Leaking into the Future

Liminality is hard to navigate, and one can be forgiven for flailing gracelessly when attempting to do so. What makes me impatient though, is people not even recognizing liminality when it is all around them. People continuing to march into non-existent futures, like non-playable characters (NPCs) in video games making walking motions with noses pressed up against impenetrable walls. When there’s masses of such people all around, the liminal turns into the surreal. I made up a visualization to try and get at this sense of surreal mass obliviousness to liminality.

It’s not complete, and you could argue with the particular patterns of forks and merges I have illustrated, but the important thing is the topological structure, and the cowpath-like tracks leaking away from the entire paved system, in a fundamentally new direction. History hasn’t just been knocked off course; our normal processes for constructing history have been knocked out. What I called the Plot Economy in my March 9 post (has it already been 2 months? Wow!) has shut down. Collectively losing the plot means our ability to keep a constructed sense of historical time going has shut down.

Instead of “progressing” or “declining” into a future mapped out over decades, from within the safety of grand narratives shared with millions, we are leaking into the future, one day at a time, sans narrative support.

Though the graphic is titled Industrial Ideological Highway System, this post is not about ideologies, but about how we construct our larger sense of historical time through a process I call ideological simulation.

Time as Ideological Simulation

In brief our sense of the future, of time stretching out ahead of us, can be understood as institutional social realities perpetuating themselves indefinitely into the future. This happens through the medium of humans within them performing a large set of time-construction behaviors. These behaviors range from going to work 9-5 and celebrating weekends, to contributing to retirement savings plans, to voting in elections every 4 years. They range from productive to unproductive, and from purely utilitarian to purely ceremonial. What they have in common is that through being enacted, they continuously refresh and validate specific assumptions and expectations about the past and future, thereby creating an inhabitable sense of both.

This is time — historical time — as ideological simulation.

You do not need to believe in an ideology to participate in its simulation and the resultant ongoing construction of a specific sense of historical time. If you work a 9-5 job, and contribute to a retirement plan (like the 401(k) in the US), you help simulate an industrial ideology 60 years out, even if you don’t “believe” in it. Even if you yearn for a paleo hunter-gatherer lifestyle and indulge in versions of it on weekends. The very fact that such yearnings are time-boxed into “weekends” makes them part of industrial ideological simulation.

This is in fact what makes ideologies so valuable. They are social reality simulation engines that don’t just predict particular possible futures and offer them up as objects of aspirational striving, but in fact create our sense of historical time.

There is no such thing as an unlabeled, unpaved sense of the future. To the extent that we can think of, say, the year 2049 at all, and viscerally experience our temporal condition as a point in a trajectory passing through that year, we can only do so in the context of one or more ideological simulations (in my case, that is the year I will turn 65 and be eligible for social security — assuming I am still alive, the US still exists, and the social security system is still solvent. There’s a lot of assumptions baked into every ideological simulation). 

I dare you to prove me wrong — try to imagine and narrate 2049 without an ideological simulation context.

It isn’t possible.

It may take you some work to back out the ideological assumptions underlying your design fictions and technological speculations, but they are there. The Jetsons projected the nuclear family — and therefore industrial traditionalism — into the future. The Matrix projected pay-phones — and therefore large-scale corporatism — into the future. The Mad Max movies projected armed post-oil conflict — and therefore a version of Hobbesian social darwinism — into the future.

This is not a deep point, just an important one. Such simulations are at the heart of my definition of temporality — which I informally define as architecture in time. We construct temporalities out of scripted behaviors, based on assumptions about the past and future, just as we construct buildings out of steel and concrete.

Industrial temporalities constitute a set of paved highways in time that used to extend into the far future but don’t anymore. An ideology, for our purposes, is no more than a name for a specific highway in this interconnected system. One that attracts enough participation in its institutional enactments to keep up ongoing construction of a temporal highway.

Since we’re applying a spatial metaphor to time experience, these are all obviously one-way highways that can merge and fork, but never double back. You can linger in the past, or you can move with the leading fringe of the highway system as fast as it is being built out, but there’s no safe way to go backwards. Reactionary tendencies require driving backwards against the flow of traffic.

Here’s a way to understand our present condition: the entire ideological highway system has run into an end-of-evolution barrier. History may or may not have ended, but this particular globally shared experience of historical time has at least dead-ended. That’s why the metaphor of a before/after corona watershed event is so compelling.

