For the fourth time in my adult memory, humanity has collectively, visibly lost the plot at a global level. My criteria are fairly restrictive: The dotcom bust and the 2007 crash don’t make my list for instance, and neither do previous recent epidemics like SARS or Ebola. Global narrative collapse is a fairly severe condition, but apparently no longer as rare as it once was. Here’s my shortlist:
- Fall of Berlin Wall (1989, I was 14)
- 9/11 (2001, I was 27)
- Trump election (2016, I was 42)
- Coronavirus (2020, I am 45)
It always seems to happen relatively suddenly (but is not always entirely black-swan-level unanticipated; it is typically a gray swan), and in each of the first three cases, by my estimate, it took humanity 1-2 years to reorient. I expect this one will take about 18 months, unless a bigger gray or black swan eats this one (one I’m watching out for is Trump losing in 2020 and refusing to honor the electoral verdict). We will find the plot again after the first vaccines are administered at a large scale, presumably during the 2021 southern hemisphere flu season. We will learn how effective the vaccines are, and the markets will decide how to reprice modern pandemic risks correctly.
So what do we do in the meantime?
Global narrative collapse events tend to have a very surreal glued-to-screens quality surrounding them. That’s how you know everybody has lost the plot: everybody is tracking the rawest information they have access to, rather than the narrative that most efficiently sustains their reality (such as Rick and Morty in my case).
In terms of some new vocabulary I’m developing, temporality (your constructed sense of subjective time) collapses to what I call the log level. As in, you’re down to monitoring the equivalent of computer event logs; the tick-tock stream of raw events being recorded, prior to being evaluated and filtered for significance. Daniel Sinclair has been doing precisely that on Twitter. His logging thread on the pandemic, which he started on January 14th, is now several thousand tweets long.
Right now, talking about anything in a non-pandemic-informed way comes across as living under a rock. The log level is the only inhabitable level.
The log level is the lowest level of psychological functioning where a coherent sense of universal time passing is even possible. Further collapse leads to varying degrees of PTSD and traumatizing kinds of atemporality (there’s interesting research on this) driven by progressive fragmentation of identity into subhuman shards.
During narrative collapse, everyone temporarily abandons attempts to reach narrative consensus even within their smallest default groups, such as family. Even people who normally avoid math start to do math with raw, noisy facts. Pantry stocks math. Alcohol percentage math. Infection risk math. Toilet paper math. Math is the backstop log-level activity. The average human only goes data-driven when narratives fail.
It’s not that we don’t trust narrative sources when we lose the plot. That’s a simpler problem for normal times. It’s that the narrative sources are temporarily at a loss and don’t know what to say. There is a condition of widespread collapse in the narrative market, and circuit-breakers halt trading (as they did today on the stock market).
Right now, for instance, even Trump appears to have lost the plot, and he’s usually a master of inserting himself effectively into any news cycle. He seems lost somewhere in last week’s news cycle, comparing Covid-19 to the flu.
Lose a Plot, Find a Plot
I like to think of narrative collapse in terms of “plot economics,” as in who has lost the plot, and who has found the plot?
Plot economics are nominally zero-sum by definition, and drive evolving perceptions of relative agency in an evolving situation. The plot economy has the following basic features:
- At any given time, narratives drive perceptions of agency rising or falling for every agent, at every level of aggregation, by every other agent at every level of aggregation.
- And this condition of rise/fall at various scales might be accurately or inaccurately perceived at different loci of agency.
- These perceptions are traded in a marketplace of narratives that might be more or less efficient at matching narrators to listeners.
This theme of narrative or plot economics has been a long-running one on ribbonfarm (see for example and The Epic Struggle between Good and Neutral by me, and Theory of Narrative Selection by Sarah Perry) but I don’t think I’ve laid it out explicitly like this before.
Right now, the perception of agency at all levels is falling. Individuals, corporations, governments, heads of state, stock traders, the UN, everybody feels they’re losing the plot, but they don’t see anybody else finding it. Even ambitious grifters who want to profiteer off the narrative collapse struggle with what to do. Low-level grifters might hoard toilet paper, sell fake N95 masks, or peddle fake cures, but bigger, Bond-villain level moves are hard to script. The profiteering imagination fails at scale. Even disaster capitalism is hard to do in the immediate aftermath of true narrative collapse events. That’s how bad it gets.
