Friday, September 22, 2023

This is the New 'Real World'

For my own later reference, and hopefully of use to a few MindBlog readers,  I have edited, cut and pasted, and condensed from 3960 to 1933 words the latest brilliant article generated by Venkatesh Rao at

The word world, when preceded by the immodest adjective real, is a self-consciously anthropocentric one, unlike planet, or universe. To ask, what sort of world do we live in invites an inherently absurd answer when we ponder what kind of world we live in. but if enough people believe in an absurd world, absurd but consequential histories will unfold. And consequentiality, if not truth, perhaps deserves the adjective real. 

Not all individual worlds that in principle contribute to the real world are equally consequential… A familiar recent historical real world, the neoliberal world, was shaped more by the beliefs of central bankers than by the beliefs of UFO-trackers. You could argue that macroeconomic theories held by central bankers are not much less fictional than UFOs. But worlds built around belief in specific macroeconomic theories mattered more than ones built around belief in UFOs. In 2003 at least, it would have been safe to assume this  - it is no longer a safe assumption in 2023.

Of the few hundred  consciously shared worlds like religions, fandoms, and nationalisms that are significant, perhaps a couple of dozen matter strongly, and perhaps a dozen matter visibly, the other dozen being comprised of various sorts of black or gray swans lurking in the margins of globally recognized consequentiality.

This then, is the “real” world — the dozen or so worlds that visibly matter in shaping the context of all our lives…The consequentiality of the real world is partly a self-fulfilling prophecy of its own reality. Something that can play the rule of truth. For a while.

The fact that some worlds survive a brutal winnowing process does not alter the fact that they remain anthropocentric is/ought conceits … A world that has made the cut to significance and consequentiality, to the level of mattering, must still survive its encounters with material, as opposed to social realities... For all the consequential might of the Catholic Church in the 17th century, it was Galileo’s much punier Eppur si muove world that eventually ended up mattering more. Truth eventually outweighed short-term consequentiality in the enduring composition of real.

It would take a couple of centuries for Galileo’s world to be counted among the ones that mattered, in shaping the real world. And the world of the Catholic Church, despite centuries of slow decline still matters..It is just that the real world has gotten much bigger in scope, and other worlds constituting it, like the one shaping the design of the iPhone 15, matter much more.

…to answer a question like what sort of world do we live in? is to craft an unwieldy composite portrait out of the dozen or so constituent worlds that matter at any given time …it is a fragile, unreliable, dubious, borderline incoherent, unsatisfying house of cards destined to die. Yet, while it lives and reigns, it is an all-consuming, all-dominating thing… the “real” world is not necessarily any more real than private fantasies. It is merely vastly more consequential — for a while.

When “the real world” goes away because we’ve stopped believing in it, as tends to happen every few decades, it can feel like material reality itself, rather than a socially constructed state of mind, has come undone. And we scramble to construct a new real world. It is a necessary human tendency. Humans need a real world to serve as a cognitive “outdoors” (and escape from “indoors”), even if they are not eternal or true. A shared place we can accuse each other of not living in, and being detached from…Humans will conspire to cobble together a dozen new fantasies and label it real world, and you and I will have to live in it too.

So it is worth asking the question, what sort of world do we live in? And it is worth actually constructing the answer, and giving it the name the real world, and using it to navigate life — for a while.

So let’s take a stab at it.

The real world of the early eighties was one defined by the boundary conditions of the Cold War, an Ozone hole, PCs, video games, Michael Jackson, a pre-internet social fabric, and no pictures of Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, or black holes shaping our sense of the place of our planet within the broader cosmos.

The real world that took shape in the nineties, the neoliberal world to which Margaret Thatcher declared there is no alternative (TINA), was one defined by the rise of the internet, unipolar geopolitics, the economic ascent of China, The Simpsons, Islamic terrorism, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of politics ceasing to matter against the backdrop of an unstoppable increase in global prosperity.

That real world began to wobble after 9/11, bust critical seams during the Great Recession, and started to go away in earnest after 2015, in the half-decade, which ended with the pandemic. The passing of the neoliberal world was experienced as a trauma across the world, even by those who managed to credibly declare themselves winners.

What has taken shape in the early 20s defies a believable characterization as real, for winners and losers alike. Declaring it weird  studiously avoids assessments of realness. Some, like me, go further and declare the world to be permaweird…the weirdness is here to stay.

Permaweird does not mean perma-unreal. The elusiveness of a “New Normal” does not mean no “New Real” can emerge, out of new, and learnable, patterns of agency and consequentiality…the forces shaping the New Real are becoming clear. Here is a list off the top of my head. It should be entirely unsurprising.

