What Came Before

The misogyny and vicious trolling that sprouted around Gamergate was, in retrospect, a foreshadowing of the ideology and tactics that would coalesce around the alt-right’s political ascendancy two years later.

For whatever reason, the video game community tends to feel the first tremors of broader cultural and economic upheaval.

A second, less doom-laden example:

Once upon a time, if you wanted to learn about the video games, you went to either Gamespot or IGN. These websites were the most trusted and visited sources for video game coverage, and by the mid-2000s had largely supplanted the print media industry.

In 2007, Gamespot fired editor-in-chief Jeff Gerstmann because he gave a mediocre review score to a game, and that game’s publisher happened to be a significant advertiser on the site.

In 2008, Gerstmann and several former coworkers started Giant Bomb, and over the next several years, Giant Bomb helped to forge the new landscape of video game journalism. They phased out written coverage and moved to 30-60 minute videos of them playing games as they talked and joked, the way you might if you were sitting on the couch with a friend. They were one of the first sites to have weekly podcasts, analyzing the week’s news and digressing into bizarre conversations and inside jokes for hours.

What most differentiated Giant Bomb was that the creators were the stars. Their personalities, insights, and senses of humor were front and center. They didn’t hide their preferences and non-gaming obsessions. Newcomers visited Giant Bomb for the first time to hear about games, but fans returned daily to hear from Jeff, Brad, Ryan, and Vinny, regardless of the topic. As a result, they’ve dabbled in spinoff podcasts about pro wrestling, Formula 1 racing, and life advice.

Giant Bomb happens to be the site where you can hear your favorite people talk about games; if those people leave Giant Bomb (particularly Jeff), the brand ceases to have value beyond its SEO ranking.

This shift in authority from institution to individuals has rippled out beyond video game journalism over the past five years. We see it across all media. Not long ago, if you were a politics journalist, there were a half-dozen publications that might be your ultimate goal: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, etc. If you worked for The New York Times, your reputation was derived from your employer and the 150 years of credibility behind it. If you left The Times, the readers wouldn’t know or tell the difference.

Now, the opposite is true.

Nate Silver built his FiveThirtyEight blog on the strength of his work and participation in social media around the 2008 election. When The New York Times bought FiveThirtyEight in 2010, they didn’t give him credibility – he gave them credibility (and huge traffic). And when Silver left in 2013, he took his fans with him.

Starting with video games, the power of publications to grant legitimacy to people has shriveled. In the age of the internet we care about individuals over institutions. Journalism and entertainment were the first industries to change in the new climate, but every industry historically dominated by institutional authority is at-risk.

And schools are next.

What Came Before

I think my Spotify profile hates me.

I spent September in Spain, and the outrageous cost of data outside the U.S. was a good excuse to go on an iPhone diet. During that time I didn’t log into Spotify a single time. Before my trip, I downloaded my favorite songs from 2016 directly to the phone and used those as a soundtrack to long walks through Sevilla’s narrow streets and bustling plazas.

From Spotify’s perspective, I’d ghosted them. At no point did my account check in with their servers, let them know where I’d been and what I’d listened to.

My algorithm was starving.

Every Monday, Spotify generates a playlist called Discover Weekly, where they use your listening habits to automatically select an hour of songs that you might enjoy. The more you listen (and the more your tastes fall into a narrow and predictable set of genres), the better their recommendations become.

Spotify introduced me to many of my favorite musicians this year: NAO, Tei Shi, Gallant. Under-the-radar geniuses that I probably would have missed without a good music sherpa. In it’s best moments, Spotify understands my preferences better than I understand myself.

Upon my return from Europe, something had changed. I fired up Discover Weekly and… their predictions seemed desperate and inaccurate. Here was a bland funk remix. There was atonal indie rock dirge. Starving for data, my algorithm had started flailing.

Or. Perhaps it was passive-aggressively trying to teach me a lesson: “Here, want to disappear for a few weeks? Hey, I don’t care. Go on! While you’re at it, why don’t you check out this cool Puddle of Mudd B-side. And you like rap, right? Get on this hot Wiz Khalifa collab! Stupid idiots love it!”

I recently came across a video where kids from 2016 react to Tamagotchis, the toys from the mid-90s that tasked children with taking care of a baby alien. Every few minutes the Tamagotchi beeped to get your attention – to play, to eat, to poop. My friends and I spent about a month of fifth grade tending to our pixel babies. And then we moved on. I put my Tamagotchi in the dresser drawer next to my old folders and notebooks. It chirped, and it chirped, and then finally fell silent.

I thought, along with everyone else, that my Tamagotchi’s spirit died along with its nickel battery. Instead, like Obi Wan Kenobi, Tamagotchis became more powerful than we could possibly imagine. They are the invisible force that surrounds us, binds our millennial technology together. The buzz in our pocket, the iPhone notification, the email that begins “We noticed you haven’t logged in for awhile…”

The ghosts of our digipets, chirping away. They are hungry. We must feed them.

