The COVID-19 pandemic turned the question of whether you are an optimist or a pessimist from a personal one into a political one. As the virus began to grip the world through the middle months of 2020, it was common to hear people frame its future as a matter of temperament. “I’m an optimist,” said one prominent Silicon Valley investor. “I think this thing will pan out just fine.”
Even the staunchest optimist would find it difficult to make the case that the pandemic turned out “just fine.” What’s less clear—and what many have and will continue to argue about—is whether it could have been worse and whether the fact that it did turn out to be so destructive was a matter of politics or providence.
The answer to the first question should be obvious: The pandemic could have been much, much worse. The rapid development of the COVID vaccine is on a par with the greatest collective feats in human history and seems to have stopped the virus in its tracks pretty much everywhere that it has been widely administered. Answering the second question is far trickier, but its consequences are perhaps greater. If COVID is, as has become customary to say, a “generation-defining moment,” then the stories that nations and cultures come to tell themselves about the pandemic will determine how exactly the generation who came of age through it will be defined.
I am one of that generation—“Zoomers,” as Discourse’s Martin Gurri so affectionately calls us. And several friends, including Martin, have asked me how we’re feeling as our home cities come out the other side of the pandemic. Are we optimistic or pessimistic, excited or afraid? Do we think our governments acted responsibly? Are we happy to shoulder the economic burden? Are we going to sink further into our tame habits—more screens, less booze, less sex—or make up for lost time with a surge of drug-fueled debauchery?
When the currency of Weimar Germany began to inflate at a monthly rate of 322% as the country struggled to meet its World War I reparations payments, economic crisis was soon accompanied by a youthful, hedonistic binge. As the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig famously describes it, “Berlin was transformed into the Babylon of the world,” where “the laws of the State were flouted, no tradition, no moral code was respected.” Zweig was far from sanguine about this Weimar-era orgiastic period: “the most revolting thing about this pathetic eroticism was its spuriousness,” he wrote. “The whole nation, tired of war, actually only longed for order, quiet, and a little security and bourgeois life.” A putrid optimism papered over tragic pessimism. Hedonism belied a rootless aimlessness.
The words most frequently used to describe today’s Zoomers are not hedonistic, erotic or orgiastic. They are closer to entitled, self-absorbed, anxious, sanctimonious, conformist and complacent. We are known as the generation concerned with the appearance of virtue, rather than virtue itself. We rail against anyone who does not subscribe to a putrid ideological orthodoxy but show no sign of actually enjoying the orthodoxy we preach.
Zweig also painted Weimar’s inflation-provoked binges as a “feverish imitation,” and that’s a phrase you could use to describe many of today’s youth. Our panicked conformity amounts to a sort of indefinite optimism. We have no clear vision of a future we’d like to carve out for ourselves and seem to flit back and forth in our attitudes toward the one that has been handed us. It is difficult to frame these qualities as optimistic or pessimistic. Zoomers may be pessimistic about climate change, capitalism, democracy and human ingenuity, but they are not pessimistic to the point of seriously attempting to change anything.
It wouldn’t be difficult to come up with an explanation for this mood. Zoomers have grown up in an era of economic decadence, policy failure and American hubris—the war in Iraq, the financial crisis, asset bubbles and secular stagnation—a far cry from the crushing humiliation and political cowardice of postwar Germany. We have also come of age amidst a revolution in communications technology the likes of which few could ever have imagined. Each of us has wittingly or unwittingly lived a substantial part of our life in the eyes of the entire world, algorithms peeking into our mind and stripping away any semblance of personal privacy. When the postal system first opened in 17th century London, it made people incredibly worried about how they ought to present their ‘real selves’ in their letters. It is no surprise that today, when our identities are fractured and distorted across the internet, our sense of self feels like it has been turned into playdough.
COVID-19 exposed the practical fragilities inherent to this extraordinarily interconnected world. The virus traveled as far as it did because the world’s affairs are more tied together than ever before: cross-border supply chains, tourism, immigration, globalization. And yet it was those very same forces that made the lockdown period that ensued somewhat bearable (and limited the damage the virus could cause). When normality came to a standstill, we turned to the internet for our social lives, to Amazon for our comforts, and across the globe for our vaccines.
