Weirding Diary

I first used the term "the great weirding" in a 2016 Atlantic article, and have since been using the term to refer generally to the gradual unraveling of "normalcy" since around the time (the death of Harambe the gorilla being a commonly accepted marker of the advent of the weirding). In this series, I try to theorize the weirding as it unfolds.

Weirding Diary: 1

I did a little poll asking people the extent to which they are treating the current zeitgeist as a temporary weirding (TW) versus a permanent new normal (NN).

The results got me thinking: what is the difference between the two? I think the answer is societal fun levels. A situation is a normal situation if inhabiting it is a matter of going on with your sustainable survival/existence habits, and expecting the situation to persist indefinitely. The mark of normalcy is the allocation of surplus energy to fun, after you’ve taken care of necessary present and future-oriented behaviors.

A situation is temporarily weird if you either can’t, or don’t want to, adapt to it using sustainable habits. In the former case, you cut back sharply on fun, minimize use of resources to survive, and save as much as you can for post-weirding normalcy. In the latter case, you try and exit the situation.

Wartime is the archetypal temporary weirding. Wartime civilian behaviors are sharply constrained survival behaviors. There is a limited ration of fun available to keep up morale, but in general, the wartime psyche does not incline to fun. You expect the war to end at some point, and a return to normalcy. Even if it is a new kind of normalcy that forces you to drop some old habits and form new ones.

When the situation is ambiguous, as it is around the world today, we cannot estimate the proportions of transient weirdness, new normal, and temporarily depressed old normal in the mix. In terms of an investing metaphor, we don’t know whether to go long on the zeitgeist by buying into new cultural stocks, hold on to old cultural stocks that we hope will regain their old value, or short the zeitgeist somehow.

I’m trying out a new format for exploring themes long-term. This is the first entry in my weirding diary.

Weirding Diary: 2

It is easy to orient yourself in space and time. In the simplest (but not most accessible) case, you’re fully present in the here and now. In a more typical case, maybe you’re at work, and daydreaming about being on the beach. Or dealing with 2019 taxes, with your head partly in 2022 when you’ll be done with a big project. Or maybe you’ve retreated within your memory palace to 1995. But in all such cases, you remain spatiotemporally oriented.

It can get complicated though. Maybe, in 2019, you’re ironically re-watching a 2013 movie that recodes, in the idiom of early 2000s superhero movies, the world of a starship in the 23rd century, as originally imagined in the 1960s. You can roll with that. Atemporality is easy if you can keep track of a few moving parts and levels of indirection.

What is hard is orientation in thought regimes where space and time are not the primary variables. Social spaces are good examples. You can move around in them, but is hard to impose notions of order, direction, or distance, onto social spaces. Take, for example, a simple one-dimensional model of social space with an axis that goes from private to public. This used to be a simple axis. At the private end you were alone with your thoughts. At the public end you might have appeared on television. You would “let your hair down” in private and put on a “game face” for appearing in public. You had “home” and “work” personalities.

Now, it is all mangled up. You could say the private-to-public dimension of social life has become entangled with itself, and with other social dimensions like power, status, and class. An important feature of weirding is being disoriented in social space this way, caught up in a set of mutually entangled dimensions.

Weirding Diary: 3

A sense of weirdness in the environment can be understood as unfactored reality. A blooming, buzzing confusion of sensory input that impinges on awareness without the mediating effects of conceptual thought. This is the same thing as the void, but we typically conceptualize the void as a featureless black hole. The reason is that our cognitive reaction to unfactored reality is to seal our minds off completely. Eyes wide shut. When the going gets weird, the mind shuts its eyes. If you keep your mind’s eyes open, translucent, legibilizing models descend to manage the cognitive response.  As the eyelids of the mind descend, some variety of magical thinking takes root. Normalcy is just the majority sect of magical thinking.

In my 2012 post, Welcome to the Future NauseousI defined the idea of a manufactured normalcy field (MNF). An MNF comprises both the models in your head, and elements in the built environment meant to encourage it to stabilize in your head. A stable MNF keeps the sense of weirdness at bay, and normal people functioning as adults. When the field destabilizes due to models crumbling in your head, reality acquires a surreal character. When it destabilizes due to the built environment crumbling, you have an anxiety response. When both crumble, you experience weirdness. In all three cases, functional behaviors required for survival get disrupted.

A filter bubble is a special case of a manufactured normalcy field comprising curated information flows. I dislike like the term because filtration is not the essence of what’s going on. The essence is the active construction of adaptive, magical-thinking, escaped realities. So I like my alternate term: reality escape pods. Normalcy is just the biggest such escape pod, illustrated by the track of the pink circle in the picture above.  The white ones are subcultures.

Weirding Diary: 4

The Things Fall Apart series on Epsilon Theory is an excellent exploration of the Great Weirding, particularly the “As Above, So Below” principle:

“As Above, So Below” means that our social lives are organized as a fractal, that when there is disorder in the heavens or the seats of worldly power, so is there disorder in our communities, our families, and our personal lives.”

Case in point: Recently, a Starbucks I used to frequent closed. The story was obvious to regulars: it had become an urban deadzone, more attractive to the homeless than to laptop warriors.

Over several years, the store deteriorated. You would often find homeless men parked in armchairs for hours, nursing a single grimy cup. Once, one such man got out of his armchair, and there was a pool of what I could only hope was water under him. He flipped the cushion over and left. Going to the restroom increasingly meant finding a homeless person washing up. I observed the Schelling sorting effect play out to the end, as the clientele drifted to the sort better served by a McDonald’s.

The Starbucks menu has a digital soul. It is a combinatorial consumption feast at the end of a global supply chain weaving its way from plantations, through factory-scale roasteries that  tame natural variety to nail a consistently mediocre taste year after year, to the cups of us cloud mice.

Starbucks stores, however, are firmly situated in meatspace, canaries in the neourban cores of the Weirding at the “below” end.

Today, I’m working out of a Starbucks in laptop-warrior zone, because the other Starbucks I frequent is also closed, for President’s Day, a surreal holiday that makes no sense in the flexwork economy embodied by Starbucks. And Howard Schultz is running for President.

As above, so below.