The Year We Embraced Our Destruction

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Written By Pinang Driod

The sounds came out of my mouth with an unexpected urgency. The cadence was deliberate—more befitting of an incantation than an order: one large strawberry-lemon-mint Charged Lemonade. The words hung in the air for a moment, giving way to a stillness punctuated only by the soft whir of distant fluorescent lights and the gentle hum of a Muzak cover of Bruce Hornsby’s “Mandolin Rain.”

The time was 9:03 a.m.; the sun had been up for only one hour. I watched the kind woman behind the counter stifle an eye roll, a small mercy for which I will be eternally grateful. Her look indicated that she’d been through this before, enough times to see through my bravado. I was just another man standing in front of a Panera Bread employee, asking her to hand me 30 fluid ounces of allegedly deadly lemonade. (I would have procured it myself, but it was kept behind the counter, like a controlled substance.)

I came to Panera to touch the face of God or, at the very least, experience the low-grade anxiety and body sweats one can expect from consuming 237 milligrams of caffeine in 15 minutes. Really, the internet sent me. Since its release last year, Panera’s highly caffeinated Charged Lemonade has become a popular meme—most notably on TikTok, where people vlog from the front seat of their car about how hopped up they are after chugging the neon beverage. Last December, a tongue-in-cheek Slate headline asked, “Is Panera Bread Trying to Kill Us?”

In the following months, two wrongful-death lawsuits were indeed filed against the restaurant chain, arguing that Panera was responsible for not adequately advertising the caffeine content of the drink. The suits allege that Charged Lemonade contributed to the fatal cardiac arrests of a 21-year-old college student and a 46-year-old man. Panera did not respond to my request for comment but has argued that both lawsuits are without merit and that it “stands firmly by the safety of our products.” In October, Panera changed the labeling of its Charged Lemonade to warn people who may be “sensitive to caffeine.”

The allegations seem to have done the impossible: They’ve made a suburban chain best known for its bread bowls feel exciting, even dangerous. The memes have escalated. Search death lemonade on any platform, and you’ll see a cascade of grimly ironic posts about everything from lemonade-assisted suicide to being able to peer into alternate dimensions after sipping the juice. Much like its late-aughts boozy predecessor Four Loko, Charged Lemonade is riding a wave of popularity because of the implication that consuming it is possibly unsafe. One viral post from October put it best: “Panera has apparently discovered the fifth loko.”

Like many internet-poisoned men and women before me, I possess both a classic Freudian death drive and an embarrassing desire to experience memes in the physical world—an effort, perhaps, to situate my human form among the algorithms and timelines that dominate my life. But there is another reason I was in a strip mall on the shortest day of the year, allowing the recommended daily allowance of caffeine to Evil Knievel its way across my blood-brain barrier. I came to make sense of a year that was defined by existential threats—and by a strange, pervasive celebration of them.

In 2023, I spent a lot of time listening to smart people talk about the end of the world. This was the year that AI supposedly “ate the internet”: The arrival of ChatGPT in late 2022 shifted something in the public consciousness. After decades of promise, the contours of an AI-powered world felt to some as if they were taking shape. Will these tools come for our jobs, our culture, even our humanity? Are they truly revolutionary or just showy—like spicier versions of autocorrect?

Some of the biggest players in tech—along with a flood of start-ups—are racing to develop their own generative-AI products. The technology has developed swiftly, lending a frenzied, disorienting feeling to the past several months. “I don’t think we’re ready for what we’re creating,” one AI entrepreneur told me ominously and unbidden when we spoke earlier this year. Civilizational extinction has moved from pure science fiction to immediate concern. Geoffrey Hinton, a well-known AI researcher who quit Google this year to warn against the dangers of the technology, suggested that there was as high as a 10 percent chance of extinction in the next 30 years. “I think that whether the chance of existential calamity is 0.5 percent or 50 percent, we should still take it seriously,” Sam Altman, OpenAI’s CEO, told my colleague Ross Andersen this past spring.

In May, hundreds of AI executives, researchers, and tech luminaries including Bill Gates signed a one-sentence statement written by the Center for AI Safety. “Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war,” it read. Debates once contained to a small subculture of technologists and rationalists on niche online forums such as LessWrong became fodder for the press. Normal people trying to keep up with the news had to hack through a jungle of new terminology: x-risk, e/acc, alignment, p(doom). By mid-year, the AI-doomerism conversation was fully mainstreamed; existential calamity was in the air (and, we joked, in our fast-casual lemonades).

