The Coronavirus is a Psychedelic
Opening the gate for a new century of virtual reality, digital nomadism, cryptocurrency, and hallucinogens.
The question on everyone's minds right now is if a vaccine will be a "system restore" to the way things were in 2019. Once the era of social distancing is past us, will there be second-order effects from the hysteria? Johns Hopkins ran a pandemic simulation event in late 2019, and they projected that an event like this (of a coincidentally similar scale), would have social, economic, and political shock-waves lasting up to a decade.
Another point of view: there is no going back. The virus is a catalyst that is igniting a century-long societal shift that we are only just beginning to feel. In many ways, the coronavirus is like a psychedelic - but not a wide-eyed kaleidoscope of wonder, more like a terrifying Datura odyssey.
At a personal level, the pandemic has cut us off from our normal rhythms, forcing some to experience the long-term effects of a psychedelic trip (without undergoing the formal act of hallucinating): a revelation, a change in priorities, a change in habits, a change in scenery, introspection, anxiety, a health-scare. Like all trips, we will come down, but things will be different on the other side.
The virus is acting as a psychedelic at an institutional scale as well. It will cause old institutions to buckle, opening a gate for ideas, technologies, and lifestyles from the underground to emerge and fuse into a new civic order.
Psychedelics act on language-based structures in our mind, like our beliefs about the world. A "trip" can dissolve weak structures, leaving a void for new or subconscious structures to take form. The act of this happening can feel like a crisis. It's common for people to resist it, but it's sometimes necessary. Ego can grow stale if unaudited, and it can become detrimental to the "host." The act of dissolving the ego, letting the subconscious in, and then solidifying a new whole is an alchemical process called "individuation" by Carl Jung.
Our institutions and markets are a representation of our collective ego. They've been unraveling over the last few decades: unease in Corporate America, real-estate bubbles, runaway inflation, national debt, the mechanics of Congress, the public lack of trust in authority, the degradation of the news and our information systems, radical ideologies, etc. The virus didn't cause any of these symptoms, but it amplified them and made them more public. An impending sense of "collapse" has spread from obscure subreddits to general consensus. Before anyone saw a virus coming, the 2020s have been anticipated to be a multi-dimensional "meltdown" of sorts.
There is an idea called the "Strauss-Howe generational theory" about historical recurrence. Even though history has a degree of linearity to it, there are elements of the human psyche that are unchanged, resulting in "sociological" loops. The American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War 2 are all around 80 years apart (which is the length of an average human life span, or, a "Saeculum"). If you analyze every Saeculum within the last few hundred years, there are 20-year phases called "turnings," each with a distinct character (a high, an awakening, an unraveling, a crisis). This theory came around in the 1990s, and lead many to predict that something crazy was on it's way between 2005 and 2025. People are now saying that the 2008 recession was the pre-tremor, and that COVID could ignite a historical economic storm in the first half of the decade.
Every saeculum ends in a crisis, but then leads to a new cycle that starts with a high. This is optimistic! The societal turbulence that might follow the pandemic is not the end of times, but a metamorphosis. If the patterns behind "The Fourth Turning" unfold in our own timeline, it means our next Saeculum will be defined by the counter-cultural trends of our last one. The Great Awakening in the colonies shaped a new America, just as the Transcendental Awakening shaped a post-slavery America, and the Progressive era shaped post World War 2 liberal democracies.
The rise of the internet in the 90s, the current rise of VR, the Beat Generation of the 50s, the Consciousness Revolution of the 60s, the advent of Bitcoin after the 2008 financial crisis: all of these things might fuse together to shape what a 21st century post-COVID America looks like. The pandemic has given us a low fidelity glimpse our future. The following image is a strange one, but it isn't new - it's based on our past:
Communications technologies will approach the realm of magic, lifestyles will be based around flexibility and autonomy, decentralized networks will compete with monopolies, and a new religious movement could spawn based on how regulators grant access to hallucinogens.
Here are some essays that look into how the currents we see today will extrapolate forward to shape the 21st century. One day (or never), I'll expand this into a long-form essay.
