Plot Economics

For the fourth time in my adult memory, humanity has collectively, visibly lost the plot at a global level. My criteria are fairly restrictive: The dotcom bust and the 2007 crash don’t make my list for instance, and neither do previous recent epidemics like SARS or Ebola. Global narrative collapse is a fairly severe condition, but apparently no longer as rare as it once was. Here’s my shortlist:

  1. Fall of Berlin Wall (1989, I was 14)
  2. 9/11 (2001, I was 27)
  3. Trump election (2016, I was 42)
  4. Coronavirus (2020, I am 45)

It always seems to happen relatively suddenly (but is not always entirely black-swan-level unanticipated; it is typically a gray swan), and in each of the first three cases, by my estimate, it took humanity 1-2 years to reorient. I expect this one will take about 18 months, unless a bigger gray or black swan eats this one (one I’m watching out for is Trump losing in 2020 and refusing to honor the electoral verdict). We will find the plot again after the first vaccines are administered at a large scale, presumably during the 2021 southern hemisphere flu season. We will learn how effective the vaccines are, and the markets will decide how to reprice modern pandemic risks correctly.

So what do we do in the meantime?

Global narrative collapse events tend to have a very surreal glued-to-screens quality surrounding them. That’s how you know everybody has lost the plot: everybody is tracking the rawest information they have access to, rather than the narrative that most efficiently sustains their reality (such as Rick and Morty in my case).

In terms of some new vocabulary I’m developing, temporality (your constructed sense of subjective time) collapses to what I call the log level. As in, you’re down to monitoring the equivalent of computer event logs; the tick-tock stream of raw events being recorded, prior to being evaluated and filtered for significance. Daniel Sinclair has been doing precisely that on Twitter. His logging thread on the pandemic, which he started on January 14th, is now several thousand tweets long.

Right now, talking about anything in a non-pandemic-informed way comes across as living under a rock. The log level is the only inhabitable level.

The log level is the lowest level of psychological functioning where a coherent sense of universal time passing is even possible. Further collapse leads to varying degrees of PTSD and traumatizing kinds of atemporality (there’s interesting research on this) driven by progressive fragmentation of identity into subhuman shards.

During narrative collapse, everyone temporarily abandons attempts to reach narrative consensus even within their smallest default groups, such as family. Even people who normally avoid math start to do math with raw, noisy facts. Pantry stocks math. Alcohol percentage math. Infection risk math. Toilet paper math. Math is the backstop log-level activity. The average human only goes data-driven when narratives fail.

It’s not that we don’t trust narrative sources when we lose the plot. That’s a simpler problem for normal times. It’s that the narrative sources are temporarily at a loss and don’t know what to say. There is a condition of widespread collapse in the narrative market, and circuit-breakers halt trading (as they did today on the stock market).

Right now, for instance, even Trump appears to have lost the plot, and he’s usually a master of inserting himself effectively into any news cycle. He seems lost somewhere in last week’s news cycle, comparing Covid-19 to the flu.

Lose a Plot, Find a Plot

I like to think of narrative collapse in terms of “plot economics,” as in who has lost the plot, and who has found the plot?

Plot economics are nominally zero-sum by definition, and drive evolving perceptions of relative agency in an evolving situation. The plot economy has the following basic features:

  1. At any given time, narratives drive perceptions of agency rising or falling for every agent, at every level of aggregation, by every other agent at every level of aggregation.
  2. And this condition of rise/fall at various scales might be accurately or inaccurately perceived at different loci of agency.
  3. These perceptions are traded in a marketplace of narratives that might be more or less efficient at matching narrators to listeners.

This theme of narrative or plot economics has been a long-running one on ribbonfarm (see for example The Economics of Pricelessness , Bargaining with your Right Brain, and The Epic Struggle between Good and Neutral by me, and Theory of Narrative Selection by Sarah Perry) but I don’t think I’ve laid it out explicitly like this before.