Then, as if by cosmic coincidence, this strain of apocalyptic thought fused perfectly with pop culture in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. As the atomic-bomb creator’s biopic took over the box office, AI researchers toted around the Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, suggesting that they too were pushing humanity into an uncertain, possibly apocalyptic future. The parallels between Los Alamos and Silicon Valley, however facile, needled at a question that had been bothering me all year: What would compel a person to build something if they had any reasonable belief that it might end life on Earth?

Richard Rhodes, the author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, offered me one explanation, using a concept from the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. At the core of quantum physics is the idea of complementarity, which describes how objects have conflicting properties that cannot be observed at the same time. Complementarity, he argued, was also the same principle that governed innovation: A weapon of mass destruction could also be a tool to avert war.

Rhodes, an 86-year-old who’s spent most of his adult life thinking about our most destructive innovations and speaking with the men who built the bomb, told me that he believes this duality to be at the core of human progress. Pursuing our greatest ambitions may give way to an unthinkable nightmare, or it may allow our dreams to come true. The answer to my question, he offered, was somewhere on that thin line between the excitement and terror of true discovery.

Roughly 10 minutes and 15 ounces into my strawberry-lemon-mint Charged Lemonade, I felt a gentle twinge of euphoria—a barely perceptible effervescence taking place at a cellular level. I was alone in the restaurant, ensconced in a booth and checking my Instagram messages. I’d shared a picture of the giant cup sweating modestly on my table, a cheap bid for some online engagement that had paid off. “I hope you live,” one friend had written in response. I glanced down at my smartwatch, where my heart rate measured a pleasant 20 beats per minute higher than usual. The inside of my mouth felt wrong. I ran my tongue over my teeth, noticing a fine dusting of sugar blanketing the enamel.

I did not feel the warm creep of death’s sweet embrace, only a sensation that the lights were very bright. This was accompanied by an edgy feeling that I would characterize as the antithesis of focus. I stood up to ask a Panera employee if they’d been getting a lot of Charged Lemonade tourism around these parts. “I think there’s been a lot, but honestly most of them order it through the drive-through or online order,” they said. “Not many come up here like you did.” I retreated to my booth to let my brain vibrate in my skull.

It is absurd to imagine that lemonade could kill you—no less lemonade from a soda fountain within steps of a Jo-Ann Fabrics store. That absurdity is a large part of what makes Panera lemonade a good meme. But there’s something deeper too, a truth lodged in the banality of a strip-mall drink: Death is everywhere. Today, you might worry about getting shot at school or in a movie theater, or killed by police at a traffic stop; you also understand that you could contract a deadly virus at the grocery store or in the office. Meanwhile, most everyone carries on like everything’s fine. We tolerate what feels like it should be intolerable. This is the mood baked into the meme: Death by lemonade is ridiculous, but in 2023, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched, either.

The same goes for computers and large language models. Our lives already feel influenced beyond our control by the computations of algorithms we don’t understand and cannot see. Maybe it’s ludicrous to imagine a chatbot as the seed of a sentient intelligence that eradicates human life. Then again, it would have been hard in 2006 to imagine Facebook playing a role in the Rohingya genocide, in Myanmar.

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat for the next hour next to my now-empty vessel, anticipating some kind of side effect like the recipient of a novel vaccination. Around the time I could sense myself peaking, I grew quite cold. But that was it. No interdimensional vision, no heart palpitations. The room never melted into a Dalí painting. From behind my laptop, I watched a group of three teenagers, all dressed exactly like Kurt Cobain, grab their neon caffeine receptacles from the online-pickup stand and walk away. Each wore an indelible look of boredom incompatible with the respect one ought to have for death lemonade. I began to feel sheepish about my juice expedition and packed up my belongings.

I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t feel slightly ripped off; it’s an odd sensation, wanting a glass of lemonade to walk you right up to the edge of oblivion. But a hint of impending danger has always been an excellent marketing tool—one that can obscure reality. A quick glance at the Starbucks website revealed that my go-to order—a barely defensible Venti Pike Place roast with an added espresso shot—contains approximately 560 milligrams of caffeine, which is more than double that of a large Charged Lemonade. But I wanted to believe that the food engineers at Panera had pushed the bounds of the possible.

Some of us are drawn to (allegedly) killer lemonade for the same reason others fixate on potential Skynet scenarios. The world feels like it is becoming more chaotic and unknowable, hostile and exciting. AI and a ridiculous fast-casual death beverage may not be the same thing, but they both tap into this energy. We will always find ways to create new, glorious, terrifying things—some that may ultimately kill us. We may not want to die, but in 2023, it was hard to forget that we will.


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