The rise of digital culture is a part of what we call, for lack of a better word, “globalization.” Globalization has produced enormous benefits for Americans and for the rest of the world, particularly for the world’s poor. But it also imposes costs. We Americans do not move as often as we used to (or as often as we should) for work, but the global elites who set the cultural tone and dominate the institutions are very footloose, or at least they were before the plague. Americans attend church less often than we used to and are less religious than we once were; we get married later in life and have children later in life, and we are more likely to forgo marriage and children altogether than we once were. Changes in the nature of business firms make the once-mighty corporations increasingly ad hoc collections of labor, intellectual property, and conventional capital, with the average corporate lifespan in decline and likely to keep going lower — meaning that people inclined to work for one company for all of their lives have fewer options for doing so. It is a great time to be creative and adventurous, and a tough time to be a risk-averse localist. That has left many Americans, and many people around the world, with a void at the center: The things that once gave people a sense of meaning, relation, and fixedness are either diminished, eliminated entirely, or reconfigured beyond recognition. And so they go looking for substitutes.
The longing after a sense of significance that causes Hillary Hayward-Thomas to reinvent herself as the more exotic “Hilaria” is the same force that powers social-media hate mobs and shallow hashtag activism, cults like QAnon and the anti-vaxxers, and the relatively new but almost ubiquitous phenomenon of partisanship as a form of identity politics.
Every society worships something, and we have decided — disastrously — on ourselves.