Discover more from The End of the World Almanac
The Tenth Dispatch
The earliest use of the word almanac in any language was by Roger Bacon in the year 1267, where it referred to a list of tables on the movement of the heavens. But the heavens were not then a vast cosmic timepiece—nor so in ancient Babylon, when such tables were first invented. They were something closer to a spirit, a living mystery whose vital throb held sway over the mortals cowering underneath. An almanac in Bacon’s time was a horoscope for the world, where one might hope to divine clues to the future: a drought, a plague, a war between princes. They recorded auspicious and inauspicious days and suggested the best times for prayer and travel.
After Galileo and Newton, that throb became instead the gear-ticks of a giant mechanism. Almanacs in the modern era were more like train schedules than horoscopes, indicating times to rise and rest, sow and reap. Festival days, once a glorious mess of local custom, where the same saint might be celebrated a thousand ways, were now aligned thanks to the heavenly regularity of God’s wristwatch. If yours wound down, no matter. Simply consult the almanac and reset the hands by the sunset that evening, predicted to the minute years in advance.
But then something amazing happened. We discovered some gears of the clock, when separated, will go on turning as if by magic. Some spontaneously swap places. Others work only when no one is looking.
When Roger Bacon looked at the night sky, he saw the eternal looking down. We see a flux paradox, where irreconcilable facts coexist as particle and wave and the sun rises and sets for everyone at the same time.
This is a handbook to that world, the world that ends tomorrow, when everything will be different.
When it changes, it will have always been that way. We find no difficulty in this. In any casual situation, a succession of changes would be met with increasing skepticism. If your cousin called off two earlier engagements, you would be genuinely suspicious of the wedding invitation you got in the mail.
But humans define our reality socially. That is how our brain works. It tells us it’s an independent agent, but in fact it’s networked and cannot function otherwise. Updates to our reality are passed from node to node like security patches to an operating system. Each successive change is not greeted with increasing skepticism but rather the reverse. That a collective belief changed is taken as evidence that it’s the best, latest, greatest information, surely much better than the silly thing we believed yesterday—even, or perhaps especially, if what we believe today is the literal opposite of what we believed yesterday, which we saw repeatedly during Covid.
That is, of course, if we even recall what we believed yesterday. Most of the time we don’t. Our networked brains are parsimonious and quickly let go of what they think they don’t need, which is of course self-reinforcing. Without the past, there’s nothing to impeach the present.
We say that those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. That has been the trend. At no point after losing a war they started do people say, “Well, that didn’t work out. But at least we tried!”
And yet, here we are tempting World War III.
In fact, it’s not about lessons. Not at all. It’s that we believe—quite fundamentally—that we are different than those who came before, that we are better. After all, those people hadn’t achieved what we’ve achieved. More than that, they believed a lot of rather silly things that we now know not to be true.
This is why we repeat the mistakes of the past, why the Ivy League policy hawks helming US foreign policy didn’t learn from the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan any more than the Soviets learned from the British before, despite all of them having studied history in school.
We’ve had ALL THE LESSONS for literally millennia. Throw as many as you want at us; we won’t budge. Lessons have made no difference because at each moment, those who occupy the present, as we do now, don’t believe they apply to them.
In the 20th Century, history gave us what is surely the closest we will ever get to a true, experimental test of a politico-economic system. Two countries were selected, one in the East and one in the West. These countries were contiguous with their people. They shared a common history, a common currency, a common language. These countries were split. One half was given communism and the other something else.
The lessons of North Korea and East Germany are clear. But we keep debating communism—under different names, of course—because we’re certain that what we believe now isn’t what anyone believed before. How could it be? We have the latest, greatest thinking. None of the old lessons could possibly apply.
Lists are the outsourcing of memory and the means by which is it emptied. To be in control of lists, then, is to be in control of memory.
Governments of the modern era were famous for making lists because a fixed, mechanical world cannot be changed; it can only be forgotten. It was necessary, then, to deplete memory to maintain control.