Right now, the perception of agency at all levels is falling. Individuals, corporations, governments, heads of state, stock traders, the UN, everybody feels they’re losing the plot, but they don’t see anybody else finding it. Even ambitious grifters who want to profiteer off the narrative collapse struggle with what to do. Low-level grifters might hoard toilet paper, sell fake N95 masks, or peddle fake cures, but bigger, Bond-villain level moves are hard to script. The profiteering imagination fails at scale. Even disaster capitalism is hard to do in the immediate aftermath of true narrative collapse events. That’s how bad it gets.

As far as we can tell, a virus has gotten inside the OODA loop of Homo sapiens, and seized the initiative, while we’re struggling to figure out what to even call it. It is spreading faster than our fastest truths, lies, and bullshit. A supersonic shock wave in the narrative marketplace.

There is a sudden recalibration of how much agency humanity collectively possesses, and we’re not happy with the results.

Conservation of Agency

The basic function of a sincere (ie not consciously deceitful) narrative — as in, an evolving non-fiction account of ongoing events — is to allow the narrator to provide sympathetic listeners with a status update in the following form. It’s the equivalent of a price update in a stock market:

WE are still winning/losing, THEY are still losing/winning. Here are some significant highlights of what is going on to support your decision-making until the next update.

The primary piece of information in a narrative state update concerns how agency is getting redistributed in terms of winning and losing. Winners are gaining agency predictably, losers are losing it predictably. There is usually an implied us/them that is stable across many updates. The assumed operating definition of we in a long-running narrative does not change often or by much. The function of this sort of narrative update is to reassure us that very little has changed, no reorientation is necessary, and that the actionable information can be easily extracted and acted upon.

The significant highlights capture a few high-value bits of actionable information to inform our decisions, based on an assumption of shared interests between the narrating and listening agents (with perhaps some obfuscation to mislead any eavesdropping hostiles).

Note that “WE” don’t have to be winning for such updates to be efficient, and narratives useful. Your side can be in the middle of a long-term losing streak while still being “in the game” so to speak. Supporters of perennial-loser sports teams and HODLers of declining assets know this feeling. “Losing” is a state that contains useful cues on how to use our own perceived shrinking agency all the way to terminal helplessness: run interference, resist, exit, and so forth. It is not a condition of narrative collapse, merely sustained narrative disadvantage.

Occasionally there is a “tide turning” type narrative state update, where STILL winning/losing becomes NOW losing/winning, and you are cued to switch mindsets from winner to loser or vice versa (by switching between offense/defense playbooks for example). This is the narrative equivalent of switching between “buy” and “sell” playbooks in trading.

WE are now winning/losing, THEY are now losing/winning. You should switch mindset from loser/winner to winner/loser. Here are some significant highlights of what is going on to support your decision-making until the next update.

All this is normal plot economics, and it is based on a fallacious assumption of conservation of human agency.

Normal plot economics is a regime where we act as though a principle of conservation of agency is in effect.

THEY may have the bulk of the agency now, the bastards, but WE might get it back in the future.

Agency cannot be created or destroyed, we tell ourselves. Only moved around in zero-sum ways. Progress is when WE have it. Decline is when THEY have it. If WE have lost the plot, THEY must have found it.

Serendipity and Zemblanity

The principle of conservation of agency is of course, entirely fallacious, and the plot economy is not zero-sum. Agency is not conserved, but it is sometimes convenient (and computationally efficient in the game of narrative state updates) to pretend it is. It is a helpful illusion. If I don’t have the steering wheel, you must. But somebody is in charge and driving somewhere.

There are two kinds of violations of the assumed principle.

The first kind is serendipitous plot economics (serendipity: surprisingly lucky conditions), where total agency seems to be increasing in unreasonably lucky ways. A magically benevolent tide is floating all boats and driving irrational exuberance.

