In his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” the cultural critic Neil Postman wrote that “We all build castles in the air. The problems come when we try to live in them.” Postman was a pessimist, but not pessimistic enough. It’s worrisome when citizens of a democracy take up permanent residency in fantasyland. But it’s even more dangerous when they try to renovate reality to match their castles in the air — and to insist that everyone else live there, too.
That is effectively what happened twice in January, first when supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol and then when a group of retail investors drove GameStop stock to heights of unreason. These two very different eruptions illustrate the same point: Boredom and social isolation are public policy issues.
It’s common sense that defeating the covid-19 pandemic will allow Americans to return to their “normal” lives. But more than that, the return to normalcy will help diminish the power of fantasies incubated on the Internet and the risks those dream worlds pose to residents of reality.
Among those who crashed the Capitol were believers in the conspiracy theory QAnon, which begins by anointing Trump as a world-historical hero and travels into ever-deeper absurdities from there. The rioters’ dream that then-Vice President Mike Pence would overturn the 2020 election results did not, of course, come to pass, but the riot still had momentous effect: It was as if we were all transported to the moment in an alien invasion movie when a spaceship rips a hole in the fabric of reality. The aliens were among us all along.
The retail investors who launched their drive to inflate GameStop’s value on the Reddit message board WallStreetBets were less deluded. They didn’t appear to believe that the brick-and-mortar retailer had suddenly unlocked a magical new business plan. But they still employed fantasy to distort reality: By driving up GameStop’s price beyond any reasonable valuation, they put very real pressure on hedge funds that had bet big on GameStop’s failure.
Both events have prompted much head-scratching about what it all means. More useful, however, are the questions of why these events are happening now — and what can be done to restore reality on a firmer footing.
Covid-19 has created fertile ground both for conspiratorial thinking and mischief. This is not merely because the pandemic is a catastrophic global event with mysterious origins, but also because it has left huge numbers of people feeling isolated and bored. And no matter what Postman might have thought in 1985, and no matter how many blockbuster movies and binge-able television series we can watch from home, mass culture isn’t a sufficiently powerful anesthetic to make people forget that they’re missing out on a full year of school, work and social interaction.
Absent everything that constitutes real life, it’s no surprise that Americans desperately seek out substitutes, and that conspiracy theories and generalized online puckishness are popular alternatives.
As Princeton’s Damaris Graeupner and Alin Coman wrote in their 2017 paper, “The dark side of meaning-making: How social exclusion leads to superstitious thinking,” a sense of social exclusion can drive people to embrace conspiracy theories. As converts burrow into stranger and stranger ideas, they risk isolating from friends and family who don’t share their belief in misinformation. In compensation, they find a sense of belonging in the communities built around those ideas, shutting themselves off from competing points of view. So conspiracy theories like QAnon do more than seek to explain overwhelming and unimaginable circumstances. By giving adherents “research” to do and texts to interpret, they also provide a way to fill empty hours with what feels like productive, empowering work.
In retrospect, the GameStop frenzy seems predictable, too, but in a different way. Thanks to the pandemic, a lot of Americans have fewer ways to spend money on amusements and a strong desire to find alternate sources of income; gambling on so-called meme stocks and talking about it with friends is a form of entertainment that can take place entirely online. And the disparate financial impact of the pandemic recalls the 2008 financial crisis, which many GameStop buyers have cited as a formative experience and a reason to want revenge on powerful financial institutions.
Under normal circumstances, it would be hard to formulate a policy response to a problem like “boredom.” This is not a normal moment. The Biden administration can’t provide people with friends or produce a captivating TV show. But it can get shots in arms, to get the people those arms are attached to back into the real world as soon as possible. The result won’t just be a return to normalcy, but, one hopes, a badly needed return to sanity as well.