“It appeared that there had even been demonstrations to thank Big Brother for raising the chocolate ration to twenty grams a week. And only yesterday […] it had been announced that the ration was to be reduced to twenty grams a week. Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours? Yes, they swallowed it. The eyeless creature at the other table swallowed it fanatically, passionately, with a furious desire to track down, denounce, and vaporize anyone who should suggest that last week the ration had been thirty grams. Was he, then, alone in the possession of a memory?”
—George Orwell, 1984
The “vast Russian conspiracy” to “interfere in our election” was “bigger than Watergate.”
—Hillary Clinton, 2017
But we no longer inhabit a fixed world. Ours is increasingly digital, and in a digital world, reality itself can be altered. Not a virtual reality but the common living reality shared by any group of networked brains.
This is the origin of narrative warfare, which is a war for control of the social metaspace, where “misinformation”—which is to say, a fact or point of view from another metaverse—must be forcibly excluded for the dominant reality to cohere.
By itself, this is not new. Religions in particular have been practicing this kind of alternate-reality-exclusion for centuries. What’s different is that traditional religions and their adherents were aware of the program. Indeed, the absolute necessity of stamping out the devil meant that the faithful had to know their role. Hence the rituals around persecuting heretics—drowning a witch to save her soul and the like.
We are again labeling and persecuting heretics, but in the contemporary case, those in the mob are not aware that’s what they are doing or that the orthodoxy they’re defending even exists. On the contrary, most think of themselves as outsiders, even as they gather online to celebrate the punitive actions of universities, corporations, government, and state security services. (Actual outsiders would be at odds with such institutions, which speaks to the depth of the self-deception.)
But there are different classes of heretic. It is one thing, however dangerous, to espouse that which must not be true (regardless of whether it is). It is another thing entirely to expose the fourth wall, for on that every truth depends.
Special terrors are reserved for them.
“This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.”
—Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (1970)
The digital world likes lists. A record is simply a list of data, which makes a database nothing but a giant list of lists. Our inclusion on the list of lists is binary, like computer code. No human is wholly bad—or wholly good, for that matter—but if you are on the No Fly list, or the Sex Offender list, you don’t get a temporary pass for carpooling or helping your neighbor clean his flooded basement.
There are those who feel safer with walls and those who feel safer with lists, but most people prefer both while pretending to prefer neither. Add hypocrisy to the list that includes death and taxes.
Here is a list of clandestine US government lists:
Project MINARET, along with its sister, Project SHAMROCK
"I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions, and assembled them together in China and Indostan. From kindred feelings, I soon brought Egypt and all her gods under the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas: and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshiped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brahma through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me. Siva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris. I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud."
—Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821)
We are a species of large ape. We are not like a species of large ape. We are a large ape. We differ from other apes only in the depth and sophistication with which we purue our animal lusts, and if we fall, it will not be because of the wrong-thinkers in some other tribe or those in power but because each of us was too frail and punitive to hold it all together.
The world is in such a bad way now that it’s once again in fashion to look on the bright side, in much the same way that by the end of the 1960s, everyone was tired of hearing how awful everything was and just wanted to teach the world to sing—and buy them a Coke.
Every people who occupy the present believe they are special. Those who occupy the present in 200 years will look back on us in much the same way we look back on those who lived 200 years ago. Those in the future will have achieved more than us (one hopes), and much of what we believe now will likely look quaint or even silly, like drowning a witch to save her soul.
You’d think at some point we’d learn humility.
It’s not that there isn’t hope. We can and have made strides. And several of the problems we face today are entirely novel. We’ve never had so many people that we’re in danger of breaching planetary limits, which only happened because we made such strides conquering the first immediate problems of hunger and disease.
But such strides typically come only in response to great catastrophe. It took repeated deadly outbreaks for us to finally address the problem of clean water. It took the Great Depression for us to enact even modest regulation of greed. It’s likely we’ll address our current problems in much the same fashion, which is to say, only after the situation gets much worse for everyone.
That’s not a guess. That’s a lesson. If true, it’s actually a cause for optimism even as we rightly prepare ourselves and our families for unexpected calamity—which we now know should not be so unexpected. Pain is our only motivation to compromise, which is a terrible inconvenience when our belly is full.
This is why we need The Almanac—because (unfortunately) it is shaping up to be an interesting century.