We tend not to question this particular regime of weirdness, or even call it weird. We assume self-serving positive boundary conditions such as “god must have benevolent plans for us” or “perhaps we are collectively wiser than we consciously realize.” These effectively restore the conservation principle by adding a fictitious benevolent agent to the party (god or our own idealized collective unconscious intelligence), who is assumed to be graciously bestowing more agency upon us from a (possibly limitless) reserve of it.

The second kind is zemblanitous plot economics (zemblanity: unsurprisingly unlucky conditions), where agency seems to be draining away everywhere, sucking us towards predictable doom, with everybody increasingly helpless to do anything about it. A condition where there is no steering wheel. There are of course eschatological/fatalistic religious narratives on the market for this condition too, based on doctrines of sin/judgment or karma. But outside of cults and the reborn religious, they are not popular as guides for action in modern times, even among those who in principle believe them. We’d rather wear masks that don’t work than actually navigate by Judgment-Day or karmic-balance calculi.

Under conditions of zemblanity, a few people here and there may be perceived as having band-aid levels of residual agency (in this case, first responders and fake-cure phishing scammers) but overall, there is a sense that humanity is bleeding (rather than losing) agency to forces that don’t know they’re even competing, and are hard to see as agents at all. If they’re agents, they are agents of entropy.

For example, it feels a little silly to declare “war” on COVID-19 or declare that we will “defeat” it. It doesn’t know it is playing or competing. There is nothing it is like to be COVID-19, let alone COVID-19 in a winning/losing mental state. At best it can be cast as the instrument of an angry god. For us atheists, it’s a molecule that’s barely qualifies as living. We don’t even know whether the agency should be located in the disease (COVID-19), the category of pathogen (coronaviruses) or the specific pathogen (SARS-Cov-2). We are reduced to correcting each other’s nomenclature and comparisons.

Narrative Collapse

The lack of a meaningful adversary is a key indicator of collapse. Another is lack of clarity on “significant highlights” to call out as markers of winning/losing relative to the adversary who isn’t there.

For instance, the most significant actionable information circulating right now appears to be the log-level heuristic, “wash your hands more.” If you want guidance on anything more abstract: when to buy or sell what stocks, whether to cancel or keep travel plans, how this might affect the election, or whom to blame for this whole situation, you’re on your own.

If you cannot do without a collective human progress or decline narrative with apparently sensible defaults for all decisions, you’re in trouble. Under conditions of narrative collapse, that’s the equivalent of looking in a dark room for a black cat that isn’t there.

Those who rely most on reshaping the perceptions of competing narrative agents are most at a loss in the face of a narrative threat that is simply unsuitable for such projections of hostile agency. If you win mainly by convincing THEM that they are losers, and convincing them to give up fighting — and all of us, not just Trump, do this sort of adversarial reality distortion to a degree — what do you do when THEY is a virus? What do you do when there are no credible substitutes?

It’s not just Trump who cannot “gaslight a virus,” as several people have pointed out. None of us can. And we all have escaped realities to protect, all of which are currently under threat.

Weird plot economics begin where we sense that the illusion of conservation of agency is being negatively violated, dragging us inexorably towards irreversible loss of agency and a general condition of heightened zemblanity. A sense of impending doom.

What can you do in such conditions, when there are no narratives to navigate by? Somebody just asked me if I thought our response is an overreaction or under-reaction. That’s another form of the same question.

That’s not a question that can be answered outside of a narrative frame. Without a narrative frame, it is hard to figure out what to even index on as significant. Such indexing in turn drives calibration that allows us to judge over/under responses. It is the narrative equivalent of trying to time the top/bottom of the market to sell/buy without being too early or too late, when you have no idea what’s going on.

In OODA loop theory, that’s what you try to do to an adversary: get inside their decision cycle and collapse it from within, so they can no longer tell significant/insignificant apart, and their psyche collapses under the stress of maintaining orientation and continuing to act meaningfully.