As far as we can tell, a virus has gotten inside the OODA loop of Homo sapiens, and seized the initiative, while we’re struggling to figure out what to even call it. It is spreading faster than our fastest truths, lies, and bullshit. A supersonic shock wave in the narrative marketplace.
There is a sudden recalibration of how much agency humanity collectively possesses, and we’re not happy with the results.
Conservation of Agency
The basic function of a sincere (ie not consciously deceitful) narrative — as in, an evolving non-fiction account of ongoing events — is to allow the narrator to provide sympathetic listeners with a status update in the following form. It’s the equivalent of a price update in a stock market:
WE are still winning/losing, THEY are still losing/winning. Here are some significant highlights of what is going on to support your decision-making until the next update.
The primary piece of information in a narrative state update concerns how agency is getting redistributed in terms of winning and losing. Winners are gaining agency predictably, losers are losing it predictably. There is usually an implied us/them that is stable across many updates. The assumed operating definition of we in a long-running narrative does not change often or by much. The function of this sort of narrative update is to reassure us that very little has changed, no reorientation is necessary, and that the actionable information can be easily extracted and acted upon.
The significant highlights capture a few high-value bits of actionable information to inform our decisions, based on an assumption of shared interests between the narrating and listening agents (with perhaps some obfuscation to mislead any eavesdropping hostiles).
Note that “WE” don’t have to be winning for such updates to be efficient, and narratives useful. Your side can be in the middle of a long-term losing streak while still being “in the game” so to speak. Supporters of perennial-loser sports teams and HODLers of declining assets know this feeling. “Losing” is a state that contains useful cues on how to use our own perceived shrinking agency all the way to terminal helplessness: run interference, resist, exit, and so forth. It is not a condition of narrative collapse, merely sustained narrative disadvantage.
Occasionally there is a “tide turning” type narrative state update, where STILL winning/losing becomes NOW losing/winning, and you are cued to switch mindsets from winner to loser or vice versa (by switching between offense/defense playbooks for example). This is the narrative equivalent of switching between “buy” and “sell” playbooks in trading.
WE are now winning/losing, THEY are now losing/winning. You should switch mindset from loser/winner to winner/loser. Here are some significant highlights of what is going on to support your decision-making until the next update.
All this is normal plot economics, and it is based on a fallacious assumption of conservation of human agency.
Normal plot economics is a regime where we act as though a principle of conservation of agency is in effect.
THEY may have the bulk of the agency now, the bastards, but WE might get it back in the future.
Agency cannot be created or destroyed, we tell ourselves. Only moved around in zero-sum ways. Progress is when WE have it. Decline is when THEY have it. If WE have lost the plot, THEY must have found it.
Serendipity and Zemblanity
The principle of conservation of agency is of course, entirely fallacious, and the plot economy is not zero-sum. Agency is not conserved, but it is sometimes convenient (and computationally efficient in the game of narrative state updates) to pretend it is. It is a helpful illusion. If I don’t have the steering wheel, you must. But somebody is in charge and driving somewhere.
There are two kinds of violations of the assumed principle.
The first kind is serendipitous plot economics (serendipity: surprisingly lucky conditions), where total agency seems to be increasing in unreasonably lucky ways. A magically benevolent tide is floating all boats and driving irrational exuberance.
We tend not to question this particular regime of weirdness, or even call it weird. We assume self-serving positive boundary conditions such as “god must have benevolent plans for us” or “perhaps we are collectively wiser than we consciously realize.” These effectively restore the conservation principle by adding a fictitious benevolent agent to the party (god or our own idealized collective unconscious intelligence), who is assumed to be graciously bestowing more agency upon us from a (possibly limitless) reserve of it.
The second kind is zemblanitous plot economics (zemblanity: unsurprisingly unlucky conditions), where agency seems to be draining away everywhere, sucking us towards predictable doom, with everybody increasingly helpless to do anything about it. A condition where there is no steering wheel. There are of course eschatological/fatalistic religious narratives on the market for this condition too, based on doctrines of sin/judgment or karma. But outside of cults and the reborn religious, they are not popular as guides for action in modern times, even among those who in principle believe them. We’d rather wear masks that don’t work than actually navigate by Judgment-Day or karmic-balance calculi.
