One of the most illuminating television scenes ever filmed—a perfect analogy for the contemporary texture of reality—occurs in Season 4 of The Office, when Michael Scott tries to declare bankruptcy by standing up and shouting “I declare bankruptcy!” to the rest of the Dunder Mifflin staff. This is the action of a man bewildered by the complexity of life, unable to figure out how to navigate the many layers of abstraction that modernity presents, and thus retreating to a more intuitive behavioral mode that seems to befit a long-bygone era. The humor obviously derives from the ineffectual nature of the gesture, but Scott’s predicament also feels alarmingly familiar. Who among us hasn’t encountered a similarly overwhelming landscape and met it with a similarly simplistic (and equally hopeless) response? The bureaucratic, atomized, technologically-mediated world that most of us inhabit is full of doors requiring specific keys to unlock them, keys frequently obtained with great effort through processes that are anything but intuitive. We spend much of our lives attaining the familiarity necessary to function in such a world with a baseline level of agency—jumping through various institutional hoops, developing financial literacy, learning how to drive, becoming better consumers—but we’re always seemingly one or two steps away from some new domain in which none of our accumulated experience helps us.
Faced with an increasingly complex world, we demand a return to simplicity and intuition—something the market is happy to provide, usually via digital interfaces that streamline our interactions with the illegible environments that surround us. Asking Siri to make a dinner reservation or perform even more advanced tasks does not feel fundamentally different from Michael Scott’s bankruptcy declaration; it’s not so difficult to imagine a near future in which Siri facilitates real estate transactions and lawsuits and bankruptcy declarations (trading stocks on one’s phone was unimaginable until quite recently). Like ship captains or astronauts, we have at our fingertips an array of sensors and instruments that largely define the scope of our everyday interaction with our surroundings. But the corollary is that everything else—whatever is beyond the scope of those apps and devices—increasingly feels like a wilderness, unknowable and unmanageable. To gain personal agency in such a universe, we have two options: We can either expand the capabilities of our tools—actually enabling Siri to declare bankruptcy—or we can retreat to the constrained digital environments where our existing abilities get us farther: gamified spaces like social media as well as outright games, designed environments that are characterized by a relative straightforwardness and simplicity that the outside world rarely offers.
Of those options, we are more and more likely to choose the latter. In a recent issue of his newsletter, LM Sacasas cites a fascinating excerpt from an interview with Marc Andreessen: “Reality has had 5,000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people; I don't think we should wait another 5,000 years to see if it eventually closes the gap.” Andreessen continues, “We should build—and we are building—online worlds that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what level of reality deprivation they find themselves in.” This pushes the aforementioned agency dichotomy to its limit. Instead of impotently declaring bankruptcy to his colleagues, Michael Scott might sidestep the problem altogether by conducting his affairs in the metaverse. Sacasas describes the concept of “reality privilege” to which Andreessen’s statement responds: an acknowledgement of a massive and unbridgeable gap between the fortunes of the world’s elites—who live in rich, stimulating real-world environments—and the masses, for whom online life will presumably be “immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world.” Surprisingly, the preferred solution to this rift isn’t to undertake the hard work of improving reality itself, or even just making it more user-friendly, but instead an absurd, defeatist pronouncement that reality stubbornly refuses to “get good” and a subsequent attempt to reframe escapism as a form of primary existence—to burrow deeper into abstraction. The pandemic forced us to temporarily indulge this premise, but it also exposed its significant limitations. Misguided as it was, Michael Scott’s bankruptcy declaration was in fact a willful rebellion against excessive abstraction by someone who subconsciously knew better, a belief that if you shout something loudly enough, that shout can still somehow be more real than what it’s describing.
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