The hardest part of OODA theory is accepting that this can be done to us by adversaries that are not necessarily smarter or more capable than us; they need only lack our illusions. After all, there is honor in being laid low by a worthy adversary, and a story to be told about it. That’s what made 2016 so hard for so many of us. That we either had to cast Trump, a human of visibly limited abilities, in the role of “worthy adversary” to preserve our sense of honorable loss, or accept our own lack of honor. And so we were tempted into 4d chess conspiracy theories about his hidden genius, just so we would have a worthy adversary.

But there is no possibility of honor at all in being laid low by a virus, whether as an individual, or as a species (unless it happens to fully dehumanized aliens, as in War of the Worlds). In Game of Thrones, the death of Khal Drogo via an infection (hardly uncommon in pre-modern warfare), is so obviously unsatisfactory from a narrative perspective that George R. R. Martin had to contrive a way to blame Mirri Maz Duur, the witchdoctor, and have Daenrys smother him in his vegetative state, so at least her character could grow from the otherwise meaningless experience.

But we are not living in a Game of Thrones world. So if your sanity depends on believing that COVID-19 is playing genius 4d chess with us, you might as well declare narrative bankruptcy and go nuts now.

For the rest of us, while we’re rebooting narratives, we can only take it one log-level event at a time.

In other words, wash your hands. Tick-tock.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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

Comments

  1. directory says

    One aspect of the narrative collapse I have observed is people getting angry at people who spread conspiracy theories, yet themselves have no idea what to actually do beyond basic prepwork like buying non-perishable foods ahead of time. At the root of this loss of narrative is a slow collapse zemblanity-wards, and the “spagghetification” it brings.

    I hope you have never experienced an extended period of zemblanity in your life, but to paraphrase the B-film “The Color out of Space”, it distorts everything around you as the situation gets worse.
    Actually, the _titular color_ in “Color” is a pretty good description of an adversary, that like The Virus, cannot be a modelable “adversary” in the human sense. One can only try _epistemic hygiene_ of keeping trivial information from overwheliming the OODA loops one has.

  2. The dotcom bust and the 2007 crash don’t make my list for instance, and neither do previous recent epidemics like SARS or Ebola.

    Yes, but the 2007 event was the most uncanny one precisely because the plot wasn’t lost. The reorientation happened very quickly but unlike the other events it truly forked the world and we had to live in a parallel universe since then – or using Baudrillards ontology: another simulation layer was pushed on top of the simulation stack.

    While 9/11 was highly symbolic, and the West responded with a mixture of aggression and self-accusation, with the all-too-human responses of pride, revenge and guilt, which turned into a hot “culture war” in 2016, COVID-19 is an insurgence of the reality principle. There are also speculations about human intentions behind the outbreak but they turn out to be somewhat arbitrary and the assumed motivations are inconsistent. The latest one I heard about was a speculation about Bond villain who wants to blackmail mankind with a vaccine which is just around the corner… I don’t believe that COVID-19 can be simply reduced to crime and shame and guilt.

    Everything but peoples sickness and death is poetic about COVID-19. The sudden immobility, the breakdown of crazy supply chains which exist purely for business administration reasons, the crumbling of the Trump Rally, the images of empty cities by daylight, the images of the fuzzy, little, evil RNA bot who causes all the trouble. The cure for the whole of the human civilization was to fall asleep for just a few weeks. The supposed need for constant pedaling and struggling is the root of mans absurdity.

    • PS. The Berlin wall fell in 1989, not in 1991. The cold war era practically ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

      • Thanks, fixed that

        • Do you joke about people killing themselves and do you consider it with such detachment that if one of your relatives that you knew for a long time, was something of a burden to your extended family in terms of their behavior, could be said to have had a poor personality in terms of how they dealt with you specifically, and had such a poor record of competence that you considered them a potential waste would you laugh, or would you like the ancient Stoics note “someone has passed” with great detachment?

