The story goes like this


Anxiety is the writer’s block of life. People with crippling anxiety don’t know how to be author of their own life’s story: it’s like they’re trying to start an essay but can’t pick a first sentence. When you’re anxious, you can’t decide where to begin—because each decision feels overloaded with implications about what will come after, and all paths seem to lead invariably to a dead end. Luckily, in life, we don’t write the story alone: every shared experience, every sort of common ground, is a way of writing our stories together.

Stories are how we give meaning to our lives. At a higher level, they’re how we organize as a society. But sometimes we lose our collective ability to make goals and interpret events. When that happens, we get writer’s block at the societal level.

For example, around the end of WWII, in the aftermath of Adolf’s Reich and faced with the role of mass media and modern industry in propelling the madness, the West entered into such a crisis. This is the logic of history at its most manifest. The dark-side of modernity’s cult of efficiency and master plans took truly villainous form, and in so doing it sowed the seeds for its antithesis. It’s not that WWII itself was confounding; rather, the whole episode caused a moral reckoning for the Western world that brought everything—including our methods for making sense of the world—under question.

Stories exist at multiple levels simultaneously. Sometimes, nearly unresolvable tensions emerge between the different levels of a story: at such times writing takes on a very different nature, more like puzzle-solving than painting. It was a puzzle of this sort that caused our culture to lose its sense of direction last century.

In life, certain people elevate their stories to the realm of history. The stories they tell embolden them to do terrible things, so long as they’ll move the plan forward. This of course was always true—but at the close of WWII, its essence was laid bare. When society came face-to-face with this fact, a great disillusionment set in: of grand narratives, big plans, and the sort of history that’s written by victors.

This was a revelation, but it took our society into uncharted territory. We had no choice but to find new ways of conceptualizing history. Luckily, it wasn’t long before a new media ecology emerged: mass media became pluralistic, now giving us a constant overlay of different narratives—local and global, emotional and political, fact and fiction. This opened the door to an emergent collective story, which we can constantly renegotiate at the individual- and group-level.

This arc continued into the present. The TV shows we grow up watching nowadays allow us to see in every episode aspects of life that we’d never have encountered otherwise: cities and cultures and personality types that contribute to a more complete view of humanity. So although we might not be able to agree on any organizing grand narrative or telos for our society, we can nonetheless share in the micro-narratives that constitute our world.

The democratized media landscape is taken to the next level online, with the same sort of cultural experience being possible as true encounters with other people, no longer mediated by show-runners. In a sense, the Web is a culmination of cultural forces that our society has incubated since the post-War period at least. We’ve now arrived at a truly unmediated approach to sense-making and narrative-building. Crowd-sourced history is the solution to our earlier crisis.

This new media environment, however, opens the door to new catastrophes. Our flight from tyranny might lead straight to anarchy. We’ve already seen glimpses of a society in which consensus is impossible. We’ve watched historical events be interpreted in opposite ways by different groups—and online media means each side may never even encounter the other.

Continuing the trend further, AI-generated media threaten to turn our fractured society totally schizophrenic. Highly-personalized online feeds of user-generated content, although still relatively new, will soon become outdated. The content we consume will be unmoored—no longer an encounter with independent content-creators, but rather an ad hoc simulation. Each of us will encounter the world mediated by a fantasy land of personalized, machine-generated content.

There’s a story by C.S. Lewis that features a strange town with truly excessive sprawl:

They’ve been moving on and on. Getting further apart. They’re so far off by now that they could never think of coming to the bus stop at all. Astronomical distances. There’s a bit of rising ground near where I live and a chap has a telescope. You can see the lights of the inhabited houses, where those old ones live, millions of miles away. Millions of miles from us and from one another. Every now and then they move further still. That’s one of the disappointments. I thought you’d meet interesting historical characters. But you don’t: they’re too far away.

This could be a description of our future media environment, in which we move gradually into our own siloed realities, drifting through the infinite expanse of AI-generated content. It’s also Hell, as the author conceived it.

A new media environment is coming and, with it, an overwhelming flood of machine-generated content. This might be the end of our collective story. If society is going to survive, though, we’ll need a countervailing force: a push for continued collective sense-making to counter the gravitational pull of atomization.


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