In 2016 many were waking each day to a palpable sense of anxiety. Some characterized this apocalyptically as an abiding feeling of doom. For others, though, it just felt like carrying around a weight they had no way to cast off. The rise of authoritarianism in the U.S. and across a widening range of societies was in part fueling this sense. How to put a finger on this feeling, what it amounted to, to name it? “Dread” struck me as most revealing. The notion drips with anticipation, of the unwanted at once sensed but ill-defined. When I mentioned the term to others they lit up, immediately recognizing its currency.
What then are the underlying conditions prompting this sense, and the social implications?
It’s not that there haven’t been periods of dread as a pervasive affective state in the past. Before he wrote his essay on fear, Kierkegaard had penned a less widely recognized reflection on dread. This is a condition he attributed to the concern that one could no longer unquestioningly resort to God as fixed moral guide and predictable arbiter concerning appeals for forgiveness of sins committed. If God is dead, Kierkegaard reasoned, we are reduced to a state of perennially unachievable redemption.
Kierkegaard made palpable the sense that is dread, even if the conditions prompting it widely today differ from those about which he was concerned. Dread implies a malaise, at least, a deep and pervasive dis-ease, at worst. It signals a widespread social unsettlement, an unbounded and uncontainable anxiety. Dread: Facing Futureless Futures sets out to map the driving social underpinnings of this sensibility in our times.
Some of the apparent prompts of dread today are easily discernible. The unsettling Trump years are credited with being the defining impetus. Brexit, not unrelatedly, would be another. One can broaden these socially engulfing events, in many ways suffocating for broad swathes of people even as they continue to animate disruptive support in other quarters. Both Trumpism and Brexit exemplified and reinforced the rapid rise of authoritarian political cultures across significant regions of the world. But the authoritarianisms that seemed to be taking hold, the unhinged statements and expressions, the unlimited and increasingly violent attacks on people and political structures are more symptomatic or expressive of dread than the driving causes, even as they have served to exacerbate the affective state. The underlying causes are deeper, structurally more pervasive and difficult to address. The book develops an analytic and vocabulary for the social registers of dread today, what we are doing to ourselves and over which we think we have little if any control.
Algorithmic culture is now ubiquitous. It has reshaped social life in its image, to the rhythms of its instrumentalizing logic. Algorithms are structured into much if not all of our everyday activities, often in increasingly intrusive ways (the “internet of everything”). Today algorithms drive not just how we order consumer goods, how we bank and invest, how we learn at school and college. They shape how we run our homes and businesses, increasingly how vehicles move, how and with whom we interact and relate to each other. Algorithms pump the quickening pace of worker and work function replacement by robots. Everything we do when electronically connected is now being tracked: where we go, with whom we interact, what we consume, how we vote, our medical conditions, our work habits. Everything! And that in turn becomes the basis for shaping and reshaping our desires but also the (narrowing of) possibilities presented to each of us.
Computer chips are being inserted into human beings (and much else), for a variety of purposes. This ranges from medical reasons to consumption accessibility (we are in the early process of being turned into walking credit cards), to tracking work productivity, and for purposes of government control. The digital is transforming the very being of the human into the techno-human.
Almost nothing has been untouched by the algorithmic. Social, economic, cultural and political life has impacted all about and indeed much in us. We seem to exercise greater personal control over our state of being, only to find out that our very desires are prompted and shaped by intrusive forces over which we have little control. The anxiety all this is producing, consciously or not, follows from the sense of lost privacy and transparency, depersonalized desire, and undermined autonomy.
Before the pandemic took hold of the world, our social lives were being shaped largely by event capitalism. Large scale events—festivals, cruises, concerts, fairs and farmers markets, mega-church services, stadium sports events—had come to contour people’s lives, if not aspirations. Profit was produced not just in the moment but by using the eventfulness to extend consumptive possibility, from food and merchandise to memorabilia and even anniversary reminders, all of which were celebrated and bragged about on social media.
The pandemic upended much of this, bringing it to a screeching halt. Cruises and mega-church services especially proved to be ground-zero of infectability. This world shut down quickly, if fitfully, making palpable the enormous carbon footprint of the lifestyle it had fueled, and by extension the threat to life as such. So the pandemic and the now more readily visible impacts of climate change served, not surprisingly, to exacerbate the unease.
Covid, in particular, revealed deep socio-economic disparities, racially indexed, exacerbating the pathogenic impacts. These were further ramified by the police murders of George Floyd and others, and the protests that followed. The series of police killings and protests as well as the attacks on Asians, especially women, further deepened the concern that something is troublingly amiss with our worldmaking. All of this has laced through it structurally produced differentiations of class, race, and gender, further intensifying the concerns.
One technological thread that was fast becoming central to economic and political life in the half-decade before Covid took hold proved useful in addressing the pandemic. It will be more deeply etched into socio-structural conditions in its wake. Tracking technologies were emerging as supplements, if not replacements, of surveillance. We were increasingly being digitally tracked in all our online activities as a way of exacerbating and reinforcing the consumptive, relational, and political interests such tracking profiled. Tracking technologies of course became useful in addressing pandemic spread. But with technological sophistication and more pervasive cultural acceptance as a consequence, tracking technology is becoming a feature, not a bug, of everyday life.
So, we have created a world that in all it gives us is undermining the very conditions of possibility for sustaining those affordances. The technological apparatuses so completely transforming our worlds and who we are in them, especially tracking technologies, enable possibilities not previously available. But they have proved at once to be debilitating, socially, ecologically, and politically too.
It has become self-evident that a completely self-regarding disposition to the world, individually and nationally, is in stark contrast with one that recognizes our constitutively relational socio-ecological condition. The relational ways in which ecoforming worlds are constituted become key to addressing the challenges we are facing interactively. This, in turn, involves seeing the world in and through its deeply relational constitution. What we do in one place both affects and is affected by what others are doing elsewhere. Like the weather, environmental impacts and pandemics know no national boundaries or borders. Tracking is individually isolating while, less visibly, dynamically relational. Racial ideas circulate globally, even if adopted and expressed differently in one place from another, just as racisms locally are shored up and sustained by racisms elsewhere. For example, critical race theory was originally formulated and fashioned in American law schools but both its application and of late its facile condemnation have been taken up as far afield as Britain, France, and Australia.
The world we have inherited and from which we make ourselves today has furnished us with extraordinary possibility. But in being less mindful of the cumulative impacts generations of this making have produced, we are just beginning to understand that our world also is in an advanced process of radically undermining the conditions making its enduring sustainability possible. An outcome of this unsettling combination, one line of development as a result of widespread social dread, I suggest, has been the ramping up of “civil war,” less conventionally understood than as more or less violent contestations over how we should all be living in the world. But it also conjures the possibility of a more hopeful conclusion, a way of working ourselves out of the pervasive state of dread.
Societies that fared better in effectively addressing the pandemic and saving their populations from rampant infection and death have been those that have invested more readily and enduringly in social infrastructures of extended care.
Those societies taking seriously relational infrastructures of care for all living beings are far better positioned to address collective challenges—pandemics, the impacts of climate change, racisms. We are what we care collectively about and commit to, reflected in the social resources and supporting technologies we devote to creating infrastructures necessary for equitably addressing the social needs and conditions of possibility for all.