1 Energy transition
2 Aging population
3 Weird weather
4 Machine learning
5 Memefied politics
6 The slowing of Moore’s Law
7 Meaning crises (plural)
8 Stagnation of the West
9 Rise of the Rest
10 Post-ZIRP economics
11 Post-Covid supply chains
12 Climate refugee movements

You will notice that none the forces on the list is particularly new or individually very weird. What’s weird is the set as a whole, and the difficulty of putting them together into a notion of normalcy.

Forces though, are not worlds. We may trade in our gasoline-fueled cars for EVs, but we do not inhabit “the energy transition” the way we inhabit a world-idea like “neoliberalism” or “religion.”

Sometimes forces directly translate into consequential worlds. In the 1990s, the internet was a force shaping the real world, and also created a world — the inhabitable world of the very online — that was part of the then-emerging sense of “real.”

Sometimes forces indirectly create worlds. Low-interest rates created another important constituent world of the Old Real …Vast populations in liberal urban enclaves lived out ZIRPy lifestyles, eating their avocado toast, watching TED talks, riding sidewalk scooters, producing “content”, and perversely refusing to be rich enough to buy homes.

Something similar appears to be happening in response to the force of post-ZIRP economics. The public internet, dominated by vast global melting-pot platforms featuring vast culture wars, appears to be giving way to a mix of what I’ve called cozyweb enclaves and protocol media,…This world too, will be positioned to consequentially shape the New Real as strongly as the very online world shaped the Old Real.

I won’t try to provide careful arguments here, or justify my speculative inventory of forces, but here is my list of resulting worlds being carved out by them, which I have arrived at via a purely impressionistic leap of attempted synthesis. Together, these worlds constitute the New Real:

1 Climate refugee world
2 Disaster world (the set of places currently experiencing disaster conditions)
3 Dark Forest online world
4 Death-star world (centered on the assemblage of spaces controlled by declining wealth or power concentrations)
5 Non-English civilizational worlds (including Chinese and Indian)
6 Weird weather worlds
7 Non-institutional world (including, but not limited to, free-agent and blockchain-based worlds)
8 Trad Retvrn LARP world
9 Retiree world
10 Silicon realpolitik world
11 AI-experienced world
12 Resource-localism world (set of spaces shaped by a dominant scarce resource like energy or water)

These worlds are worlds because it is possible to imagine lifestyles entirely immersed in them. They are consequential worlds because each already has enough momentum and historical leverage to reshape the composite understanding of real. What climate refugees do in climate refugee world will shape what all of us do in the real world.

World 4 is worth some elaboration. In it I include almost everything that dominates current headlines and feels “real,” including spaces dominated by billionaires, governments, universities, and traditional media. Yet, despite the degree to which it dominates the current distribution of attention, my sense is that it has only a small and diminishing role to play in defining the New Real. When we use the phrase in the real world in the coming decade, we will not mainly be referring to World 4.

World 11 is also worth some elaboration. One reason I believe weirdness is here to stay is that the emerging ontologies of the New Real are neither entirely human in origin, nor likely to respect human desires for common-sense conceptual stability in “reality.

For the moment, AIs inhabit the world on our terms, relating to it through our categories. But it is already clear that they are not restricted to human categories, or even to categories expressible within human languages. Nor should they be, if we are to tap into their powers. They are limited by human ontology only to the extent that their presence in the world must be mediated by humans. … they will definitely evolve in ways that keep the real world permaweird.

Can we slap on a usefully descriptive short label onto the New Real, comparable to “Neoliberal World” or “Cold War World”?  

There is no such obviously dominant eigenvector of consequentiality in the New Real, but the most obvious candidate is probably global warming. So we might call the New Real the warming world. Somehow though, it doesn’t feel like warming shapes our experience of realness as clearly as its predecessors. Powerful though the calculus of climate change is, it operates via too many subtle degrees of indirection to shape our sense of the real. Still, I’ll leave the phrase there for your consideration.

An idiosyncratic personal candidate … is magic-realist world. A world that is consequentially real and permaweird is a world that feels magical and real at the same time, and is sustainably inhabitable: but only if you let go a craving for a sense of normalcy.

It offers unprecedented, god-like modes of agency that are available for almost anyone to exercise…The catch is this — attachment to normalcy equals learned helplessness in the face of all this agency. If you want to feel normal, almost none of the magical agency is available to you. An attachment to normalcy limits you to mere magical thinking, in the comforting company of an equally helpless majority. If you are willing to live with a sense of magical realism, a great deal more suddenly opens up.

This, I suspect, is the flip side of the idea that “we are as gods, and might as well get good at it.” There is no normal way to feel like a god. A magical being must necessarily experience the world as a magical doing. To experience the world as permaweird, is to experience it as a god.

This is not necessarily an optimistic thought. A real world, shaped by god-like humans, each operating by an idiosyncratic sense of their own magical agency, is not necessarily a good world, or a world that conjures up effective collective responses to its shared planetary problems.

But it is a world that does something, rather than nothing, and that’s a start.

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