Hic Sunt Dracones

We are in a period of extended turmoil that might informally be called the “omni-crisis.” There is no clear resolution in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic and the various material, psychological, social, economic, and political disruptions it has directly or indirectly produced or accelerated. Escalating civil unrest without an obvious off-ramp now follows in its wake. This moment may pass (hopefully sooner rather than later) and be memory-holed as a particularly nasty but ultimately temporary lapse of collective judgment. If this indeed occurs, this post will likely seem overly dramatic in its warning of a great rupture in the fabric of social space-time. Or current events may be far more sinister and consequential in nature than depicted here. In which case this post may seem overly naive in its refusal to directly entertain the worst-case scenarios. Consider this non-exhaustive list of factors simultaneously operative in America this month:

  • Historically unpopular and divisive President
  • The prospect of contested 2020 general elections
  • Intense political factionalism and micro-factionalism
  • Widespread economic devastation
  • Fraying social safety net
  • 100,000+ dead from a pandemic
  • Half-implemented lockdown
  • Rising US-China tensions
  • US exit from international institutions
  • Widely televised images of security force brutality against civilians
  • Nationwide protests, riots, and clashes
  • Clampdowns and threats of further and more severe crackdowns

What do all of these things together mean in totality? Nothing. But also everything. Do not needlessly panic. However, the longer the omni-crisis continues, the narrower and narrower the window for escaping from it without substantial damage will be. But, you say, haven’t we suffered enough? Look at the damage we have already incurred! To butcher a saying applicable to a totally different context, there is plenty of room at the bottom. People grow acclimated to things thought previously intolerable, causing them to (rightly) fear even more terrible outcomes. By our own merits, we’ve already adjusted to a level of uncertainty about social arrangements that we previously thought intolerable. And we may adjust ourselves again sooner than we think.

“Is this as bad as 1968?” is an utterly meaningless question precisely for this underlying reason. People do not invoke 1968 because of the objective similarities between 2020 and 1968. They do so because we have crossed a threshold at which basic foundations of social organization we take for granted now seem up for grabs. This is an inherently subjective determination, based on the circumstances of our present much as people in 1968 similarly judged the state of their worlds to be in flux. 1968 is an arbitrary signpost on an unfamiliar road we are driving down at breakneck speeds. You can blast “Gimme Shelter” on the car stereo for the aesthetic, but it’s not worth much more than that.

The trouble began with the virus. The virus – and the confused and incoherent response to it – shattered patterns of normal life and normal perceptions of agency. The virus is novel, but the collective shock it evokes is a common reaction under such circumstances. Subjective perception of space and time lose coherence and structure, a looming “sense of a foreshortened future” dominates, and the ability to imagine institutional realities as self-perpetuating diminishes. A symptom of this is the manner in which people suddenly find themselves addicted to enormous amounts of raw, unstructured, information. There is little context that would allow one to dismiss any particular datum, hence everything is mainlined from the content firehose.

We memorize arcane terminology (“R0”, “IFR”, “CFR”, “flatten the curve”), eagerly consume and circulate contextless numbers, and follow the news ticker for each new arbitrary event. Long-term decision-making capacity decays because each day means less and less basis for the making of substantive binding commitments. Typical scenario analysis becomes less effective because scenarios in this mode are often deviations from a stable baseline. If no such baseline exists then scenario planning in the classical style becomes far less tenable. The omni-crisis is, of course, far more than just the virus but the virus’ utter indifference to human social mythologies makes it a fitting trigger for other cascading failures and heightened contradictions. What happens next? That has not yet been decided. And good luck trying to predict it.

What makes human behavior predictable is constraint. Some constraints are physical and biological. Humans beings are subject to physical law much as everything else in the universe is. That which goes up must come down. Force equals mass times acceleration. Likewise, though human lifespans can vary widely aging is a biological process all humans are subject to. On a related note, death – lurking somewhere in the future – is the ultimate constraint. Other constraints are fuzzier. Human short term memory storage capacity is limited but how and why it is limited is not as obvious. Additionally, it is commonly accepted that human minds are subject to physical limitations on information-processing and decision-making but whether or not this leads to biased and inaccurate thoughts and decisions is a hotly debated subject.

The weakest constraints of all are social constraints. Without norms, conventions, and institutions, humans would constantly need to evaluate their surroundings to get a sense of what their neighbors are doing prior to selecting actions. When these structures constrain behavior, humans can be “thoughtless.” We do not think, we simply do. Because it is the way things have always been done, and we do not need to think about it. We can take things for granted, and project out stable patterns for the duration of our lives. Social constraints flatten, canalize, and domesticate human behavior, and they are what largely make “social science” possible. The social scientist searches for stable regularities to document, but everyday citizens depend on them to go about life without worry.

When social constraints are weakened, the aggregate predictability of human behavior diminishes. Why? The weakening of constraints generates confusion. Things have always worked until they suddenly break. Things have always been decided for you until you have to suddenly decide on your own. Another way of thinking about social constraints – with a very long history in social science – posits them as involuntarily assigned expectations about the future. Prolonged and severe disruption of expectations without immediate prospect of relief accordingly should create greater variance in potential outcomes. The simplest way to understand the omni-crisis is as the sustained breaking of expectations and disruption of the ability to simulate the future forward using assumed constraints.

