On a late Friday afternoon in November 2017, police were called to London’s Oxford Circus for reasons described as “terror-related.” Oxford Circus Underground station was evacuated, producing a crush of people as they made for the exits. Reports circulated of shots being fired, and images and video appeared online of crowds fleeing the area, with heavily armed police officers heading in the opposite direction. Eyewitnesses described screams and chaos, with people huddling inside shops for safety.
Amidst the panic, it was unclear where exactly the threat was emanating from, or whether there might be a number of attacks going on simultaneously, as had occurred in Paris two years earlier. Armed police stormed Selfridges department store, while shoppers were instructed to evacuate the building. Inside the store at the time was the pop star Olly Murs, who tweeted to his 8 million followers “Fuck everyone get out of Selfridge now gun shots!!” As shoppers in the store made for the exits, others were rushing in at the same time, producing a stampede.
Smartphones and social media meant that this whole event was recorded, shared, and discussed in real time. The police attempted to quell the panic using their own Twitter feed, but this was more than offset by the sense of alarm that was engulfing other observers. Former leader of the far-right English Defense League Tommy Robinson tweeted that this “looks like another jihad attack in London.” The Daily Mail unearthed an innocent tweet from ten days earlier, which had described a “lorry stopped on a pavement in Oxford Street,” and inexplicably used this as a basis on which to tweet “Gunshots fired” as armed police officers surrounded Oxford Circus station after “lorry ploughs into pedestrians.” The media was not so much reporting facts, as serving to synchronize attention and emotion across a watching public.
Around an hour after the initial evacuation of Oxford Circus, the police put out a statement that “to date police have not located any trace of any suspects, evidence of shots fired or casualties.” It subsequently emerged that nine people required treatment in hospital for injuries sustained in the panic, but nothing more serious had yet been discovered. A few minutes later, the London Underground authority tweeted that stations had reopened and trains were running normally. Soon after that, the emergency services were formally stood down. There were no guns and no terrorists.
What had caused this event? The police had received numerous calls from members of the public reporting gunshots on the Underground and on street level, and had arrived within six minutes ready to respond. But the only violence that anyone had witnessed with their eyes was a scuffle on an overcrowded rush-hour platform, as two men bumped into each other, and a punch or two was thrown. While it remained unclear what had caused the impression of shots being fired, the scuffle had been enough to lead the surrounding crowd to retreat suddenly in fear, producing a wave of rapid movement that was then amplified as it spread along the busy platform and through the station. Given that there had been two successful terrorist attacks in London earlier in the year and seven others reportedly foiled by the police, it is not hard to understand how panic might have spread in such confined spaces.
Ghost disturbances like this had happened before. New York’s JFK airport had witnessed a similar occurrence the previous year. On that occasion, stampedes broke out in numerous terminals across the airport, with reports on Twitter of an “active shooter” on the loose. One explanation was that the crowd had started to knock over the metal poles which organize lines of passengers, and the cumulative sound of these hitting the floor resembled gunfire. A small accident or misunderstanding was rapidly exaggerated, thanks to a combination of paranoid imagination and social media.
Following the Oxford Circus incident, local shopkeepers demanded a “Tokyo-style” loudspeaker system to be installed in the surrounding streets to allow the police to communicate with entire crowds all at once. The idea gained little traction but did diagnose the problem. Where events are unfolding rapidly and emotions are riding high, there is a sudden absence of any authoritative perspective on reality. In the digital age, that vacuum of hard knowledge becomes rapidly filled by rumors, fantasy, and guesswork, some of which is quickly twisted and exaggerated to suit a preferred narrative. Fear of violence can be just as disruptive a force as actual violence, and it can be difficult to quell once it is at large.
In statistical terms, the chance of dying in a terrorist attack or mass shooting in London or New York is extremely small indeed. But this type of cool objective perspective is not available—nor particularly useful—to the person who is in immediate fear for their life. After a panic has ended, it is up to political authorities, newspaper reporters, and experts to try and establish the facts of what has taken place. But nobody would expect people to act in accordance with the facts in the heat of the moment, as a mass of bodies are hurtling and screaming around them. Where rapid response is essential, bodily instinct takes hold.
