First off, yes, I am writing this on the internet. But many a thousand anti-capitalists have written books and marketed and sold them to purchase rent space within capitalism, so we’re all a bit stuck here, aren’t we? The spiritually destructive and caustic nature of the internet is no more unprovable or idiotic than assuming that the influence of the internet is intrinsically positive. Both are simply assumptions.
I do believe in a cyclical map of time, not a simple straight vector from primitives into serpentine Luciferian techno-Gods. That is, I think technology will peak off and slow down, it will continue to operate cyclically, and that being critical about particular forms of technology, rather than having an uncritical ‘It’s just evolution, man’ attitude toward it all will increasingly become necessary.
The internet is too massive to compete with, so everyone must settle for a niche. In former decades, there were only those popular enough to be in limited newspaper and television real estate, and one’s local environment. There were limits to how many artists, musicians, writers, engineers, scientists, and such that one would be exposed to. A striving individual could compare themselves to their community, with a few idols to move toward, and set themselves on a goal. Today, that ‘community’ is the entire world, a heaving marketing mass of everyone on Earth with a podcast or a ‘creative’ endeavor. There is so much that there is, ultimately, virtually nothing. There is no context for it at all.
There is no context and no culture. The internet gradually erases both. Everyone, migrating into their respective sectors and corners of the internet, becomes a product of a particular niche. Without an overarching cultural context, all art gradually becomes destroyed – it can only be made for ‘one’s people’, or pander to the last remnants of mass culture, slowly dominated by only a few infinitely repeating franchises. The only universal language is marketing power, except it’s never clear entirely what one is marketing. The nature of memes hijacks ideas and converts them into something ‘other’ instantly. There is no cohesive intellectual work. This is reflected in television and franchises that literally never end. This is a world without endings because it is a world without culture or context. It cannot end by its own nature, it only repeats, infinitely, pandering to a particular in-group or to the lowest common denominator.
Sure, in the era of print and film, there was propaganda, there was horror, there was a tightly-clamped mainstream. But there was still a society. There was still a community. There was a sense of being ‘American’ or holding onto a set of common values. The internet has destroyed this. The chart of overlap between left and right wing votes in Congress has parted ways dramatically since the internet. This is just a coincidence, right? Well, probably not. Consider how much you might like your fellow citizen in the abstract, versus being exposed to samples of thousands of your fellow citizens via YouTube comments, Reddit comments, online fandoms, heated disagreements, etc, etc. It makes you despise your fellow human beings.
On Crossfire or some show like that, one could focus all their resentments on a particular public intellectual or platform. But now it’s not just ‘Republicans’. It’s also trolls, harassers, libertarians, tankies, Marxists, identity politics, white nationalists, Nazis, etc. The internet has barely survived a decade without now being swarmed with calls to censor and control its content. Why? Because people require context. This era, uniquely, has absolutely zero context. Meeting a group of one’s fellow Americans, one is truly isolated – they could believe literally anything. You know it because of the internet. Or maybe they’re all normal, and it’s just you who has been swallowed in the maw of Twitter. Either way, there is no going back. You are not at home with your fellow citizens, because citizenry is no longer a reality that exists.
You can say this is all panic, Luddite-ism, reflexive hatred of technology, whatever you may please. Go right ahead. I suppose you also have no problem with climate change as a simple consequence of the industrial revolution, or the total loss of privacy that has occurred and continues as a result of our hyper-connected online world. I suppose A.I. will be just a boon to the human race as well, with no militant underbelly, or a new fascism potentially in the wings, with no plan nor any set of individuals you’d trust with a plan to deal with it.
The modern liberal has underestimated his or her own hatred and resentments. And on the internet, exposed to the sampling of Yahoo comments in the 2000s, the modern liberal has come to see ‘culture’ and ‘context’ for what they are – bigotry. But you don’t even know what I’m referring to with the word liberal. That’s part of the collapse. Is it John Locke and the social contract? Is it John Kerry? Is it the Democratic Party? Is it a social justice warrior? No one on Earth really knows. So if I say liberal in conversation, your confusion ferments. If I say I am ‘leftist’, what am I saying? Am I a mutualist, an anarchist, a tankie, a Marxist-Leninist, a Maoist, a Third-Worldist, a Wobbly, a Chomskyite, what the hell am I, and am I a reactionary in sheep’s clothing for not being one of the other things? No one knows.
The proliferation of identities, particularly political identities, is a thing to behold. You don’t understand the internet until you’ve met a Xenofeminist Unconditional Accelerationist. If you don’t know what any of those words mean, you aren’t internet-poisoned enough to even feel the truth of this essay. Get out.
What you learn on the internet is that you’re really not special. You have a certain ‘type’. In fact, you are a marketing type, and your likes and dislikes and predilections can be predicted by an algorithm. Punk and counterculture are dead precisely because those sensibilities can be commodified and understood directly as consumer identities. All identities are consumer identities, and their mass explosion on the internet in various communities is a sign of the infinite ways in which a consumer can express themselves. Your unique interests are actually stored in an algorithm, and your next ‘unique’ and ‘quirky’ purchases can be predicted well ahead of time. Think of the person sculpted by YouTube recommendations and Spotify playlists (all of us) and you understand how malleable, how truly replaceable, your tastes and ideas and preferences are.
