2014 has been a year of portents. Portents mysterious and elusive, half-seen as they emerge through the shimmering curtain that separates reality from myth. News stories were symbols, a code laid out in stone, far removed from our trail in a technological slipstream. The technology allowing us to follow the news may be improving on a regular basis, but the news this year was old – narratives from older cultures and religious texts. Tablets of plastic emulated tablets of stone.
Enoch was seized into heaven, but in the summer, dozens of unfortunate souls were blasted out of the sky over Ukraine, victims in a conflict that they had no part in, accountable to no one. Death visited them in a flash, as if struck by one of Zeus’ thunderbolts. This was shortly after the Bermuda Triangle decided to go for an extended vacation in the Indian Ocean and swallowed up flight MH370. The data was pored over, the metrics adjusted, the grizzled Australian oceancombers reunited for one last job. Yet the plane remains unfathomable, an anomaly within our quantified spacetime. There may be radar and sonar systems that are aware of its location, but will not divulge it due to the risk of exposing confidential military information. It may be the age of big data, but the military-industrial complex will always be the bigger brother. The plane’s absence has frustrated any construction of a narrative, with only speculative strands able to emerge, like bean plants groping for support in their germination. The deaths of 239 people needed to be accounted for, but no enemy was willing to step forward, despite nominations from China, Iran, and the pilot. It would seem apposite that in a year such as this, the most likely solution is found to be that the pilot, the one responsible for navigating his passengers through the storm, decided to kill himself and everyone else on board.
Moses descended from Mt. Sinai clutching the Ten Commandments, yet for the poor souls trapped on Sinjar Mountain in Iraq, the mountain was not a portent of salvation, but the last refuge as they were slowly wiped out by a fundamentalist wave, cutting like a scythe across the Middle East. The sacred intervention provided at the mountaintop was by air strikes, another interventionist thunderbolt thrown down from the sky. Conflict was charged with as much religious sensation as any account of Old Testament legions, though the weapons may have changed.
In 2012 we watched Felix Baumgartner meteor across the sky, synthesis of man and machine; a worldwide event, the climax of human potential plummeting towards the New Mexico desert. In 2014, Alan Eustace returned to the same spot in secret, after years of repressed negotiations that would lead to him emulating Baumgartner’s feat. It was all wrong. Baumgartner was the rugged outsider, a man built to BASE jump from manmade skyscrapers, a plummet of human freedom from towers of steel and glass. Alan Eustace was a man in a suit, someone who could convert capital into the equivalent of superior of Baumgartner’s raw daredevilry. Eustace is a vice-president of Google, and his jump seemed oddly coalescent with that corporation’s endeavour to index all information on Earth – content with archiving all information on ground level, they decided to push the vertical frontier in their relentless harvest. Thinking of 2014 as the year of portents, this was the moment that the illusion of a global celebration, peoples united by the admiration for breaking the limits of the human shell, was dustbinned by private discussions and transactions. Baumgartner’s accumulation of distant sympathies was replaced by a disappointing realisation that most events are conducted despite our ignorance, and only made available to us after the fact.
(As an aside, Alan Eustace did not exist until he made his jump. That is to say, he did not exist according to the ontology which is quickly growing to the sole arbiter – Wikipedia. Before the jump, Alan Eustace did not have a Wikipedia article. He needed the gravity one can only experience when falling from 40,000 metres to be catalogued in their database.)
The digital does not decay. It exists in binary, either on or off, 1 or zero. Analogue information disintegrates and is therefore more susceptible to time’s arrow. Perhaps living in a digital space removes from being able to observe that decay is central to nature. Combine this with years of Orientalism towards the African continent, and the anaesthesia towards death imbued by gentrification, and we are not prepared for the outbreak of a viral disease. Or at least, we are not prepared for it to cross the Mediterranean. In a way Ebola actually frustrates our catastrophic instinct – strains of bird and swine flu were given letters and numbers, labels, to show how new they were, so any widespread death could be accepted as a black swan, the unseen monster, the spike in the statistics. Ebola is not a new disease; it has been with us since the 1970s, with each previous outbreak largely contained within Africa. And we were happy for it to stay there, thinking that the African continent itself was diseased. If 2014 has been the year of portents and stone tablets, then Ebola threatens us with a plague that we hope will not breach the walls of Constantinople. Ebola could be our enemy, the indefensible nemesis against which we launch all of our efforts as any form of religious or political ideology has been deconstructed to the extent that any and all of them can be sympathised with or criticised in equal measure. Yet we cannot even raise the effort to make this so, because it seems that, as if with many events in 2014, we are incapable of viewing ourselves as a common species.
Data might have a colour. Black lives became so dispensable in the USA in 2014 that human beings were reduced to a bundle of probabilities – the odds that the man in front of me is holding a gun, the odds that he wants to use it on me, the odds that he wants to kill me. The number of people killed on those spurious odds tallied until it became a statistic, almost fulfilling Stalin’s aphorism. The audio of the gunshots, the proximity of the props on the crime scene have all been Zaprudered to unimaginable levels, as if the exact quantification of data could make an accurate enough statement about the power dynamics between black and white, as if black and white could be demarcated by hexadecimal codes.
There was still a coda to the bleakness and obliteration of humanity in 2014, as the details of the CIA’s shocking institutional torture were finally held up to the light. The mutual animosity between radical Muslims and the moral cavalry of the West is itself like a ray of light, endlessly mirrored between the two sides until it fulgurates into a mutually destructive beam. I read the details of the report whilst stood at a platform waiting for a train and the bilious reaction I felt towards the inhuman treatment towards the prisoners pulled me self-destructively towards the train tracks from the pit of my stomach for a fleeting moment. So soon after we supposedly learned our lessons from the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, our capacity to commit violence to each other had never seemed more brazen. They were billed as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ but the ineffectiveness of torture is so well-known that the pain inflicted upon the prisoners was punitive – a medieval application of morality which wormed its way through damp towels and anal canals.
And all of this leads us to 2014’s greatest phenomenon, the one which captures the spirit of the passing year: Twitch Plays Pokémon. A reservoir of 8 bit memories attuned in a cloud mind. An ultra-democratic interface that created its own mythos within a matter of days. A stage where every facet of human existence could be observed, an anthropological Petri dish. There was war, prompted by sectarianism. Even the days of the week seemed imbued with their own particular baggage (‘Bloody Sunday’) with the sense of Creation at work, where millions of users were spawned instantaneously and grappled in the dark to make sense of a directionless world, trying to work together. The image of Red being pulled in four different directions while repeatedly trying to consult the helix fossil seems like the appropriate image for the year in which the confusion of trying to narrativise the world with an overabundance of information was made plain. Perhaps the way we are going forward is actually the way back, to try and interpret events as portents, to read into them a millennial millenarianist significance that supersedes rational thought.
Postscript: What was the soundtrack to such a bleak year? I found no better candidate than the unremitting darkness and monolithic intensity of Andy Stott’s Faith In Strangers. The album cover depicts an enigmatic head situated in front of an apartment window, interrupting any look out of it – towards escape maybe – with an Polynesian style statuette. The album is punctuated by ghosts, either breathing all over the mix or restlessly banging on pipes. The vibrance of dub and techno is detuned into a cold grey steel which is unrepentant in the darkness it broods. Any sense of urgency has the paranoid powerlessness of a caffeine overdose, with movement a step ahead of thought. At a time where Spotify and the curatorial power of each individual music consumer is more powerful than ever, the experience of listening to work which completely crushes you and drains you is more important than ever – you are accountable to the music, rather than vice versa.