These are sparkling insights, but Nervous States can’t decide whether we are living in unprecedented times or not. As a publishing strategy, it makes sense to talk up the novelty of the current moment, but the argument frequently cuts against that. Just as the idea of post-truth starts to lose its edge when we try to find an age of truth to contrast it with (there aren’t any), so the notion of a world struggling to cope with feeling sounds more like a part of the modern human condition than a distinctively 21st-century phenomenon.
Here is someone willing to excavate and trace what underpins our current sense of anxiety... In a brilliant chapter, Davies centres the physical body in political discourse... Social media adds to this illusion. Davies fizzes with lucidity on Zuckerberg’s “attention economy” and how it requires us to invest emotionally more and more... At times, Davies’s weaving together of so many ideas feels overwhelming in an Adam Curtissy way, and it is hard to know where this will lead us. He has nothing to say on gender, which is interesting. But perhaps that’s another book... Davies is a wonderfully alert and nimble guide and his absorbing and edgy book will help us feel our way to a better future. After all, it is only through understanding our anxiety and acknowledging our pain that a different world can be made. Psychotherapists call this “the work” and Davies is doing some of the heavy lifting and probing for us.
The result is by turns truistic and under-argued, as odd in its emphases as in its omissions... Flaws in the central thesis yield problems on almost every page... But Davies’s dealings with the present day can be just as problematic. He seems to have his own definition of political correctness (the belief that “how one speaks in public should be different to how one does so in private”) and confuses the singularity (the moment when machines outpace human intelligence) with digital ascension (the “fantasy” that “an entire human mind could perhaps be uploaded to a computer”)... But what’s most sorely missing from Davies’s account is direction or selection, the necessary wrangling of facts and figures... Amid the turbulence of these criss-crossing trajectories, the promise of causality never comes close to being fulfilled. By the end, there has been little sense of paradigm shift, just a parade of phenomena at infinitesimally different stages in a process of rise, renewal and fall.
At times, Nervous States is so dense and dystopian it’s like Black Mirror without the jokes. The author mounts a slightly terrifying case against the libertarian ambitions of Silicon Valley’s “Napoleonic high-tech entrepreneurs”, arguing that what they “share with fascism is an insistence on fixing problems immediately, and not bothering to debate them first”... It’s not all doom. Davies says we need to get used to listening to people’s feelings about politics rather than dismissing them. Policymakers must then come up with promises that “are so simple, so deliverable that they reconnect the worlds of elected representatives with the experiences of citizens”. I wouldn’t call it a manifesto for hope but it’s a call for action at least – a form of slow populism, perhaps. Next time you reach for your phone to check Twitter, first take a deep breath.
The book sits at the intersection of ongoing debates about post-truth, the assault on reason, the privileging of personal feelings and the rise of populism. Nervous States stands out for its sincere attempt not simply to lament these trends but to understand them... When it comes to pointing a way out of our current predicament, however, Davies has little concrete to offer ... in the fight against such demagoguery he seems to throw in the towel. He concludes that “policymakers must rediscover the political capacity to make simple, realistic and life-changing promises” such as free school meals and university tuition for all. Here, he seems to be ignoring his earlier, sounder advice that we need “less speed and more care, both in our thinking and feeling”. Despite this, Nervous States makes a compelling case for paying more attention to the role of feelings, alongside that of reason, in modern life.
The bearing of the history of ideas on present-day politics is pretty indirect. But Davies draws highly sensible morals from the rise of a statistical approach to society... What readers will find both engrossing and difficult is the steady march of the second half of Nervous States towards a dystopian conclusion in which Davies sees the world being divided between a few Silicon Valley oligarchs and the rest of us. If Elon Musk and his friends manage to colonise Mars, it is plain enough that most people won’t be going along. For my money, the book does not benefit from straying into science fiction, but tastes vary and Davies is a lively writer.