Don't panic: #NYSEshutdown was all about our collective disaster fantasies

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"We're not big believers in coincidence," said FBI director James Comey the day after the New York Stock Exchange halted for nearly four hours at the same time the computer systems of the Wall Street Journal and United Airlines crashed. NYSE officials have blamed a "configuration" issue, asserting that there is "no evidence" of a cyber breach. A glitch itself may have been just that. But while the FBI distrusts coincidence, the public reaction indexes something more interesting than skepticism: we did not want it to be a coincidence.

#NYSE and #NYSEshutdown began to trend on Twitter within the first hour of halted trading. News spread that the Journal and United were having concurrent tech spasms. A baby shark fell mysteriously out of the sky into a Virginia Beach backyard. It was all too much for the spluttering digital hive mind, primed to welcome apocalypse now. Theories about cyber-terrorism — be it Anonymous or Islamic State — were swift to abound.

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But I'm not as interested in which responses to the glitch were parsimonious or understandable. I'm interested in the palpable thrill that ran through the subtext (and sometimes the actual text) of tens of thousands of tweets on Wednesday — our libidinal desire for collapse. Artist and writer Molly Crabapple captured the mood with typical sharp satire. She wrote a dystopic short story, published in the Guardian's Comment is Free, in which she, the intrepid reporter, wanders into the heart of the financial district, reduced to a post-apocalyptic, cannibalistic badland within a day of halted trading. "I take in the scene," she writes, "street preachers denouncing Gnosticism, a lone banker trying to garrote himself with ticket tape, and the Bull – that gold, beautiful bull – running through the streets like Zeus… Smoke. Weeping. Screams." Just a short glitch, and the desire for anarchy is loosed upon the (social media) world.

It's no secret that there is a special place in society's dreamscapes to see its own violent destruction. A wealth of pop-cultural artifacts confirm this. My Twitter feed was peppered with screenshots from The Dark Knight Rises, showing Bane and his henchmen storming the Gotham Stock Exchange. That fictional insurrection began with a computer systems failure, too. In the 2008 blockbuster, Cloverfield, a gigantic monster tears apart lower Manhattan, presented for nearly the entire film as simply a vast and terrible object, a force without distinct form, lurking out of frame — an apt metaphor for our post-9/11 conceptions of terror.

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During Occupy Wall Street's heyday, a group of radical artists, the Anti-Banality Union, made a supercut of 50 disaster movies depicting New York's destruction. The result, "Unclear Holocaust," is a whistle-stop tour through Hollywood's dreamscape of system collapse. The artists commented on the predictable trajectory of these sorts of films: "A quotidian existence is interrupted by an anomaly manufactured by different apparatuses, whether scientific, military, administrative, pedagogical, or civilian, which are then turned into real objects of crisis and catastrophe and deployed as political stratagems by a governmental apparatus." It was the structure we playfully riffed upon with #NYSE. There's nothing psychoanalytically mysterious here: a mixture of the death drive and a reasonable political interest in seeing, literally seeing, the current order, centered around Wall Street, crumble — all consumable from the safety of the mulitplex!

We must, however, face an uncomfortable truth haunting our apocalyptic fantasies when they focus on New York's financial center. Our fascination with shutdown becoming meltdown is not confined to the silver screen, nor even the boisterous, righteous Occupy attempts to "shut it down" in downtown Manhattan. No image of world-shifting collapse can quite compete with two planes crashing into the World Trade Center. Theorist Jean Baudrillard controversially, but aptly I think, wrote of 9/11: "We have dreamed of this event, everybody without exception has dreamt of it, because everybody must dream of the destruction of any power hegemonic to that degree — this is unacceptable for Western moral conscience, but it is still a fact."

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Baudrillard was not, as some hand-wringing bad analysis suggested, saying anything so coarse as "you got what you deserved," nor was he praising Bin Laden as the fulfiller of dreams. He was asserting the hard truth that the US, as the center of capital's hegemony, is a site of hatred, not reserved for fundamentalist Muslims, or Haters of Freedom. We can't distance ourselves from our fantasies: Hollywood has handed them back to us and we have loved it. King Kong, the Siege, the original Planet of the Apes, all saw New York ripped apart before 9/11 — destruction fantasies are not simply a reflection of post-9/11 trauma. Baudrillard rightly notes that questioning the morality or immorality of destruction fantasy is the wrong approach — we must follow Nietzche's call to go beyond Good and Evil. Apocalyptic fantasy, as told by pop culture, often fails to do this, by assigning the agency of destruction to an attacking ("Evil") enemy: terrorists and monsters.

So while digital forensics experts pick apart Wednesday's glitch, we might take these few days for some collective self-reflection, since normality did not rupture after all. Whether the shutdown was planned by Chinese military hackers, rogue disruptors, or the Definitely Imminently Attacking American Soil Islamic State, or, indeed a total coincidence is in some ways immaterial. We have been told that cyberterror is a real threat, and we've seen it effectively deployed against US institutions before. Whatever the actual cause is perhaps less important than the fact that the shutdown highlighted a simple vulnerability in a system presumed all powerful.

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This is perhaps all the more interesting if highlighted by an ill-fated systems configuration alone. It's exhilarating to imagine small cracks in the system inevitably escalating into determined destruction. We play a dangerous, and acquiescent, game when we wait for dark outside forces, or even simple coincidence, to bring about disruption. It will not be the system collapse we want to see.

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