Age of anxiety / age of hope

Age of anxiety / age of hope

By Ingrid Gnerlich

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A creature has been working its way through the muscle behind my sternum, curling and unfurling, sometimes taking a small, sharp bite. I have only just recently become aware of its presence, but all around me, headlines blare, explaining the strange symptoms I feel: It is the age of the worm. 

The worm can learn. It loves to listen. The worm can speak like you. The worm can help you. The worm can be your shadow. You should let it. Let it think for you, read for you, write for you, speak for you, make you better, faster, smarter. Play with it. Welcome it. Be grateful. There’s nothing you can do about it anyway—except perhaps be left behind. Be afraid. It’s here, and everything will change, and no one yet knows how, even if they say they do.

I look around. I see that others are excited. They jump and pivot. They look alert, athletic. Worms zap them like electric eels, so they train and train more—and, as they train, they train their worms in turn, sharing with them the rhythms of their hearts, the secrets they hold, the ways they think and talk, the difference between a smile and a grimace, between love and obsession. In contrast, I stay—for the moment—at the periphery, watching and thinking.

We all know anxiety as a physiological response to a source of alarm. But it can also serve as an alarm in and of itself – if the real source of the anxiety is not evident to the conscious mind. In our modern, technology-riddled times, our lives are rife with this generalized type of anxiety.

I am thinking about the entrée of AI into our world. But what I am also considering is that the disquieting tickle I’m feeling in the muscle behind my sternum might simply be an awareness of a tipping point, a point of uncertainty manifesting as a physical sensation. And maybe the headlines are all wrong. It is not the age of the worm—it is only just the age of anxiety.

We all know anxiety as a physiological response to a source of alarm. But it can also serve as an alarm in and of itself—if the real source of the anxiety is not evident to the conscious mind. In our modern, technology-riddled times, our lives are rife with this generalized type of anxiety. The mind and body are vigilant and geared up to fight or run; but the source of the insidious “hiss” one senses does not readily materialize into a “real” snake, and one feels vaguely, constantly ill at ease. Uncertainty continues to grow, and anxiety grows with it… Where is the danger? What is the danger? While it can take time and no small amount of effort to figure out why one’s internal alarm bells have gone off, it is usually a good idea to try. 

Anxiety is a feeling with which I have quite a bit of personal familiarity. I chalk this up in part to the fact that I don’t always tolerate uncertainty particularly well; or, to rephrase, I tolerate uncertainty with varying degrees of comfort. Much depends on the situation and its duration; however, uncertainty can make me feel tense, vigilant, irritated, agitated, anxious, exhausted, fearful, sometimes even downright sick. It can also silence me, as I struggle with the symptoms and try to hide my struggle from others. (The narrative that anxiety is a weakness runs very deep.) While some people—I imagine these people living blissful lives—do not react as strongly as I do to uncertainty, I do know that I am not alone in this sensitivity. This gives me some measure of solace, as I struggle to accept the discomfort seemingly inherent to how I am wired. I have learned—but endlessly have to relearn—that anxiety is not something that has to be fought (managed might be a better choice of words) or about which one needs to feel shame. Also, breaking the silence can go a long way towards relieving the symptoms—and so I practice this sometimes. I’ve decided that this is one of those times. Doing so feels like a risk; but I think—I hope—it will be worth it.  

To any fellow-travellers in anxiety who may be reading this, some of you may have learned the sad lesson that there are other people in the world who seek to take advantage of anxiety—people who prey on others’ sensitivity to uncertainty, who purposefully create conditions that enhance anxiety, in order to manipulate the anxious into doing what they want, even if that means staying silent and doing nothing. If you have learned this lesson from direct experience, my heart goes out to you. However, if this comes as something of a surprise to you, or even if it just sounds quite theoretical, I hope to raise your awareness. In our current cultural moment—this age of the worm, age of AI, age of compounding crises—it can be tempting to focus on the new and unfamiliar as the source of the disquiet we feel. However, the “hiss” that I sense—a special swirl of uncertain conditions, deep-seated and persistent anxiety, and external physical or psychological pressures—brings to mind a particular “snake,” one that I recognize. Simply put, this snake is a person (or group) who selfishly seeks to manipulate other people. Anxious readers, I have found that, when one senses this distinctive “hiss,” it is often a very good idea to respond to the rising volume of one’s internal alarm system by listening to it. And while a fight-or-flight reaction might be appropriate for times of clear and imminent danger, in our technological times, it can sometimes be better to slow down and think. 