          • Advice is folly, or at least 9/10ths of it is. And yet exacting requirements exist, and for a reason. Do you look forward to a future where people are incapable of doing anything except these requirements, a species of superficially diverse paperclip maximizers? I don’t, and you _might_ laugh at the notion, and dispute that anything besides order and increasingly attaining a Goal matters. And yet, for a diminishing number of people, stupid emotions matter. They make evolutionary sense, yet they are fundamentally stupid.

            To some extent, they are inner demons like self-pity, blind rage, and other things like that. I also understand future humans will be psychologically alien. Does that mean a sort of psycho-monoculture?

          • I’m not asking that to irritate or bait you. As a Gervais Sociopath with a self-directed morality, there are spaces you enter that I cannot, answers you can contemplate that I cannot. To my family, I am this relative you so speak of. The cycle of permanent failure and permanent scolding has so heavily ingrained me that the response to my prayer was that I am condemned. The superego tormenting me endlessly.

  3. What’s interesting here is not simply plot economics but the economics of plots. And I do mean that literally. Disease narratives are assumed (or rationalized) to be zemblanitous yet demonstrate the greatest amount of conservation of agency from an individual level. The calculus here is statistical not algebraic. Preventable deaths account for 63% of all deaths in America. That means that if you were to live 100 times, 63 of those times you would die from causes that are completely within your control. Plot economics would dictate that conservation of agency means the individual would be cued in to and attempt to win the battle against preventable deaths. This is not the case. The economics of plots poses a better reality model: preventable causes are coterminal with othered agency — it’s a tragedy for the individual that 23 of those 100 times they would die of heart disease, but a boon to the companies that profit from the comorbidity factors. Or, to extend the economic of the plot of disease narratives to our current crisis, a cheap effective cure for COVID-19 would calm the histeria. And yet it’s precisely the fact that contracting COVID-19 would only statistically decrease 63 of 100 preventable deaths to ~58 preventable for the individual yet causes a statistically significant response (and empathy has nothing to do with it; you “don’t want to catch” COVID-19 to protect older people, but won’t protect them from heart disease by swatting fatty food out of their hand or insisting that they get a cancer screening every year) that demonstrates a breakdown of the economics of the plot. Narrative zemblanity isn’t a feature of failed plot economics, but a bug where no one can stownlins profit from it. Or more directly, plebeian zemblanity is elite serendipity when solution arbitrage is option-traded. This is not Marxist, but proto-Marxian open source barahmdipity: exploitable nulltiples by any enlightened tribe.

  4. Given your four examples, one of the possible strengthening factors for global plot collapse is that in each instance, media (be that newspaper, tv or social) infrastructure collapsed under the weight of its own panic to report anything combined with the public need to consume it. One particular perception I have of 9/11 is that it acted as the most successful DDoS attack on the entire internet in history. Only the most resilient news sites remained up and the subsequent months were filled with articles on how various outlet’s hardware failover strategies failed or succeeded. Come Trump’s victory and now CoronaVirus, the fact a virtual Moore’s Law of social media resiliency is in effect means plot collapses can happen more reliably on a global scale where pre-9/11 there just wasn’t the infrastructure to support it.

  5. That’s a pretty interesting paper!

    On agency, I’m reminded of british second world war propaganda, which particularly focused on showing people how much they could do within the increasing limitations introduced by rationing, bombing sirens and drills etc.

    The key element of that narrative was showing that there is a more or less safe systematic response, and that there is still a capacity for expression within this framework, even if not much space for material or lifestyle inventiveness.

    On that note though, the US is still at the hand washing stage, not yet at the disinfectant spray level, but I would recommend getting clothing like a plastic mac, if you don’t already have one, a sufficiently sturdy outer surface that you’re happy getting sprayed down with bleach.

    Similarly, I think it’s worth considering what you’d do to entertain yourself at home for a month if you happen to get required to self isolate.

    I think part of the challenge is working out how to fuse your own plans for the next few months with the possibility of interrupting it with 1-3 months of varying levels of travel restrictions and spatial isolation; working out how to interpolate smoothly between upside and downside predictions, which I think is an easier problem, and also trying to adapt to second order effects, panic buying, stock market problems etc. and government responses to them, and so on, which is much more about watching the surrounding conversation.

