In George Orwell’s famous prognostication of the future (a dystopia, of course), what he calls ‘doublethink’ (cheerful violation of logic) and ‘newspeak’ (ideologically contorted language) run rampant, and all citizens are under heavy surveillance. Looking back on this now, one is struck by how quaint his whole vision was, because in the age of the internet and super-connectivity, all of these things have been raised to sophisticated arts that, instead of being forced on us, have quietly colonised our lives. In the spirit of Orwell I offer a new speak for our new age, the century of ‘hyper’ and ‘virtual’ and ‘post’ this and that (how he would have laughed and cried at the idea of a ‘post-truth’!), where the struggle over meaning and authenticity have partly relocated to cyberspace, to a realm of infinite (im)possibility, just as our identities have.
More like this:
It used to be said that to name something is to begin understanding it. I’m not sure that holds anymore in the world-wide ‘web’ of meaning we now inhabit (or are trapped in), with its exponentially increasing complexities. Nevertheless, I have tried to choose words and concepts that should have some staying power, for a decade or two at least.
The limits of our knowledge may be a bad place to start, but in the post-millennial, post-human (see below) age some humility may be in order. The term ‘hyperobject’ was coined by the academic Timothy Morton, and it refers to phenomena that are so large and so far beyond the human frame of reference that they are not susceptible to reason. He gives as an example global warming (which he also calls ‘the end of the world’), a phenomenon instigated by humanity, but in the context of which we may now be insignificant. But the term is evocative in other ways: is the global financial system now in a sense a hyperobject?
This word would make more sense if it referred to fishing for cats, but in actuality it refers to people who construct false identities online and, whether out of boredom, loneliness or malice, lure other people into continued messaging correspondence, thereby building false relationships with them (the apparent source of the term ‘catfish’ is a 2010 documentary called Catfish, whose verity, ironically enough, has been questioned). There are two ways of looking at this. 1. The internet/cyberspace is wonderful, because it gives people the freedom to augment or totally change their identities, and this is a marvellous new dawn for human expression, a new step in human evolution. 2. Nah, it’s a false dawn, because the internet is essentially a libertarian arena, and as such an amoral one (lots of ‘freedoms’ but with no attendant social obligations); it is a new jungle where we must watch our backs and struggle for survival, surely a backward step in evolution. I lean toward the latter. If some of us are reduced to catfish lurking on the bottom of the Mississippi river, are we not all reduced to catfish?
As in ‘roused to political self-awareness’, with the hopeful connotation that one won’t be going back to sleep anytime soon. (Remember how rappers used to wear big, old-fashioned alarm clocks on chains around their necks? The kind of alarm that makes you sit bolt upright.) The term originates in the US black civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, although the 2008 Erykah Badu song Master Teacher is supposed to be the most important recent source. The term has made a second-wave comeback recently (on TV, with Donald Glover’s 2016 series Atlanta (season 1 went out in 2016); and 2017’s Dear White People), as African Americans in the US came to the realisation that racism never really went away, it just camouflaged its fundamental failure of empathy as tolerance – this is a contention of the US Black Lives Matter movement that gathered strength after the shooting in 2013 of the 17-year-old African-American boy Trayvon Martin. From there the term has been making the short jump to other second- (eg LGBT) and third- (eg feminism) phase civil rights movements equally lulled by the illusion of tolerance. The goal is to go beyond feeling tolerated to being fully accepted and welcomed.
The new weird
An emerging genre of speculative, ‘post-human’ writing that blurs genre boundaries and conventions, pushes humanity and human-centred reason from the centre to the margins, and generally poses questions that may not be answerable in any terms we can understand (hence the ‘weird’). It is associated with people like Jeff Vandermeer and M John Harrison in fiction, but the approach is bleeding into television narratives (see Westworld or Noah Hawley’s innovative series Fargo and Legion). Vandermeer’s Annihilation is heavily influenced by recent ecological thinking which takes the view that humanity is a blip in geologic history: even considering the potential catastrophe of global warming, the Earth existed long before us, and it will exist long after (see the ‘hyperobject’ entry elsewhere here). In his 2002 book Light, Harrison imagines a universe where human physics is encroached upon by alien physics that coexist and are equally or more potent. Westworld posits machine intelligences that overthrow their masters, unleashing a radically non-human order.
