From Story to Setting


In today’s episode, I want to talk about a new phase in the pandemic, marked by a shift in the role of the pandemic itself from foreground story, to background setting of other stories. I also have a couple of interesting announcements at the end.

1/ So this week, several non-pandemic things are dominating the headlines, the big one in the US of course being the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis. Now this is of course a familiar type of story by now, except that this one has very low ambiguity, and has had a much more violent response, including the burning of a police precinct building last night.

2/ A couple of days ago as this was starting to unfold, a twitter user named Robert Evans voiced the opinion that the pandemic might not be the biggest story of 2020, to which another user named Mach0 replied with what I thought was a very astute comment: “I'm pretty sure now that coronavirus isn't the story. It's the setting.”

3/ Now that’s a very clever line, and is the inspiration for the title of today’s episode, From Story to Setting. I think the pandemic has entered a new phase, where it is no longer the front-page story, but it is definitely the background context for every story. For example, in this case, social distancing is an element in protests, and everybody involved is already on edge, so you get a more raw, high-tension version of the script playing out. The story is familiar, but it is playing out against a new kind of background.

4/ I want to unpack what it means to for a big, all-subsuming condition to evolve from story to setting. In the case of the pandemic, we can detect 3 phases. Phase 0 was when it was just a story. A regular news story from China. Phase 1 was when it became both the story and the setting. We are now entering the third phase, when it is primarily the setting.

5/ But this setting phase is not like other settings, which is why I don’t like the phrase “new normal.” There’s nothing normal about it. But it is definitely the background setting now, just not a normal or indefinitely sustainable one. But even unsustainable things can sometimes last a really long time, even decades.

6/ When I think about what this setting is like, the main thing that strikes me is that between Phase 0 to Phase 2, we’ve gone from a setting that was very stable, reliable, and well-understood by people in the foreground stories, to a setting that is very unstable, unreliable, and very poorly understood.

7/ In Phase 0, our knowledge of the context of the stories was strong. You didn’t have to think about how Starbucks worked for example. In Phase 1, the context began unraveling, but because we were in emergency mode with limited goals, we didn’t notice as much. Our questions about the setting in Phase 1 were limited to things like “how do I pay rent” or “where do I get groceries?”

8/ Phase 2 is different. We’ve sort of figured out band-aid responses to emergency concerns for the time being. The full force of our deep ignorance about this new context is just starting to hit us. How will new outbreaks happen? We don’t know. What happens to unemployed people when the emergency measures run out? We don’t know. How will we travel? We don’t know. How will geopolitics shift? We don’t know.

9/ Another way to think about it is in terms of the relationship of foreground and background knowledge. Story knowledge versus setting knowledge. In Phase 0, when things were normal, both were solid ground. You understood the story of your life and you understood the setting at about the same level. Your story knowledge was like a walled garden on solid land.

10/ In Phase 1, your story knowledge was still solid land, but your setting knowledge began turning into quicksand. Everything outside your immediate control became uncertain at a very basic level. The game that kids play in the US, the floor is lava, became a common metaphor for this.

11/ In Phase 2, the setting knowledge has gone from quicksand or lava or water — whatever you want to call it — to a hardening vacuum. Now that immediate emergency concerns are taken care of, the sheer weight of what we don’t know is becoming clear.

12/ So if the pandemic is a setting, we know what sort of setting it is: it is a vacuum-like setting. A vacuum of knowledge, where we just don’t know the answers to far too many questions we’re used to knowing the answers to. This is of course, not normal, so calling it a new normal is stupid.

13/ So what can we expect in this Phase 2? I’ve been reading about 3 major historical precedent events to make sense of this question: the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, and the reconstruction in the lead up to and after World War 2. And unfortunately, the grim news is that our situation actually most resembles the Black Death.

14/ So for those of you interested, the main books I’m reading about these three events are: Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror for the Black Death in Europe, which I’m halfway through, and live-tweeting, Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider for the Spanish Flu worldwide, which I’m just starting, and Arthur Herman’s Freedom’s Forge for World War 2 in the US, which I’ve almost finished. Today, I mainly want to compare our condition to the Black Death.

15/ So obviously, in many ways, the Black Death is the worst precedent: it was almost 700 years ago, the technology was far more primitive, and the pandemic itself was far worse. Somewhere between a third to half of Europe’s population died then, whereas today, it’s probably going to land at less than even the Spanish Flu, which was about 2%.

