MJD 59,143

This entry is part 8 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

I’ve been thinking about creative pivots. Discontinuous reorientations in your pattern of creative production, possibly accompanied by a change in the audience for your creative work (lose one kind of reader, gain a new kind of reader). I don’t think I’ve ever really executed a true creative pivot. The kind that’s an abrupt, lossy, high-entropy reorientation maneuver in response to a changing environment.

While my writing has changed over the years, it’s mostly been gentle, smooth turns in response to my own gradually shifting interests, against the backdrop of a world that was changing and aging much more slowly than I was. The turns were powered by picking up new tricks while tiring of old ones, rather than new understandings of the world. For the first time in 22 years of writing online though, I feel like I’m in the middle of a true creative pivot. One driven by sharp changes in the zeitgeist rather than in my own interests. One that will for sure lose me a certain subset of readers, but hopefully gain me a new subset of readers. Of course, my own interests are continuing to shift at the same rate as before, but the broader artistic mood is shifting much more sharply.

One big era is yielding to another. The shift was already underway before Covid (the Great Weirding of 2015-19), but it has now passed some sort of event horizon.

We’re headed into what the future will likely judge to be a Lost decade, much like the 1920s. A temporally dislocated oxbow lake by the river of history. The 1920s were the Roaring Twenties, a decadal pause between Victorian/Edwardian (1837-1920, extending Edwardian to include WW1) and Late/Post-modernist (1930-2020). The 2020s will be the Searing Twenties, a decadal pause between the Late/Post-modernist era and whatever comes next. It too will be a Lost decade. Oddly enough, despite the dramatic nature of historical events, the ends of World War 2 and the Cold War did not trigger lost decades (except in Japan, which is on some sort of alternative timeline). Apparently it takes a pandemic to administer the coup de grace to an age.

The pause of a Lost decade is a grand-narrative pause, between big world stories that persist for 3-4 generations, and span all living memory. You can think of the prevailing mood as one where it is much harder to make up extended universe type stories. The age in decline is a fatally flawed and unraveled reference reality, but the emerging age is too ill-defined to serve as a new reference reality. And since we’re talking 100-year windows, nobody alive has a different reference point to offer. Talking to grandma doesn’t help; she doesn’t remember a truly different reality either. So larger-scale imagination gets hamstrung. I did a thread about this a few days ago. The good news is, if you make it past 2030, you’ll be able to tell kids being born today all about how the world used to be different once.

Lost-decade pauses typically feature anti-grand-narratives, like H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos from the 1920s or the more restricted Godzilla mythos from post-World War 2 Japan. Such anti-grand-narratives induce shrunken rather than extended universes in the imagination. They center human helplessness in the face of larger powers, rather than human agency and universe-denting powers. It’s not that extended universes cannot be imagined, but that they cannot be anthropomorphized and imagined as belonging to humans. The human sphere is temporarily reduced to a footnote in larger cosmic dramas starring non-human forces. Spiritual tendencies get amplified, new religions and cults form, new artistic and literary movements take off. These last are disposed to take a very hard look at the assumptions of the receding age.

To the extent creative production is a way to stay alive to the world, the mood shift is an imperative to either change your pattern of production or grow increasingly dead to the world. So if you are a writer or other sort of creative producer, you have to pivot with the times, and establish a new relationship with the shifting mood.

But because the shift will take an unsettled decade for the world at large to navigate, your new relationship will be a pattern of active negotiation with shifting realities rather than a decoupled one-shot response to them. You’ll be pivoting towards either greater engagement or greater detachment. You’ll either help invent the future, or retreat with the declining age and turn into a producer of nostalgia.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. wonderful stuff, thank you.

  2. Regarding pivots, one of my favorite pieces of poetry is the old Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts”: not the extended version with more-mainstream Christian thought spliced in, but the stripped-down original, dating about the time Georgian rationalism was dissolving into a more Victorian worldview:

    When true simplicity is gained,
    To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed
    To turn; turn will be our delight,
    ‘Till by turning; turning we come ’round right

    I’m hoping you can find some joy in the pivoting.

  3. So if you are a writer or other sort of creative producer, you have to pivot with the times, and establish a new relationship with the shifting mood.

    Hopefully not. Leave the mood swings to the traders and their algos. Poets might well be snobs who do not respond to who is president, what some guy said on Twitter or the current COVID-19 infection statistics. Leave that for casual conversations, for blogs or in your case it might just be material to be considered for your paid work. The collective body might be fascinating but it is not yours and the live of the crowd is not your life either.

    However, one might claim that poetic autonomy is an illusion ( basically a rehash of the death-of-the-author ) and most writers are playing safe anyway and stick to a formula, which emerged in their own culture in a past era. If they succeed in reviving a buried epoch, educated critics may eventually attach the prefix “neo” to their production, which may happen to be a recipe for success.

  4. Michael OConnor says

    This great stuff, and it feels like like you might be tuning into a real signal. On a small point, your description of the 1920’s as a Lost Decade is confusing me, because the term usually refers to a period of economic stagnation, and especially since you relate it to post-war Japan who had what’s commonly called a Lost Decade in the 1990’s.

  5. Mark Crane says

    I feel like you’re telling us you’re going to be writing a lot about cats from here on out.

  6. To give another contrasting but similar example, soviet science fiction flourished between the first world war and the clamping down of close state creative control in the 30s, which you could consider itself a kind of pervasive expanded universe of highly familiar figures.

    If this parallel holds true, we might see a wave of awkwardly politically topical, but highly idiosyncratic works flowing out in every direction, basically ambiguously happy ending black mirror imitators with more psychedelia.

    That’s also going to have to couple with the fact that unlike the old 1920s, there’s less of a distinction between mass culture and avant garde, where weirdness is essentially the norm, and culture is already prepared to reverberate on trends.

    For example, can the youtuber/twitch/tictoc prosumer economy manage to stabilise its monetisation of transformative derivative works? If so, we could continue to see the devolution of entertainment news culture into “40 something comedian makes reference to something learned by 30 something researcher on reddit reading about 20 something content producer on app memed about by teenager”, and shared public knowledge simply becomes a bubbling mass of subcultures.

    If anything, the distinction will probably be between works that include sex and those that do not.