Part of my Great Weirding essay series.
Throughout the Great Weirding, politics dominated headlines around the world, while the loosely co-evolving culture wars dominated social media, with both occasionally spilling out into the streets. The current unrest unfolding in the United States, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, is the latest in a series of such episodes. In the last four years, prominent fronts in the culture wars, such as policing of minority communities around the world, and sexual harassment and exploitation, have barely seen a month go by without incident.
But dramatic as these human-centric dramas have been, much of the most consequential action of the Great Weirding has unfolded in the deeper, less visible theaters of our world. It is to this less dramatic background action that we next turn our attention.
The world of finance and economics is perhaps the most visible among these less visible background theaters. Through the weirding years, economists and investors alike struggled to make sense of a broader world full of increasingly strange phenomena, one that seemed increasingly out of synchronization with their own world, which experienced its own share of internal weirdness.
On the inside, unsettling phenomena —such as negative real interest rates, the effects of quantitative easing, and most recently, negative oil prices — began to pile up, while consensus on what they meant began to slowly unravel. While established schools of economic thought, such as Monetarist, Keynesian, and Austrian, continued to offer accounts of events, these accounts began to seem ever more uncertain and strained. The visibly unraveling public confidence in traditional economic discourses created increasing room for emerging heterodoxies. Previously marginal economic doctrines, such as Land Value Taxation (LVT, an aspect of what is known as Georgism), Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and policy ideas such as Universal Basic Income (UBI), began making their way into mainstream discourses and political campaigns.
At the same time, historically prominent ideas, thought to have been discredited and displaced by half a century of neoliberalism, began enjoying a curious revival. Under the auspices of the Trump regime, a kind of bellicose economic nationalism not seen since the 19th century, based on tariffs and trade barriers, began to spread across the world. And around the world, it found itself running into an equally archaic economic doctrine diffusing outwards from the Chinese Communist Party, a kind of commodity-focused neocolonialism piggybacking on the Belt-and-Road Initiative.
The liberal international order, it became increasingly clear, was being slowly replaced by two older economic orders on a collision course. Decades of post-World-War-2 institution building efforts, along lines inspired by Schumpeterian principles of innovation-fueled growth and creative destruction, were coming undone in years and months. In its place, an illiberal global institutional order, based on an unstable mix of mercantilist and socialist principles, and on zero or negative-sum resource assumptions, began taking root.
Markets though, have remained unexpectedly sanguine in their response to events ranging from the rise of Trump to the advent of Covid19. Despite sharp, deep, transient crashes, especially in recent months, financial markets have repeatedly recovered with a rapidity that has all watchers searching for explanations.
To some, it appears undeniable that markets, operating under the massive distortionary effects of state interventions, do not correctly price risk anymore. Others argue that there is nothing of actual significance to price in, beneath the sound and fury. Or that the risks had already been priced in over the decades that the events of the Great Weirding were brewing in the subterranean depths of civilization.
Some argue that the preternatural stability and apparent resilience of the markets proves the world had not changed at all, while others argue that it demonstrates the legitimacy and necessity of new directions being adopted through the weirding years. And yet a third group argues that the markets no longer have any meaningful relationship to the world whose economic destiny they govern; that they represent a tale of calm and stability signifying nothing.
Explanations aside, whether based on analysis of prices, ideological criticism, or wishful apophenia, perhaps the most interesting thing is that the market, as an institution, has not crumbled. But the increasingly incoherent relationship between markets, and the world as perceived through other lenses such as political narratives, popular sentiment, futurist studies, anecdotal experiences, and zeitgeist trends, has perhaps never before seemed as puzzling.
Throughout the Great Weirding, the question of whether or not the markets correctly sensed, priced, and reflected events that seemed meaningful in the real world grew increasingly fraught, and suffused with increasing levels of dissent, conflict and mystery.
Some of these conflicts and mysteries will perhaps recede, unresolved, into the history books, as the terminal mess of traditional pre-Weirding economics. Others, notable more for their scale than any inherent mysteriousness, such as the massive burden of debts and deficits with which we will enter the post-Covid19 world, will form part of the initial conditions of the Permaweird.
Perhaps the biggest symptom of the Great Weirding in the world of economics and finance has been the emergence of a genuinely new alternative to it: the cryptoeconomy.
