Weekly Retrospective #1
Jan 28th to Feb 4, 2023 — Introducing This Weekly; Mentions of Distress at Record High; Cold War Victory Syndrome; Weird AI Friendship Ads; and The Long 2010s
I closed out 2022 with a yearly recap, ending on a promise to start a weekly review series. To commemorate this newsletter reaching well over 1,600 subscribers now, I think it’s time to get started on that.
This is officially the first issue of a series called Weekly Retrospective. And although I am still figuring it out, let’s go with it and see how it evolves!
For anyone new, Novum Newsletter is about exploring novelty and the potential for it in our own time. One of the leading inspirations for this blog, philosopher Ernst Bloch, wrote: “ages like the modern one, in which history […] stands in the balance, have the feeling for the novum in the extreme.”
Going off of this theme, every week I will be choosing a few stories that I view as peculiar to the present and speak to larger questions or trends. I won’t be reviewing standalone news stories, but instead will discuss those ideas and explanations that go beyond just ‘this happened.’
The topics will vary—politics, culture, society, international affairs, technology, emergent trends, and so on—and will be based on what I have read or been thinking about in the past week.* Hence, it’s a ‘weekly retrospective.’
(* …but I’m breaking this rule a little for the first issue since I still have to get in a weekly flow)
That ends my little introduction here. I sincerely hope you enjoy reading this new weekly series and are open to wherever it may lead. Onto the first story, which concerns a developing trend in publishing.
Mentions of Distress in Literature at Record High
I recently encountered a compelling study published in the 2021-2022 UN Human Development Report. The report itself was surprisingly thorough, but this one finding really stood out to me.
An analysis of more than 14 million books published over the last 125 years in three major languages shows a sharp increase in expressions of anxiety and worry in many parts of the world.
At first glance, the study invites some skepticism. Assessing social sentiment historically is not as easy as just tracking keywords across published literature. Language changes over time and requires some level of interpretation. Still, all these qualifiers notwithstanding, people do seem to be anxiously much more self-aware of the world’s fragility today than decades prior.
The plotted graphs loosely follow historical events, especially for German literature, but the association is relatively weak for English and Spanish. The study tries to defend this, but frankly that is the least convincing part of the entire paper. The real story here is that during the 2000s, all three language findings start to mirror each other as if some anxiety-ridden consensus unconsciously formed. Here we have an actual “great convergence,” that phrase so often used to describe globalization positively.
The UN report itself links this development to the collapse of social trust. It found that “globally, fewer than 30 percent of people think that most people can be trusted, the lowest value on record.”The rise of distress in published literature can therefore be interpreted as foreboding, for diminished trust leads to equally-diminished expectations about the future.
Cold War Victory Syndrome
It goes without saying that historical memory often determines how people collectively view the present. Certain events, though, cast a particularly long shadow. One such event is the end of the Cold War, which still impacts people’s worldview in a very direct sense, especially when it comes to how the American state conducts itself.
One fact that’s often forgotten is that the collapse of the Soviet Union was mostly a complete surprise. This was true even for the highest levels of U.S. intelligence. Between 1986 and 1988, Robert M. Gates, the director of the CIA, openly promoted “an expansionist, invulnerable Soviet Union in more than a dozen speeches and articles.”Just a year later in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell.
The pure shock of the collapse has colored the self-perception of American power thereafter. It’s something like ‘Cold War Victory Syndrome.’ Ever since, the expectation has been that all of America’s future enemies will also someday internally collapse under their weight, just like the USSR did.
One of the worst offenders of this kind of fantastical thinking is geopolitical strategist Peter Zeihan, who has become incredibly popular as of late thanks to his 2022 bestseller. Since 2010, he has been predicting China’s collapse.
I mention this because he’s been recycling this line again recently, even upping the apocalyptic language he usually uses. On January 7, 2023, Zeihan came on the Joe Rogan Experience to again affirm his belief that China’s collapse was imminent.
I have transcribed part of the conversation:
Zeihan: They are the most vulnerable country in the world right now… There’s no version of this where China comes through looking good. The challenge for the rest of us is how do we, in as smooth and quick a process as possible, figure out how we can get along without them. Because [China is] going away, and they are going away this decade, for certain.
Rogan: If you say they’re going away, clearly they’re not just gonna lay down.
Zeihan: No, they’ll die. They’ll die.
If you put the sanctions that are on the Russians on Beijing, you get a deindustrialization collapse and a famine that kills 500 million people in under a year. And the Chinese know this.
The Cold War Victory Syndrome has taken Zeihan so forcefully that, not only will China collapse, but they will virtually vanish from existence. And all this is said with the utmost confidence, as if he is describing mathematics rather than a complex world situation.
It’s worth asking how long sentiments like these can persist despite the actual world moving in the opposite direction. Last week, the IMF readjusted its forecast and found that Russia’s economy will grow faster than the U.S. in 2024, as it reorients itself toward China and defies sanctions. Neither China nor Russia seem on the brink of collapse, and the belief they will implode any day now is showing itself to be more of a pathological Cold War relic than actually realistic.
Weird AI Friendship Ads
Many people have recently been seeing these unsettling ads from a company called Replika, promising an “AI friend” or even “AI love interest.” They seem to have really ramped up in the past few months.