We ordinarily associate these periods with times of revolutionary change, imagining people pursuing goals they never previously imagined possible. We imagine great movements and organizations. There is some truth to this, but the reality is both far more banal and terrifying simultaneously. When institutional realities no longer appear to be self-perpetuating, people struggle to think a day or even a few hours ahead at a time. Tanner Greer captures the half-organized quality of collective decision-making in moments of disorder in describing the emergence of riots:

This then is the general pattern of riots: An event occurs that signals to would-be rioters that they may soon be able to riot. This event gathers a crowd. A significant percentage of this crowd—though rarely, it seems, the majority—are eager for destruction. An entrepreneurial would-be rioter tests the crowd for the presence of other rioters by engaging in a minor (yet easily perceived) act of carnage. Other rioters follow suit, and as the number of offenders grow so does their willingness to take increasingly brazen acts of vandalism, theft, or violence. Notice that this schema is value neutral: it describes both the football hooligan and the race rioter, 19th century Russian pogroms and 21st century Hong Kong street battles. In all of these a certain percentage of the participants plays the game for fairly mundane reasons: to revel in excitement or terror, lose themselves in a rare sense of solidarity, belonging, or power, or to simply gain the monetary rewards that come with theft and looting. The proportion of the population willing to join a riot to attain these things likely reflects the proportion of the population otherwise cut off from them in normal times. Few rioters are married men who must be at work at 8:00 AM the next morning.

As Greer hints, disruptions have historically cast an unflattering light on certain inconvenient aspects of human nature. Since ancient times, humans have understood that stability hinders the full expression of particular personalities that suddenly discover outlets in prolonged episodes of disorder and confusion. Greer describes a particular subset of them – people who suddenly acquire a means of satisfying desires for stimulation, community, revenge, fulfillment of generalized base emotions, money, and particular material goods. The outlet for this is collective anti-social behavior. But if we look beyond the singular event type of the riot, we can also see something similar at work in mass behavior.

Large numbers of people lack stable identities and preferences. They are easily influenced by whatever novel state or circumstance they find themselves in. They will follow the rebels one day and demand the gendarmes open fire on the aforementioned rebels the day after. Others systematically falsify their preferences. Moments of disorder may reveal they lack any principled desire to support the Powers That Be once visible authority weakens. But, alternatively, disorder also may reveal that they are willing to tolerate brutal violence against their fellow citizens out of fear or a desire for stability. Finally, there will always be ambitious and dangerous men and women who see disorder as an opportunity to exploit the passions, fears, and desires of others to attain power, glory, respect, and spoils denied to them during more peaceful and stable times.

No one really “owns” prolonged and often contested periods of disruption, making discussions of who is an insider and who is an outsider often hopelessly subjective in the abstract and highly contextual in the particular. There is always a large mass of people with a diversity of motives, attitudes, dispositions, and ideologies. And while many are unavoidably thinking in the short term, there is also a unequal distribution of planning capacity. Some can see multiple moves down the game tree. Others act more or less reactively and in a pre-programmed fashion. This applies both to people engaging in traditional risk-seeking behaviors as well as ordinary “normies” with families and suburban homes. And it certainly applies to the assorted mixture of professional and amateur propagandists seeking to shape perceptions behind the scenes.

Over the long scope of human history, the progressive saturation of external mechanisms for storing, transmitting, and modifying information makes so-called “stand alone complexes” more and more prevalent. A stand alone complex is copycat behavior without a true originating behavior. A rumored and heavily publicized action – not necessarily real but only supposed – can motivate a subset of people to imitate it. They move towards the same posited end as the behavior, even if the behavior itself never originally took place. People acting individually thus can cooperate unknowingly towards that end as if they acted in a pre-planned manner. While the term was popularized by science fiction, the actual fiction in question merely harkens back the turmoil of the 1960s and 70s and its wave of highly publicized militant actions. The tweet, in other words, recapitulates the photo or broadcast.

The present saturation of electronic media (television, radio, and online communications) also enables rapid and often whiplash-inducing swings of opinion among both elite tastemakers and plugged-in information consumers. These sudden swings, in which everyone is demanded to suddenly accommodate themselves to their group’s new consensus narrative, occur too frequently for anyone to hope to adapt to them. After each swing, the group makes a totalizing demand that the individual publicly submit to the new motto and signal support for it. Failure to do so results in both direct social pressure being suddenly applied to individuals as well as powerful individual fears of being severed from meaningful social connections. But with consensus ephemeral, another swing could be days or even hours or minutes away.

Above all else, prolonged disruptions tend to alter the calculations of those still capable of calculating at all during stressful times. Once-sure bets are cast aside, forcing hedging behaviors and consideration of previously taboo actions and operations. This becomes particularly dangerous during competitive or broadly zero-sum interactions. The most important variables for predicting what kinds of choices are made during such interactions are often unobservable to both observers and participants and only seem retroactively obvious. And the more convoluted the decision, the more untangling it requires thinking about what actors expect other actors to do given what they expect other actors to do, and so forth.

Let’s be clear. Responsibility is not equal. The omni-crisis drags on because there is little desire or ability on the part of authorities to resolve the confusion prolonged disruption generates. Their actions are often at negligent or irresponsible at best. At worst, they are deliberately malicious and hateful. Much more can and should be said about this. But the overriding message of this post is that the omni-crisis has significantly enlarged the space of possible outcomes beyond that normally considered day-to-day by most Americans. And it is not clear how many people in positions of influence and authority recognize this at all. They cheer on their favored factions and issue inflammatory declarations and demands. Do they know there are dragons where we are going? And, more disturbingly, do they even care?