In 2017, the cryptoeconomy experienced a broad-based boom in the eighth year of its existence. Despite its minuscule size — a total capitalization that first crossed $100 billion in the summer of 2017 and peaked at about three quarters of a trillion in late 2017— to many technologists, economists, and finance wonks around the world, the boom marked the beginning of a wholesale reimagining of the very foundations of modern economic and financial institutions.
As the venerable ancestor of the sector, Bitcoin, ascended to the status of digital gold, complete with a community of bitcoin maximalists who rival goldbugs in their passion, a host of related ideas emerged. While most are minor me-too variants on the bitcoin theme, some, such as Ethereum and ZCash, introduced fundamental conceptual advances beyond Bitcoin, and expanded the space of possibilities for the cryptoeconomy to things like smart contracts and truly anonymous transactions. In the process, they broadened and deepened the nature of the political and economic challenge to traditional institutions represented by blockchain technologies.
Past 2017, the idea that there was no alternative to traditional economic and financial institutional models could no longer be sustained. It was no longer possible to dismiss the crypto-economic alternative out of hand as a mere toy. While to many, blockchain technologies represent an alternative that is more distasteful than the incumbent it seeks to replace, there is no doubt that is in fact, a meaningful alternative.
For the technology sector, the coming of age of the cryptoeconomy, along with the sudden and rapid coming of age of a new kind of AI, based on deep learning algorithms, triggered a kind of excitement not seen since the early nineties. Around 2017 it began to seem like software was set to eat the world all over again; at a much deeper level this time, chewing through to foundations that date to the Bronze Age, translating millennia of tacit civilizational wisdom into the digitally digested wisdom of trained classifiers.
Beneath marquee headline events such as the defeat of Go champion Lee Sedol by AlphaGoZero in 2015, the uncanny linguistic stylings of the GPT-2 algorithm, and the achievement of so-called “quantum supremacy” by Google researchers in 2019, very real advances were unfolding in the world of computing technologies, and in its wake, in the rest of the technological world.
The first SpaceX crewed mission, launched on June 3, 2020, was not only the first such launch from American soil in a decade, it also marked the beginning of an era of human space exploration led by the private sector, and a significant refresh of a set of technologies that has seen little change since the 1960s. Most significantly, the launch marked the arrival of Silicon Valley style innovation models in the moribund space technology sector. Software was beginning to eat the space age.
It was only the most dramatic such arrival among many across the economy. Plant-based meats, 3d printing (making its mainstream debut with Covid19 face shields), electric scooters and bicycles, self-checkout retailing, varied delivery-based businesses, “dark” kitchens — the number of sectors bearing an unmistakeable signature of “tech” thinking grew steadily through the years, provoking both excitement and dismay. For better or worse, software continued to eat the world, with little regard to the preferences of discontents. Legislative efforts to govern technology, despite enormous effort and expense on the part of political processes, continued to fall farther and farther behind events on the technological frontier.
At the other end of the spectrum from dramatic early-stage innovations, the weirding years witnessed the growing dominance of large platform businesses such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. A dominance that fed increasing speculation that the age of the doughty little startup was coming to a close.
With Covid19, we are now firmly in the age of large digital platforms. For better or worse, the once-new economy is now the default economy, and the seemingly unassailable old economy is now down for the count. To what degree that shift is irreversible remains to be seen. Some hope or fear that the Silicon Valley style techno-economic landscape is the new referent of the phrase made famous by Margaret Thatcher, there is no alternative. To others, it is merely an extension of the dying old economy, destined to die with it.
Of all the theaters of the Great Weirding, perhaps none saw developments as portentous as our natural environment. As though conspiring to provide a sufficiently dramatic natural backdrop to the human drama of the Great Weirding, nature turned extreme, setting new records on every front. Hurricane Maria leveled Puerto Rico, even as meteorologists predicted a future marked by ever-more ferocious hurricanes, perhaps requiring designations beyond Category 5. Elsewhere earthquakes and forest fires livened up the western United States, Mexico, and Australia.
Perhaps most consequentially, the human relationship with water evolved significantly through the weirding years. At one extreme, California, one of the youngest agricultural regions in the world, experienced a prolonged sequence of drought years. But just as serious policy responses to chronic water scarcity had begun to take shape, all urgency was drained from issue thanks to a year of record-breaking rainfall. A similar story unfolded in India, one of the oldest agricultural regions in the world. A mix of collapsing water tables, and a sequence of drought years, threatened to destabilize a millennia-old agrarian social order built around an expectation of monsoons stable enough to sustain two predictable harvests a year. But just as the situation seemed impossible, record-breaking rains caused floods and overflowing dams.