There is no way to continue building out this particular ideologically paved future. All we can do is get out of our cars, clamber over the crash barriers of labeled highways, and leak into the trackless unpaved future that is “after corona”. The only way to experience time now is one day at a time, one individual stream of consciousness at a time, with only the footprints of those who have already leaked away to guide us.

Prescience Blindness

Most people haven’t yet noticed that ideological simulation processes have frozen up; that the highways have ended at impassable barriers. Or they’ve noticed, but managed to hurriedly pick themselves up and forget it (Churchill would have approved).

A short twitter thread by Gordon Mohr gets at the widespread obliviousness. 

I have been using Gordon’s thread as a canned reply to sanctimonious people on Twitter who have taken to preaching annoying sermons founded on the presumption that their forecasts have come true, that their values have been fully vindicated, and that their preferred future is obviously just around the corner. Covid19 presents a confirmation bias feast for all willing to studiously ignore the liminality.

The standards of inferential rigor people seem to apply, to allow them to jump to such ideologically redemptive conclusions, are atrociously lax (“epistemic status: pompously wishful confirmation-seeking”). Apparently merely having thought about pandemics for two minutes 6 years ago after watching Contagion is sufficient to vindicate your entire worldview and sense of history right now, even though you can’t see past your nose into next week.

If you’re among the tens of thousands of people of all ideological types worldwide who did any degree of formal work on pandemic preparedness in the last few decades, you are apparently allowed to go beyond a mild sense of vindication to full-blown messianic self-righteousness. You can consider yourself deputized by the heavens to cast judgment down upon a sinful species and its leaders.

And the great irony is, to the extent these self-appointed Cassandras are right, to the extent that they did see it coming more than most, they seem more blinded to the realities of what comes after, not less. The very cognitive processes — ideological simulation — that allowed them to see this coming (this loomed as a likelier risk in some simulations than others), prevents them from seeing what comes after.

For example, progressives “saw it coming” through the lens of public health funding being slashed dangerously. Ethnonationalists “saw it coming” through the lens of dangerous dependence on China and globalized production. Singularitarians “saw it coming” through the lens of a generic existential-risk fetishism. The religious right “saw it coming” through the lens of verses in Revelations. Hollywood “saw it coming” through the lens of the “competent man” narrative archetype.

This doesn’t make any of these groups particularly brilliant in its prescience. Covid19 is anything but a black swan. It is perhaps the most foreseen (and foreseeable) disaster of its kind in history. Which makes the people who “saw it coming” more like the ideological equivalent of self-important Yelp commenters, rather than Hari-Seldon-grade psychohistorical geniuses.

Worse, no ideological simulation lens that revealed this looming has proved particularly helpful for seeing what comes after, which is after all the important question now. All they do is illuminate specific aspects of the highway system leading up to Covid19 with the benefit of hindisight.

In fact, ideological simulations aren’t seeing at all right now. Established ideological perspectives have gone dark because the simulations they rely on to see the future have collapsed.

So, just because you saw it coming doesn’t mean you can see where it’s going. In fact, your prescience in the past likely blinds you in the present.

And when such blindness is widespread enough, it isn’t just individual ideologies crashing in isolation. It is our sense of time itself crashing.

The End of Time

Most approaches to processing the future, to creating an inhabitable sense of it in the present, rely on the machinery of ideological simulation. Even seemingly non-ideological approaches, such as scenario planning or science fiction writing, by virtue of being analogical (they explore the adjacent possible around recognized default futures through counterfactual perturbations and variations) are ideological simulation mechanisms. They’re just more disciplined and useful than their polemical cousins.

The ideological highway system is the trace of the ongoing set of ideological simulations. At one level, that of declared points of conflict, they compete with each other. For human enactment energies, for control of the material assets of the world, and so on.

But at another level, they cooperate and collude so deeply they are not even aware of it. By recognizing and engaging each other in particular ways, individual ideological simulations create a shared computational context. An infra-ideology, so to speak; an operating system of conventions within which their mutual competition is possible.

For example, liberals, conservatives, progressives, socialists, and libertarians all see each other through a set of discourse conventions and themselves in relation to the ensemble. In doing so, they create the condition of mutual recognition that binds them within a “normal” sense of the future as an extrapolation of present arguments and debates.

This computational context for ideological simulations is deeper than mere shared political contexts which a particular subset might recognize as a legitimate competitive arena, such as electoral democracy. The closest thing to a structure that exists at this context level is the cartel — something like OPEC. The computational context of ideological simulations is very much like a cartel: it just pumps time rather than oil.

Call it the Organization of Time Pumping Ideologies. OTPI.

