Earlier this month, I went out on an internet-free trip with friends. We spent a long weekend in a house up in the mountains, and exiled our phones in the attic. It was the most few blissful days I’ve had in a while. Naturally, upon return to society, the anxious, compulsive behaviours returned too.
My first thought was: hey, this is interesting, let’s write about it. Like many people, I write to organise my thoughts. But as I wrote, a familiar panic entered my mind. Was I… mining my life and friendships for “content”? Even if it wasn’t my intention, wasn’t that what I was doing, anyway? Who am I becoming? A black scribble of shame and fear grew in my mind. I stopped writing.
This panic happens every time.
Previously I’ve written about creative burnout, and how our late-capitalist, hyper-individualist world can strip the joy out of existing. But, why? Why do we focus on these things? What compels us to do so?
The truth is this: I am completely, irrevocably, constantly afraid of becoming a writer. I’m afraid of becoming a podcast host, or a YouTuber, or an artist, or whatever. While I love to create, I am afraid to create. I am afraid because as someone who makes stuff on the Internet, I feel the strings that pull.
There is a perversion of our ecosystem of ideas. The systems and incentives around content perpetually demands more, more, and more, until you have nothing left, and then demands more. It compels people to obsess over volume and consistency and audience retention. I worry that one day, I’ll be so entombed in the ‘creator’ mindset, I start thinking about how the present moment would translate itself to essay, or art, instead of, y’know, living in it. I’m afraid that I’ll live through life only to admire its shadows and reflections.
Our lives are constantly more about the simulacra — the symbols and representations of reality, rather than reality itself. Thirty-eight years ago, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard imagined stages of disassociation with reality, eventually taking up all of our attention and leaving a “desert of the real”. Eighty-seven years ago, Aldous Huxley imagined a society that passes the time by going to the “feelies”, in lieu of feeling real emotion.
I wonder what they would say if they could see the world right now.
The most popular post on my blog is a memoir where I describe my struggles with identity, self image, and school bullies. I think stories like this are, on a societal level, important, and should be shared. But at the same time, I want to be selfish: I want to yell into the void: my suffering is not for your consumption! My true memories are not ‘feelies’ for you to experience. I am a person who lives, not a story to be read.
“Why don’t you just do what you love, and fuck the rest?,” croons the naïve voice in my head. Because in 2019, that isn’t enough, you baby. Culture is inextricably tied to the economics of capital. And with the proliferation of the Internet, all information can be given numerical value. I wish I could write and dance and sing, not because it might pay the rent one day, but because that’s just what people do. Yet I cannot put pen to paper without knowing that eventually, numbers will stick themselves upon me and my work. Even if I don’t look, even if I’m unaware. There will be clicks and views and shares and The Algorithm will decide its place. There is nothing I can do about it.
Just as how anti-capitalist sentiment can be profitable and function under capitalism (in fact, some anti-capitalist content might be necessary for capitalism to survive), even the act of opting out of this system generates “value” under the same system. There is no escape. We are trapped within an ecosystem where rebellion is not only expected, but welcome. An amorphous blob that eats up dissenters and supporters alike, growing more massive and all-encompassing with every post, like, and subscribe.
The crappendipitous collide of late-capitalism with the rise of Internet technology form the foundations of a society-wide cognitive dissonance. We’re tired of performative bullshit, all while lapping up the best performances.
I think this cognitive dissonance, this tension between the representation and the real, is what is at the heart of the current “cancel culture” debate going on now. On one hand, people are real, and deserve compassion, relevant education, and room for growth. On the other hand, people are not real — not celebrities — and increasingly, not you or I, either. They function as symbols, representations of ideas and values. Our historical cultural obsession with celebrity is nothing more but the personification of these ideas and values. Ideas — and consequently the people embodying them — have power, and thus responsibility. And when that power is abused, misused, or corrupted, it is perfectly reasonable for the public to question whether that personality should continue to represent the values they symbolise.
It is important here to hold two ideas in our heads: First, that there is a difference between the representation, and the real. Second, that the representation is so powerful, that it must be taken just as seriously as the real. Capital and currency are mass societal delusions, yet they have been more powerful than any weapon in history.
While we as a society aren’t disassociating completely all the time, it’s not unthinkable. The representational world is lush and alluring, a deep abyss of conformity or rebellion — whichever you want. And like all abysses, it calls for us to jump.
A few days ago I made my first submission to a literary journal, with the help and support of amazing writer and friend, Rose (go buy her book!). The writing and editing process was joyous — like seeing a mindless block of marble transform into something with a face and a heart. But the thought of people reading it? I was terrified. Writing literary memoir leaves me opened on a table, guts out, ready for strangers to inspect. God I hope they’ve washed their hands.
Eventually the outside world will assign it some increment of value, sure, but for now I can be happy in the creating. And at least, try my best to keep reminding myself the difference between the real and the constructed.
I don’t want to be that caricature of an old man, telling people to go outside, except in this case, I kinda do. After the 2016 US election, there was this dude who literally noped out of The Discourse™, and in some ways, modern life all together. He refuses to read or engage with the news, instead spending all his time restoring the ecology of a nearby lake. At first, I felt annoyed. This rich tech guy can withdraw from society, but I can’t. Neither can most people. We have to keep living here and keep fighting for what’s right. We can’t turn a blind eye to the horrors going on around us — to be silent is to be complicit.
And yet. This weird tech bro has probably done more good for the world than I have, than a lot of us have combined. What has me getting anxious while reading the news off Twitter ever accomplished? Why don’t I just go outside and garden?
This is not to say that activism online doesn’t work — remember that the representational world holds just as much power as the real. But I do think this muddying of the waters between the representational world and the real world is what causes that feeling of being trapped online. You don’t want to be there, but you can’t look away. Sometimes, it feels as though the representational world is all that there is. But that’s just not true.
My plan? Put your phone down. Say hi to another human IRL. Go the fuck outside.
I was only able to crank out this letter because I left my phone in another room and turned the wifi off on my computer in 30-minute chunks. I think there’s something wrong with me?
Texts I enjoyed lately:
This great break down of “cancel culture” from Some More News
I wanted to talk more in this essay about the mining of the self and identity to turn ourselves into consumer products, but I cut out most of that. Tavi Gevinson discusses this phenomenon much more eloquently here.
I haven’t been reading many articles, but I have been reading lots of books! Two that I enjoyed were The Intelligence Trap (a book about cognitive errors, but also I think a case for intellectual humility), and Capitalist Realism (a short political philosophy book that has astute observations but ultimately no satisfying solutions).
I litcherally just came across and read this fantastic essay about personal writing on the internet — it’s eerily relevant to everything I’m trying to process here.
I was about to apologise for writing another long essay, but fuck it! This is my newsletter, and the whole point of it is to think deeply about stuff. So no apologies here. Read it and weep, fellas. That’s what I’m doing these days.
If you know someone who might like to read this kinda stuff, feel free to forward it to them. But more importantly, if you have any thoughts on us living our lives in a weird mirror universe, the product-ification of the self and how it relates to burnout, hit the reply button, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
October kicks off the spring conference season, so I’ll probably be seeing some of you this month! I’ll be at NetHui, purplecon, and Kawaiicon in Wellington, and then speaking at Web Directions Summit over in Sydney. Let me know if you’ll be at any of those.
Here’s to daylight in the evenings!