- Part 1: The age of the internet (telepresence) - virtual reality
- Part 2: Gen Z & the Beat generation (demographic) - digital nomadism
- Part 3: A New World Order (conflict) - cryptocurrency vs. data-giants
- Part 4: Religious awakening (awakening) - psychedelics
The Age of the Telepresence
Remote Work vs. Teleportation
Many think "remote work" is a temporary blip that will become less relevant the more we move past the pandemic. The most long-standing effect people anticipate are a "hybrid model," where people get to work from home for 2 days a week.
But the pandemic might have set the stage for the 21st century to be the "century of telepresence." It gave people a glimpse of all of the advantages of location independence, even though it was a buggy fear-ridden trial run. Video conferencing will not be the silver bullet that kills Corporate America. In 2022, there will be good reason to going back to the office. But it opened people's minds and planted a seed. When magic-grade communication technology on par with teleportation comes around, people will be ready to accept it.
It's funny how the "future of work" is associated with 2003 Skype-era technology. As useful as video conferencing has been during this pandemic, everyone got to experience the annoyance of staring at real people through a flat screen for hours. Some have associated that annoyance as an inherent limitation of remote work. It's not, because video conferencing isn't the final form of telepresence.
Communication technology has had a sole mission since the early days of carving lines into papyrus fragments: connect people across space and time. It started as abstract symbols, which conveyed the intent of a person. It later evolved to include sensory representations, which included images, sounds, and video of people. The upcoming and final form of communication technology is "simulation," in which the presence/perception/consciousness of a person can be shot through Internet tubes.
Zoom might be the highest form of "sensory representation" we have, but "simulations," will remove the screen and put you in the same room with someone from across the world.
Virtual reality is still young. The hardware is finally accessible, and we can already experience some of the benefits of simulations over representations. But we're nowhere near having the infrastructure for a "Metaverse" that could under-pin a global and location independent society. VR did see somewhat of an uptick during the pandemic, but it by no means was the tide-shifting moment VR.
Generation Z & the Beats
According to the Strauss-Howe generational theory, the historical loops we're tangled in shape not only the nature of events, but the ethos of the people. The pandemic has shifted the way many are thinking about where they live, what they own, and the work they do. One way to interpret what is happening is to think that the digital nomad lifestyle is becoming more possible and relevant. But another way to forecast the cultural ethos of the next generation is to look back farther; to imagine a similar generation from the 20th century, but in a new historical and technological context.
Generation Z (born after 2005) could emerge out of our current crisis with the counter-cultural ethos of the "Beat Generation" (1950's), except now as the dominant cultural ethos. The irony here is that the Beats rejected materialism. The ways of life that were reserved for delusional vagabond artists are now becoming normalized by the products and networks of billion dollar technology companies. This isn't to say that owning an iPhone in 2030 will turn you into a literary genius, obsessed with peyote, Ralph Waldo Emmerson, and group orgies. It's more like Silicon Valley is unknowingly extracting the facets of the Beat lifestyle that are appealing to modern mass audiences with low-risk tolerance, while discarding the radical elements of the culture.
A smart phone lets us shed our possessions. You don't need a camera, calculator, typewriter, pen, or book. It's a digital multi-tool that accidentally spread the ethos of minimalism. You can take off in a car without luggage and go wherever you need to go. Except you don't own a car. You beam your intent to an ant-colony of robot drivers, who will be at your curb in 2 minutes. Hitch-hiking isn't free, but it's convenient. You end up at a single family house in a city you've never been to. You don't own it. You never plan to own anything. You jump from couch to couch, touring the cities of America, using wifi to connect with your co-workers, who also, live in a cloud.
The next generation will be about flexibility, spontaneous experience, and personal destiny. These were core "primitives" of the Beat Generation, and the Consciousness Revolution that followed in it's path. It used to be a risk to pursue those things, meaning ones who pursued it were generally "out there." But when these 3 things becoming common for the average person, it's bound to twist and change the mindset of the mainstream ethos.
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