Happy New Year, Rookies!
Before we get to this month’s theme: Rookie on Love comes out tomorrow! Our fifth book and the first in a new series, it covers love of all kinds, with contributions from 45 writers, artists, and Rookie readers. I hope you love it very much. Buy it here, and stay tuned for our book tour cities and dates!
Now, January’s theme is “Utopia,” a word created by Sir Thomas More in 1516 to title his book about an ideal society on an imaginary island. It combines the Greek words ou (“no, not”) and topos (“place”), making non-existence a utopia’s defining feature. When I learned this, I thought immediately of the internet: a non-physical place where we can be whoever we want and say whatever we want, seemingly without consequence; a place where a thought can take on all the impact of an action, literally in mid-air; a place we were told might amplify the worst aspects of human nature, without anticipating how it could fundamentally alter human nature.
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
H.P. Lovecraft wrote that in 1928, the opening of his famous horror story, “The Call of Cthulhu.” In 2018, it reads like a warning on an internet instruction manual. To correlate all its contents—or digital content, all of which of course begins somewhere in the minds of real people, all of which begin…well, with digital content, and other forms of storytelling. From a 2011 lecture by the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman: “The way movies work now—and I’m talking about mainstream industry—the only goal is to get you to buy a product. The only goal. The only goal. The only goal. The only goal. And this intention creates the movies that we sit through, and the movies that we sit through create us.” (Emphasis mine.)
Stories are the most ubiquitous product in our culture: an Instagram story, a Snapchat, a tweet, a news item, a news item re-published by the same site that ran it in the first place but rephrased for algorithms’ sake; reactions to news items and new news items about those reactions; stories insisting everyone’s missing the real story and we need to shift the conversation; conversations about how distracting it might be to focus too much on what we should conversate about; all in addition to the longer-form stories that have already been around for ages (movies, books, TV shows, the like) but which now require exhaustive marketing in the form of the aforementioned tweets, behind-the-scenes photos, scandals primed for the online outrage cycle, etc., in order to not even succeed, but survive. It has long been common for advertisers to buy space in publications; now, those publications have to buy advertising on social media platforms to stay afloat. Even those you already follow must pay to be seen on your feeds, to have a chance against the trillion other stories competing for your engagement. Never mind the repeal of net neutrality; Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram haven’t been democratic for a long time.
The utopian ideal of the internet—unregulated access to information, pure connectivity—now feels antiquated. Also antiquated: trying to determine if the internet is simply good or bad. Possible and necessary: thinking more deeply about how it’s rewiring our brains and warping our experience of time, about the vistas of reality it’s revealing and creating, and what to do with our positions therein, so that we do not go mad from it all nor flee altogether.
When the internet was less mobile, the distinction between online and offline was perhaps more defined. There was real life, and then there was the place that hosted our reflections on it. Now we are experiencing a collision between underbaked thought and tangible experience so great and rapid and omnipresent that it’s less of a crash, more in the water supply. Those who use the internet as an escape are thought of as outliers (Catfishers, video game addicts, radicalized young men), but its increasing presence throughout our daily lives has made a state of unreality not only more accessible, but very hard to resist.
Rather than providing a shadow of reality, these platforms shape reality. They’re not pure outlets for our feelings and experiences; they are catalysts for what we feel and experience, how we feel and experience, and our shrinking capacity to process any of it. What we share on social media platforms does not disappear into a void, but increase their engagement and make them more profitable—even criticism is additive to the forces we seek to counteract. (Donald Trump: “Without the tweets, I wouldn’t be here.”) What we share also tells people how to sell us more stuff, so that the CEO of Netflix can stand before his peers and declare that their number-one competitor is sleep—“And we’re winning!”
The internet feels chaotic, but it is not out of control. The internet is not one giant, democratic forum where opinions rise to the top by their own merit; it is a very deliberate structure, carefully calibrated to convince its users that visibility is the same as power.