It is difficult to understate just how different the world looks to a young person today than it did to a young person living amidst the Spanish flu in 1918. Our greatest collective challenges are invisible to each one of us: Climate change, nuclear weapons and artificial intelligence mean that there has never been a greater gap between an individual’s lived experience and the problems facing mankind. The online platforms grant us more expressive power than ever before but place us at the center of a world that each of us feels we can do little to affect. This leads to a particular kind of collective action problem: Some young people become passive fatalists, losing all care and resigning themselves to helplessness, while others become embittered ideologues, caring all too much and frantically screaming as a result.
What’s missing is any vision for the future rooted in innovation or exploration. The constant sense of information overload on social media means we are stumbling across an ice rink every time we attempt to draw up a communal narrative or vision that lasts beyond next week. Fragmentation also provides an opportunity for experimentation, but it is difficult to experiment when we are all living in our own distracted reality. A large-scale vision of a better future would lead young people to plan their futures more ambitiously and intentionally, but a sense of fatalism—optimistic or pessimistic—will only ratchet down their ambitions to the point of self-fulfilling prophecy.
So many of my generation seem to act with the belief that nothing will really change. And, unsurprisingly, nothing really does change. Everyone else seems to be nostalgic for a time when they knew life was going to get better—nostalgic for a kind of future, if you will. The stagnant vibe means fewer and fewer large-scale projects are carried out—a metric we can only study in hindsight. Perhaps we’re all so risk averse because no leader can even provide the illusion of certainty. Nobody can gather the legitimacy to enact a vision, and there is little reason to believe that COVID will provide that legitimacy.
If anything is to change, I think it will begin online, and that is where I think the COVID-19 crisis may have led us to some novel developments. During lockdown, Zoomers were thrown into the position of barely being able to control anything in the physical world. But the obsession with control—or perceived control—had dissolved so deep inside the water of our very modern society that it simply found different avenues for expression.
I have friends who began to take on a different online persona every few months, tracking every evolution of identity in a word document. They were effectively attempting to exert some influence over the way their sense of self is fractured across the digital sphere, but it led to a kind of subversive playfulness. The same might be said on a social level of those r/wallstreetbets Redditers behind the now infamous GameStop short squeeze earlier this year. While both might be considered a form of escape, it’s also a far more exciting future than the staid sense of essentialism that we seem to be trapped in now.
Whether or not these events will move beyond memes and into some form of semi-coherent idea of society is an open question. But what’s clear is that any revolution will be fought with code, not printing presses. Radical experimentation in the metaverse can lead people to appreciate all that there is to explore in the real universe.
The obstacle, of course, is the hard materialistic facts of the modern world: the debt, the fragility and the destructive capacities inherent in the technologies we’ve developed in the last century or so. But pessimism and pressure tend to go hand in hand. Both paralyze and both stimulate. The many authors telling us that everything is getting better love pointing out how pessimists overlook past progress but don’t often mention that progress has often been achieved by pessimists.
What’s more, every young person today lucky enough to be born into relative means can work almost anywhere, meet almost anyone and learn almost anything. Every individual is a kind of startup, and the opportunities—new types of careers, experiments in living, city-building—are suddenly everywhere.
When a young woman in Nairobi goes online, she enters the same world as a gamer in Brooklyn. Social interactions once confined to the urban public square can take place in cyberspace, and these interactions can form relationships that then find their way back into the real world. The blithe dismissal of “influencer culture” as though it is simply an incubator for vanity and social anxiety betrays a stunning lack of awareness about the fact that it is also a seed for countless organic, vibrant communities.
This proliferation of niche interest-oriented groups makes it possible for more people to carry out the cliché of “doing what they love.” Everyone has the entire world as a potential audience, and you only need a thousand true fans to make a living from what you do. It’s possible to reach that stage without ever getting the stamp of approval from a powerful institution, and digital currencies are making it possible to make that living without the mediation of any third parties.
We’ve only just begun to see the consequences of all this opportunity. There is still so much knowledge locked away for a lucky few, but that need not remain the case. We’re creating entirely new ways of chronicling, searching and distributing the world’s information, expanding the possibilities for collaborative thinking. We could truly reach a stage when that young girl from Nairobi will have as much of a chance of fulfilling her potential as anyone else.
This all might sound incredibly lofty, but it is also true. We are in the process of reinventing identity, community and discovery, and in spite of all the suffering this crisis has caused, it also may have accelerated the process. I do not think the Zoomers will be having orgies in the streets anytime soon. But I do think there are more than a few reasons to be optimistic about our future.