Vibe shifts in the Upper Anthropocene

18.20, Friday 11 Mar 2022

Hey before generations there were ages.

Like the Atomic Age? The first nuclear weapon was detonated in July 1945 and I think the best way to describe the societal psychic response is self-awe – an optimism and terror at the power in our hands.

(And if the early 2000s was the colour of ubiquitous blue LEDs, design in the 40s/50s/60s was all about uranium orange and glowing radium green.)

I find it incredible how clear it was to everyone that it was a new era.


The 48th head of the Ismaili faith was Aga Khan III, born in 1877.

The position is hereditary. And yet: Aga Khan III, in his will in 1957, skipped over the line of succession to name his grandson as the new Imam, saying:

In view of the fundamentally altered conditions in the world in very recent years due to the great changes which have taken place including the discoveries of atomic science I am convinced that it is in the best interests of the Shia Moslem Ismailian Community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up and developed during recent years and in the midst of the new age and who brings a new outlook on life to his office as Imam.

(He had previously spoken about the two worlds: the world of material intelligence and the world of spiritual enlightenment.)

So the new Aga Khan IV (who is a good man) was known as the “Imam of the Atomic Age” and he is still the leader of the faith today.

More poignantly:

John Wayne, legendary actor in westerns, died of stomach cancer in 1979.

It is speculated that the cancer was caused during the production of The Conquerer in 1956, where the filming in Utah was in the fallout zone from the above-ground nuclear tests of the time.

Cowboys to atom bombs. What a hand-off between eras.

People tried the “Information Age” on for size but the term never really became a thing.

Not like generations.

As far as I can tell, Strauss and Howe introduced the modern framing of generations (Wikipedia) in their 1991 book Generations. Their follow-up book The Fourth Turning which put forward the idea that eras cycle through four moods, causing a cyclic pattern of four generation archetypes to match:

  • The High - the Prophet/Idealist archetype is a (spoilt) child during this post-Crisis era, e.g. boomers.
  • Awakening - the Nomad/Reactive archetype; e.g. Strauss-Howe’s “13th Generation”, what we now call Gen X.
  • Unravelling - in our time this is around 9/11, and children of this era follow the Hero/Civic archetype: grumpy conformists. Hello millennials!
  • Crisis - children of this era have the general archetype Artist/Adaptive. Gen Z.

Each cycle lasts about 80-90 years and is called a saeculum. We’re coming up to the end of one now. (What’s next?)

It was Douglas Coupland who named and popularised Generation X and it caught the zeitgeist to such an extent that generations pretty much displaced ages in folk historical sense-making.

Personally I buy the idea that boomers exist, but reckon it’s less about biorhythms for history, and more about the fact that they were kids while cars were getting popular.

See this tweet…

Bad news: Leaded fuel reduced the IQ of everyone born before 1990 by ~4.25%. Millennials are the first to be born with unleaded gas.

The paper referenced:

Bellinger DC. Childhood Lead Exposure and Adult Outcomes. JAMA. 2017;317(12):1219-1220.

No wonder millennials are so cranky! Imagine being slightly brighter than everyone else in the world.

RELATED, this absolutely brutal and totally unnecessary skewering of millennials in The New York Review is HILARIOUS: The Balletic Millennial Bedtimes of ‘Normal People’ by Lorrie Moore. (The article is paywalled but you get to the best section just before the cut-off.)

Anyway Gen Z folks are the best. Love em.

Where are we in history?

We want to predict the future and find certainty. We want to know the answers to questions like:

  • Are geopolitics unsteady right now like the reconfigurations in 68 and 89, when the Berlin Wall fell, i.e. good; or like in the run-up to 1939 i.e. bad?
  • A smaller and specific-to-my-crowd question: is the current web3 excitement in technology just another fad like, say, machine learning, which is major but was incorporated and normalised; or is it a fundamental shift in we’re in an era like minicomputers where something like Unix is about to be invented and we have a new 60 year paradigm coming up?

In Roy Lewis’s 1960 sci-fi novel about a tribe of Stone Age hominids, which is super funny (I’m not kidding, read it), The Evolution Man (Amazon), Father spends much of his time (a) inventing, and (b) muttering darkly about whether they are in the Upper or perhaps only Middle Pleistocene, like he’s a time traveller or something trying to brute force his way into the future.

And I find myself acting a bit like that.

…thinking to myself, gah I thought we were in a Crisis but perhaps it was just a Strauss-Howe Unravelling, we haven’t got to Crisis yet, and it’s still got a way to get worse before it gets better.

Maybe we should go back to comets to milestone our way through history.

I remember seeing Comet Hale-Bopp in the sky in 1997, which was visible with the naked eye for well over a year, just hanging there in the sky like a moon made of ethereal fog from the unknown reaches of the cosmos, the most visible comet since 1811, and blimey what an omen, I should have guessed that something was up.

Signs and portents!

Somebody on reddit said with the 2020s going down in history as ‘the roaring WTFs’ and yeah maybe that’s the name.

Mind you reddit also talk about “Late Capitalism” and I have to say, my response is: huh you’re optimistic.

Hey are we in the Upper Anthropocene already? Like, in a million years time when they dig back down to the paper-thin geological layer of plastic microbeads, CO2, and crushed bitcoin ASICs, is this the top layer they’ll see? Or are we still in the Middle Anthropocene and there’s still a ways to go?

Like everyone else I read that article about the Vibe Shift in The Cut and I have been endlessly going on about the new vibe since.

A vibe shift is the catchy but sort of too-cool term Monahan uses for a relatively simple idea: In the culture, sometimes things change, and a once-dominant social wavelength starts to feel dated.

… the thing that struck fear into Ellen’s heart was Monahan’s prediction that we were on the cusp of a new vibe shift. It is unnerving because when you really consider it, you can feel people flocking to a new thing. You can see that he’s right; something has shifted.

The concern articulated in the article: not everyone survives a vibe shift.

I am not-even-kinda but ACTUALLY massively in love with this, both the new vibe itself and the concept of being left behind.

It has been a concern to me that normcore is still around; popular music hasn’t really changed since the 90s basically; I still get what the kids are talking about. I want to be baffled and confused at clothes and mores and music, barely hanging on by my fingertips!

Which hasn’t happened. Until now?

Now my sense is that the internet is thinning out as everyone is disappearing into discords and other Dunbar spaces. It’s quieter, right? It feels like being in a club where the crowd is imperceptibly thinner. Everyone is off to afterparties and I don’t know where. It’s brilliant.

So just as we were done with ages, maybe Gen Z is the last one and soon we’ll be done with generations. We’ll need a new way to refer to the current era.

Saeculum shift.

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