The OTPI cartel governs industrial temporality, a century old arrangement among a set of major ideologies for creating a shared global sense of time, with quota restrictions for members. Without the OTPI, the year 2049 is unimaginable.

Which means when this context breaks down, it does so at a much deeper level than we are used to. Even the Spanish Flu of 1918 doesn’t really compare. The closest analogous period is the Black Death in the 14th century.

As in the 14th century, all ideological simulations have frozen up. Including the ones the apoplectically self-righteous prescient seers used to see this coming. The cartel pumping time has unraveled.

We are in a none-of-the-above future, a condition that creates a heavily foreshortened sense of the future. One in which we struggle to experience a sense of historical time beyond the immediate present.

This is an outtake from my ongoing book project on temporality, The Clockless Clock. I am serializing the book on my Breaking Smart email newsletter. The first chapter, Pandemic Time (paywalled) can be read here.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. DinkDink Man says

    What if Joe Biden gets elected, the vaccine comes out, and even after all we’ve gone thru people get back on their old ideological treadmills and just pray this never happens again?

    • Then I think I speak for many of us in predicting our Ideological Highway will be Awesome

  2. Surely, by your own argument, your meta-ideological-simulation ideological simulation expects that the ideological simulations are Potemkin assemblies that will come crashing down in the event of a disaster, and so you are also just interpreting this pandemic in light of your own priors ;)

    • The Verbiage Ecstatic says

      Ten bucks says a decade from now, the Chinese way, libertarianism, and social democracy, or at least recognizable descendants, still exist, and still reflect reality as well/poorly as they do today. To Doug’s point, I think this post is just a waypoint along the millennialism highway that’s also stretched back through time and will also continue to exist in ten years.

    • You missed a key point: Meta things aren’t included because they don’t involve the enactment behaviors like 9-5 work. This is not about priors or beliefs. It is about interrupted behaviors that construct a sense of time. The fact that they map to ideologies is almost irrelevant here. Could have called them “patterns of life” or “folkways”.

      • I suspect either of those would be more easily understood in your context. But idk

  3. Jay Chilcote says

    Strong ideological frameworks will adapt I think, carrying forward blends of wishful thinking, ignoring of data and sensemaking after the fact as you point out. It’s an analogous flexibility in thinking that Seattle Mariners fans have or the fervent conservatives who brushed off record deficits in 2019 and don’t seem to blink at the new record deficits in 2020… and there are plenty of examples on the other end of the political spectrum too, and for Trail Blazers fans.

    I always tend to assume strong ideologies are like Swiss cheese in that there are plenty of holes (hypocritical blind spots) and, in the final sum, a more neutral averaging than the proponents realize. I like to pretend my ideological simulations are a kind of layman’s probabilistic/Bayesian framework. I correctly predicted that I was going to get laid off in April. I didn’t predict an item I saw in the news today about states running out of funds for unemployment insurance… I’d recently seen articles about governors pushing back on McConnell about state bankruptcies and I should have put two and two together, but hadn’t. Hindsight sensemaking is much easier than foresight sensemaking. For that I like to pull out ideological simulation tools like ToC Future Reality Trees, Scenario Planning, even Cynefin, and ask myself for each objective/reality/outcome what might be true, and for each what must be true (necessary conditions etc), for closed and open systems. I try to have a Monte Carlo outlook rather than a fixed doctroninal one, but will admit to slipping into easy typical narrative framing more than I like to think.

    And with that my favorite part of your illustration are those cow paths leaking into possible futures… I’ve been spending my days thinking opportunistically about the changed consumer behavior and supply chain implications of those cow paths!

    • Sure. The argument is about interruption, and is agnostic to potential resumption. Right now there’s a clear break in the capacity to simulate futures. But the same ideological labels may attach to new or modified patterns of life in the future.

      • This is the answer I was looking for. Cool cool

        I’ve seen a bit of a world wear narrative of “nothing’s gonna change man” out there and this is a perfectly fine answer to it. Doesn’t mean this isn’t liminal now.

  4. “Highway” and “ideological simulation” were probably poor terminology choices since they convey a misleading impression of what I’m talking about here. Next time I make this argument, I’ll probably use something else. Like my old favorite “stream” and “narrative”



  5. Are those behaviors social realities or are they simulacra? I don’t understand the ontological distinction which is made here and which seems to be important but which is hardly motivated.

