For well over a year, all eyes have been on the pandemic. While we have been singularly focused on the pandemic, another global tragedy has been taking place, though this tragedy has been happening for many years, its existence well-known, but conveniently ignored. It’s all around us, and has been normalized to such a point where any mention of it is met with denial, justification, ostracization, and anger – not anger on behalf of those suffering, but anger towards the messenger who is making the suffering known.
Populism does indeed have a set of prevailing principles that characterizes it. These principles cut across all political cloths, often garnering support from left- and right-wing proponents. Some of the basic principles include: circumventing power from Wall Street, ending corporate welfare and crony capitalism, ending mass surveillance programs, ending military interventionism and occupation, and opposing corporate trade agreements.
These principles don’t describe just one political identity, and that is why they tend to attract a broad following of people from all political persuasions.
Populism: The New Red Scare
Is the world a better place? Opinions vary, though the enduring Western-centric belief is that humankind has never had it better. This belief is commonly espoused by technologists who praise the information age for ushering in a new era of opportunity and prosperity. The information age, coupled with industrialization, has certainly shaped the world in ways previously thought unimaginable. Advances in technology have transformed everyday life. Facial recognition software. Artificial intelligence. Microchip implants. Renewable energy. Genetic engineering. A revolutionary mRNA vaccine designed in just two days.
Given all this progress, it’s hard not to believe in the “prosperity presumption,” the belief that the world, as a whole, is getting better. Indeed, techno-utopians who adhere to the prosperity presumption also hold the belief that any form of technological stagnation is antithetical to progress. Some of the biggest technologists fall under this category.
The Progress Paradox: Revisiting Steven Pinker’s Brand of Optimism
Every day we learn more about our home planet’s fascinating cohabitants: we know that mother pigs sing to their piglets while nursing; we know that chickens form complex social hierarchies; we know that dolphins have the longest memories in the animal kingdom; we know that birds can sing a wide range of complex songs, each with its own specific meaning; we know that when a goose’s mate dies, its partner will remove themselves from the flock and mourn for life.
Is the World Going Plant-Based? It’s Complicated.
Whether subconscious or not, most of us seek out rituals or initiations in whichever way we can. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell writes, “Young people just grab this stuff. Mythology teaches you what’s behind literature and the arts, it teaches you about your own life. It’s a great, exciting, life-nourishing subject.” Kids are naturally drawn to mythology, but they seek myths out in different ways – in the 80s and 90s, kids found them in film and television, now they are found primarily through their digital devices.
Much of our rituals today do not support personal growth or transformation, instead they serve to confuse and disorient. And in the absence of myths altogether, personal transformation isn’t possible. According to Campbell, “The absence of myth is the absence of psychological transformation.”
On the Loss of Ritual
Over the past several months, many of these reputable voices – including high-profile journalists – have been jumping ship from their safe, cushy jobs to join Substack, a newsletter-based subscription platform, to escape the onslaught of ideology, censorship, and rigid editorial control.
Some are calling this migration the “beginning of the gold rush,” others are comparing Substack to the old Internet, while others are likening it to the early newsletters of the 17th century. In some ways, Substack does harken back to the old blogosphere; it is reminiscent of a former Internet, and elicits a certain sense of nostalgia. As tempting as it is to see this as a step towards building a rich information ecosystem, I fear this mass migration will simply re-organize the establishment class in new ways and create more toll booths on the information highway.
Substack: A Re-Assembling of the Old Media
The democratizing potential of the Internet echoed across the world: it was seen as a true equalizer, a force for good, and one that looked the same everywhere irrespective of one’s geographical location — it defied all territorial borders. This vision was hardly seen as radical or controversial. Quite the opposite, it was widely embraced among tech circles, even by the likes of Microsoft.
But that Golden Age of the Internet is long gone.
Who Owns the Internet?
Individualism is highly coveted in Western culture. Entire industries exist exclusively to profit off of our increasingly unhealthy preoccupation with ourselves. And with the arrival of the Internet, many more opportunities for people to express their individuality emerged.
Chatter about individualism grew amid the pandemic, with issues of identity being the focal point of many debates. The question of identity and its related discontents became a mainstay of public discourse.
These issues didn’t start in the pandemic, nor did they emerge with the rise of post-modernist thought – which has been years in the making. Indeed, today’s preoccupation with identity has a long history – and its popularity largely stems from transformative changes undergone in the centuries preceding, though at that time, it had a different name.