    • I’m reminded of british second world war propaganda, which particularly focused on showing people how much they could do within the increasing limitations introduced by rationing, bombing sirens and drills etc.

      Yes, but there isn’t anything particular stressful about shutting down public life this time. It feels more like a religious ritual, including all the cleanliness, situated in March, a month which solely exists as a passage from winter to spring. Suppose it was periodic, then no one would talk about crashes and war-like scenarios and that we have lost the plot. Is it really so hard for our imagination to cope with any sort of calmness and standstill?

      • I think stillness is a problem, at least so far as our society is currently organised; the world will likely, and probably should, get at least a quarter of negative growth, probably knowingly going into a recession. Simply because people can’t do all the stuff they would normally be doing without also spreading the virus. But I’m not sure if we have a way to effectively do that, in the sense that I can think of some of the obvious solutions; interest holidays, delays on contracts, deadlines, essentially try to pretend this next few months never actually happened, though of course, food, energy, water, emergency provision still need to operate, and probably most information services will as well. The ideal situation would be to place an interlude of entirely different functioning within the world economy, where we wait for symptoms to subside in those who have them, before restarting things. But I’m also aware this kind of discontinuity is exactly the sort of thing that will cause one company you forgot about supporting to go bankrupt, because people will still have to make payments out to those services still running, be in the middle of processing large orders they now need to store, be planning to get structures completed ready for winter only to have to shift the schedule. Christmas is an obvious time of year where lots of systems run on skeleton crews, and I think if people were prepared for something like this on a yearly basis, we could probably accommodate it, companies would have to build up bigger cash reserves to wait it out for example, or take on different forms of finance, shops would plan for lots of non-perishables being in demand, rather than this kind of stocking up being characterised as panic buying, and there’s also the question of whether inflation would be suppressed over that time period too (though Russia and OPEC may be helping with that)..

        I think also a distinction with normal stillness is sort of a quantum one; commonly, times of stillness are times of gentle exploration, holidays, stepping back from the focused path of forward motion, so that rather than merely stopping, you spread, meet your neighbors, read books you haven’t read etc.

        This kind of averaged stillness is different from the sense of confinement, where, like in the quantum analogy, there can be a kind of restlessness, because rather than removing a spatiotemporal constraint, that of moving forward, and kind of relaxed into a symmetrical state, you have added a new constraint of being forced to attend to the present moment of the specific space you normally only do a few of your activities in.

        So I think the result could end up not being stillness exactly but focusing and compartmentalisation of activity, lots of people taking up home fitness regimes, decorating and doing craft or making art, or, if they have the space for it, DIY. And people will be cleaning so much anyway we’ll probably get the most thorough spring cleaning we’ve ever seen, assuming chemical production steps up to meet demand.

  6. I came across two quotes within the last month or so related to imagination, this post sort of reminded me of them. YMMV.

    “The English intelligentsia, on the whole, were more defeatist than the mass of the people – and some of them went on being defeatist at a time when the war was quite plainly won – partly because they were better able to visualize the dreary years of warfare that lay ahead. Their morale was worse because their imaginations were stronger. The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it, and if one finds the prospect of a long war intolerable, it is natural to disbelieve in the possibility of victory.“ – George Orwell

    “So long as we accept what the men in the car imagine, we’re finished.… We have to believe in the power of imagination because it is all we have, and ours is stronger than theirs. And that is why we will survive, because they do not have what is necessary to defeat us. The real war is between imagination and theirs, what we can see and what they are blind to. Do not despair. None of them can see far enough, and so long as we do not let them violate our imagination we will survive.“ – Carlos Rueda (from the novel Imagining Argentina, quoted in Practice of Prophetic Imagination)

  7. The loss of narrative in this case seems to be more personal than some of the other narrative drops mentioned by Venkat. 9/11 was still “outside” — we probably were not worried about terrorists in our houses. Dot.com bust and to some extent was “theirs, not ours”. Berlin Wall was “overseas, let’s watch”. COVID-19 however is a ghost that can come and go in our lives with no detection until the bogeyman jumps out from under the bed. The ghost can come through the mail slot via the friendly mail person, or we fear it’s in that Amazon package (came from a “foreign country” didn’t it?). Perhaps the new normal / new narrative will accommodate more ghosts than the pre-COVID-19 narrative.

