When two seas meet, vast waves rise. As we watch the Gamestop story play out, we’re witnessing a movement birthed on the internet crashing into an established institution. Neither will be the same once it’s over.
It’s the latest example of a phenomenon that may come to define the age we live in: Breach. Breach is what happens when a collective intelligence birthed online bursts into physical world and permanently changes its foundations.
If you aren’t familiar with the Gamestop story, a very simplified summary is that a group of amateur investors on a Reddit thread called r/WallStreetBets have been working together to drive up the stock price of US retailer Gamestop. In doing so, they have forced established hedge funds, who had bet the price would go down, to lose billions of dollars. There are so many facets to it; it’s a David & Goliath narrative, with regular people hitting back at Wall Street at last. It’s hilarious. It’s satisfying. It’s an example of technological disruption caused by apps like Robinhood that have democratised stock trading.
But it is also much more. We’re used to technological disruption, but Breach is different. It’s a difference you can’t hold it in your hands, but one you feel in the air. It’s defined by an eruption of pent up emotion and imagination from the internet into physical reality. We saw it during the Capitol riot, where Trump was able to manipulate the delusions of those trapped in the fantasy of QAnon. Before that, we witnessed it after the murder of George Floyd, when the simulated religion of Wokeism flooded into HR departments, news desks and political policies around the world. Earlier still, we saw it when memetic warfare driven by 4Chan helped get Trump elected. Now, we’re seeing it in the Gamestop story. These are all very different movements, but they have all had a profound effect on our conception of reality.
Breach shakes us to our core. It’s weird, dangerous, exciting. We have stripped the irrational and transcendent from almost all of our institutions, so when we see them overwhelmed by these forces, it feels uncanny and bizarre. And it’s speeding up.
How do we navigate something that wrenches at our very conception of reality? We have to start by re-imagining what the internet is. In doing so, we will be re-connecting with our birth right; the realm of symbolism, weirdness and mystery that permeated the world of our ancestors.
Trapping Meaning in a Net
For most of our history, we imbued the world with living meaning. The rocks had souls, entities lived in the trickling of a stream. Carl Jung suggested that as we became more technologically advanced, particularly from the Industrial Era onwards, we began to suppress this animistic way of being. We stripped the irrational from the world. But all that imagination and meaning had to go somewhere, and Jung theorised that we projected it into our technology — first the machines we didn’t understand, and now the phones we use every day but could never build ourselves.
With the internet, we have created something new; a mechanical unconscious. It captures every meme. Every comment. Every anonymous thought and desire. It is where we forge our identities, where the religions of the future are being birthed right now. Much like the collective unconscious that Jung explored, it is a world where aesthetics matter as much as truth, and meaning travels instantaneously. A place of raw emotion and nuclear-grade creativity. It exists between our minds and the world around us, and it never forgets anything.
Where Two Seas Meet
There is a precedent in theology for a realm that lies between us and a deeper, underlying reality. It is called the Imaginal. Theologian Cynthia Bourgeault explains that the Imaginal “is traditionally understood to be a boundary realm between two worlds, each structured according to its own governing conventions and unfolding according to its own causality.”
But boundary isn’t quite the right word, she goes on to say. Rather, the Imaginal ‘penetrates this denser world in much the same way as the fragrance of perfume penetrates an entire room, subtly enlivening and harmonizing.’ There is a beautiful Sufi metaphor, ‘where the two seas meet’, that brings this concept alive. Bourgeault explains that the “the Imaginal realm is a meeting ground, a place of active exchange between two bandwidths of reality.”
The internet has become our collective Imaginal. It has its own rules and its own causality which are different to those of the physical world. It is a place where our politics, ideologies and religions are birthed and then shot into physical reality to see if they’ll stick — and in turn physical reality influences it. And like the unconscious, the more we try to repress it, the more ferociously it will breach.
Keeping a Lid on it
The concepts of acceptance and repression are important when discussing The Age of Breach. Psychologist Michael Washburn has suggested that as our sense of identity develops, we create a ‘repression barrier’ between our egos and the potent but uncontrollable forces of the deeper reality from which our consciousness arises. He calls this deeper reality the ‘Dynamic Ground’, and our main access to it is through the body; the seat and source of our emotions, our imagination and our mortality.
He argues that a disconnection from our bodies and the dynamic ground eventually leaves us feeling alienated. The repression barrier starts to break. Dreams bleed into reality. Early unconscious material starts to resurface, often in binaries of good and evil, unresolved childhood traumas manifesting as imagined demons and angels. As Integral theorist Bruce Alderman has pointed out, we can see this kind of regression in QAnon, for example the belief that a global cabal of paedophiles controls the world.
We see it too in Wokeism, in which the world must be purified of wrong thought and action, with all its fetishistic fixation on purity and child-like anxiety around adult nuance. Both of these proto religions seem in many ways like a regression to a more anxious, fragmented state of being. However, Washburn argues that it is in fact ‘regression in service of transcendence’, and if we can learn to embrace and move with it, it will lead closer to psychic (and possibly social) wholeness.
This suggests that we shouldn’t try to repress or control the imaginal. It’s no surprise that r/WallStreetBets, QAnon and Wokeism are all leaderless. Any attempt by an individual to control the direction of unconscious energy tends to fail.
As u/wallstreetbitch says in a thread criticising the founder of the sub for going on national news and (in their view) spreading falsehoods:
“The sub has always been about its people, and what you guys wanted to do (as retarded as you are). No single person speaks for the sub and controls its destiny.”