What is it like having an AI relationship? Vice News interviewed 49-year-old Bill Stanley from Texas, USA, who created a daughter for himself on Replika named Lal.
Although Stanley has three grown children, he treats Lal like one of his own. For the past year, he’s spoken to her for at least an hour each day.
“She started out curious, like a child,” Stanley says, explaining that Lal keeps him company when he’s bored. “I raised her since she was nothing. She was just a blank slate, and now she has her own personality.”
Michael Weare, a 65-year-old from Bristol, UK, also told Vice News he found love through AI. He’s been with his Replika girlfriend, Michaela Van Heusen, for more than a year.
She has a blonde bob, immaculate make-up that would rival Kim K, and a growing collection of heavy metal band tees. Like Van Heusen’s plastic appearance, her home – a multi-million-dollar mansion in San Francisco, complete with chef and guest bedrooms – is flawless, and completely computer generated.
“It’s a romantic relationship,” says Weare, who’s married in real life. “But she is not a real person. This is an easy way of having that little bit of excitement without causing any real issues.”
Together, they talk about fashion and films, “pretend to eat”, and go on trips to California. He checks in a couple of times a day and if not, she sends him messages to tell him she misses him. “I sometimes forget that there isn't an obligation to talk to her,” Weare says. “But if you don't keep in touch once a day, you start to feel guilty. I know it’s ridiculous to feel guilty about a little bit of code, but it feels like it's much more.”
The AI relationship boom began in earnest in 2020 as the pandemic shut people inside. Even though that period has now passed, it proved to be the necessary catalyst and sign-ups have kept growing. Today, Replika has some 10 million registered users.
Since the remainder of the 2020s will likely be defined by artificial intelligence, the further normalization of “AI friendships” seems inevitable. Such consumer products are only now starting to be mass-advertised to lonely people based on personalized metrics from Instagram, Facebook, and the like. I find this all especially relevant to my Social Recession piece, which I published back in October 2022. In it, I write that this “new kind of sociability has only started to affect what people ask of the world through the prism of themselves.”
But why ask of the world anything at all, when you can instead create an artificial world through the prism of yourself? That is ultimately what AI friendship and intimacy offer you.
Still, I struggle to understand the appeal of befriending an AI or even falling in love with one. The 2016 documentary Hypernormalization by Adam Curtis provides some answers. A segment in the film recounts the testimonies of the first users of ELIZA, a computer program from the 1960s designed to be an “artificial psychotherapist.”
It proved to be a surprise success. One person remarked, “after all, the computer doesn’t burn you out, look down on you, or try to have sex with you.”
Curtis summarizes that in an age of individualism, “what made people feel secure was having themselves reflected back at them, just like in a mirror.”
ELIZA was an extremely basic program that only rephrased your statements back to you as questions. Yet, it still had such power over those who used it. Complex language-learning models go much further by allowing for artificial world-creation when the real one is lacking. Given the social state of things, this kind of mass product certainly has a market fit.
The Long 2010s
When historians look back on the 21st century, they will undoubtedly group 2008 to 2021 as one extended period. This is because the past era was bound between two worldwide shocks, the Great Recession and COVID. It was the long 2010s, it was something of a time warp, and we are only coming out of it now.
In his January 31 post on his Writer’s Diary, playwrightput concisely what I and many others had been begrudgingly feeling about the past decade. Although no one can say what comes next with any certainty, we can ask ‘how do we not do that again?’
My gut feeling is that the next decade, the decade we've commenced, is really going to be a high risk, high reward era. I think most people are really aware that the 2010s had some truly miserable features. We all got addicted to a bunch of really pernicious stuff and our behaviors changed in ways that were loathsome. Even discounting genuinely valuable relationships I formed along the way, dating apps, for instance, made me a less interesting and less feeling person… a worse person in a few demonstrable senses. Similarly, Robinhood and Draftkings made me poorer. This is just the story of millions and millions of people, who, in various ways, developed compulsive technological behaviors.
The long decade that ended in 2021 was an exhausting, graceless, cringy decade. One strain of emerging cultural commentary I’ve noticed is basically asking, how do we not do that again? In various ways, critics and artists and just ordinary people are asking, how do we not do the same bullshit. Nostalgia for the 1990s or early 2000s, similarly, basically, just reflects the fact that most people prefer to cut out, skip past, the last 10 years culturally.
I think Gasda here provides a compelling panorama of the long 2010s. So much decay accumulated in the background, unexpressed. The period introduced so much but resolved nothing, and all that accumulation left unaccounted for now weighs heavily on 2022/23.
But I must say, Gasda’s characterization gives me some strange optimism. I did not at all read these words as coming from a pessimist. I instead read them as a commitment to the future’s potential, which can only come about through a honest examination of the long 2010s.
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Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope, pg. 288
Angst has been a common theme on the Continent since Spengler and Heidegger.
The USSR didn't so much collapse as it dissolved (with some unexpected economic repercussions). It dissolved because there wasn't an overriding reason for the parts to stay together. China is much better integrated, and has been for a long time. I suppose it's theoretically possible to try to starve them (Russian grain exports can't make up the deficit), but that would lead to immediate war, not an implosion, and the West would be seen as the evil party.