A Dreaming World

This entry is part 12 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

I haven’t written a truly interesting general trend piece since approximately 2017, when I wrote Premium Mediocre. I don’t count Internet of Beefs (2020), since it is less of a trend piece, and more of a “there are no more trends” end-of-history type argument. The closest I’ve come is probably my Superhistory, not Superintelligence essay on AI (on the Ribbonfarm Studio newsletter). But though large in scope, that’s more a reframe essay than a trend piece. Another close-but-no-cigar piece was the pandemic-themed first chapter of Clockless Clock, my serialized book-in-progress. Again, large in scope and sweep, but more metahistorical than historical.

But it’s not just me. If it were I’d conclude that maybe I’m just growing old and worse at this game. Thing is, I haven’t even read a truly interesting general trend piece in the last 5 years. One that makes me feel attuned to the fate of the world. I’ve read many insightful essays about specific topics like Covid or Russia, slice-of-the-local-zeitgeist impressionist pieces, subtle technology analyses on things like AI or crypto, good explainers on why certain specific things like the real estate boom or the chip shortage are happening (and how to bet on them), ambitious manifestos about the way the world ought to be or become, but not truly interesting general trend pieces. And I think there is a reason: we are living through a liminal, dreamlike period of world history marked by what I’ll call psychohistorical tenuousness.

I should define what I mean by “interesting general trend piece.” I mean basically, an argument that fits the template, “the world has been newly heading in this direction recently and will continue to do so for a while, and here are the salient features of the historical current and how people are adapting.”

Here are 5 tests which together I think are almost necessary and sufficient for an interesting and general trend.

  1. The scope is world, not categorically restricted to economy or art or US politics
  2. The trend must be new — it must weave a new strand into world history
  3. The trend must already be robustly in evidence
  4. The trend must have enough momentum to persist for a while
  5. There must be markers of emergent coherent adaptation

Let’s add some color:

The reason you want world scope and not a categorical trend is that by definition, it is only a general trend if it spills out of analytical boxes in messy ways and develops enough scope to drive the world. “Inflation” is not a trend. “Unique combination of inflation and zombie movies” is potentially a trend. Anything that stays in an analytical box smaller than “world” lacks general-trendiness. By default it doesn’t tell you something new about the world, and if somebody acts like it is, they’re either lying or fooling themselves. Usually to elevate an identity associated with the box in the status economy.

New is obvious, but not always easy to test for. “Climate change is proceeding on schedule” is not a trend. “Climate change is accelerating unexpectedly, and we’re seeing things in 2022 that we weren’t expecting till 2042” is potentially a trend if it doesn’t fail other tests.

Robustly in evidence is how you separate the motivated trend-setters trying to create trends by fiat (“short skirts are back!”, “the metaverse is the future!”) from people disinterestedly observing real trends. While there are people with some talent for really early trend spotting (often called “microtrends” — marginal phenomena, often subcultural or regional, that could become trends), before robust evidence emerges, they are rare. It’s mostly luck, or people pursuing an agenda.

Enough momentum is easiest to explain with a metaphor. Imagine a big river (a trend) flowing into the ocean (the entirety of world history). At the interface, you have a large torrent of freshwater that punches into the vastly larger mass of saltwater, and at least for a while (or equivalently, for a space), can resist dissipation into the larger body of history. This is related to the world scope. The reason in-a-box sectoral trends rarely rise to “interesting” is that the momentum of illegible world-historical currents simply kills them when they try to punch out of their boxes. Ability to survive the general historical environment is a defining feature. Enough momentum means the trend can not only resist the momentum of the rest of world history for a while, it can actually shape it. All of it. ∂(world history)/∂(trend) > ε.

Emergent adaptation is perhaps the most interesting one, which elevates true trends from nascent trends. For example, prompt-engineered machine-learning imagery is not yet a trend because too few people have had a chance to use and form adaptive responses to it. And even when they do, it is not clear that it will spill out of the art/image-making industries in a broader way that makes the scope “world.” That might happen, for instance, if ordinary people start to prefer movies based on generated imagery, and that starts disrupting culture more broadly. This is a high bar. A fairly mature trend, the shift to EVs, hasn’t yet broken “interesting” in this sense because EVs being manufactured and sold today are largely drop-in substitutes for gasoline-powered cars, and therefore haven’t yet reshaped industrial-era car culture, or culture more broadly. If, for instance, a vertically integrated supercharger industry kills small-business gas stations, causing some sort of social unrest that reshapes politics… then we’d be talking.