Under conditions of zemblanity, a few people here and there may be perceived as having band-aid levels of residual agency (in this case, first responders and fake-cure phishing scammers) but overall, there is a sense that humanity is bleeding (rather than losing) agency to forces that don’t know they’re even competing, and are hard to see as agents at all. If they’re agents, they are agents of entropy.
For example, it feels a little silly to declare “war” on COVID-19 or declare that we will “defeat” it. It doesn’t know it is playing or competing. There is nothing it is like to be COVID-19, let alone COVID-19 in a winning/losing mental state. At best it can be cast as the instrument of an angry god. For us atheists, it’s a molecule that’s barely qualifies as living. We don’t even know whether the agency should be located in the disease (COVID-19), the category of pathogen (coronaviruses) or the specific pathogen (SARS-Cov-2). We are reduced to correcting each other’s nomenclature and comparisons.
The lack of a meaningful adversary is a key indicator of collapse. Another is lack of clarity on “significant highlights” to call out as markers of winning/losing relative to the adversary who isn’t there.
For instance, the most significant actionable information circulating right now appears to be the log-level heuristic, “wash your hands more.” If you want guidance on anything more abstract: when to buy or sell what stocks, whether to cancel or keep travel plans, how this might affect the election, or whom to blame for this whole situation, you’re on your own.
If you cannot do without a collective human progress or decline narrative with apparently sensible defaults for all decisions, you’re in trouble. Under conditions of narrative collapse, that’s the equivalent of looking in a dark room for a black cat that isn’t there.
Those who rely most on reshaping the perceptions of competing narrative agents are most at a loss in the face of a narrative threat that is simply unsuitable for such projections of hostile agency. If you win mainly by convincing THEM that they are losers, and convincing them to give up fighting — and all of us, not just Trump, do this sort of adversarial reality distortion to a degree — what do you do when THEY is a virus? What do you do when there are no credible substitutes?
It’s not just Trump who cannot “gaslight a virus,” as several people have pointed out. None of us can. And we all have escaped realities to protect, all of which are currently under threat.
Weird plot economics begin where we sense that the illusion of conservation of agency is being negatively violated, dragging us inexorably towards irreversible loss of agency and a general condition of heightened zemblanity. A sense of impending doom.
What can you do in such conditions, when there are no narratives to navigate by? Somebody just asked me if I thought our response is an overreaction or under-reaction. That’s another form of the same question.
That’s not a question that can be answered outside of a narrative frame. Without a narrative frame, it is hard to figure out what to even index on as significant. Such indexing in turn drives calibration that allows us to judge over/under responses. It is the narrative equivalent of trying to time the top/bottom of the market to sell/buy without being too early or too late, when you have no idea what’s going on.
In OODA loop theory, that’s what you try to do to an adversary: get inside their decision cycle and collapse it from within, so they can no longer tell significant/insignificant apart, and their psyche collapses under the stress of maintaining orientation and continuing to act meaningfully.
The hardest part of OODA theory is accepting that this can be done to us by adversaries that are not necessarily smarter or more capable than us; they need only lack our illusions. After all, there is honor in being laid low by a worthy adversary, and a story to be told about it. That’s what made 2016 so hard for so many of us. That we either had to cast Trump, a human of visibly limited abilities, in the role of “worthy adversary” to preserve our sense of honorable loss, or accept our own lack of honor. And so we were tempted into 4d chess conspiracy theories about his hidden genius, just so we would have a worthy adversary.
But there is no possibility of honor at all in being laid low by a virus, whether as an individual, or as a species (unless it happens to fully dehumanized aliens, as in War of the Worlds). In Game of Thrones, the death of Khal Drogo via an infection (hardly uncommon in pre-modern warfare), is so obviously unsatisfactory from a narrative perspective that George R. R. Martin had to contrive a way to blame Mirri Maz Duur, the witchdoctor, and have Daenrys smother him in his vegetative state, so at least her character could grow from the otherwise meaningless experience.
But we are not living in a Game of Thrones world. So if your sanity depends on believing that COVID-19 is playing genius 4d chess with us, you might as well declare narrative bankruptcy and go nuts now.
For the rest of us, while we’re rebooting narratives, we can only take it one log-level event at a time.
In other words, wash your hands. Tick-tock.