Nassim Taleb recently suggested a corollary to Moore’s Law which stated that every ten years collective wisdom degrades by half. As 2016 hurtles to a close you’d be hard pushed to say he was wrong. 2016 has been a royal clusterfuck of a year and it shows no signs of getting better from here and while I’m not going to argue that our descent into incomprehensible noise is responsible for the deaths of David Bowie and Paul Daniels I do think it goes some way to explaining some other aspects of the world. The whirlpool of information increase has led to us all living in a perpetual, nonsensical ‘now’. Living in it but not seeming to actually experience it in any coherent way, much less make sense of it. Of all the things there now is to know in all the world, one of the first media sensations at the beginning of this year revolved around thousands of people stopping what they were doing to watch other people stepping over a puddle.
Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff has described how the speed of the modern world has created a world of narrative collapse. A culture needs to be able to tell coherent stories in order to make sense of itself but the blizzard of media renders this almost impossible, at least in part because to tell a story takes time. And in an ever present now there is no linear time.
Politically the 20th Century was broadly two grand narratives playing against each other. People could to a certain degree take a side. But today these socio-political narrative boundaries are falling apart. Here UKIP appeals to huge segments of the white working class while the liberal left defend the right of minority religions to repress sexuality. England tugs its forlock and when the angry poor smash windows the polite liberal classes sweep up after them. Politics has become like bad television and worse internet clips. It IS bad television and worse internet clips
We’re snow blind from a blizzard of non-sequiturs and outright lies best personified by the anus faced boil Donald Trump. Trump is a narrative collapse. His speeches are like a stream of consciousness babble that reflects both the culture he’s emerged from and the idiocy of the people who aren’t even paying attention to him. He refers to previous grand narratives, but this is not as a narrative development. It is just the borrowing of an emotive line of dialogue from an earlier movie that his supporters saw once, in some distantly remembered past, and it makes them feel like there’s hope again. The fucking idiots.
He’s also a prime example of another of the symptoms of the Idiot Now. When the barrage of information becomes so complex it does what other complex systems do and becomes fractal like. We look at fractals on differing scales and see similar patterns and if we do this culturally the same thing happens. When we see repeated patterns culturally, without stopping to look at what may be a reasonable chain of cause and effect, we see Conspiracy. Donald Trump rose to political prominence on the back of the ‘birther’ conspiracy theory and he hasn’t held back from peddling them since. Our modern media, itself a feedback loop between opinion led (as opposed to fact led) 24 hour news channels , informed by a feedback loop of 140 character gibberish opinion, helps reinforce all of this in the creation of an abyss of stupidity that looks back into you if you stare at it for long enough. It makes you long for an apocalypse.
There is though, on the bright side, something else that feeds on the same bedrock of chaos as Trump and other modern politicians – comedy. In fact it may be one of the few things that could, in a sense make a sense of it. Jokes don’t need a long narrative – stories can act as vehicles for jokes but aside from a joke plot point here and there a story itself is rarely comical. A joke can be done in a sentence, Jimmy Carr thinks the shortest is ‘Venison’s dear isn’t it?’ 4 words and pretty funny though ‘Pretentious? Moi?’ from Faulty Towers is only 2 words and is funnier. The thing both of these do, which is common to a lot of jokes, is draw an automatic association in the mind of the listener that fills in the set up or the punch line.
This is just what Trump does in his rhetoric. He says something that may make no sense in the context but associates, without thought, to an already established myth in the mind of his supporter. The previous century of American myth-making and political emptiness does all the rest for him. In fact, from the perspective that the associations we bring to a joke can count as a set up or a punchline the word ‘Trump’ is quite a funny one word joke. It’s no coincidence then that, while this caliph of chaos is adept at exploiting the worst fears of the ignorant, he is also pretty funny. He has great timing, a dry delivery and is occasionally sharper than his speeches would suggest he was capable of. He also challenges assumption. Shock is almost boringly used by modern comedians and the surprise at some of what Trump has the gall to say is often met with an amused disbelief and yet another think piece about whether he actually wants to win. Perhaps he’s just Andy Kaufman in disguise, pulling a 30 year fast one on the world and this is the most elaborate punchline in human history. Despots being funny isn’t new incidentally. Stalin was a big practical joker, he once laughed uproariously after pranking a politburo member with a tomato on his seat. That’s not the best of jokes I’ll admit but it amuses me to think of the other politburo members laughing along awkwardly and continuing to laugh for hours for fear of being seen to be the first to stop.
And it’s interesting that while Trump entertains his crowds with humour the liberal ‘left’ are told that satire is dead and tiptoe toward a rerun of the 80s comedy cul de sac of political correctness. The ‘bad guys’, once the po faced patrons of power are now using comedy in their arsenal while the ‘good guys’ berate themselves over whether or not they’re using the correct pronoun. Here the arch cheerleader of Brexit, Boris, has made a political career out of being a buffoonish cartoon and even Theresa May seems to have employed a joke writer to pen quips she can’t deliver.