This word is likely to be bandied about much more frequently in the decades ahead, as social media users realise that the websites they are on are not merely neutral ‘platforms’ for ‘social interaction’ but more like a kind of flypaper to which people and all of their personal data stick. Moreover, these websites are specifically designed to be addictive – there is a vast literature on the infernal psychology being deployed by Silicon Valley companies against social media users. No less a luminary than Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of digital innovation in the world and a granddaddy of Silicon Valley (he was born in 1960), points out many serious problems with social media, but the most straightforward one is that there is plenty of research that suggests social media fundamentally makes people unhappy. His solution is simple: delete your accounts.
Writing that merges autobiography and fiction, and freely transgresses other genre boundaries as well. The term was coined in the avant-garde literary world of France in the 1970s, but it has come to be applied to contemporary fiction dominated by the author’s unreliable subjectivity. (The point being that all subjectivity is unreliable.) Writers of this sort might be Chris Kraus (whose 1997 novel I Love Dick became a cult feminist classic, spawning a 2017 TV series) and Maggie Nelson with The Argonauts – as well as WG Sebald, Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, Nell Zink, Rachel Cusk and Elena Ferrante (at a stretch). The approach has strongly influenced Lena Dunham, the creator of the TV series Girls, and has given rise to a genre of introspective (navel-gazing) television. At its best, it produces remarkable insights. Critics of the approach, such as Elif Batuman, blame it on the sort of writing taught in the privileged milieu of contemporary creative writing programs (with guiding principles such as ‘write what you know’, ‘find your voice’), decry its wilful disregard of history, and lament it as narcissism that panders to the ‘me’ generation.
Coping, hoping, doping, and shopping
Everyone is picking on poor old capitalism these days, but one of the best bullies around is Wolfgang Streeck, a German sociologist who argues that global capitalism is, by its unjust and shambolic nature, going to experience crashes of increasing severity throughout the 21st Century, leaving us all to survive with growing desperation amidst its wreckage. As a consequence, our life options are gradually being reduced to a regime of coping (getting by, ‘gigging’), hoping (because we’re human and alive, and have no choice), doping (drugs, alcohol, gaming, social media), and shopping (relentless consumption).
In George Cukor’s 1944 film Gaslight, a man attempts to convince his wife (Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award for best actress) that she’s mad in order to get her committed to an insane asylum and swindle her. Inherent in this story is a struggle over the empirical nature of reality: are there solid truths, or is reality only a matter of perception? Gaslighting has become a byword for psychological manipulation, with experts offering tips on how to know if you’re a victim of the behaviour. In the present era, where potent advertising and PR forces are doing everything in their power to make truth irrelevant and directly hack our minds, and where politicians no longer seem to acknowledge the existence of facts, the word has sinister new applications.
Thinking about this is likely to give you a headache, but as John Lanchester points out, this is at the top of the list of informed concerns about the global financial system. Lanchester – a superb translator of finance-speak into layman’s terms – argues that we need to understand the jargon-filled language of the economic elites, because otherwise they will write their own rules. Shadow banking consists of any financial transactions carried out by institutions that don’t have a formal banking licence, in other words institutions that are not directly regulated or overseen by government bodies. Examples of these are credit card companies, insurance companies, PayPal, the institutions within banking that lend money back and forth between banks. We can, if you want, add to this the vast dark-financial realm of over-the-counter (OTC) transactions (including derivatives that are almost too complex for anyone, inside or outside the business, to understand) that are technically between two parties and therefore off government radar. Nobody knows how large this sector is, but current estimates put shadow banking at $160 trillion (£124 trillion) and OTC transactions at $532 trillion (£412 trillion), or roughly twice and six-and-a-half times the GDP of the entire Earth, respectively. Both sectors were of course heavily involved in creating the 2008 crash, and both have remained almost unaltered since then.
