The zeitgeist is changing. A strange, romantic backlash to the tech era looms

Empiricism, algorithms and smartphones are out – astrology, art and a life lived fiercely offline are in

‘The 19th-century romantics feared an inhuman future – hence their rebellion. Today’s romantics, still nascent, sense something similar.’ (Painting: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818.) Photograph: IanDagnall Computing/Alamy

Cultural upheavals can be a riddle in real time. Trends that might seem obvious in hindsight are poorly understood in the present or not fathomed at all. We live in turbulent times now, at the tail end of a pandemic that killed millions and, for a period, reordered existence as we knew it. It marked, perhaps more than any other crisis in modern times, a new era, the world of the 2010s wrenched away for good.

What comes next can’t be known – not with so much war and political instability, the rise of autocrats around the world, and the growing plausibility of a second Donald Trump term. Within the roil – or below it – one can hazard, at least, a hypothesis: a change is here and it should be named. A rebellion, both conscious and unconscious, has begun. It is happening both online and off-, and the off is where the youth, one day, might prefer to wage it. It echoes, in its own way, a great shift that came more than two centuries ago, out of the ashes of the Napoleonic wars.

The new romanticism has arrived, butting up against and even outright rejecting the empiricism that reigned for a significant chunk of this century. Backlash is bubbling against tech’s dominance of everyday life, particularly the godlike algorithms – their true calculus still proprietary – that rule all of digital existence.