Faced with discordianism, disorientation and distortion, cultural theorist Matt Klein reaches for a sense of control.
It’s the 60s.
Amidst a backdrop of tripping (voluntary and involuntary), the Vietnam War, a moon landing, nuke preparations, and JFK’s assassination rip a hole through our collective reality. What is even real? Then comes Manson, dialing it all to 11.
Reality is just too strange to be this real. There must be order behind it all. Conspiracy. Explanation. Reason.
In the wake of these events, “Discordianism” emerges: a pseudo-religion, mocking the rest of them. It declares that chaos and disharmony are essential to our reality, just as other religions claim harmony and order to be.
Its founders reason: instead of organization, the foundation of our reality is strife, chaos and discord. It’s simply better to embrace this confusion than to fight it.
Cut to Kek & Trump. Brexit. Epstein. COVID-19. January 6th. Disorientation is now our norm – we’re chronically dazed and drowning in unpredictability. For many, fictional explanations were (and remain) more believable than truth itself.
More recently, headlines covering contested elections, NFTs and a metaverse were swapped by those covering shadow-bans, verification checks, and generative AI. Yet the question remains: “What is even real?”
Featured on 60 Minutes this past year, the Birds Aren’t Real movement crystallized peak-conspiracy, along with Gen Z’s Discordian and ironic clap-back.
Meanwhile, Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal struck a nerve. Distorted reality is now packaged and served back as entertainment. The age of the sly grifter is now one of the blatant bullshitter. Colorado decriminalized psilocybin, and Merriam Webster Dictionary named “Gaslight” 2022’s word of the year. Truth is a mirage.
In response to a ubiquity of falsehoods, we grasp for answers: mysticism, UFOs and conspiracies. Seemingly stretches, but explanations, nonetheless. Call it cultural control.
As professional thinkers, it’s easy to analyze culture and snicker at QAnon.
But we’re lost in this chaos too.
Pursuing answers along with the rest, we obsess over another compass: trends.
Friend, conspiracy is conspiracy.
Trends are our patterns. Our Explanations. Our order and organization amidst chaos.
We’re each theorists with red string. Navigators looking to the stars, spinning narratives via spotted constellations – desperate to make sense of our increasingly complex and unpredictable world.
It’s a rampant paranoia resulting in only distracting micro-trend nothings – self-reassuring signals and sense amidst a hallucinated reality.
When there’s a disturbing REVERSAL of social progress (from the rise of antisemitism to the overturn of Roe v. Wade), of course we’ll dream of progress – no matter how inconsequential it is. Pop another In/Out list. It’s junk food change.
Stuck in a spin cycle of nauseating nostalgia, our desperation for forwardness is laughable. Literally. It’s now a joke. This past year, SNL’s Aidy Bryant and Bowen Yang played trend forecasters. This wasn’t a one off, peripheral, 10-to-1 absurdist sketch. It was the pinnacle of mainstream parody: a recurring bit on cable’s Weekend Update.
A viral folder of industry trend reports is a signal in itself. Catching them all is now a feat. Over the last five years, the number of published trend reports have roughly tripled. But this year, LESS THAN HALF of published trend reports actually include a methodology. And only one report of 45 had the rigor to look backwards and reflect upon what they shared a year earlier.
As turmoil is torqued up, so too will the presence of trends. And to author a preferred future, we need to understand our moment.
So... we need to do this right. And there is a right way. To conduct cultural analysis correctly (accurately and ethically) we need many things: methodology, diversity of input and collaboration, iteration, removal of bias and agendas, quantitative rigor, reflection, risk, realism, a curiosity for the fringe and overlooked and a vision of a preferred future.
Mindfulness is paramount. These reports are self-fulfilling prophecies. We make what we read in them, and then author what we already see in culture... including the reports themselves. This explains the minimal deviation of reported trends over the last five years in the META Trends reporting.
Cultural analysis is an ouroboros – a snake eating its own tail. We make culture as much as we study it.
To hedge against the risk of wasteful repetition and stagnation, we require two more ingredients: accountability and imagination.
When 100 organizations claim to be the authority on what’s next, yet only pump hype further, slide in ads of their services, and cluelessly report the same observations from five years earlier, self and public accountability is required.
These are competing voices hoping to shape their future. Is “theirs” the one we want? Does it even have a vision? We don’t have to listen nor act upon something if we don’t want to. When perception is reality, accountability breaks the cycle.
But is this narrative just another comforting illusion amidst what’s really in front of us: just more chaos? I hope not. However...
Accepting chaos does not mean forfeiting control.
Tolerate not knowing what’s hidden around the corner, while imagining and working towards what we want it to be.
Nothing is fixed.
In the face of overwhelming Discordianism, “Meliorism” is our antidote: in between optimism and pessimism, it declares our world can only improve with human effort.
So instead of reporting what’s trending, how about we interrogate it? Or better yet, instead of predicting things we don’t even want, we author stories about what we want to see?
We’re at the wheel.
And if anyone’s to push us out from the rut and steer us in a more equitable, sustainable, diverse, mindful and exciting future, it’s you.