Debugging the 21st Century

Swinging Europe

These days, one can meet sentences at dinner parties which before carefully shielded themselves from view. In the West, a swing to the right. Swinging upwards—one can now claim to being rebellious when being nationalistic. Here and there migrants get attacked. Or the idea of Europe—there is a connection. Some blame the echo chamber of social media, in which a carefully posed question—just a question—how many migrants a society can take in, seems to look harmless next to a tweet that threats a veiled woman with rape. But columnists write the same openly in newspapers without any violent tweets nearby. And to this day talk show hosts feel critical and proud when making oversimplified assumptions. Oh, the public discourse. Well, we always knew that neoliberal politics come hand in hand with me-and-my-group-first religion.

The discourse we inhabit has become a horror movie. People panic. Like an Instagram filter changing the tone, the bland and boring landscape we lived in has turned into a violent battleground. Falling in love on the dance floor is not enough to forget that elements which were once unacceptable, even unthinkable, are now successfully among us. Requested by popular demand: Brexit. Breaking the Geneva Convention. Finishing the Turkish democracy off. Police shooting black lives.

To neoliberals, experts in milking the opportunities of their time, this is known as the Overton window. The concept named after a right-wing think tank strategist works like this: Everything within the Overton window is seen as common sense, while everything outside it is seen as a strange and dangerous idea. Not just communism but also socialism and the state have fallen out of favour—the window has been shifted strongly to the right. Ideas once wacky—such as the vampire logic of an unregulated market—are now mainstream. While ideas that were once mainstream—such as the Geneva convention—have become wacky. Brexit is a very good example to track how the window works. When a British billionaire founded The Referendum Party in 1994 to get Britain out of the EU, the mainstream treated them as mad. But once the idea was planted and argued for, it got reframed and restated. It became thinkable—traveling from right wing think tanks to journalists to mainstream politicians to being voted for by a people. In just twentytwo years.

So where can we be twentytwo years from now? How to push this window and end the politics of fear? As other discourses before, this horror movie is capable of being modelled, formed. To push the Overton window means to leave the peer-group behind and create connections where none have been: Smuggling a different set of sentences into a dinner party might not be enough. But when we work together, we turn into someone else, a force we call upon each time we build organizations or houses or computer systems or things or friends thereby leaving the capitalist idea behind that we are nothing more than the sum of individual, exchangeable people locked into a peer group. Like all unhappy worlds, this one needs all the help available to get a different perspective.

Mercedes Bunz writes about digital media and philosophy of technology. Having been the co-founder and editor of de:Bug, an influential Berlin based magazine, she now lives in London. She writes a blog at

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