***

Now that we have a better sense of what makes a trend general and interesting (not just to me — I think these are objectively good criteria, not just a statement of my own tastes in trendwatching), I can explain what I mean by psychohistorical tenuousness.

Psychohistory, in the Asimovian sense, is about the predictability of the world at large. As the novels themselves suggest, the predictability of the world varies over time, from nearly chaotic to nearly determinate. Robot protagonists in Asimov’s novels expend significant effort to shape history to be more predictable, so they can fulfill their first-law mission of serving humanity better.

Unfortunately, most of the things that make history more predictable are bad things, and worse, tend to persist longer than the good stuff. Both extreme fascism and communist solidarity, for example, make the world more predictably bad, by creating homogeneous mass movements that are more predictable as statistical aggregates, but get up to destructive collective behaviors. They are zemblanitous trends. We are currently caught up in several such zemblanitous trends that kicked off between two and seven years ago. None are very new, which is testimony to the longevity of bad predictable currents.

This association between predictability and badness is so strong that it is in fact a good heuristic to head in the directions with the poorest future visibility, if you want interesting things to happen. But that’s at best a near-sufficient condition. It is not the case that good directions are necessarily illegible and opaque.

What we want is trends that combine predictability with serendipity. By definition, these can’t last long, since when people flourish with unexpected luck, they tend to diverge rather than converge in their behaviors (the very opposite of a true-believer mass movement), which makes events less predictable. Moore’s Law is an apparent exception — predictable serendipity for 60 years and counting — but it’s not, because Moore’s Law is not an atomic trend, but a fountainhead of many trends, or what I call a torrent. You can’t actually directly bet on “the next Moore’s Law doubling.” You can only bet on specific implications or enablers, like “EUV technology” or “ML chips” or “larger language models.” And those bets have much shorter lifespans.

This is why trend-spotting is a renewables industry. Every trend I’ve ever spotted, and either just written about or actively jumped on in some way, has dissipated within a 3-7 years. In good times, there’s always a new trend to spot and bet on. History is not yet predictable in the large, but it is predictable in a patchwork, trend-by-trend way. Sometimes you get lucky and there’s a torrent underway, which makes repeatedly finding individual trends easier, within the scope of the torrent.

While a serendipitous trend is predictable, there’s a lot of upside to jumping on it early, of course. People are eager to jump on them. By contrast toxic, zemblanitous trends tend to attract people who have run out of other options, and turn to them as a last resort.

But let’s talk tenuousness. The weird thing about the last few years is that the general atmosphere has been charged with energies that feel like they should spark trends, but don’t. The general historical environment of a pandemic is far too strong to punch out into, let alone shape strongly and generally. It took Russia starting the largest European land war since WW2 to even compete.

The energy is coherent energy that doesn’t have a specific direction to flow, and so it sort of dissipates as an expanding cloud of energized, supercharged, supersaturated cultural behavior that remains curiously unimpactful. Examples include:

  1. The going brrr period early in the pandemic
  2. The goblin mode period that began earlier this year that we seem to still be in
  3. The vibes period inbetween that’s starting to dissipate

Tik-tok strikes me as a curiously appropriate social medium for these tenuous times. The things that spread on and out of Tik-tok seem culturally energized, but unvectored, and ultimately self-contained in a way that makes it hard to call them trends, let alone cohering into bundles worth labeling torrents.

They are fleeting moods at best. They seem to correspond to a kind of dreamy undecidedness in historical processes. The world is asleep, but actively dreaming. Often fever-dreaming. But the body politic of the world is in the rigor mortis of REM sleep. It cannot act to unleash the built-up energy.

The essential immobilized dreaminess is why I call this psychohistorical tenuousness. Psychohistorical tenuousness is world history dreaming about being, without progressing to becoming. All adjacent possible, no actuality.

***

Trendspotting/riding is viable when trends behave like a steadily generated renewable resource pumped out by the environment. The more you spot and ride them, the more they get recycled into new trends. A stable virtuous cycle that produces and consumes coherent event streams with causes and ends, even if only in post-end-of-history ways.

Under such conditions, there’s always trends to bet on, and if one runs out, you can hop on another one. If you’re good at spotting but not riding, you can be a writer/forecaster. If you’re good at riding, but not spotting, you can follow the spotters and place your bets (with investment, career moves, launching things…). If you’re good at both, you can rule the world — for a while. If you’re good at neither, you can either moan that the world is passing you by, or turn up your nose at those plugged into the currents of history and pretend you’re doing something nobler on the sidelines.