16/ But in many ways, the Black Death is the right precedent. It brought a bunch of strong historical forces, which had been building up pressure, to a crisis point. It ended a 500-year historical era, namely the European Middle Ages. It was followed by a century of chaos, when it felt like the world had ended, followed by an age of exploration and a very slow rebirth with the Renaissance.

17/ In the book, Tuchman spends only a couple of short chapters on the Black Death itself, where the main wave was 1348-1350, right in the middle of the 14th century. The big story arc of the book is the before/after. In the first half of the century, a lot of strong tensions and trends were developing. In 2 years, the Black Death accelerated those trends and brought them to a crisis point.

18/ The second half of the century, and most of the book, is about the world carved out by the Black Death. There’s curiously little about the pandemic itself. But it was clearly the setting for everything else that happened. For example, pervasive labor shortages shaped the economy, and a pervasive sense of being abandoned by god shaped the collective psyche.

19/ So before the Black Death, there were growing 3-way tensions among the three estates — clergy, nobility, and commoners. There was also tension within the third estate, as the new urban merchant class of bourgeoise was starting to separate from the general class of peasantry, including people in varying degrees of serfdom.

20/ So what happened? Before the Black Death, things were going through a 14th century version of what I’ve called the Great Weirding in our time, the period from 2016-20. I just started that essay series in last week’s newsletter if you want to check that out, btw. But 1300 to 1350 were a Great Weirding period for Europe in the Middle Ages, culminating in the Black Death. It took them almost 50 years where it took us 5 years because it was a slower era.

21/ Back then, Phase 0 was the early part of the Black Death when it was still confined to isolated parts of Italy. Phase 1 was when it had spread throughout Europe. Phase 2 started around 1350, and lasted the next fifty years. Hopefully, we’ll get done with our Phase 2 more quickly, but there’s no knowing.

22/ Now here’s the thing about the Phase 2 of the Black Death: it’s clear that everything basically broke at a very deep level, which is a very strong statement coming from me. I don’t like to call complex systems broken very often. Usually when people say that, they are just complaining that the system is working for somebody else rather than for them. But when the system doesn’t work for any of its human individual or institutional parts, or even to preserve and perpetuate itself, I think it is safe to say it is actually broken.

23/ The Black Death, arguably, broke the society of the European High Middle Ages. In the transition from high to late middle ages between 1350-1400 or so, it didn’t work for anybody very well. Not for clergy, with trust in the church falling apart, not for the nobility, with the culture of feudal chivalry unraveling into Hobbesian warfare and what we would today call a warlord condition, and certainly not for the bourgeoisie or peasantry of the third estate. And it didn’t even sustain itself. It was falling apart.

24/ Now that’s what a Phase 2 condition is, and that’s why you can’t call it new normal because it neither sustains, nor leads up naturally to a true new normal. In the case of Europe after the Black Death, everything collapsed, but it took more than a century for a true new normal to emerge, what we recognize today as the Renaissance, by the early 16th century.

25/ Historians apparently call this collapsed period the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages, which had 3 external triggers: a famine in 1315-16 as the prequel, the Black Death as the main event, and the start of what’s called the Little Ice Age towards the end. Socially and politically, this period was marked by the 100 years war, which was a straggling period of nearly continuous warfare rather than a single war.

26/ If you map it to today, you get a similar Crisis of Late Modernity. Our 3 events are probably the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, Covid19, and climate change coming up. If the Black Death is a good precedent, we can expect at least a few decades of a broken world that doesn’t work for anybody in it, and can’t sustain itself either. That’s the worst case scenario. Hopefully we can do better than that.

27/ Which brings me to the third part. Assuming a condition of pandemic-as-setting, where the setting is characterized by a vacuum of knowledge, what kind of life condition can you expect? The answer emerging is not pleasant. I think of it in terms of a disease I call meta-covid.

28/ Meta-covid is a disease that has 3 key symptoms in Phase 1: An altered sense of time perception, which I wrote about in Pandemic Time (April 10), and a sense of things going brrrr, as in the meme, which I wrote about in life go brrrr… (March 27), and a weird sense of purpose, even in people who are not particularly purposeful, and actually prefer a playful, purposeless life. In Phase 2, the Phase 1 symptoms get altered and new Phase 2 symptoms appear.