  8. Ravi Daithankar says

    Times like these is when you most feel the need for a fallback, fail-safe personal philosophy. You can run your life “normally” on a harmonized, feature-rich “institutional” operating system about 99.9% of the time. But that is just a stable, peacetime OS. The caveat is that institutional operating systems don’t have a wartime version. That is something you need to have developed on your own, during peacetime, so that you are able to reboot seamlessly into a somewhat legible and hopefully sensible plot, when shit hits the fan. This post mainly focuses on the situation (that might admittedly be more common than I think it is) where you don’t have a backup wartime OS to reboot into. I suspect most people have one though, even if it is unbeknownst to themselves. It is usually a seemingly barebones, overly simplistic, and typically irrational set of assertions and “laws” that they have tucked away in their hip pockets during peacetime, because peacetime-reality just doesn’t compute that way. The least imaginative of these wartime operating systems would be religion, God, and conspiracy theories. But there are others that are more nuanced and are in fact quite a decent map of a world going crazy.

    What I am saying is that there are weird, highly individualized dictionaries that most people have subconsciously developed for themselves, through their subjective personal experiences that they use to read a world gone mad. I recently heard someone explain to me how COVID-19 is a karmic response that the universe has dealt China to teach them a lesson for eating all those dogs. This wasn’t some facetious, trolly remark. The straight-facedness with which it was made, coupled with my knowledge of that person otherwise being perfectly normal in peacetime, gave away that this is in fact something he seriously believed in. I didn’t probe further to understand how this plot resolves exactly in his mind, but he clearly had a sense of that. I bet he was hoping for a large scale “lesson” to come China’s way quietly over the last several years. But of course saying that out loud in “normal” circumstances would make him look like an idiot. So instead he formulated that belief system into a classic wartime operating philosophy. He painfully coded, developed, tested, maintained, and installed it through several years of peacetime existence. He didn’t reject and dump it during peacetime just because China was doing fine even while all those dogs were being eaten, because it made sense to him in a very instinctive way, in some alternate reality. I suspect most people have their own version of such a map of reality. Now that we have the means to share, compare and contrast these individualized maps, I wonder if that points to some deep, hard-wired evolutionary capability. Something that’s in the same ballpark as memory dissociation from trauma; something that allows you to keep on keeping on in the face of senseless reality…

  9. Your other events are in one aspect different from this virus thing.
    There used to be big event and then you were ensnared by media.

    Now nothing big has happend yet. The infrastructure is still there, most people are still alive. It’s not like the economy was carpet bombed to ashes yet.

    I’ d wager everyone reading this sits in dry and comfy room, lacks severe medical conditions and has an ample supply of goods.

    Still everyone is busy predicting and discussing the end of the world with their friends. everyone is captivated by the news.

    I guess sitting in an empty room for a prolonged time and pondering what to do next might be a good excersise.

  10. I feel like an outside observer. The mass panic doesn’t seem emotionally relevant to me. But I’m curious about it. I work in public service and no doubt will come in contact with coronavirus many times. It’s already infected several people in this fairly small town.

    Yet I know I have a strong immune system, rarely getting sick. I’m neither elderly nor have any major health conditions. Besides, I eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly I feel approximately zero fear or anxiety. My sense of the world hasn’t changed in the slightest. I acknowledge the need for caution, if only not to be a disease vector for my loved ones, such as my aging parents.