Events such as these typify something about the times in which we live, when speed of reaction often takes precedence over slower and more cautious assessments. As we become more attuned to “real time” events and media, we inevitably end up placing more trust in sensation and emotion than in evidence. Knowledge becomes more valued for its speed and impact than for its cold objectivity, and emotive falsehood often travels faster than fact. In situations of physical danger, where time is of the essence, rapid reaction makes sense. But the influence of “real time” data now extends well beyond matters of security. News, financial markets, friendships, and work engage us in a constant flow of information, making it harder to stand back and construct a more reliable portrait of any of them. The threat lurking in this is that otherwise peaceful situations can come to feel dangerous, until eventually they really are.
The modern world was founded upon two fundamental distinctions, both inaugurated in the mid-17th century: between mind and body, and between war and peace. These binaries have been gradually weakening for over a hundred years. As we will see, the rise of psychology and psychiatry in the late 19th century brought mind and body into closer proximity to each other, demonstrating how our thoughts are influenced by nervous impulses and feelings. The invention of aerial bombing in the early twentieth century meant that war came to include techniques for terrifying and policing civilian populations, well beyond the limits of combat.
These two distinctions—between mind and body, and war and peace—appear to have lost credibility altogether, with the result that we now experience conflict intruding into everyday life. Since the 1990s, rapid advances in neuroscience have elevated the brain over the mind as the main way by which we understand ourselves, demonstrating the importance of emotion and physiology to all decision making. Meanwhile, new forms of violence have emerged, in which states are attacked by non-state groups, interstate conflicts are fought using nonmilitary means (such as cyberwarfare), and the distinction between policing and military intervention becomes blurred. As society has been flooded by digital technology, it has grown harder to specify what belongs to the mind and what to the body, what is peaceful dialogue and what is conflict. In the murky space between mind and body, between war and peace, lie nervous states: individuals and governments living in a state of constant and heightened alertness, relying increasingly on feeling rather than fact. Mapping that condition and identifying its origins is the task of this book.
When we speak of feeling something, this can mean two different things. First, there is physical sensation, including pleasure and pain, which is crucial for navigating our environment. Our nervous system receives sensations from the outside world, which are used to coordinate our bodies and instinctive movements. The brilliance of our neurological network is that it facilitates immediate response to new information, whether that be from our physical circumstances or our internal organs. The brain manages sensory impressions extremely rapidly, offering among other things a crucial defense against external threats. The brain is itself a complex sensory organ, which learns to organize impressions over time and extract patterns from them. Individual sensations may not count as knowledge, but they are an indispensable form of data, which we rely on almost constantly.
Second, there are feelings in the sense of emotions. These are experiences that we are capable of consciously reflecting on and articulating. We have a wide vocabulary for naming and expressing these feelings. We communicate them physically in our facial expressions and body language. They tell us important things about our relationships, lifestyles, desires and identities. Feelings of this sort present themselves to our minds, such that we actually notice them, even if we can’t control them. Emotions can now be captured and algorithmically analyzed (“sentiment analysis”) thanks to the behavioral data that digital technologies collect. And yet feelings of this sort are not welcome everywhere. In public life, an accusation of being “emotional” traditionally carries the implication that someone has lost objectivity and given way to irrational forces.
Feelings are how we orient ourselves, while also providing a reminder of shared humanity. Our capacity to feel pain and love is fundamental to how and why we care about each other. But as the stories of Oxford Circus and the JFK stampede demonstrate, survival instincts and nerves are not always reliable. The information feelings convey in the moment can conflict starkly with the facts that are subsequently established. The crucial quality of feelings—their immediacy—is also what makes them potentially misleading, spawning overreactions and fear. Unscrupulous politicians and businesses have long exploited our instincts and emotions, to convince us to believe or buy things that, on more careful reflection, we needn’t have done. Real-time media, available via mobile technologies, exacerbates this potential, meaning that we spend more of our time immersed in a stream of images and sensations, with less time for reflection or dispassionate analysis.
