As we entered 2020, the trend on Twitter was to post a social media summary of your decade – an act of performative art that was both narcissistic and fully representative of the moment we inhabit. People tabulated their successes at all manner of things, from the impressive to the ridiculous. It was everything you might expect.
This trend came the same week as the release of the latest Census data concerning the American population. The headline says what everyone understands to be the current phenomenon: we are experiencing the rare reality of an economy that is rolling forward at an incredible pace combined with population and reproduction rates that indicate total stagnation. The net natural increase of the population after birth and death rates are weighed against each other totaled 0.003%. People are just not marrying and reproducing at the levels a country with diminishing immigration rates needs to continue to thrive.
There was a man I saw last week in the Salvador Dali museum, a middle aged tourist in a Nike t-shirt, who acted as if he was doing a scavenger hunt speed-run of the absurd artistic labyrinth designed by the famed artist. His phone camera permanently on, he rushed from framed painting to hand-carved sculpture to meticulously-made mechanical inventions, tapping away at the button to capture the blurry images of ornate creations. The sweat dripped from his forehead as he hustled his way through the crowds, oblivious to those around him, snapping away without even reading the descriptions of the pieces in front of him.
Later, I saw him in a cafe outside, attempting to access the wifi to upload what had to be hundreds of pictures of things he had not paused to see. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” Pascal wrote, which meant something different when your ability to sit alone was determined by whether you put your black mirror out of reach.
In an environment where people’s thoughts do not naturally flow toward family formation, where the opportunities for entertainment are overwhelming, and where the innate human need to have faith and religion at the center of your life is deemed laughable, it’s only natural that we would see societal values trend toward the surreal, the ridiculous. Chesterton wrote that the comedy of man survives the tragedy of man – perhaps it does so because we cannot abide a direct look at the tragedy.
People without purpose find virtue in the preposterous. We are entering a period of digital surreal performance on a whole unexplored level. Today, one achieves a semblance of immortality not through focus on the divine and the afterlife, or through the continuation of your name, traditions, and line through children and family, but through streaming video, Weird Twitter jokes, and daily ever-present memeification. If you are not your family, your children, and your faith, you can be your likes, your upvotes, your gold. Turn on the livestream, see the hearts rise, and be fulfilled.