What Came Before, Why We Learn

“The problem of knowledge is that there are many more books on birds written by ornithologists than books on birds written by birds and books on ornithologists written by birds.”

Nassim Taleb, Bed of Procrustes

When it comes to birds, at least we have an excuse for epistemic blindness: avian writing proficiency has lingered around 0.0% for the bulk of human memory.

Unfortunately, we commit the same error in liberal education. High school history classes use textbooks that summarize events that were only important in hindsight. English classes read authors who were unpopular or unknown in their time. We study the past through the lens of the present far more than we study the past through the lens of the past, or the present through the lens of the past (i.e. old predictions about the future).

In doing so, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to study the types of errors we make in forecasting the future. We declare that Edgar Allen Poe and Franz Kafka were ‘underappreciated’ in their time, implying that we see clearly what our predecessors missed. We forget that we are living in someone else’s past, that we will be summarized and laughed at, that the authors that come to define our generation will likely be those that we’ve never heard of or heartily dismissed.

Like some twisted Greek myth, time turns each generation of ornithologists into birds.

What Came Before

History classes mistake what happened for what people cared about.

NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership might be the most significant and widely impactful international agreements of our generation. And I have no idea what they do.

I say this because people who study economics and globalism say things like this. It’s entirely possible that they are correct; NAFTA and TPP could alter the course of human industry and events in ways it will take centuries to fully understand.

Yet, if a time-traveler from 200 years in the future appeared on my doorstep and asked me to teach them about what was important to people of the early 21st century, trade tariffs would be among the last of topics that I would cover. Far better to tell them about Beyonce, Harry Potter, Fox News, The Wire, and Dave Chappelle: the voices that spoke to us and through us. Even better, I’d open up my Macbook Air (they’d no doubt gasp at seeing the ancient device outside of a museum) and show them the stories and the songs we sing to each other.

No, the time traveler might say. What do you think about NAFTA? We learned all about NAFTA in seventh grade.

I would regretfully inform my friend from the future that their history class has failed to teach them anything about the past.

What Came Before

There are some that assert that Pop isn’t a specific genre of music, but rather the ever-shifting expression of a generation’s joys and anxieties. Pop sheds its skin in every era, wears new names: Rock, Grunge, Rap, EDM. The purists who point to a specific sound (say, late-80s Madonna) and insist, “this is Pop,” miss the point completely. They may as well point to the tomb of Lenin and declare, “this is leadership.”

Some speculate that at the beginning of the 20th century, what we consider Philosophy, the ordered examination of what we know and how to live, also shed its skin. The kids gave it two names: Physics and Psychology.

What Came Before, What Came Next

At times, say while preparing one’s morning coffee, we can be struck with the unnerving sensation that we are presently living in someone else’s past.

We are surely not the first to experience the feeling. A young man in England around the time of the Renaissance is struck by the same realization as he walks to his class on medicine at Oxford. While most of his professors continue to lecture on the ancient Greek theory of the four humors, a small, rebellious sect within the college advocates for an empirical, observation-based approach to medicine. The young man suspects that in time, careful practice and experimentation will overturn centuries of theory.

It takes nearly two-hundred fifty years before Pasteur and Koch establish the existence of germs and their role in spreading disease. The following century sees widespread vaccination and plummeting infant mortality.

The young man at Oxford, in his moment of epiphany, understands that he is presently living in the past.

I prepare my morning coffee and consider that the field of modern psychology is barely a century old. We believe our technology to be advanced, our pharmaceuticals effective, the foundations of our theories sound. In reality, our understanding of the brain remains faint. We are at sea, squinting at the hint of a coastline through a fog.

Two-hundred and fifty years from now, a young man walks to a seminar at Oxford titled Neuroarchitecture and Rearchitecture. On the way, he feels the distinct sensation of presently living in someone else’s future. He makes a mental note to ask his professor about the phenomenon after class.

What Came Before

Bossa Nova raises existential questions.

Bossa Nova couldn’t have appeared in Japan in 1530 or England in 1150 or India in 1890. Like the origin of biological species, it hatched from a specific, unintentional series of small steps and variations and collisions over time. Take two families of ordinary squirrels from your local park. Plunk one family on an island in northeastern Canada, plunk a second family on an island in Indonesian, and check back in forty million years.

(I’ll wait.)

You now have a plentitude of non-squirrels, dozens of species so different from each other they will be unrecognizable as cousins. Had you not introduced those squirrel families to new homes forty million years earlier, then you would have non-non-squirrels: non-squirrels that could, but don’t, exist.

Science and technology have a theory of multiple discovery, which observes that some inventions occur independently in multiple parts of the world around the same time. Some ideas are just ready to emerge once a certain set of memetic conditions are met.

In music, as in biology, this dynamic does not occur.