Trendspotting and riding are relatively low-energy modes of high-agency being (which is why I like them). Actions are unreasonably effective, and deliver high leverage. When trends are scarce, life turns into a high-effort, low-agency grind. It’s like being in the doldrums and having to row, rather than ride the wind.

But psychohistorical tenuousness is not the mere absence of wind. It is like being in becalmed weather that is always threatening to turn stormy but never does. Or like being part of a sleeping world that is twitching like it might snap awake with a scream of terror any moment.

Psychohistorical tenuousness is when the world is struggling to turn historical potential energy into historical motion. The few vibes or moods that do precipitate into weak trends get swamped with so much oversubscription, they collapse early under the weight of expectations, with no time to develop vigor and momentum. And then you have to wait unreasonably long for the next one to trickle by.

By contrast, psychohistorical intensity is when there is a solid, reliable supply of trends going, possibly bundled into torrents like Moore’s Law. History is wide awake and striding in some direction. People like me are reduced to commodities, because trend-spotting becomes so easy.

During such intense periods (and 1997-2015 was one such), nobody has extreme anxiety about missing a particular trend. People even get more picky about which trends match their inclinations and talents (I’ve literally said things like “I’ll sit this one out”). You still have a lot of bandwagon effects, but there are many bandwagons to choose from. If you miss one, another will come along presently. The bandwagons within a torrent are so reliable, they might be on a bus schedule (I explored this idea recently in my newsletter Future Tables). If you miss this bus on the Moore’s Law route, another will come along in 5 minutes (though the Moore’s Law route seems to have been systematically delayed lately).

This line of thought has me rethinking my old ideas on how to construct a viable psychohistory: we’ll have psychohistory, or at least good-times psychohistory, when we have a timetabling mechanism for vigorous torrents of trends. Bad times psychohistory is of course. It’s just doom everywhere. But we’re in neither state. We’re in suspended animation.

I noticed this collapse of historical motion early in the pandemic, and wrote about it in a couple of pieces: The Plot Economy (March 9, 2020), and Leaking into the Future (May 7, 2020). The conclusions I reached in those pieces have only gotten stronger, but now I also have a theory of it: the world is asleep and dreaming. It may not wake up for a while, in which case we’d be in a coma — a Dark Age.

So history feels stalled. We don’t even have the meaningless churn of post-end-of-history events (Fukuyama events?). I think this is because we need to be immersed in a a steady flow of trends, and perhaps a torrent or two, to feel the motion, and feel awake and alive, like the universe is conspiring to make our lives unreasonably meaningful. Otherwise it is just an endless grind, within a theater of sound and fury signifying nothing.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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

Comments

  1. Your scope criteria seems either overly restrictive, or poorly explained. There is something I see developing though.

    I’m 30-ish, California, so I guess you’d call me a Millennial. The Pandemic and Russia’s war are the first world events in my lifetime that have made a noticeable difference. Lockdowns, supply chain issues and sharply raising gas prices are hard to miss.

    Everything else either been a slow trend with the feeling of inevitability, or a sad story, happening to somewhere to someone. I suspect I’m not alone in this, and that it’s a telling reason why Millennials, have acted the way we do.

    If what I’ve personally experienced is not just a quirk of me, then the way Millennials act is due to change, in some way reacting to “Wait, world news/big picture debates have actual consequences?”

    PS: The elephant in the room, Roe V Wade didn’t hit me personally (Male, California) but I suspect has hit a large portion of us. But it’s probably interesting for another reason- our overall stance, and the lack of concern/anticipation before it was overturned could be seen as indicative of the lack of consequence we enjoyed.

  2. Hi, well looking back for about 5 years, two articles spring up for me.

    One just recently (https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/reality-is-just-a-game-now), comparing our online behaviour and discussions on social media to roleplaying games.

    The other was an article by Heidi Julavits about a new volcano in Iceland, how to get there, what it tells about us, and in this bringing together everything about life in general in a way that really left me touched and flabbergasted and impressed: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/08/23/chasing-the-lava-flow-in-iceland

    Although I read the last one on paper, in the magazine.

  3. Maybe we’re all just out of touch and old.

  4. The torrents of trends are suspended because the world is artificially suspended since COVID-19. The thing is, global capitalism has reached its limits of growth and by its nature, when it cannot grow, it collapses. The global world is on the brink of collapse, but before that happens, it is artificially suspended in the “suspended animation” by things like pandemic and now Russia’s war. But it only delays the inevitable. Alas, no experts dare to talk about it except a few marginalized (and banned from mainstream platforma like YouTube) analytics.