The lonely kid growing up with a unique dream, isolated by culture, is now the norm. Dan Harmon and the weirdos and the Kevin Smiths of the world are their own hegemonic enterprises of ‘nerd’ culture. And the counter-reaction to them is itself its pandered niche, as is the reaction to that, and so on, and so on. You only get anti-anti-racists and anti-anti-SJWs in a culture past its expiration date. Reflexive condemnation or approval of a particular subgroup is the only mode of thinking left.
And of course, the internet has destroyed my will to create art. When I was growing up, in high school, before the truly impossible fragmentation of culture and society dawned on me, I wrote five separate novels. Since then, I’ve barely even begun to understand what to write because there is no notion of who I am writing for. Further, who will even read in the future, when I myself find reading tiresome and exhausting, a chore? I am glad to finish books and be rid of them. I cannot say the same of endless audio-visual digital media browsing. Don’t stand on a fake high horse – if you enjoy reading a book just as much as being on your phone, then good on you. But you’re part of an increasingly vanishing minority. A child born today will hardly find the novel to be an expression of their age. Consider how differently a work reads in print versus on a screen, and you’ve added another impossible fragmentation. It is impossible to edit any work completely if the way it ‘reads’ changes based on page or screen. I had a friend who said he tried to read Moby Dick on Kindle, and it fell utterly flat. In print, then, it clicked. What are we to make of this utter relativism of the written/printed word?
The postmodernists had it right when they said that language is just a game and none of the meaning is settled. Wittgenstein figured this out early in the 20th century. Everyone figured everything out a while before it became big news, all the way back to the damn Bible and the primitive mystery religions that long preceded the Bible. It’s all old news. I feel like Solomon, at the end of my rope, saying that it’s all old news. And that’s simply because it is. There is nothing new under the sun, yet there is everything new under the sun.
Consider how many billions of hours of YouTube gaming streams have been viewed by this generation. Consider the billions of hours spent in forums and fandoms. Consider the loss of the classical education, and the fragmentation of American society, and the rise of the NEET incel (not in employment, education or training involuntary celibate). Consider the rise of repulsive discourse on sex robots and even necrophilia. Nothing makes me so reactionary as acknowledging that, yes, this is objectively a civilization in decay. How is that even debatable? Your grandparents might have studied Latin and grown up reading Ralph Ellison as their contemporary, and the Greeks as their foundation. If we say that’s ‘just as good as’ Twitch streaming and YouTube and Twitter, we’re embarrassing ourselves.
I read whole books and walk away dumber and more depressed than I was before. Maybe I’m a broken conduit – but I doubt that’s the case. In a former age, I would have been some happy leftist religious scholar. Can you name a happy scholar today? What would you even study? Between the classics, the contemporaries, the internet Blogosphere, the Adderall-addled Tweets of geniuses, there’s just too much to go through. It’s like if I had you read a random page out of a thousand different books and told you to concoct a theory. Everyone will be angry, arrogant, and disagree. Then they’ll get bitter about each other and resent the out-group. Then they’ve boxed themselves into their niche for life.
I do not like this world I am in, and I trust you don’t either. If you’re sniffing the air, you know something is deeply, fundamentally wrong. But there is cause to hope. Here’s some reasons to have a lot of hope for the future:
1. Artificial intelligence, as well as the mapping of the human brain, might stagnate deeply and never come to fruition. Remember December 2017, when half the internet, it felt like, was preaching that the cryptocurrency-singularity was right around the corner? What if time just keeps going by and the ‘singularity’ turns out to be a confusion in its own right?
2. We are probably only in the infant stages of humanity and our technological utopianism and idea of linear progress has yet to be actually tested on a timeframe longer than ‘the printing press to Facebook’ which is only a few hundred years. Nothing.
3. The ideas of linear time and materialist reductionism could be (and probably are) bad programming. Time could be cyclical (we build techno-civilizations that come close to replacing us with machines, but always fail and never actually do) and the brain could be an incomplete picture of consciousness (religious and ‘primitive’ assumptions actually turn out to be true, as the mapping of the mind stagnates and we conclude that we really don’t understand consciousness at all, let alone how to build a more intelligent ‘mind’ than ourselves)
So I’ll write on the internet, because I’m already in the hydra’s maw, and there is no turning back. But I think it’s vital to conceive of ourselves as loci in a constantly changing story, and not dead weight at the end of history. If you believe the latter, life will not get better. It will only continue to compound its dread.
(Afterword, or, a more controversial but probably truthful analysis of the internet)
At the pinnacle of the age of materialism, all humankind united itself together in a new Tower of Babel, an infinite interconnection of infinite squalor and glittering images of endless pleasure and vanishing depth. This nexus was thought to be the end of the world, when in fact, it was only the end of the era that birthed it. Its denizens, like Adam and Eve in the garden, found knowledge to be a poor substitute for grace, and came to resent the serpent (I wrote this post at 3 am after awakening from a dream in which I was laying amongst a slithering hive of serpents outside my childhood home).