29/ The altered time perception starts to acquire a non-specific waiting character. It’s not a waiting for normalcy or specific re-opening milestones. It’s a sort of generic waiting, like the Samuel Beckett play, Waiting for Godot, or like waiting for salvation or an afterlife in a highly religious time like the 14th century.

30/ The life go brrr…. aspect also shifts, as the initial things going brrr… much of it which has a positive exhilarating feel, runs out of energy. But other things, much less positive, starts to spin up, and bad things start going brrr….We just saw an early example of a bad thing going brrr…. in Minneapolis last night.

31/ The sense of purpose also transforms. Instead of being energizing, it now feels like a burden you cannot get rid of, like Frodo carrying the One Ring to Mordor. There was an article in HBR talking about this, where a lot of leaders are talking about a sense of clarity and purpose that the pandemic has given them. The article warns that this is an emergency response exhilaration, and it can give way to regression, which is described as: “Then the second phase hits: a regression phase, where people get tired, lose their sense of purpose, start fighting about the small stuff, and forget to do basic things like eat or drink — or they eat and drink too much.”

32/ But maybe the biggest new thing in Phase 2 is two new symptoms. The first is that it becomes harder and harder to simply waste time. There is a sense of foreshortened future, where you cannot see past the unspecified thing you’re waiting for. So there’s a sense of time being limited, and a sense of pressure to get things done, and then do more things. It’s not guilt or responsibilities. You cannot get into the mood to waste time.

33/ The second related thing is that it becomes harder and harder to have fun, make jokes, and in general relax. People certainly try. There is a certain desperate kind of hedonism that can often take root. This happened in the wake of the Black Death in the upper classes of Europe. But there’s an undercurrent of despair and hopelessness that makes it not truly fun. It’s like partying at the end of the world.

34/ So that’s Phase 2: The pandemic has shifted from story to setting, it’s no longer dominating the headlines, but it has this sense of instability, ignorance, and uncertainty in the background contaminating all things. The system is breaking down, and failing to work for anybody, and not even sustaining itself. But a new thing seems very far away. Subjectively you have a meta-covid mental illness, characterized by an altered sense of time that’s like waiting for Godot, things going brrr… in bad ways, a weird sense of purpose giving way to a burdensome sense of responsibility, and increasing difficulty wasting time, or having fun.

35/ Like it or not, that’s where I think we’re headed. The immediate emergency response is over. A gradual unraveling is starting. Problems are compounding. There are fewer good and fun things in the balance. Life is slowly shifting from a positive condition to one of general despair. And based on the the Black Death, this could last long past the actual pandemic, as we go into a very deep reconstruction phase of civilization. I guess this is what the idea of a Dark Age covers.

36/ Maybe things won’t get that bad. Maybe there will be surprising positive things that pop up even as the negative things mount. Maybe the stories and setting both will turn more positive. But I think it’s important to mentally prepare for the worst case, even while you hope it doesn’t happen. So that’s it for the topic of this week, the pandemic shifting from story to setting, with a look at the precedent of the Black Death, and a look at this disease of meta-covid descending upon on all of us.

Two Announcements

Before I wrap up this episode, I have two announcements.

First, I have a new eBook out, a compilation of the 32 best newsletters from 2015-19, in a sequenced and curated form. It’s called Breaking Smart Archives: Selected Newsletters, 2015-19.

If you’re a subscriber, you already got free access to it a couple of weeks ago. If you’re not a subscriber, you can get it on the Kindle for $3.99 from Amazon. For those of you who joined recently, this eBook should be a good way to catch up on the first 5 years of this newsletter, before I switched formats recently and turned it into a subscription newsletter.

It was really kinda interesting selecting and sequencing the pieces for this volume, and the eBook is a good view of how we got to where we are in sort of a live journal format. This is the raw material that I’m hoping to treat in a better theorized form in my Great Weirding essay series, but in some ways, this collection of raw in-the-moment newsletters from that period conveys a better sense of the transformation we’ve been going through than any post-hoc theory I could make up.

Second announcement, for those of you who enjoy this short-form monologue podcast, and are interested in a more traditional conversational podcast, you may want to check out Scorpio Season, which is a conversation-format podcast I do with my friend Lisa. Episodes are weekly, and just over an hour typically, and our format is that each episode is based on a letter of the alphabet, and we make a list of topics that start with that letter and talk about them. We just recorded the 12th episode, for the letter L. You can find Scorpio Season on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google.