A Return to Darkness

Allow me to preface everything you’re about to read with this:

I hope that I’m wrong.

Lately I’ve been thinking about what it must have been like to be a Roman citizen during the fall of their civilization. There are (at least) two events that come to mind when I think of Rome’s historical zenith and ultimate decline - the first being the moments before Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and the second being the moments before the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 CE. By my estimation, the first event ultimately led to the second - and both led to what we now know as the medieval “dark ages”.

These thoughts on the fall of Rome have haunted me of late because I see parallels to these events happening today. In many respects it feels as though history is repeating itself; the events of January 6th, 2021, feel very much like a crossing of the Rubicon for American Democracy. Just a decade ago predicting violent acts of sedition on the steps of the United States capital would sound like raving lunacy - but alas, no longer. The proverbial “sack of Rome” feels like it could happen at any moment in the coming months, and is almost certain to happen within the next few years.

How did we get here?

I recently read an article by Jonathan Haidt from The Atlantic titled “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid”. The article feels like it hits the mark on what has led us to this point, drawing on the analogy of the Tower of Babel to point out how Americans seem to no longer understand one another.

One thing that Jonathan calls out in his article is that Democracy depends on Trust:

It’s not just the waste of time and scarce attention that matters; it’s the continual chipping-away of trust. An autocracy can deploy propaganda or use fear to motivate the behaviors it desires, but a democracy depends on widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms, and institutions.

According to research Jonathan cites in the article, social media has “unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together”.

I think “unwittingly” is the wrong word here - but nonetheless, it begs the question: how has social media achieved this? Well, the algorithms used to sort and display content are written in such a way as to keep your attention. The way social media platforms keep your attention is by continuing to feed you with things that confirm, exaggerate, and eventually radicalize your identity and beliefs - all in the name of profits from your time and attention. The content we are continuously exposed to defines what we become, and that content is increasingly defined by algorithms written for profit.

Moreover, the content that continues to drive engagement online is becoming extreme in nature. We’ve become so desensitized that in order to create profits, social media has unleashed content (again, driven by their algorithms) that pushes increasingly divisive rhetoric which engenders a “self” vs. “other” mentality. This becomes a self-perpetuating downward spiral as we continue to become desensitized to increasingly extreme content.

And we are witnessing the results of extreme content pushed by these platforms and algorithms play out in real time. Just this past weekend there were two mass shooting events - one confirmed to be driven by the extremist belief in what some call “replacement theory”. Early on in the pandemic people on Twitter commented that Americans would know the pandemic was over when mass shootings started happening again.

How desensitized have we become to say and think such terrible things? I remember watching the events unfold at Columbine High School on a television in my own high school’s library and feeling utterly shocked and horrified. Now it’s just another tragedy that I scroll past with a brief pause for mourning before looking for the next thing that offers stimulation.

Where are we headed?

A Twitter thread by Brynn Tannehill, a Senior Defense Analyst at an American “Think Tank”, points to the series of events that would need to take place in order to change the course of history - but the likelihood of that happening feels impossible. What this means for Americans over the next few years - and for the world over the next few decades - is chilling. The end of Roe v. Wade is only the beginning.

Likewise, Stephen Marche’s book “The Next Civil War” paints a disturbingly accurate picture of the current state of affairs in the United States - drawing on scenarios that feel all-too-likely to happen given the current political climate. The fact that so many quickly lose interest in the flow of extreme events (another byproduct of social media) should be alarming, but all we seem to be able to respond with is apathy. Attempted coup? Apathy. Climate change? Apathy. COVID-19? Apathy. Mass shootings? Apathy.

The ongoing congressional investigation into the events of January 6th is all-but-forgotten in the minds of the American public - and when that investigation concludes, I expect little will be done to adequately punish the individuals responsible. It is foolish to think that elected officials who encouraged, supported, or assisted in the act(s) of sedition on January 6th will be held responsible. As a result of this overwhelming failure to address these events quickly and severely, such events are all-too-likely to happen again - and in even more extreme ways.

A return to darkness.

In much the same way as the fall of Rome, the fall of American Democracy will create a shockwave felt around the world. The United States Dollar is held as a form of reserve currency by nearly every major economy, Likewise, with America in disarray, security in many regions of the world will likely be tested by those whose ambitions have been held in check by the threat of American military intervention.

Unlike the fading of the British Empire before it, America’s fall from grace is likely to be swift by comparison. It will play out on social media and will be witnessed the world over in real time; it will likely be violent.

What will be lost as a result is anyone’s guess. Romans had running water and heated floors in their homes, where as medieval castles were rustic by comparison. Just think - much of the modern world’s connectivity infrastructure is centered in the United States. We likewise export a great deal of fossil fuel, grain, and other food products. Many new technologies are invented - and much scientific research is performed - in America. And all that’s just the material aspect; the codified degradation of human rights will be another thing entirely.

Unfortunately I don’t have any worthwhile advice on how to prepare for all of this. Like you I am witnessing events that feel outside of my control, and anything I might suggest would sound outrageous - or downright crazy. I still hold onto too much blind hope to start “prepping”.

All I can say is to enjoy the life you have while it lasts. It feels like a storm is coming, and with it - a return to darkness.

I hope that I’m wrong.

This post was difficult to write - and probably just as (or more) difficult to read. If you’ve made it this far - thank you. Sometimes it feels like I’m going insane watching all of these things happen, and it is cathartic to write down my thoughts.

I anticipate writing more posts like this on climate change, economics, and other broadly applicable categories in the future. Especially when it feels like we’re caught up in small events while missing the larger trends. All such posts will be categorized as “Off-Topic” accordingly.

In the mean time I’m getting ready to write my next series of posts on DevSecOps. Hopefully they will be more uplifting - and perhaps even useful. For now, remember to git commit && stay classy!


Keith // securingdev

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.