All this leads to a disquieting consequence: Bossa Nova – or Guangdong music or Indian classical or American Hip Hop – could have easily missed their entrance onto the world stage and never existed. We would lose not only specific albums, but entires mode of organizing sound.

What disturbs me more are all the non-non-squirrels out there: genres of music that could have existed, but didn’t, and never will. All the unplayed melodies, all the undanced steps, all the unfelt ecstasy.

What Came Before

You find The Economist dry, and professional sports viciously dull. And yet:

To the geopolitically minded, European football is thrilling when you dissect the chaotic allegiances and disquieting economic subtext of championship play.

During the cold months, football is played in professional leagues hosted within an individual country. England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, etc. Each team within these leagues is composed of an international set of players. Due to the lack of salary restrictions, the teams with the most money are able to buy the best players from across the world. And since soccer is the world’s most popular sport, well-performing teams make a lot of money.

“Money, you say?” I said money. And thus these clubs attract the attention and ownership stakes of wealthy scions in the middle east, Russian oil barons, and British globo-capitalists, who have amassed fortunes so large that luxury items are incapable of holding their interest; they seek a higher calling: alpha status among their billionaire bros.

The result is that professional soccer becomes an endless proxy war between the world’s shadow plutocracy, competing for returns on their investment dollars with hired mercenary armies of wiry kickers.

Then, the twist.

Each summer, the players, these soldiers of fortune, must reorganize themselves. PMCs are disassembled, aggressions temporarily paused, as players form national teams that compete in tournaments for the pride of their countries. Professional allies find themselves national rivals, and vice versa. The most patriotic players’ abilities swell during this period; others, for whom nationalism is an obligation, whose true allegiance is to the Euro, all but fade from view. Football matches become metaphors for regional disputes. Economic power decouples from geopolitical gravity. The strong are humbled, the humbled made mighty. Except, of course, when Germany wins.

Then autumn approaches, and the cycle renews.

This seasonal rotation between the mercenary and the nationalistic, this seesawing hierarchy between the moneyed and the spirited, to my knowledge is unique among human endeavors.

What Came Before, What Came Next

On the most recent episode of the Hardcore History podcast, host Dan Carlin details the gruesome punishments Persian king Darius I allegedly dealt to a captured city:

Darius I: “I cut off [the rebel king’s] nose, ears, and tongue, and I put out one of his eyes…after that I impaled him…I hanged the men who were his foremost followers. I executed his nobles, a total of forty-seven. I hung there heads…inside the battlements of the fortress.”

In his Carlin-esque way, he adds a final musing to the anecdote: the people who committed what we’d describe as atrocities are no different than you or I; were we to take a newborn baby from today, put them in a time machine, sent them to 550 BC, and checked back on them in 530 BC, that young adult would give a full-throated defense of mass killing of defeated cities.

Of course, you don’t need to travel back in time to find modern defenders of barbarism. However, the practice is less common than it was 2500 years ago. Less common than even 500 years ago.

When people insist they want to live for 1000 years, or perhaps spend eternity ageless, many thinkers frame this as a fear of death, an irrational and selfish thrash against the natural order.

But perhaps a more humane reason to wish for another 1000 years is to live to see humanity, in fits and starts, crawl towards its better self.

What Came Before

Objects have a way of anchoring us – to a moment or a person in our past, or to an imagined self, a person you once were or wanted to be. A beaten-up jacket with two missing buttons. A concert ticket to Radiohead. A flip phone that doesn’t power on anymore.

It’s also how we end up with three pairs of shoes we’ve worn once, jorts that still don’t fit because we bought them when baggy was cool, and two dozen CD cases from bands we listened to between 1997 and 1999. Not the CDs, which have vanished. Just the cases.

It’s hard to get rid of any crap with even the slightest psychic residue on it. And the longer we wait, the more powerful the attachment gets. As in, we’re not sure how we ended up with two copies of Austin Power: The Spy Who Shagged Me on DVD, but at this point they both have to be collectors items, right?

The problem is that there is no way for us to commemorate our things while properly sending them off into the great beyond.

What we need is funerals for things.

You invite your friends and family – all the people that knew that FUBU sweatshirt and Kangol hat combination, and all the well-wishers that just want to support you through this tough time. The mourners line up to take a look at the items, now folded on the table, looking a little less wrinkled than they did when you wore them. We take turns remembering the good times: how you slept in that sweatshirt during your first week in college because you didn’t realize how cold California nights were, how you danced all night in that hat and grossed yourself out with how sweaty it still was in the morning.

We then play track 3 of off Matchbox 20s debut album, and everybody cries.

And since funerals for objects have their own set of customs, the funerary ice cream cake is served.

We need this.

When we let go, we give ourselves the space to become our next and strongest self. Else, the ghosts of our past will drown us at the bottom of a sea of barely-remembered nostalgia.