    I can only guess it by stating a hypothesis: the industrial age script has been unraveled but since there is nothing which substituted it – at least not at a large scale – we have to pretend that the social reality our parents were used to live in is still a matter of fact ( a simulacrum ). COVID19 isn’t the primary cause of this but forced the masses into some ‘liminal passage’ – which is at least an optimistic outlook, as it is still a passage from somewhere to somewhere else, not one from the industrial 1st world to the exit of the 4th.

    • For the purposes of my analytical framework, it doesn’t matter too much. All that matters is that they occupy time, in a way that structures a felt sense of past and future time. The motivation also has to do with time — what sustains our “normal” sense of time, how does it break down, and how does it get reconstituted?

      • Is there a “reconstitution”? Is there still a temporal architecture or are there just ruins?

  6. If all that’s required is a mental structure to use as a guide, even if it’s wrong (or rather, incomplete, because everything is incomplete, and what we call right vs wrong is just a matter of relative incompleteness), then just _expand_ the timeframe of the mental structure, and be willing to deal with trusting general outlines without being able to see the details. I know, easier said than done. But I think the best parallel to what’s happening now is the final days before the Late Bronze Age Collapse, where the Bronze Age redistributive palace systems (crops and livestock in/food and protection out) strongly rhyme with our capitalist monetary redistributive system (time and labor in/money and prestige out), both controlled by a narcissistic/individualistic elite focused on winning a finite game. We know frustratingly little about what happened back then, because of the ensuing dark age and all, but eventually the Greeks invented the phonetic alphabet, and then produced the polis and Plato. Also, as per McLuhan, things overheated and turned inside out, going in very broad strokes from a strong egocentric focus (might makes right) to a communal (albeit ethnocentric and authoritarian) focus, which then turned back to an individualistic achievement focus in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Now we’re just starting to go back to a communal focus, but a huge collapse of some sort will precede it. Not apocalyptic in the Mad Max sense, but certainly painful, and we’re clearly already on our way into it. We’re obviously experiencing Boyd’s zemblanity, and as he says, we just need to find a larger perspective (and build a snowmobile, a “non-arbitrary coordination of lower level components”). Luckily, the field of Adult Developmental Psychology actually gives us some really useful clues about what a “larger perspective” looks like. I mean, surely you’ve come across at least Bill Torbert’s Action Logics? ‘The Gervais Principle’ is _all_ about three and a half stages of cognitive, ego, and moral development. And Richards’ and Commons’ extension of Piaget’s Dialectic of Stage Change basically outlines the steps in how we deal with liminality, that is, the transition between stable world views. But moving from the personal to the societal, as far as I can tell, it seems that each cultural transition requires at first a “non-arbitrary coordination” of art and technology, like the Greek alphabet originally adapting the primarily bureaucratic technology of record keeping to the art of oral epic poetry, or the Renaissance’s use of the repeatable empirical phenomenon of linear perspective in painting, which was a shot across the bow at empirical science. But since everything turns inside out, my hunch is that this time around it will be a matter of inserting art into technology instead of technology into art. Also, for nearly three thousand years in the West we’ve been mired in the mindset of relying on legible details in order to illuminate an abstract or invisible whole, but going forward I think we’ll see the emphasis shift towards looking at a tangible whole linked together by abstract connections. Me personally, and increasingly so in these corona times, though with little hope of meaningful success, I’m feverishly looking for a next-era thing that might correspond in some way to the Greek phonetic alphabet, because I truly believe that something like that will be a necessary step in convincingly demonstrating the effectiveness of some kind of Reconstructive-Post-Modern, communally-focused (but neither ethnocentric nor authoritarian) system of belief, that is, a stable world view or a new stage of cultural development. We need as many people as possible to be looking for something along those lines, because the vast majority of us will fail to find anything. And it’s really just plain old evolution in progress, moved up from Darwin’s biosphere to Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere, and it has already happened multiple times in human history, so it’s absolutely nothing special, even if some people like to throw around terms like “post-human”. And even if you think this is all bullshit, which it might well be, it does demonstrate that the liminality of our times can actually be a very effective catalyst for generating a new guiding narrative. And really, it’s not just effective, it’s necessary – the Mycenaeans could never have produced Plato. The collapse in between was an absolute requirement, and I had my own personal interstitial collapse not too long ago. And while this doesn’t necessarily help me in correctly predicting what 2049 will look like, I can now easily believe in and be willing to work my ass off for what the very general contours of 2249 or 2549 will look like. All of this to say, the greatly foreshortened time horizons of today can and will eventually lead to greatly _expanded_ time horizons, it just requires walking through hell for a while in order to get there. I think Churchill had a useful suggestion regarding that predicament.