During the 17th century, a number of European scholars produced ideas and institutions which aimed to regulate feelings, on the basis that they were untrustworthy and possibly dangerous. The French philosopher René Descartes treated physical sensations with great suspicion, in contrast to rational principles belonging to the mind. The English political theorist Thomas Hobbes argued that the central purpose of the state was to eradicate feelings of mutual fear that would otherwise trigger violence. In the same era, pioneering communities of merchants and gentlemen introduced strict new rules for how their impressions should be recorded and spoken of, to avoid exaggeration and distortion, using numbers and public record-keeping. They would later become known as experts, and their ability to keep personal feelings separate from their observations was one of their distinguishing traits.
This period of history produced the intellectual building blocks of the modern age. Contemporary notions of truth, scientific expertise, public administration, experimental evidence and progress are all legacies of the 17th century. The elevation of reason above feeling was hugely productive, indeed world-changing in its implications. And yet it wasn’t simply knowledge that was being sought; it was also peace. To this day, much of the value of objectivity in public life, as manifest in statistics or economics, is that it provides a basis for consensus among people who otherwise have little in common. The German philosopher Hannah Arendt observed that the West’s “curious passion” for “objectivity” can be traced back originally to Homeric narrative, which recounted tales of war from the highly unusual position of a disinterested observer. A society that recognizes the authority of facts must also establish certain professions and institutions that are beyond the fray of politics, sentiment, or opinion.
That 17th-century project has run aground and given us the results we see today. Experts and facts no longer seem capable of settling arguments to the extent that they once did. Objective claims about the economy, society, the human body and nature can no longer be successfully insulated from emotions. In 82 percent of countries around the world, less than half of the public express trust in the media, and this is contributing directly to rising cynicism toward governments. The governmental institutions of the European Union and Washington, DC, are viewed as centers of elite privilege, which serve themselves rather than the public. Such feelings often hold greatest sway among communities that also benefit economically from those governments’ policies.
Some feelings have greater political potency than others. Feelings of nostalgia, resentment, anger, and fear have disrupted the status quo. Populist uprisings, as manifest in the victories of Donald Trump, the Brexit campaign, and a wave of nationalist surges across Europe, are cases of this, and have been widely criticized for their denigration of expertise and harnessing of emotional discontents. But these are symptoms of a problem, and not a cause. Individual leaders and campaigns will come and go, but the conditions that enabled them will endure.
We can respond either by hurling more facts at these disturbances or by diagnosing their underlying drivers. This book pursues the latter path, bringing the history of ideas to bear on our bewildering present, in the hope that we might be able to understand it better. There are facts and figures used along the way, but only as a starting point to explore and interpret historic upheavals, and never as the final word on things. My argument is in two parts. The first part examines how the 17th-century ideal of expertise came about, and why it has been losing credibility, especially since the 1990s. In particular, mounting inequality in the West means that, in certain ways, the facts produced by experts and technocrats simply do not capture lived reality for many people. Objective indicators of progress, such as GDP growth, conceal deep fractures within society. Crucially, these divisions are not merely economic, but have acquired a bodily and existential dimension: people’s lives are being shaped by divergent health, life expectancy and encounters with physical and psychological pain. Pessimism emanates most strongly from bodies that are aging faster and suffering more.
One could leave the story there, and simply lament the decline of modern reason, as if emotions have overwhelmed the citadel of truth like barbarians. The most vehement defenders of scientific rationality claim that alien forces—liars, demagogues, Kremlin trolls, or the uneducated public—have been granted too much power, and need to be eliminated from politics all over again. That response ignores a subsequent historical development, which is no less important for shaping the modern world, and which the second part of this book explores. The desire to harness emotions and physical instincts for political purposes also has a long history, producing its own centers of elite control, but with one crucial difference: it operates in the service of conflict rather than of peace. At the height of the Enlightenment, as reason appeared to be triumphing once and for all, the French Revolution demonstrated the immense power that could be unleashed by popular sentiment. The ability to mobilize ordinary people en masse was a revelation that would soon be harnessed by Napoleon.
Modern warfare produces miasmas of emotion, information, misinformation, deception, and secrecy. It mobilizes infrastructure, civilian populations, industry, and intelligence services in innovative ways. The rise of aerial warfare meant that problems of civilian morale and real-time decision making acquired greater urgency, producing new techniques for managing popular sentiment and sensing incoming threats. It was this paranoia that led to the invention of the digital computer and later the Internet. War places strategic importance on feeling in both senses of the term: the right kind of emotions need triggering, while enemy movements and plans need sensing as rapidly as possible. Information becomes valued for its speed as much as its public credibility. This is a whole new way of handling the question of truth which often runs entirely counter to the original scientific ideal of reason and expertise.
