On the morning of September 11th, the sky was what aviators call “severe clear.” Bright blue, no precipitation in sight. The condition gives the impression of infinite visibility. A few hundred miles northwest of Manhattan in Upstate New York, that’s how I remember it. I was a freshman in high school, sweating in the late summer heat because I really wanted to wear my fall sweaters and couldn’t be bothered to wait for the weather to turn.
There was a kind of uneasy energy on campus first period. People walked too fast. Conversations were too hushed. Teachers rushed into each other’s classrooms unannounced, spoke furtively in the hall, and rushed off. Shadows jog past, sneakers catch on the linoleum with a squeak. A door slams somewhere, then in quick succession, another. Something’s wrong, but no one’s telling us what…
Information arrived in a choreographed trickle: half-planned, half-improvised. First, the administration was alerted. Inevitably, they told the faculty. At some point, the story made the jump into a new population: the students. Was it a rogue student disregarding school cell phone policy? Did they receive a text from a concerned parent? Possibly. More likely, a cheeky student (too friendly with the staff) overheard the teachers gossiping as he snagged some coffee from the faculty lounge.
Soon the hush fell over student conversations in the nooks and crannies of the lockers. The secret had become gossip and there was no containing it. At the end of second period, Principal Simon came on the PA and announced that there had been an accident. Two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and both of the Twin Towers had collapsed.
In that hour of information asymmetry, the world had changed for everyone else, but not for me.
By lunch, the student body had gathered enough information via contraband phones and school computers that there was no point in holding back the worst aspects of the disaster. We knew about the terrorists and Flight 93 and the coordinated attack on the Pentagon. They let CNN play in the auditorium.
I sat in the dark, mostly empty hall, skipping lunch, watching the image replay itself over and over again as the newly implemented news ticker zipped by below. It outstripped the anchors own ability to process, contextualize, and relay new data as it flooded in. (This is an early instance of the increasing content density I mentioned last week.)
In the gloom, the CRT blue was a perfect facsimile of the sky.
The German composer, Karl Stockhausen called 9/11 “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.” He received much deserved opprobrium. (It almost ruined his career.) Yet the sublime image Osama bin Laden created remains the most enduring of our times. You can’t tell the story of 2020 without starting there, explaining how an obscure man in an Afghan cave weaponized a group of fanatics, some box cutters, and GPS to change the course of history. He brought an empire to its knees.
Things have gone sideways since: the Iraq War, the Great Recession, Donald Trump, Climate Change, COVID-19. The national mood is dark. Nevertheless there are bright spots: Barack Obama, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, the fucking Internet.
Thus, there’s a best of times, worst of times vibe each time we approach a crisis. We sense opportunity as much as we sense peril. So while many people worry we are heading toward a new Dark Ages, I would argue that a better term for our emerging era is Superbright.
Don't take this the wrong way. I’m not saying things will be great—or easy. I am not hopepunk. My point is more specifically that the problems we face now are not the same as the problems humanity faced then. The gig economy is not serfdom. Platform capitalism is not feudalism. The media is not the Catholic Church—
The Dark Ages get a bad rap. You realize this if you’ve ever been to a Gothic cathedral like Chartres or Notre Dame. The Middle Ages were not as backward as we presume. In the West, ancient cultural biases lead us to associate the dark with inferiority and cultural backwardness. Yet, when the Italian poet Petrarch coined the term in the 1330s—his primary complaint was about his era’s lack of written records.
In Latin, Dark Ages is saeculum obscurum. Note: obscurum is also the root of the English word obscured. The Dark Ages were not terrible so much as difficult to decipher (due to their poor record keeping). Petrarch was an infovore born into an infodrought and he resented his historical misfortune.
Compared to Classical Antiquity and later periods such as the Enlightenment, the Middle Ages were thin on great texts. Since the invention of the printing press in 1440, we’ve seen a steady increase in the amount of information civilization has produced. But in the early 21st century, information production went hockey stick. In 2010, Google’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt claimed:
There was 5 exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003, but that much information is now created every 2 days, and the pace is increasing.
If the Middle Ages were dark due to information scarcity and Modernity was enlightened because of information abundance, the new period we are entering is superbright because of information overload. As with everything in life, there can be too much of a good thing.
To keep with the light-dark dichotomy brain virus that’s been with us since Antiquity, think of photo editing software. Toggle too far into the negative and the image is too low contrast, opaque, a Malevich black square. Toggle too far into the positive and the image is too high contrast, superbright, a flashlight in your eyes.
Legibility relies on contrast.
Information overload becomes more clear when we look at our contemporary anxieties and fixations. We no longer talk about state secrets, but worry that malfeasance is hiding in plain sight. The speed and volume of the content torrent is what makes disinformation possible. It complies with Vladimir Putin’s apocryphal 80/20 Rule: an op should only be one-fifth false, the remainder should be factual camouflage.
Conspiracy theorists are no longer tin foil hats hiding in the woods. Lone wolf madmen have been replaced by cults. The media corollary is they were once rambling blog posts and now resemble full-blown lifestyle brands. QAnon, Anti-Vaxxers, and Flat Earthers all come to mind. (You can buy a QAnon backpack and other merch here.)
In the 20th Century, we worried alienation and the breakdown of community would cause mass nihilism. In the 21st Century, we worry the internet has given everyone a heavy dose of apophenia—the phenomenon where people see patterns and connections in unrelated things. The internet is not an encyclopedia—it’s a schizo collage. Red string and tacks connecting newsclippings and FOIA dumps.
Secrecy ➔ Disinformation
Nihilism ➔ Apophenia
Conspiracy Theorists ➔ Conspiracy Cults
Even before things went off the rails Election Night, I was already in doomscroll mode. Twitter was serving up takes and unhelpful speculation at a speed that rendered CNN gong sound effects and talking head background banter. In retrospect only one tweet stands out. It’s from Lautaro Grinspan, a reporter at the Miami Herald:
As of writing this, ballots are still being counted, lawsuits are being filed, and protests representing a variety of political persuasions remain ongoing. Annoying as the interview subject’s perspective will be to many readers, he’s identified the logic behind our national outbreak of narcissism. It’s as a defense mechanism.
Some find the new information ecosystem engrossing—addicting even. Others find it confusing, threatening, and illegible. Not everyone has the mental fortitude to watch the hourly updates to electoral counts. Every day a new reality, every day a new crisis. They will retreat into themselves and their scenes.
Expect more to exit as the Superbright Ages become even more incoherent, as information overload accelerates.
That’s all for this week, ballers. Stay safe and see you next week.
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