consensus reality

Today I published a piece I've been working on for a while, asking a question that's fascinated and terrified me: what has lockdown done to our sense of consensus reality? You can read it here

(Regular readers of this newsletter will remember me asking for suggestions for people to speak to at the beginning of the process. Thank you so much to everyone who replied! The recommendations were hugely helpful.)

The piece was written before the US election, though, and it's worth looking at what's happened since through the same lens. I think the central thesis has only got stronger: the basic facts of reality are no longer shared by all members of society. Whether Trump won the election, whether there was massive voter fraud, whether bundles of ballots were being wheeled in to Nevadan polling stations – there are people who believe as firmly these things are true as others believe they are false.

This isn't going away, obviously. Whether or not Trump's coup attempt succeeds – and I don't think it will, if only because I don't think he's doing a very good job of trying to make it stick – a significant chunk of the US believes he is the rightful winner of the election. Expect him to spend the next four years as a sort of presidential antipope, having a grand old time in Mar A Lago, delivering "presidential decrees" to an audience who view him as their rightful leader, and generally just fucking everything up.

At the same time, I think some trends that fit in this narrative will prove to be mirages. I don't, for instance, think the current right-wing exodus to Parler – think "Twitter but for people who like to shout 'triggered'" – will stick. It certainly fits the idea of a breakdown in consensus reality, because what could be more broken than left and right existing in completely separate planes of digital existence? But in practice, I think one crucial aspect of the breakdown in consensus is actually the continued mixing of differing groups. 

Groups harden based on a common enemy, after all. If you don't know what the other side believes to be true, you don't have a guide as to what you should believe to be false. If you genuinely have no idea what your opponents believe, then over time, you may even start to converge on the same beliefs – because, after all, there is a literal reality underlying all of this, and it takes work, and concerted effort, to disbelieve it.

So the QAnon-verse, and the world of anti-vaxxers, and the 5G truthers, exist in symbiosis with, rather than pure opposition to, the mainstream/the libs/the truth. Some will try to fully cut themselves off, but the movement as a whole can't.

Plus, frankly, far to many of these people define themselves by their behaviour against enemies. If you believe the things you believe to own the libs, and the libs don't even know what you believe… who's really owned?

As I was writing this, my friend Ryan's newsletter arrived, and he's hit the same basic point in his own style:

The idea that the American right wing will all migrate to Parler is, of course, a total farce. Thanks to the political influence of both Gamergate and Trump’s weaponization of Twitter, there actually isn’t a coherent way to express right-wing ideology anymore without online harassment and abuse at its center. Being a Republican without antagonizing liberals is like doing improv without an audience. It’s the reason subreddits and 4chan boards constantly go on raids, invading left-wing Twitter threads and attacking progressive Tumblr users. Without an Other to demonize, and then vanquish, the entire movement would feel completely hollow, pointless, and, most detrimentally for Trump and his allies, boring.

Social media is a video game and Parler is a map without enemies to defeat. So, no, Parler will not catch on. Just as Gab never caught on. But we can let these miserable con artists pretend for a while!

(Sign up to Garbage Day, it's great.)


I've been listening to the work of Ben Prunty the last few days. He's a chiptune composer, best known for his soundtracks to FTL: Faster Than Light and its follow-up Into The Breach; the tracks themselves are mellow bleeps and bloops, very good for working to, but still atmospheric and melodic enough to count as "music" and not "muzak". 


I didn't recommend Hades here, though I've been recommending it everywhere else. I might write a fuller newsletter on it in a bit, but for now, let me say that there's only a month and a half of this year to go, and it's currently the game of the year for me. Pick it up now, on Switch or Steam.