Experiencing the passage of time during strange times.

Photo by Moritz Knöringer on Unsplash

As one year turns to another, the passage of time comes to the front of everyone’s mind.

At the very end of Charlie Brooker’s latest Netflix original “Death to 2021”, a gag that lands with profound weight comes from Zero Fournine, an eerily realistic satire of a Silicone-Valley mogul ably played by William Jackson Harper. Critiquing Mark Zuckerberg’s plans for the Metaverse, he informs viewers that he has already created such an alternate reality himself, and that we have all been living in it since 2016.

It’s funny despite the fact that it is indeed wholly unoriginal. The idea that the very fabric of reality has somehow spun off trajectory in the last half-decade has been noted in so many other mediums that it is fast approaching cliché. Half-humorous conspiracy theories state that the death of David Bowie, a poet of one age who was a clear herald of the one that would follow, triggered this quasi-cosmic chaos. Social media users have popularised the term “Banter Timeline” to evoke the kind of unpredictability and bizarre culture-clashes that have characterised both the political and pop-culture spheres since 2016 — the kind that could only hitherto have been conceived of as parody. Perhaps most disconcertingly, the popularity of the idea that our universe itself might be a computer simulation, capable of glitching, has grown not just among ordinary people, but among certain corners of the scientific community as well. It ought not to be lost on us that popular film series The Matrix has just launched its Resurrection to an excited global audience.

This widespread remarking at the bizarre unfolding of events since 2016 means different things to different people.

‘Oumuamua, Image via BBC Science Focus Magazine

For many, this is a cosmic moment. ʻOumuamua, the first interstellar object ever observed to pass through our solar system, was discovered in 2017, once it had already entered and was on its way out of our solar system — launching a thousand theories that it might represent evidence of the return to our neighbourhood of alien life, which have long been entangled with the idea that the trajectory of human civilisation is being controlled from beyond our atmosphere. For others, this is a profoundly religious moment — a poll in 2020 found that 13% of Americans believe that the looming apocalypse and judgement day is the cause of a coming end of the world, and many Christians believe the pandemic represents a Book of Revelations-esque herald of the end. It isn’t just Christians who find themselves in such a mindset — we are indeed not living that long after the end of the Mayan Calendar’s cycle that dominated the proto-version of this debate in 2012. Hippy, rebel and folk culture has been talking of the “Dawning of the Age of Aquarius” in a way that hasn’t resonated in the collective consciousness since the premier of the musical Hair over half a century ago.

None of this is particularly scientific — although there equally scientific and popular theories that many seem to chime with. The notion that the world is governed by chaos theory is of course, more relevant than ever when you consider that every living human has been impacted in some way by the decision of very few people (indeed, perhaps one sole person) in Wuhan, China, to consume a certain meat product.

But much to the dismay of some, the fact that many of these narratives are unscientific is irrelevant. For millions, maybe billions, these ideas floating around in the world’s many cultures have resonance with the deeply unsettling experience of life in the last five years. The power of such theories, put forward in jest or with deadly (and I do mean deadly) seriousness, lies not just in the convenient way that they explain the world that we consume with dread through our multimedia platforms, but also in the way that they convince us that there is something inevitable about its collapse.

Netflix’s biggest release of the Christmas period — the now globally-popular Don’t Look Up, explores that with subtle maturity. From its opening moments you can’t help but find yourself agreeing, whether you are an optimist or pessimist about the prospects for humanity’s survival, with the idea running through each scene; that maybe we are too far gone to find the collective spirit to fight off our existential threats, and that worse, we might deserve to succumb to them.

Image via Screen Rant

But what stands out to me about such a widespread malaise in our sense of our prospects is the way that it hits a nerve at the heart of each individual’s personal experience of their own journey through time. Perhaps it is easier to conceive of the world as dominated by forces beyond our control that pull it towards apocalypse at a time when so many feel that they simply do not have control over their own lives, nor feel they can accurately say that their hard work, and obedience to social rules and norms, has led them to a better or happier place in life. A 2013 survey of American workers found that a majority believe themselves to be trapped in their jobs. The pandemic has put this on steroids — very few are they who can say that Covid has not radically disrupted their short-term plans, a reality that has a worrying and as yet unrealised impact on their long-term plans. The popular sitcom Superstore, in a stroke of breath-taking poignancy that it so often underplays in its comedy, introduced its Covid-era season with two episodes that completely changed the trajectory of its two main characters — echoing for millions the heartache of comparing pre-pandemic visions of our futures to those we have now. 2020 and 2021 have very much been felt not just as strange years, but as lost years. With such collective trauma, it is unsurprising that many feel their fates, along with that of the rest of the species, are out of their hands.

But this idea isn’t new. In fact, it has been grappled with by pretty much every crisis-era generation. A fantastic piece in The Atlantic just last week demonstrated that this conflict between feeling as though we have agency in the universe, and the sense that all we can do to seek a noble and meaningful life is respond to its infinite randomness and challenges, is the central meaning of the revered film It’s A Wonderful Life. Perhaps then, we have simply forgotten that in a world where forces beyond our control can disrupt what has for so long lazily been assumed to be the level playing field upon which humans pursue betterment in their own lives (particularly when comparing late-20th century generations to early 21st-century generations), we have both the personal agency to try to make the best of a bad situation and the collective capacity to respond to crises. That forgetfulness isn’t in itself a symptom of some modern mass hysteria and digital distraction, as many would have it. As with all great ideas, they must be rediscovered by each generation’s iteration of the collective consciousness — something John Stuart Mill tried to remind us of 162 years ago. Perhaps, as the idea of the Hero with A Thousand Faces demonstrates, we are as a species constantly being thrown out of our known, comfortable and well-ordered past and thrust into a chaotic and dangerous present, forced to take up the work of growing-the-hell-up and conquering uncertainty to shape a new, better life. It’s an idea that resounds through the centuries, and it excites many a Hegelian philosopher deeply.

If you can hold that idea to be true, then you can believe that we still have the capacity to overcome such pervasive uncertainty as would lead us to believe that with futility we are uncontrollably fumbling around in a simulation, or the end-times, or the “banter-timeline”. Indeed, we all reckon with the debate about whether or not our realities are our own when we remember that bizarre and almost-horrifying realisation that some minuscule decision in our past led us to meet that person, which led us to that job, which led us to that relationship, which led us to that town or that city, and so on. Randomness and chaos is the heart of our existence, but it doesn’t define our response to it. From the corners of our mass-digital pop culture, green shoots spring. Here is just one:

Image via StayHipp

Young people popularise the “Main Character” trend — a diffuse concept that shows up in memes and TikToks alike. A young person is seen in any life situation, music-playing, dressing in a way that is completely their own, experiencing some profound moment of individuality (gazing out of the window of a moving train, or walking down Oxford Street for the first time) that affirms they are in some meaningful way the main character. It would be all too easy to read narcissism into this, but I strongly (and perhaps, against-the-tide of popular opinion) believe that isn’t it. What’s happening is wonderful, profound, and important. People are reminding themselves of an important truth at the root of any self-conscious and empowered generation; that we are the narrators and central characters of our own stories, and we can define ourselves both in spite of and in recognition of the hardships of the timeline that we face. We might not be able to fully escape the forces that shape the world as we experience it (though we can, collectively, bend those forces), but we can certainly still live a life of individuality and agency in spite of them. We can live in a world that isn’t purely simulated; indeed, we can make sure that reality isn’t that alternate after all.

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