Seven Billion Isolated Selves

In the 1990s I binge-read a bunch of Don DeLillo novels, culminating in his magnum opus, Underworld. He drew my attention because he said he heard jazz in his head as he wrote. I often hear classical in my head (no specific piece, just early twentieth century idiom), so I wanted to see how our prose differed. His is way better; I know I’m reading a superior writer when I sigh and think “I couldn’t match that in two hundred years of trying.” If I had to pinpoint a particular skill that makes me jealous, it’s his associative leaps, which even within sentences are bigger than mine, opening space for dissonance, playfulness, and surprise. (If you haven’t read DeLillo, I recommend starting with Libra, a scarily plausible conjecture about who killed John F. Kennedy.)

DeLillo’s prelude to Mao II (1991) is a fictionalized account of a mass wedding staged by the Unification Church. It ends with a thundering declarative sentence: “The future belongs to crowds.”

I understand why DeLillo might have thought that. The US Census Bureau estimates that when he was born (1936), he became one of some two billion people. By the time he published Mao II, he lived among well over five billion. Mass movements had been king since his youth, when democracy and communism smashed fascism. After the war, mass production propelled the economy, and manipulators of mass psychology became ubiquitous in politics, religion, and commerce, practicing their dark magic under anodyne terms like “advertising” and “public relations.” The mass sensibility even invaded the sacred realm of art, exemplified by Andy Warhol’s production of multiple silk screens called Mao II, portraying (celebrating?) the cult leader of the world’s most populous country.

DeLillo deplored mass culture. Mao II is a (perhaps self-pitying) story about a writer who refuses to publish, outraged that it takes terrorists to shock the public the way artists once did. It’s a grim tale, and not very funny, either. Yet now that nearly thirty years have passed, I wonder whether DeLillo still believes the future — i.e., today — belongs to crowds.

With the transition in dominant media from broadcast to internet, the manipulators of mass psychology have changed tactics. They gather hundreds of data points on each of us, and guided by that knowledge, tailor individualized appeals on social media. And elsewhere: when The Fabulous Wife comes back from shopping at Target, the receipt for seven items is two feet long, to fit all the coupons for items she might want to buy based on her purchase history. With exceptions like the Super Bowl, the era of mass advertising — and perhaps mass images — is starting to disappear.

And with the arrival of coronavirus, the era of crowds also may be coming to a close. Avoided and increasingly banned are gatherings at stadia, concert halls, commuter trains, classrooms, office cubes, and coffee shops. What once was optional — telecommuting, online teaching, doorstep delivery —may become the norm as we realize confining ourselves not only minimizes our risk of disease, but our risk of unpleasant interactions, up to and including terrorist attacks. Perhaps it will become the new class divide: you’ll know you’re middle class or higher if you stay home and deal with the world via computer screen and smart phone, and that you’re working class or lower if your routine requires face-to-face exchanges. It’s not inevitable, but we’re trending that way, and if the coronavirus pandemic is prolonged, our homes may become figurative castles.

The future belongs to social distancing.

Don DeLillo, from the National Portrait Gallery.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.