A reading of our time

In his novel The Peripheral, William Gibson develops the striking new concept of the Jackpot. Ironically named, it expresses the moment when everything suddenly goes wrong at the same time. I think there has been a certain misunderstanding of the concept, as readers see it as a whimsical way to speak of the familiar concept of cascading crises.

Gibson does not have that concept in mind. As I read it, his idea is a different one. He sees it as environmental exhaustion. Human beings have an obvious tendency to use all available resources around them. As one specific supply is exhausted, they turn elsewhere. These supplies may be to some extent fungible, so it is possible to disguise the disappearance of one source by using more of the remaining ones. Inevitably it all comes to an end, as complete environmental exhaustion suddenly reveals itself. “More a climate than an event, so not the way apocalypse stories liked to have a big event, after which everybody ran around with guns, looking like Burton and his posse, or else were eaten alive by something caused by the big event. Not like that.”

Here is how Gibson describes it: “droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves.”

In the original description, the Jackpot is obviously about climate change, but the concept can be extended to a more generalized sense of environmental exhaustion. What I want to ask here - the reader must have guessed by now - is whether the Jackpot can describe our own time. Suddenly a pandemic threatens to uproot all normal life. How do you fight the pandemic? At first glance by slowing down social and economic activity, but then the pressure on the economic conditions of the middle class may quickly become unbearable. Protests follow, but protests threaten to destroy what little remains of trust in the political system and without trust it is no longer possible to respond to economic inequality or technological decay or the dispossession of the middle class or climate change or even the pandemic, where we started. In one word: Jackpot.