    The current “torrent” is the end of Pax Americana and the emergence of large autonomous reigions. And no, it’s not about returning to “bipolar” or “tripolar” world, because poles imply global influence. The regions will be set on different rules (see IMF report below). From this fact, you now can look for trends in this torrent.

    Read the most recent IMF report (the one titled “Gloomy and more uncertain”). It (finally) supports the idea that the risk of collapse of the global world into relatively autonomous regions is quite high. They describe the situation as well as what to expect within next 3-7 years.

    With great respect,
    Long time reader, first time poster.

    • You seem to care about, and despair about the trajectory of the world. I also care, but I’m a little more optimistic. Let me explain. But let me start by talking about what we agree on- first that Capitalism needs growth to prevent turning in on itself. And the international scene is getting nasty.

      Capitalism still has a couple good growth areas. The tech frontier’s deep learning and Crisper style genetics being examples, but there are others. We should lead to growth opportunities for the foreseeable future.

      Autonomous vehicles need more breakthroughs before viability, but there are a number of less glamorous but highly lucrative areas seeing primetime- sorting, quality control, drug discovery, and art.

      Crisper’s payouts are just starting, with vaccine development, and bacteria tailored for drug production but behind the scenes genetically engineered mice are allowing a revolution in understanding of biology, that will have many unpredictable but lucrative results.

      And that’s just two areas. Materials sciences are also doing some interesting, revolutionary things (Search Daytime Radiative Cooling for one example) So I don’t think we’ll run out of frontier and need to start genociding each other to make more.

      What we do have coming is a recession though- for the US, income inequality is getting bad enough that we’ll either need to ‘lop off the top’, or ramp up ‘bread and circuses’ like the romans did. Till then things will be rocky, but after that things should be stable with good growth for a long while if things follow the roman model (which they largely are).

      For outside the US, Russia, China and Europe are all facing age related demographic collapses. Gonna get nasty. And that’s going to affect trade and the economy.

      But world power will stay with the US for a good while, if we want it. This is partially due to others tanking, but also with how we’ve rigged worldwide military procurement. Hate to say it, but the military industrial complex is actually doing a lot of good in that department. We effectively have a ‘silicon valley effect’ around that industry, so
      our weapons are the best and the cheapest, and will continue to be because of how we’ve set up export restrictions.

      It’s hard to win a war without the support of the person selling the best weapons. Russia, the second largest arms exporter, is learning that in Ukraine. They are the nation most likely to be able to run a war without US support and they are having a hard time. While some of that is internal factors, it’s hard to argue that if we were supplying and training them instead of the Ukrainians that the war would even be a thing. And that’s the second largest arms producer.

      Add to that that the fact that their market share going forward will tank due to the equipment defect rates being revealed. German+ Sweden together are in a position to rival us from an arms technology standpoint, but deeply don’t want to. China wants to, but despite the size of their economy does not have the tech and will have a long road to develop it. We’ve exported a lot of jobs to them, but not military manufacturing ones.
      The US is going to stay on top for a good while longer, if we want to be.

      Hope those points help with a longer, more optimistic outlook. Let me know if something needs clarifying- I’m pretty sure the facts back up these trajectories (I can cite sources if needed).

  5. The most interesting* trend piece I read recently was The End of the Millennial Lifestyle Subsidy:

    https://www.theatlantic.com/newsletters/archive/2022/06/uber-ride-share-prices-high-inflation/661250/

    *What made it less interesting is that I tried to write a similar thing two years ago, but it didn’t stick

  6. Given that the American Dream is a cultural trait which sets the US apart, it is somewhat doubtful that it was wake then, but is dreaming now. Maybe the dream company is just not doing well, dreams are in recession and don’t sell as they once did – at least not outside of the “Collective West”, which is still buying everything. The EU has 20 years contracts, the delivery chain for sweet dreams and nightmares is unbroken and Zelensky is serious when he sniffs some coke and says: “we are fighting for you”. Your values matter. When BLM was hot, some Japanese protested against police violence in Tokyo, even though they have virtually none. Everything is psychically connected.

    Russia is shooting itself out of the dream, which must be an act of great relief. Most remarkably they are doing well under the western sanctions regime, as if escaping the dream was a metaphysical gift. They are still eating half a country before they can truly drift apart and diverge for a life time.

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