no one mentions this disorientation. If anything, younger people seem to feel it more than older people, who don’t seem to feel like they are being passed by at all. They confidently advise doing the things that have worked for them, as though there is no disconnect. I definitely feel it, and have no idea how to make meaningful choices about future actions for the reasons you described. Even when I extract some sense out of the magic, it seems useless, since no one else is aware of or acting on it. In the short-term, it feels like having any understanding of the Weirding just makes things more intolerable, but in the not-very-long-term, it seems unlikely that ignorant bliss is the thing to bet on.

    • I agree with you and the article. At the very least, I can take solace knowing that there are at least two others that feel the same way I do. The question is, what do we do with this? How do we go forward when no one else seems to be trying?

      • Start a community where we can talk, to prop up our sanity and prepare for the crash? That’s what I keep coming back to, but I’m not sure how to do it, exactly. I think I’m going to try and synthesize these ideas with some similar ones elsewhere on the web, and see what responses I get. There are definitely other people who have picked up on this, but it tends to come up on blogs devoted to several topics, so it is hard to isolate. Epsilon Theory has been mentioned here, and it provides one of the best articulations of these issues, and urges a “pack” strategy, but it seems focused on the investment community.

        • I keep coming back to that idea as well and I think you’re spot on. I would love to see a place where this ‘disorientation’ is discussed further. Like you said, Epsilon Theory comes close but kind of misses the point. I’m beginning to think it’s on us ‘early adopters’ of sorts to piece it together for those that can’t see it right now?

    • DuplexFields says

      For GenX Christians like me, the Weirding had already arrived, and so 2016 wasn’t as much of a shock. School and church taught entirely different views of history, psychology, and philosophy. We’re used to living in two worlds, and swapping out two world views for different conversations. With different people I’d talk about the history of the world in either billions or thousands of years.

      So when “colorblindness” was turned (seemingly overnight in the early 2010s) from the ultimate goal of race relations (as had been preached to us 80’s kids by television and movies) into itself a form of systemic racism, us white Christians sighed and said, “here we go again.” The young secular whites, of assorted previously unexamined political biases, had their heads spun ‘round by this; the words of secular saint MLK Jr. about character and color were suddenly verboten, and those who repeated them called Nazis.

      I propose that it was this kind of race-relations cultural moments in the first half of the 2010s that were the foundational shock that fueled the rise of the alt-right. There appeared to be a paradox there, framed as requiring either total capitulation to a white guilt narrative or a boldness to stand and say, “I won’t apologize for being white.” Because if you’re going to suddenly be called racist by the media, the Internet, and the first black President, might as well make your opponents look like the absurd ones for requiring such a choice in the first place.

      But for us Christians, who were continually disparaged as the opposite of our ideals, it felt like just another absurdity secular culture was throwing at us.

  2. Very helpful insight to explain the non-sense we encounter.

    I think the biggest diversions in maps is the unique, purposeful destruction of expertise at the the highest level of “leadership,” the highest level of sense-makers.

    Gaslighting is now a feature of life.

  3. It’s a turbulent world where some things make some sense locally in time and space, but the pieces don’t fit together to form a holistic understanding of the whole, connected, territory, including weak ties mediated by pangolins.

    You have it in reverse, Venkat: in chaos nothing makes sense locally in time and space. The trajectory of the chaotic system is dense on the attractor which means that from the point of view of an arbitrary open set it converges and diverges infinitely many times. It follows rules but is impossible to predict. It is holistically connected and the global behavior ( the shape of the attractor ) isn’t particularly difficult to understand.