Since the late 19th century, nationalists have sought to manufacture popular mobilizations by conjuring up memories of past wars and enthusiasm for future ones. But something else has happened more recently, which has quietly fed the spirit of warfare into civilian life, making us increasingly combative. The emphasis on “real time” knowledge that was originally privileged in war has become a feature of the business world, of Silicon Valley in particular. The speed of knowledge and decision making becomes crucial, and consensus is sidelined in the process. Rather than trusting experts, on the basis that they are neutral and outside the fray, we have come to rely on services that are fast, but whose public status is unclear. A 2017 survey, for example, found that more people were willing to trust search engines than human editors.
The promise of expertise, first made in the 17th century, is to provide us with a version of reality that we can all agree on. The promise of digital computing, by contrast, is to maximize sensitivity to a changing environment. Timing becomes everything. Experts produce facts; Google and Twitter offer trends. As the objective view of the world recedes, it is replaced by intuition as to which way things are heading now. This nervous state offers more emotional stimulation and sensitivity, but for the same reason it is unsettling and disruptive of peaceful situations. In some circumstances, it can generate conflict and upheaval out of nothing. Meanwhile the question lurks in the background of who might be seeking to trigger specific feelings and why.
The ultimate danger of this situation is the one identified by Hobbes in the 17th century. If people don’t feel safe, it doesn’t matter whether they are objectively safe or not; they will eventually start to take matters into their own hands. Telling people that they are secure is of limited value if they feel that they are in situations of danger. For this reason, we have to take people’s feelings seriously as political issues, and not simply dismiss them as irrational. Individual and collective worlds have been taken over by feeling. We don’t have to speak the language of “culture war” or adopt violent rhetoric in order to recognize that politics is becoming increasingly framed and approached in quasi-militaristic terms. The political task is to feel our way toward less paranoid means of connecting with one another.
Populism is a threat, but it also contains opportunities. What kinds of opportunity? As I’ll explore, many of the forces transforming democracies today stem from aspects of the human condition that lie deep in our psyches and bodies, beyond matters of fact: physical pain, fear of the future, a sense of our own mortality, the need to be cared for and protected. These features of humanity might sound a little dark, even macabre, but they are also things that we hold in common. As it becomes harder to establish widespread consensus through facts and expert testimony, we may have to dig deeper into our emotional and physical selves in search of a common world. If those committed to peace are not prepared to do this work of excavation, then those committed to conflict will happily do so instead.
When reason itself is in peril, there is an understandable instinct to try to revive or rescue something from the past. The question is what. What was so great about those innovations and revolutions of 17th-century Europe anyway? It has become a cliché to celebrate the rugged individualism, cold rationality, and truth-seeking courage of the scientific pioneers. But in our current age, when intelligence and calculation are performed faster and more accurately by machines than by people, an alternative ideal is needed. Perhaps the great virtue of the scientific method is not that it is smart (which is now an attribute of phones, cities, and fridges) but that it is slow and careful. Maybe it is not more intelligence that we need right now, but less speed and more care, both in our thinking and our feeling. After all, emotions (including anger) can be eminently reasonable, if they are granted the time to be articulated and heard. Conversely, advanced intelligence can be entirely unreasonable, when it moves at such speed as to defy any possibility of dialogue.
Democracies are being transformed by the power of feeling in ways that cannot be ignored or reversed. This is our reality now. We can’t reverse history, and nor can we circumvent it; this historical era needs to be traversed with unusual judgment and care. Rather than denigrate the influence of feelings in society today, we need to get better at listening to them and learning from them. Instead of bemoaning the influx of emotions into politics, we should value democracy’s capacity to give voice to fear, pain, and anxiety that might otherwise be diverted in far more destructive directions. If we’re to steer through the new epoch, and rediscover something more stable beyond it, we need, above all, to understand it.
From Nervous States by William Davies. Used with the permission of W. W. Norton.