    I wash my hands. But to be honest, I always washed my hands — more out of concern for the toxins in the receipt paper. Nothing in my life has changed and I don’t expect it too. The university will be shut down for the next month or so, as all classes will go online. And many local groups are not meeting. My job as a parking ramp cashier will be quieter. That just means more reading time.

    I don’t see a pandemic on its way nor an economic crash. It’s simply a virus that is slightly above average in its infection rate. The main strategy for governments and health institutions is to slow down the spread so the healthcare system won’t be overwhelmed, and that is effectively being accomplished.

    By the way, I work for local government. Normal operations are being maintained and normal events will continue as planned. Also, none of management and my coworkers seem conerned either. Local government is running smoothly without any panic. And the local healthcare system is top-knotch as this is a major medical center with one of the highest concentration of doctors per capita in the country.

    This offers an interesting vantage point to watch what is going on elsewhere in the country and the world. But I must say, as someone also born in 1975, this present panic doesn’t seem comprable to the previous incidents of narrative loss. What makes it stand out is how quickly it became a global concern and yet remains so intimately personal in its ability to invade our lives and bodies.

    I do like looking at the situation in narrative terms. That is a promising approach. I’ll keep this article in mind as the situation progresses and the disease spreads.

  11. This fits well with my own theory of the current human condition that tries to explain the last decades’ downward spiral of our individual and collective agency as a result of a dramatic increase in the prevalence of narcissist-codependent relationship structures because codependents find them “economical.”

    The narcissist-codependent relationship seems is zero-sum plot economics.

    It seems that most everyone is willing to be gaslighted these days in exchange for the psychological security of a group and a narrative. People are traumatized and disoriented from our over-communicated world, which leaves them struggling for a narrative that makes sense. This opens the door to psycho/sociopaths. And even if these nefarious actors are only a sliver of the population, their rather easy and visible success demonstrates to the rest of the world that their M.O. is the path to success. And so many non-psychopaths follow their example, with varied success, and the result is and entirely new social dynamic.

    The codependent is so invested in the plot economics of their narcissist that they cannot escape for fear of being “narrativeless.”

  12. @Venkat:
    Being stuck at home is a special kind of hell. Please laugh. The combination of family members with serious issues, academic issues, financial issues, and the like, combined with preexisting stresses pile up to fuck with me day and night. Every minute or so Is Pure Screaming as someone yells at someone else, throws a tantrum, or (besides Mom) generally displays sub-human levels of agency.

    • Endless threats:
      threats of being sent to a group home
      threats of being expelled
      threats of being sent to the basement
      threats to “put down your Ego/Pride”
      endless fucking threats. What’s the difference between tough love and sadism? Nothing, except willpower.
      I expect everyone to be sadistic towards me and me to be shitty to other people.

  13. I’d be inclined to frame them all as intelligence failures. For 9/11 that’s a cliche, but we need a more generalized form of intelligence that that directed at potential enemies; In fact seeing intelligence as getting the upper hand on an enemy may be a reason for its failure, and even ceasing to be intelligence and morphing into “active measures”, which produce more blindness than intelligence.

  14. This concept of intelligence might be essentially doing journalism massively and as if our lives depended on it.

  15. One note on Game of Thrones: in George RR Martin’s original narrative, Mirri Maz Duur gives him *correct* medicine and it is Khal Drogo who decides to get rid of it and slather on a traditional Dothraki remedy instead, which kills him. Maybe minor potential for narrative meaning there in terms of Drogo’s hubris and arrogance, but mostly entirely in line with the theme of the books, which – in a way I think is massively underappreciated – are all about playing with the line between meaning and chaos, destiny and happenstance, honour and cynicism, magic and materialism (I will get round to writing about this at some point…).

    It was Benioff and Weiss, the TV adapters, who decided this narrative unsatisfactory was a bug rather than a feature, and tried to ‘fix’ it by making it a malicious act on Maz Duur’s part – just one more example of their epic failure to understand and preserve in the TV series what was actually innovative and valuable in the books.

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