10 Words that define the present times

When the world is changing more quickly than ever before, here is a list of of 10 words and phrases that can help us think differently.


In the 2017 film A Ghost Story, directed by David Lowery, a happy man dies suddenly in a car accident and ends up being a ghost. He returns to his family home to linger spectrally under a generic bed sheet with eyeholes cut in it, a ghost of a ghost, and watch helplessly as his family continues life without him; and then, after they move out and others move in, as life in general continues without him. Hovering in his bathetic sheet, he is the essence of loneliness. He is trapped in a supernatural realm, with no human traction, as much haunted by as he is haunting obsolete relationships. He sometimes manages to express his frustration by smashing a few dishes or throwing some books, reduced to a mere poltergeist. Maybe the stark truth is that he has been ‘ghosted’: no one has been returning his text messages and DMs and he is trapped in digital limbo, condemned forever to float around as a ghost emoji? In any event, if you find yourself waiting around under a sheet for no apparent reason, I suggest you take the sheet off and find something better to do.


The limits of our knowledge may be a bad place to start, but in the post-millennial, post-human (see below) age some humility may be in order. The term ‘hyperobject’ was coined by the academic Timothy Morton, and it refers to phenomena that are so large and so far beyond the human frame of reference that they are not susceptible to reason. He gives as an example global warming (which he also calls ‘the end of the world’), a phenomenon instigated by humanity, but in the context of which we may now be insignificant.


This word would make more sense if it referred to fishing for cats, but in actuality it refers to people who construct false identities online and, whether out of boredom, loneliness or malice, lure other people into continued messaging correspondence, thereby building false relationships with them (the apparent source of the term ‘catfish’ is a 2010 documentary called Catfish, whose verity, ironically enough, has been questioned).  If some of us are reduced to catfish lurking on the bottom of the Mississippi river, are we not all reduced to catfish?

The new weird

An emerging genre of speculative, ‘post-human’ writing that blurs genre boundaries and conventions, pushes humanity and human-centred reason from the centre to the margins, and generally poses questions that may not be answerable in any terms we can understand (hence the ‘weird’). It is associated with people like Jeff Vandermeer and M John Harrison in fiction, but the approach is bleeding into television narratives (see Westworld or Noah Hawley’s innovative series Fargo and Legion). Vandermeer’s Annihilation is heavily influenced by recent ecological thinking which takes the view that humanity is a blip in geologic history: even considering the potential catastrophe of global warming, the Earth existed long before us, and it will exist long after (see the ‘hyperobject’ entry elsewhere here).


This word is likely to be bandied about much more frequently in the decades ahead, as social media users realise that the websites they are on are not merely neutral ‘platforms’ for ‘social interaction’ but more like a kind of flypaper to which people and all of their personal data stick.  No less a luminary than Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of digital innovation in the world and a granddaddy of Silicon Valley (he was born in 1960), points out many serious problems with social media, but the most straightforward one is that there is plenty of research that suggests social media fundamentally makes people unhappy. His solution is simple: delete your accounts.


Writing that merges autobiography and fiction, and freely transgresses other genre boundaries as well. The term was coined in the avant-garde literary world of France in the 1970s, but it has come to be applied to contemporary fiction dominated by the author’s unreliable subjectivity. (The point being that all subjectivity is unreliable.) Writers of this sort might be Chris Kraus (whose 1997 novel I Love Dick became a cult feminist classic, spawning a 2017 TV series) and Maggie Nelson with The Argonauts – as well as WG Sebald, Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, Nell Zink, Rachel Cusk and Elena Ferrante (at a stretch).


In George Cukor’s 1944 film Gaslight, a man attempts to convince his wife (Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award for best actress) that she’s mad in order to get her committed to an insane asylum and swindle her. Inherent in this story is a struggle over the empirical nature of reality: are there solid truths, or is reality only a matter of perception? Gaslighting has become a byword for psychological manipulation, with experts offering tips on how to know if you’re a victim of the behaviour. In the present era, where potent advertising and PR forces are doing everything in their power to make truth irrelevant and directly hack our minds, and where politicians no longer seem to acknowledge the existence of facts, the word has sinister new applications.

Shadow banking

Thinking about this is likely to give you a headache, but as John Lanchester points out, this is at the top of the list of informed concerns about the global financial system. Lanchester – a superb translator of finance-speak into layman’s terms – argues that we need to understand the jargon-filled language of the economic elites, because otherwise they will write their own rules. Shadow banking consists of any financial transactions carried out by institutions that don’t have a formal banking licence, in other words institutions that are not directly regulated or overseen by government bodies. Examples of these are credit card companies, insurance companies, PayPal, the institutions within banking that lend money back and forth between banks. We can, if you want, add to this the vast dark-financial realm of over-the-counter (OTC) transactions (including derivatives that are almost too complex for anyone, inside or outside the business, to understand) that are technically between two parties and therefore off government radar. Nobody knows how large this sector is, but current estimates put shadow banking at $160 trillion (£124 trillion) and OTC transactions at $532 trillion (£412 trillion), or roughly twice and six-and-a-half times the GDP of the entire Earth, respectively. Both sectors were of course heavily involved in creating the 2008 crash, and both have remained almost unaltered since then.

Generation Why?

The pun comes from a brilliant and prescient Zadie Smith essay that is one of my touchstones. Smith is referring to millennials, but I think it applies to anyone born in the digital age. To roughly clarify our terms here: Baby Boomers are the generation born after World War Two and before 1965; Generation X (Douglas Coupland) the cohort born between the mid-1960s and 1980; Generation Y (Millennials) includes people born between 1980-ish and 2000; Generation Z (Post-Millennials) is anyone born after 2000. These categories don’t really have global reach, but they are evocative as metaphors. The gist of Smith’s argument is that Facebook and its like are reductive: they cut us down to size and reprogramme us to suit their own ends, which are advertising and selling things – exploitation. “Five-hundred million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore,” she calls it. Smith was writing a few years ago; the number of Facebook users has now passed 2 billion. Generations Y and Z have led lives saturated by the internet, by social media platforms and apps, which have claimed to make life complete and have all of the answers all of the time. Is this paraphernalia worthy of them? Are they content to be trapped in the reveries of Zuckerberg and the like? No. There are detectable tremours of disaffection and radicalisation. I suspect that as more and more post-millennials reach voting age, Generation Why may be giving us some loud answers.


We used to think we knew what masculinity meant, but now it is going out of focus. A rapidly changing context is the cause. There was a time when you’d ask a man what masculinity was and his response would be something like ‘not feminine’ (pejorative) and ‘not queer’ (pejorative). Note all the negativity. These days it is increasingly a good thing to be a woman (new, broad definition) and to be queer (new, broad definition). Both are eating away at the old territory occupied by masculinity, according to writers such as Hanna Rosin, Cordelia Fine or Grayson Perry. What’s left is something of a void, aka ‘the crisis of masculinity’. The challenge ahead for men is to formulate what they are, and want to be, rather than what they aren’t. How to open up this frontier? I have a suggestion. For generations feminists and queer activists have been fighting to draw attention to masculinity’s toxic side-effects. At long last, mainstream men seem on the verge of accepting that there is a problem. It remains for us all to take this a step further, and work to understand how this toxicity has also been poisoning men on the inside.

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