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.
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