Around the world, volatility in water availability (some of it attributable to climate change) overlaid on a general trend towards greater scarcity has made policy responses increasingly difficult to craft. As a result, across the world, water-related conflicts are beginning to put enormous stress on water management institutions and models that are as old as civilization itself. While technology — in forms ranging from online water rights markets to newer models of desalination and the inevitable cottage industry of clever apps — is beginning to have an impact, it is by no means clear that the global social order around this most basic element of the civilizational stack will undergo a smooth, peaceful transformation.
Behind the natural drama of extreme weather events involving the tangible classical elements of wind, fire, earth, and water, an invisible aspect of the physical world, unknown to the ancients, began to tighten its grip over human affairs: atmospheric carbon.
Through the weirding years, the global climate response wound its way from widespread self-congratulation and celebration around the COP21 Paris Agreement, to widespread gloom in the wake of the Trump regime’s withdrawal from the agreement. This was soon followed by a growing realization that even decarbonization commitments made by less hostile governments were unlikely to be fulfilled, especially as governments around the world began retreating from nuclear energy in the long shadow of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
Meanwhile, atmospheric carbon quietly crept past the psychologically significant threshold of 400ppm (parts per million), and hope for containing warming below 2-degree Celsius scenarios began to fade, inaugurating a new chapter in global climate politics, one predicated on mitigation rather than containment of climate change.
Following the withdrawal of the United States from COP21, the systematic dismantlement of Obama-era environmental protections on the domestic front set the tone globally for growing government disengagement from climate concerns. Governments that were not actively hostile to climate action were too distracted by the more urgent, if perhaps less important concerns of the geopolitical weirding.
But curiously enough, this faltering of state action on the threshold of meaningful action seemed to finally energize the private sector to take up the cause with unprecedented seriousness. Businesses large and small began developing sustainability programs, and shifting gears from decades of what has come to be known as greenwashing, to increasingly serious and real efforts. Powered by a strong tailwind of growth in renewables, lithium-ion battery technologies, and shifting consumer sentiments, private sector climate action finally began ramping up for real. Whether it is too little, too late, or just enough, just in time, remains to be seen.
In a surprise 2020 twist, the early months of Covid19 have witnessed a dramatic fall in emissions, but the significance of that natural fallout of a comatose, home-bound economy is as yet unclear. We are navigating the pandemic by pressing a slew of young technologies into service in mission-critical ways, earlier and at larger scales than anyone expected. In doing so, we are marking out cowpaths that might perhaps be paved to create a new kind of low-carbon built environment. One that can perhaps transform transient pandemic behaviors into sustained patterns of long-term decarbonization.
The early anecdotal signs are promising. Already, many corporations have announced permanent support for work-from-home models. A culture of frequent business air travel is already being subjected to hard scrutiny. Many households seem inclined to continue lowered-carbon lifestyle behaviors past the pandemic.
The Covid19 response clearly represents an option to drive towards a more imaginative kind of climate action, but it is far from clear that the option will be exercised. For now, the dream of rebuilding the world in more sustainable ways remains just that: a dream.
Taken as a whole, the deep changes that began unfolding in 2016 are perhaps best understood as the advent of the Anthropocene — the geological age marked by transformations of the planet due to human action. The Great Weirding has made it clear that the institutions under threat include not just century-old industrial age ones, but ones that have existed since the neolithic age, such as agriculture. The transformation we are experiencing is in many ways, one on a geological rather than human scale. We are terraforming Terra in ways we ourselves do not understand yet. Our familiar old planet is disappearing from view, bankrupted by forces made visible by the Great Weirding. A new planet is taking shape beneath our feet.
When future historians ponder the question of how the pre-digital world went bankrupt — deeply bankrupt at the level of social, cultural, and physical capital, not just notional economic capital tracked by banks — the answer will likely be in the spirit of Ernest Hemingway’s classic line (from The Sun Also Rises): gradually and then suddenly. The 42-year period from 1974, the year of peak centralization, to 2016 was the gradual part. The Great Weirding that began in 2016, it seems, will be the sudden part.
The Great Weirding, it is now clear, is the beginning of the most significant reckoning between us humans, and the environment we inhabit, in several thousand years.
