At 11pm on Friday, 29th March 2019, the UK formally left the EU. That Summer, a UK political party fought a leadership election over the question of whether or not the UK had actually left. As one (defeated) candidate put it, “We’re still members, even if we’ve torn up our membership card.” The issue perpetuated a rift in British politics: departure had entailed the signing of a new set of treaties (Agreements, etc.), and this was, or wasn’t, a betrayal of the original vote to leave (see the chapter Referendum: Boring in the Apocrypha section of this imaginary history textbook). The status quo hadn’t really shifted; the nation states of Europe hadn’t moved. History continued.
Blame the late-stage innovations. But the real historical significance of the so-called “Brexit Era” was not the unresolved split between the broadly equal numbers of “Remainers” and “Brexiteers” in the UK electorate, nor was it exactly the rise of “populism” (however defined; the term itself was dismissed as a “political blunt instrument” by a high-profile broadcaster in early 2019). The key to understanding this period in British history is simply this: it was short. The Brexit Era lasted barely more than a decade, and Brexit itself was the culmination of a change process that began perhaps as early as 2011.
Historians disagree as to the trigger event for the Brexit Era, with some pointing to geopolitical change, thus fundamentalism and the rediscovery of religion, and others to cultural changes that were themselves triggered by globalisation. A few still refer back to the “first transition event” in value exchange**, but most now argue for a subliminal – barely visible but rapid – change in social/interpersonal attitudes that they track back to one of a small number of late-stage innovations in retail technology. This was also the era of communication via “smart” devices; technologists were still talking about “artificial intelligence”; they had not yet addressed the more pressing issue of “artificial stupidity”.
Venn diagrams, each circle felt as local. Where historians do agree is: this was the decade in which, so to speak, everything changed (or for a few, began to change). Hindsight might give us Brexit as the headline issue, but by then, truly viable communications technology had reached the masses, globalisation had reduced distances, value exchange had ceased to be physical, and such concepts as “the nation state” and “national government” had become anachronistic – as had political systems built on the “static democracy” model of a “nationwide” vote at fixed intervals (of years rather than minutes). “The money hasn’t just run out; it’s dematerialised,” tweeted a popular comedian and political theorist, making a more subtle point than perhaps she realised.
Much has been written about the “global localism” enabled by personal communications technology; much has also been written about the speed with which today’s culture of personal identity has been adopted. Our system, based on each individual’s personal grid (or “personal space” in common usage) of intersecting interest groups anchored in physical location, is unprecedented in recent human history. It is also, of course, only viable at today’s global population levels.
We’re always arguing about something, aren’t we? It is a tragic irony that global warming, coupled with human nature, has finally given us a semblance of stability. We built the “vectors” whereby the so-called “heatstroke rabies” pandemic achieved its global reach, but it was human nature that stopped our response – stopped us grounding the world’s aircraft, closing shipping lanes and highways, thus stopped us limiting the spread of the disease, and buying time to find – look for, at least – a cure.
Why did it matter, whether or not this new plague was a “zombie apocalypse”? Why was so much time wasted on protecting early-stage patients (showing “zombie” symptoms) from those who advocated euthanasia? Why so many reassuring lies and so much argument, when above all we needed to work together? Why spend so much on PR for the status quo, when the world around us was collapsing?
It’s too late now. Billions died. A generation has been born since those end-times, and we’re beginning again. The Summers are hot and the Winters warm. As some say, it’s as if we live in the world that dystopian fiction described. There are wasps the size of drones, and packs of feral dogs (and cats). But the scattered tribes of survivors are still in communication with each other, and at a basic level, the cities still function. The weather powers the generators, and the technology – some of it – still works. There is good hunting in the stone canyons, and shelter to be found in the ruins.
One day, not too far from now, we will set out across the plains, along the surviving roads, over the bridges and through the tunnels, to meet up with our fellow survivors and teach them to live in compliance with our ways and our beliefs. Then, at last, we will live in harmony.
*“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.” Otto von Bismarck. I looked this up online, of course. Above the late German Chancellor’s passport photograph and quote is an ad for FlexiOffices (I’ve added the capitals). Below is a message for me. “None of your friends have liked this quote yet,” I’m told. There’s something endearingly strange about the modern world.
**The period between the implosion of the “global economy” in 2007/8 and the launch of the Bitcoin network in 2009 has been memorably described in one text as “the scraping of the iceberg along the hull” for the old order. Some historians specialise entirely in the language of technology/utility advertising of the time. We were put there frequently, but were we ever “in control”, they ask?
Makes sense to me. It’s human nature, I suppose, to pick up on the nudge-filled specifics of a situation, whether we’re doing the old-style hunter-gatherer thing, or buying a used car, or negotiating a billion-dollar contract – or indeed deciding whether to eat something that’s way past its sell-by date. Intuition. It’s green. It’s quiet – too quiet. Something just doesn’t smell right. That cliché from fiction about the smile not reaching the eyes. We pick up on all that, but our eyes glaze over at the explicit insincerities of advertising and/or motivational management-speak.
Also read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (2006), and while you’re at it, watch any episode of Columbo (“they” haven’t remade it yet, I’m pretty sure; I mean Columbo with Peter Falk, and preferably an early episode – perhaps you’ll find the episode – maybe there was more than one – where they were all so obviously trying not to laugh). Everything’s spelt out these days, as if we’re being programmed, but that’s not how we work. Intelligence can’t be treated as artificial. [Even, one day, when it is?]
[Aside. Does the job “computer programmer” still exist? Sometimes I think that all the computer programmers of old went into management, after having learned nothing/forgotten everything about human behaviour.]
Sorry, politics. Not that it was exactly a nudge, but I liked the detail, a day or two back, that the announcement of the latest agreement (sic) on the UK government’s Brexit strategy (sic) was announced just as the cabinet sat down to dinner – so that they were all three courses and coffee away from being able to brief against it. Bet there were chocolates with the coffee. There have been resignations since, I know, and all manner of ructions, but for me, that timing was the detail, the little flick of the ball past the defender (yes, I watched France:Belgium), that indicated real skill.
Not that I’m expressing an opinion in favour of any particular individual, you understand, nor any political party, but I like those minutely but irrevocably revealing moments. Let's invent another one, and this time let’s hold the politics: you’re standing on a beach, looking out at a flat-calm sea, and trying to decide whether this is the perfect, or just a very good, opportunity to go swimming. Then, very briefly, about a hundred metres out, just for a split second, the dorsal fin of a shark breaks the surface. Leaving you still watching a flat-calm sea, but pretty clear that you’re not about to go swimming.
Okay, we’re off politics. There’s a piece of music I like. I came across it when I watched the first episode of a television programme called Sanctuary; it’s used as the theme tune for the first and second seasons (changed in the third, I think; no idea why). It’s called Symphonie pour un monde etrange, if you’ll pardon my French, and if you click here, you’ll see the credit sequence as well as hear it; I’m only mentioning it because the tail fin, ten seconds in, has just come back into my mind. Curious how the mind works. But this is where that opening sentence above has taken me (a robot would just have added those two B-words to the spellcheck, or subtracted the R-word, and powered down).
Symphony for a Strange World, Joel Goldsmith and Neal Acree. The late Joel Goldsmith. Film, television and video-game music. I love the internet at moments like this, and in particular, I’m really quite fond of YouTube. There’s so much music out there that I haven’t heard. So many clips. And all because – excuse me; I’m going to listen to music for a while – I picked up on that funny little detail about the cabinet eating together. Politics does serve a useful purpose, after all. Who knew?