Multipolar Cynicism

Hear this article read aloud here!

Post ported from

Because I have better things to do, I have been procrastinating by reading Planet Funny. The author (the guy from Jeapordy!) makes the case that

There was something interesting Jennings said about the rise of irony, snark, sarcasm, and cynicism in society. Noting the suspension of usual irony by SNL and The Onion right after 9/11, he warns:

Wounds heal, and irony always comes back. Occasionally trend pieces will trumpet a “New Sincerity” movement… citing as evidence any new sign of earnestness or sentiment in the culture… But it’s never going to happen, as 9/11 demonstrated. Once the genie is out of the bottle, an irony culture is never going to go back to being a sincerity culture, because the roots go too deep. Authenticity is often uncomfortable and revealing: ambiguous snark never is. Who wants to be the only vulnerable poet soul in a world of irony-clad scoffers?

This reminded me of the discussion of multipolar traps by Scott Alexander. The grossly oversimplify (the linked article is better): An individual hits on some behavior that optimizes for one thing, at the cost of another. If the thing optimized is good enough for the individual (vastly oversimplifying here), it spreads throughout the group, population, or species. The result: everyone is worse off than before the big shift, but unless they can coordinate (and enforce coordination), no one actor can change the whole system. Hence, a “multi-polar trap”, described by Alexander:

From a god’s-eye-view, we can optimize the system to “everyone agrees to stop doing this at once”, but no one within the system is able to effect the transition without great risk to themselves.

Examples of multipolar traps include pollution (convenient for polluter, increases risks for everyone), arms races (no one actor can stop alone), and many tragedies of the commons.

So in the Planet Funny paradigm, as cynicism proves its use in the face of hardship and challenge, it becomes (for many) a default response to these things. As it becomes more common, it becomes harder for individuals to express sincere emotions or beliefs without coming off as self-righteous or stupid. From Jennings, again:

The real threat to beware of, then, is whether the snark level of society as a whole is too pervasive and overused (especially in, say, the political sphere).

Any thoughts on this? Am I completely off, sort of off, spot on?