The collective intelligence of the Imaginal doesn’t have a leader, and it doesn’t follow the same causality as the nightly news.
It’s worth pointing out that ‘collective intelligence’ isn’t always particularly intelligent. Many of the ideologies and symbolic realities that perpetuate online are adolescent, poorly thought out or just bigoted. However, they can also be heroic, wise and beautiful. As Jordan Hall has argued, we’re still in the early stages of this collective intelligence; tramping through the Wild West of decentralised organisation.
To see how chaotic and dangerous it can be when a chaotic product of the Imaginal breaches with the real world, we need look no further than the attack on the Capitol Building in January. The perplexed look on the faces of some of the rioters are a potent symbol of how un-equipped people can be to hold and act on these powerful psychic forces, and how thoroughly they can mislead us.
As Reed Berkowitz has pointed out, QAnon is a type of live action role playing game. By design, these tend to heighten our sense of apophenia — seeing connections where there are none. This takes people further and deeper into a sense of alienation from reality, or a belief that it’s false or constructed — very similar to the regression Washburn theorises.
The sudden waking from that alternate reality into the physical realness of having breached the bastion of democracy is dislocating, and unfortunately nothing brings you back to your body faster than a bullet in the neck.
The Internet of Thoughts
So far, I’ve argued that Breach is a profound and unique phenomenon of our age. But hasn’t the barrier between online and offline has been shrinking for decades? The average person in the UK checks their phone 28 times a day, dipping in and out of the imaginal constantly. As many have argued, for all intents and purposes we are already cyborgs.
The latest tech trend sending Silicon Valley into a tizzy is the Metaverse, a hyper connected blend of physical reality, virtual worlds and the internet. In 2019, Wired founder Kevin Kelly set the stage when he wrote an article called “Welcome to the Mirrorworld” where he lays out how augmented reality (overlaying an online frame onto the real world) is going to spark the next major tech platform. He points out that we’re building a map of the real world in digital format and that ‘when it’s complete, our physical reality will merge with the digital universe.’
This is all fascinating, but none of this is Breach. Breach is marked by an eruption of psychic and emotional energy. It emerges suddenly; you can’t predict it in a Wired article. There’s a qualitative, aesthetic difference between technological developments influencing the real world and Breach. It’s the difference between The Arab Spring and Uber. Tinder and the election of Donald Trump.
And anyone who has delved into their unconscious mind through psychedelics, therapy or other practices knows that it is not a place that we can manipulate for our own egoic purposes. It has you, you don’t have it. The danger of believing otherwise is the subject of myths and stories from Icarus to Fantasia.
We can’t, or at least shouldn’t, discuss the merge between online and offline without taking into account this imaginal quality of the internet. They go hand in hand, and fawning over ‘technological disruption’ is missing the point. Breach is far more disruptive than the newest Augmented Reality device — and if we don’t learn to ride it, it’s going to drown us.
Riding the Breach
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. — Hunter S Thompson
Breach as I’m defining it here was partly inspired by China Meiville’s novel The City and the City, which gives us a brilliant metaphor for how it currently manifests. In the novel, two cities exist on top of one another, and the citizens have conditioned themselves to ‘unsee’ the other city. When citizens breach, for example by accidentally crashing into the car of a citizen from another city, secret police appear and bundle them away while everyone else ‘unsees’ the incident to pretend it never happened.
As in the novel, Breach is always a threat to one or both realities. In the case of Gamestop saga, a threat to a corrupt established order of financial institutions. Amateur investors and the users on r/WallStreetBets have taken hold of a power previously granted to an institutional elite. While most of the mainstream is cheering them on, they represent a threat not just to the hedge funds they caught out, but to our collective trust in the established financial order (in case the last hundred years weren’t enough).
Breach always contains promise and danger, depending where you’re standing. It’s certainly weird as hell and dislocating, like going to the supermarket on LSD (I’ve done that a few times and don’t recommend it). However, the wisdom traditions and transpersonal psychology have been finding ways to navigate different realities for thousands of years. There are techniques from these traditions I’ve found particularly useful in navigating the Age of Breach. I share them here in the hope that they’re useful or lead you to find your own techniques. For simplicity I’ve put them into categories: Holding, Grounding, Flipping and Blending.
Holding: Embracing weirdness rather than resisting it. Accepting reality as it is, not how we’d like it to be, even if it’s inexplicable or uncanny.
Grounding. Becoming aware of our bodies and using them as an anchor into the present moment. This also helps us to practice ‘decentring’, or taking a step back and not identifying with the content of our experience. This is particularly useful when we’re faced with contradictory or inexplicable information.
Flipping. Becoming adept at moving between the imaginal realm of the internet and our traditional social institutions. We’re all used to this already — our workplaces have different rules to our home lives, for example. Flipping requires holding at least two cognitive and emotional operating systems at once without collapsing one into the other — in this case, the symbolic and memetic and the physical, established order.
Blending. Relaxing into the perfume of the imaginal as it suffuses the world around you. Allowing the two worlds to blend together rather than burst into one another in opposition. Relaxing the boundary between the real and the imaginal reduces tension, but must be done with skilfulness to avoid losing ourselves in either realm.
Finally, we can see Breach not just as a phenomenon of our age, but as a sign. It’s a sign that the barrier holding back our collective imagination is fracturing, and will at some point dissolve. What happens when the two seas finally meet will no doubt change us forever.