Digital design ethics
Referring to the ‘attention crisis’ – the fact that no one can take their eyes off their smartphones – James Williams writes that “the liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time”. He observes that widely-used platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter are basically advertising companies, and they are developing a science of attentional capture whose main aim is to exploit vulnerabilities in our willpower and manipulate us into buying things. Our smartphones give these companies an easy conduit into our heads. Williams is currently a researcher in design ethics at the Oxford Internet Institute; he is part of a pushback against ‘Big Tech’ that is asking difficult questions about how our minds are being rewired for commercial purposes. His argument that the social contract, the idea of human rights, should be extended to cyberspace is gaining traction. Was the creation of the internet not supposed to be the dawn of a technological and informational utopia? Even its father, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, is convinced it is failing us.
One of the main locuses of meaning for this term is Donna Haraway’s 1984 essay A Cyborg Manifesto, where she expressed “the utopian dream of the hope for a monstrous world without gender”. At the time the essay was very influential, even though it seemed a little crazy: a world without gender, a world of freeform identities manifested through a radical and joyful embrace of modern technologies, in the broadest sense? It was pure science fiction. But it seems that history has caught up with her, for our identities now extend into cyberspace in many ways, we no longer merely rely on our brain cells but now store much of our knowledge in technological clouds that function as extensions of our minds, and we live with the corresponding hardware in such intimacy (in the form of portable devices that are linked to our minds and even metabolisms in many ways) that it sometimes feels like we are only a few steps away from being ‘cyborgs’ in the true sense of the term. Gender, though, is still a problem.
We used to think we knew what masculinity meant, but now it is going out of focus. A rapidly changing context is the cause. There was a time when you’d ask a man what masculinity was and his response would be something like ‘not feminine’ (pejorative) and ‘not queer’ (pejorative). Note all the negativity. These days it is increasingly a good thing to be a woman (new, broad definition) and to be queer (new, broad definition). Both are eating away at the old territory occupied by masculinity, according to writers such as Hanna Rosin, Cordelia Fine or Grayson Perry. What’s left is something of a void, aka ‘the crisis of masculinity’. The challenge ahead for men is to formulate what they are, and want to be, rather than what they aren’t. How to open up this frontier? I have a suggestion. For generations feminists and queer activists have been fighting to draw attention to masculinity’s toxic side-effects. At long last, mainstream men seem on the verge of accepting that there is a problem. It remains for us all to take this a step further, and work to understand how this toxicity has also been poisoning men on the inside.
The pun comes from a brilliant and prescient Zadie Smith essay that is one of my touchstones. Smith is referring to millennials, but I think it applies to anyone born in the digital age. To roughly clarify our terms here: Baby Boomers are the generation born after World War Two and before 1965; Generation X (Douglas Coupland) the cohort born between the mid-1960s and 1980; Generation Y (Millennials) includes people born between 1980-ish and 2000; Generation Z (Post-Millennials) is anyone born after 2000. These categories don’t really have global reach, but they are evocative as metaphors. The gist of Smith’s argument is that Facebook and its like are reductive: they cut us down to size and reprogramme us to suit their own ends, which are advertising and selling things – exploitation. “Five-hundred million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore,” she calls it. Smith was writing a few years ago; the number of Facebook users has now passed 2 billion. Generations Y and Z have led lives saturated by the internet, by social media platforms and apps, which have claimed to make life complete and have all of the answers all of the time. Is this paraphernalia worthy of them? Are they content to be trapped in the reveries of Zuckerberg and the like? No. There are detectable tremours of disaffection and radicalisation. I suspect that as more and more post-millennials reach voting age, Generation Why may be giving us some loud answers.
In the 2017 film A Ghost Story, directed by David Lowery, a happy man dies suddenly in a car accident and ends up being a ghost. He returns to his family home to linger spectrally under a generic bed sheet with eyeholes cut in it, a ghost of a ghost, and watch helplessly as his family continues life without him; and then, after they move out and others move in, as life in general continues without him. Hovering in his bathetic sheet, he is the essence of loneliness. He is trapped in a supernatural realm, with no human traction, as much haunted by as he is haunting obsolete relationships. He sometimes manages to express his frustration by smashing a few dishes or throwing some books, reduced to a mere poltergeist. Maybe the stark truth is that he has been ‘ghosted’: no one has been returning his text messages and DMs and he is trapped in digital limbo, condemned forever to float around as a ghost emoji? In any event, if you find yourself waiting around under a sheet for no apparent reason, I suggest you take the sheet off and find something better to do.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.