The overall contours of the reckoning are perhaps too grand to be grasped. All we can do is grapple piecemeal with a disjoint set of smaller reckonings. There is a reckoning between entrenched globalist and nationalist elites. A reckoning between the rising middle classes of Asia and the declining working classes of the West. A reckoning between technocrats driving climate action, and oligarchs committed to an extended fossil-fuels endgame. A reckoning between the growing appetites of China, and the growing self-interest of African nations. A reckoning between neoliberalism and its varied challengers.
All we can say about the emergent effect of all these reckonings is that a great deal will change over the next decade.
A great deal, but not everything.
The opposite of every great truth, as Niels Bohr once remarked, is also a great truth, and it is fair to say that in some ways, nothing changed through the Great Weirding, even though everything changed.
In terms of the emotional grand narrative of world history, the Great Weirding might have been a relentless parade of decade-sized weeks packed into five years, but in the sense of a different, quieter kind of grand narrative — one grounded in data and dry, wonky analysis — the world is being transformed in exactly the ways many had expected. The most important forces shaping the future of the planet — technological change and anthropogenic environmental change — merely continued inexorably on a course they have been on for over half a century or more, largely oblivious to the theater of humans pretending to be in charge. The only thing different about the Great Weirding years, perhaps, is that it has became impossible to ignore these forces, and equally impossible to ignore our own growing agency in responding to them.
2020 has continued to validate this paradoxical sense of change and constancy, helplessness and agency. The short, sharp shocks of the Great Weirding have revealed, in an unusually unambiguous way, what parts of the world are fragile and prone to being remade by creative destruction, and what parts have an unusual resilience that will enable them to endure into the Permaweird. They have revealed some kinds of agency we thought we had to be mere illusions, while revealing other kinds of agency we did not know we possessed.
From the perspective of things that didn’t change, much of the Great Weirding has been entirely inconsequential, four years of noise and fury signifying nothing. While the changes that came alive in the collective consciousness did so with astounding rapidity, if you were paying attention to the right signals, they did not actually unfold on the ground with as much rapidity.
The social changes that Trump rode to a Presidential nomination came to a head in a few critical weeks, but had been brewing for decades, since the Nixon administration. China’s fiscal troubles had their beginnings not in the 2007 recession, but in policies put in place in the eighties in the Deng Xiaoping era. Climate change has been a focus of study for so long now that a second generation of scientists is taking over from the retiring generation that first studied the phenomenon. Covid19 is no more than the entirely predictable crisis foreseen by epidemiologists since the SARS breakout of 2003. The reckoning between police and communities that is currently underway in the United States began with the Civil Rights era in the 1960s. It was further shaped by the drug war, and cheap military equipment being shed by shrinking militaries, and acquired its current contours — based on citizen surveillance of policing behaviors — with the Rodney King affair in 1991.
While one can argue about the actual rapidity with which things changed, there is no question about the rapidity with which the collective consciousness of the world has changed.
Around the world, long-time outsiders suddenly found themselves political victors. Long-time insiders suddenly found themselves cast out into the political wilderness. Segments of the population used to thinking of local Grand Narratives as being their story suddenly discovered that they were mere spectators, while perennial spectators suddenly found themselves centerstage in the grand narrative, awkwardly exercising agency they never thought they would acquire.
The rapid awakening of large masses of individuals to new overarching realities — and new patterns of agency within those realities — is never a trivial thing. Such awakenings — whether into a true or false consciousness — unleash energies that destroy or transform old institutions, and catalyze the rapid emergence of new ones. When such an awakening happens, an opportunity emerges for a powerful reshaping of the institutional landscape of society.
The Great Weirding is the story of a great deal powerful reshaping that has already occurred since 2016, while the Permaweird is the much longer story of the reshaping that will occupy the rest of the lives of all who are alive today. Our goal in this essay series will be to understand what has already occurred, in order to more mindfully play our respective parts in the events to come.
The inventory we have undertaken in this first essay of this series is necessarily shallow, partial, colored by all sorts of unexamined biases and conceptual frames, and nowhere near representative, let alone comprehensive. Yet, such an exercise in stock-taking, whatever its imperfections, is the only available starting point for the task of making sense of deep transformations in the real world. Transformations that defy being cast into any easy set of pre-existing frames. Transformations that demand new frames.
In the next essay in this series, Control Failure, we will begin the task of theorizing such new frames, by taking a hard look at the nature of institutional failures through the Great Weirding.
The Great Weirding Essay Series
Accidental Designs: Part 1, Part 2