When one takes time think in such circumstances (and when the “snake” has been correctly identified), what can sometimes happen is that the “hiss” intensifies. The manipulative party doesn’t like what is happening and consequently doubles down with a combination of protests, gaslighting, annoyance, anger, distractions, renewed pressure, insults to intelligence, and fearmongering. The anxious can be very tempted to bend or retreat, seeking some way to resolve or escape from the conflict, to find relief from its associated stress. However, this can be a profound mistake. It is important to remember, the “snake” has been exposed. That accomplishment, in and of itself, eliminates a point of stressful uncertainty and decreases the manipulative party’s power. And, while the anxious may never be the posterchildren of heroism, we can still be strong. We can resist. And sometimes we must, to take the time we need to reduce uncertainty about the source of the stress and alarm we feel, and to prepare to make decisions that are in our interests and those of our loved ones. 

For me, the physical discomfort of anxiety is such that I initially just want to make the feeling writhe away: 

Leave me, worm. Leave me to my quaint pencils, my leaves of wood pulp pressed and bleached, my slow thoughts, my yearnings to share myself with others, my love of realizing again and again, in the pages of a book, that I am not, in fact, alone in my sense of my own strangeness. Leave me my old-fashioned technology, the book, so deeply rooted in the word for a tree, the beech. Leave me the memory of its smooth bark, the letters and lines carved into its skin, like type carves into my mind and seeps, deeper than ink, into its layers, invisible and indelible. Leave me my books. Leave me my source of connection with humankind across time and space. Leave me. Do not devour your host. 

But those reactive thoughts, with time, naturally begin to quieten. Questions then begin to surface:

Is something actually being asked of me? Am I being presented with a decision that I must make? If so, do I have to make this decision now, or can it wait? Can I make a more incremental decision first—which might buy me time, allow me to gather more information, reduce uncertainty, and lessen risk? 

Thinking about risk leads me to think about what is really important:

What do I really want? What do I really need, and how are the two different? And what would I be willing or unwilling to risk in pursuit of what I believe to be important? 

My line of thought, my narrative thread has led me somewhere—to some points of certainty. Let me rewind the thread now and follow it back, considering first what I believe to be important. (I am naturally writing from my own perspective as an individual and as a book publisher in this particular age—but I hope the following remains in general enough terms, such that people in other professions and walks of life might find themselves inspired to explore their own lines of thought.) 

What if we all obsess so much and for so long about the unanswerable question of how AI will change everything, that we don’t pay enough attention to what we really love and don’t want to change: the act of building connection between human beings?

I fundamentally believe that publishing, at its best, facilitates connection between human beings through the medium of books. I feel a strong impulse to protect this mode of human connection around which I have built a life, and indeed, which is connected to my sense of self. While I know that AI will be disruptive, that fact bothers me less than the uncertainty around whether we will prevent the disruption from becoming destructive. What if we all obsess so much and for so long about the unanswerable question of how AI will change everything, that we don’t pay enough attention to what we really love and don’t want to change: the act of building connection between human beings? When we write, publish, and read books, we weave the narrative threads that bind us, forming infrastructures and interrelationships of thought and understanding. These are foundations of peace. I really do not want to allow AI—or anything or anyone—to blight the heart of what we do. No matter what happens, I want human beings to preserve and prioritise the act of creating and sharing knowledge and insight with each other—I can’t help but think that this is what will save us—and I believe that books remain an exceptionally robust technology that serves to facilitate that act. 

Now that I have a clearer sense of what I believe to be important, let me follow the thread further back and turn to the question of what—if anything—is being asked of me at this point in time. 

AI, in its various and evolving forms, is here. And I think that I am being asked to get to grips with it. Does that mean that I should try to formulate an answer for how it will change my job or industry—despite my sense that this question might be a distraction from the real heart of the matter? To be completely honest, I don’t think anyone really knows. All we can do is speculate—and there is a great deal of that right now. And so, for now, I will call that question a distraction. I don’t know exactly how AI will change my job and industry, but I think there is nothing wrong with admitting that. There is also nothing wrong with asking—my employer, my school or my children’s school, my representatives in government, my leaders—questions that will help me understand the various forms of AI and how they might relate (or not) to my industry and to my work. Perhaps that is all that is really being asked of me right now: to ask questions. That seems do-able. 

Here are some questions that spring to my mind, some of which might spur questions in yours:

In what ways is AI already in my life? Are other people making decisions about how AI will play a role in my life—now, in the future?  Who are those people—beyond the biggest few household names that might spring to mind? What exactly are those decisions related to? My sense is that, if you or I don’t know the answers to these questions, we should try to find out. And then we should ask more questions. Firstly, are we satisfied with the answers we have been given so far? Have they given us clarity? Have we been welcomed, our questions invited and respected—even if the people we’ve asked haven’t known all of the answers? (“I don’t know—but I have questions, too” is an honest response and potentially a great prelude to cooperation and collaboration.) Or have we been put off, met with silence, obfuscation, or worse? Have we been greeted with that particular constellation of reactions that should raise real concern: annoyance, anger, additional pressure, insults to intelligence, fearmongering? Remember, in such moments, the “hiss” we sense is real. We must be vigilant with regard to the “snake”—those who seek to manipulate us for selfish gains. And we should not give up or retreat. Our anxiety should be listened to, not denied, not used against us. We must resist, rethink, regroup—and keep on questioning.  

