If you live in a large American city, you’ve probably heard a lot of fireworks during the past week or two, and you’ve possibly even poked around online to investigate why you’re hearing so many fireworks (Nextdoor users in my neighborhood have been particularly fixated on this topic, departing from their usual discussions of stray cat and possum sightings). After everything that’s happened this year, however, even I was surprised by the conspiracy theories that quickly emerged to explain the fireworks—a development that one could simultaneously ridicule and participate in. This relatively amusing phenomenon, with stakes so much lower than the preceding months’ events, quickly struck me as the perfect distillation of the mindset that quarantine forced us to adopt (and the weakening of our collective grip on reality three months into it): the full bifurcation of sensory reality and digital hyperreality. With access to the former curtailed, the latter has consumed us more completely, undermining many of our evolutionary tools for comprehending our environment directly. To me, this mutation was more extreme yet less palpable for much of the spring, but as summer matures and New York begins reopening, I’m becoming acutely aware of the widening gap between how I think and feel when I’m outdoors and around other people, versus my state when I’m looking at a screen for basically any reason.
In his 2018 book New Dark Age, James Bridle identifies the conspiracy theory as an essential coping mechanism of late modernity. He writes, “Surrounded by evidence of complexity, the individual, however outraged, resorts to ever more simplistic narratives in order to regain some control over the situation.” Bridle’s observation has proven especially useful lately, with even the most composed of us experiencing a prolonged sense of collective powerlessness in the face of a global pandemic. As I noted in early March during the emergence of the coronavirus threat (before everything shut down), the streets of New York City exhibited a lack of concern that contrasted sharply with the concurrent, escalating internet panic. The internet was correct, of course—the virus was spreading rapidly at the time amid the city’s carefree gatherings, because the cues that usually alert us to danger don’t work well for hyperobjects like disease or climate change. Paired with early March, last week’s fireworks bookend New York’s quarantine, reflecting the trauma of the intervening period: Rather than flippantly dismissing the complex information that doesn’t align with empirical reality, now we reinterpret our sensory environment through the paranoid lens of hidden layers and world-enveloping phenomena (perhaps because our previous dismissal burned us so badly). It’s obvious why there are more fireworks this summer, but how could it be as simple as people having more time and fewer alternative activities? Removed from contextual foundations, the fully digital universe we have entered lacks vantage points from which to examine itself. Now, all information assumes the qualities of conspiracy theories.
In the same essay, Bridle also references Richard Hofstadter’s insight that conspiracy theories tend to mirror the subject’s own desire: “This enemy is on many counts the projection of the self.” That projection, too, has characterized the hive mind’s ongoing interpretation of the pandemic, an event that is mostly invisible at the individual or local level and only perceptible using data that various agencies, institutions, and media organizations collect and transmit to us. Again, in the face of overwhelming uncertainty, we grasp for elusive explanations amid numerical complexity, yet the conclusions frequently seem to express our own wishes as much as any objective assessment of conditions. This is probably why attitudes about coronavirus split so quickly and decisively along partisan lines. One of the recurring narratives throughout this pandemic has been viral images of people gathering in public places: Florida beaches, New York streets, Texas bars. Like the fireworks we keep hearing outside our windows, these images represent an effort to reconnect a data-constituted hyperobject with some tangible form of empirical reality, but the relationship never quite sticks. While Twitter users were arguing about spring break travelers in March and April (or protestors in June), thousands of nursing home residents and prisoners were invisibly dying, with little effort to build an equally compelling narrative about them. Public space and urban density continue to occupy a disproportionate place in the American imagination as threats, and while they certainly do represent some degree of transmission risk, our desire to focus our ire on youthful recklessness while ignoring our less photogenic but more vulnerable populations might say more about our own projected selves than any objective reality, if that even exists anymore.
The American nursing home is a design failure. COVID-19 represents an opportunity to reimagine the concept entirely.