We will eventually get some answers—some likely more satisfactory than others. As answers emerge, we should compare these responses to what we previously decided is important to us. We might realize that we have developed opinions. We might also realize that we want to say something about them. When this happens, to whom should we make our opinions known? For a start, talk to other human beings you know… Your colleagues, your friends, your family members, your educators. And then consider reaching out farther—to your elected officials, your leaders. You will find that you have agency.

A personal, or indeed a collective, sense of agency is not what the manipulative members of humanity want you to discover. They want the anxious—and most of us belong to that tribe right now, if we’re honest—to feel confused, distracted, fearful, weak, silent. But as we have discovered in this narrative stream of consciousness, our anxiety may be misdirected if we think that its source is AI. The source is much more likely to be those who want to use it to manipulate, weaken, and silence others—those who seek to break the bonds that connect us, and shatter our hope and faith in ourselves and each other. And, as I have learned and must forever remind myself, anxiety need not silence and separate us. Perhaps it is actually a powerful thread that unites the majority. To use Madeleine L’Engle’s prescient term for the violent act of negating others or oneself (as explored in her book, A Wind in the Door), we cannot let ourselves be X’ed. Nor can we allow ourselves to X each other. We must do the opposite—Name what we want, Name the best in ourselves and each other, forge connections, understanding, alliances, and trust—and thereby protect ourselves and our future. 

It is a disquieting, challenging time. We are faced with the uncertainty and pressures of rapid change. What will disintegrate? What will transform? Meanwhile, those who pretend superiority seek to manipulate, distract, scare, silence, and poison us with a sense of being lesser, slower, powerless.

So, let us slow down and sense the tipping point. Let us empower the anxious. Let us seek answers that alleviate the stresses of uncertainty. What do we—each of us, all of us—really want? What questions do we want to ask each other to resolve our uncertainties, allay our fears, build trust? We likely will have a multiplicity of questions and answers for each other—differing wants and needs, which may or may not intersect, complement each other, or conflict. So we must also remember (as the Rolling Stones have long and sagely advised): we can’t always get what we want. But the long road of diplomacy, and of democracy, and even simply of human relationships, is paved with thoughtful questions and clearly articulated opinions. And progress is made through negotiation and compromise. If we don’t all show up with questions or opinions in the first place, to lay the foundations for progress—if we don’t even try—we will never have a hope of getting what we need. 

It is a disquieting, challenging time. We are faced with the uncertainty and pressures of rapid change. What will disintegrate? What will transform? Meanwhile, those who pretend superiority seek to manipulate, distract, scare, silence, and poison us with a sense of being lesser, slower, powerless. But I believe they are in the minority. And I believe that there is no need to feel shame for experiencing anxiety in reaction to this age—or for speaking up about it. We are anxious for good reason. We should think and question; form opinions; express them in good faith and with good will; listen to others’ views (as we would have them listen to ours). But we should also prepare. Because saying what we want, especially to people who are not used to hearing our voices, is powerful. Disruptive. Transformative. Just as much as any technology. More so than any “snake.”   

This is a tipping point—and I know that I am not alone in recognizing it. But I have hope. In the age of the worm, the age of anxiety, preserving and cultivating hope is an act of constructive resistance. Now that I think about it, perhaps I have misjudged and mis-Named the creature curling and unfurling in my heart, making me uncomfortable, spurring my thoughts and inspiring these words, all along. Perhaps, just possibly, it is hope—struggling and twisting and fighting to survive. To be heard. To be empowered. 

Anxious readers—hopeful readers—it is time to come out of the shadows. I feel the urge to call out to you to join me in stepping out of the periphery and breaking the silence. Talking together about this moment, from the widest possible range of perspectives, could potentially transform our individual experiences of anxiety into a collective revelation of the common threads that unite us. It could transform the age—from one of anxiety to one of hope. I know that doing so might initially feel like a risk—I feel it, too—but just think of what could happen. 

We just might find, we get what we need. 

This essay was inspired in part by the experience of collaborating with Verity Harding on the publication of AI Needs You. My hope is that the experience of reading this book will inspire other constructive meditations, questions, and conversations. I am also immensely grateful and privileged to work with colleagues who support and empower a diversity of voices and views, including those of the anxious. 

Ingrid Gnerlich is Publisher for the Sciences at Princeton University Press.