Remember to Close the Digital Window to Your Soul or you Might Catch a Head Cold
On our endless appetite for hacks, hucksters, pathos, and pulp
Alien humanness is coming at us from all sides, weird, wonderful, wanton, unknown celebrities of their own making. We know what they do, they’re keen to take us into their confidence and let us into their most intimate secrets. So what do we do? We stare in disbelief, agog, aghast.
The more we read the internet, the more it sucks us into this human multivarious vortex that looks like an arena where productivity, vulnerability, and greed engage in a ruthless fight for our prized eyeballs. Soon, a self-styled sensei or two emerge under the pretext of sharing their wisdom with the unenlightened, i.e. you and me. Out of the goodness of their calculator heart, they are offering to show us how they do “it”, whatever we think this “it” is. Sometimes it is referred to as journey or as process but never as swindle because ours is an era where accountability is a matter of perspective, not fact. Mostly, the cocktail of overblown and unbelievable goes to our heads; occasionally, it burns reason and human dignity down until only the ashes of privacy remain.
Because you’re not supposed to drink Molotov cocktails, apparently.
Sooner or later, endless tsunamis of sensationalism will turn even the most reasonable, level-headed human into a rubbernecker; we’re curious by nature, this is how we’re wired. We cannot look away from the purveyors of pablum vying for our eyeballs, forever upping the ante on outrage and hyperbole. And so we discover that the gift of democratized self-expression, for some, is merely the latest way to peddle a repackaged version of the American Dream, a twisted tech take whereby anyone can grow ginormous in their echo chamber of choice and parlay human humiliation into hard cash.
Fame is the name of the game, whatever for, even if this whatever is your ability to appeal to the lowest common denominator, which alas is not critical thinking but tapping into our deepest insecurities. To wit, our fear of joblessness, our fear of illness, our fear of poverty, our fear of others, our fear of loneliness, our fear of sex, our fear of death, our fear of worthlessness, our fear of lovelessness, our fear of becoming invisible.
Enter platforms, blogging, and social media. Cue radical self-expression for all, entropy, and the necessary evil of personal branding, at least according to those who have vested interests in the latter because it’s their entire business model. Deep down we already know most of the merchandise destined for our eyeballs is fraudulent as no listicle on going from zero to hero or from fab to flab has ever changed our life. But it likely put the fear in us again, this primordial fear of financial and intellectual insignificance, of having nothing of value to monetize apart from our disposition for drama. So on the off-chance, you come up with something up and hope it sticks.
And when it does, you’re the first one surprised; you’ve been here all along but suddenly people see you, they acknowledge you, they even praise you for your willingness to expose the rawest, most tender parts of the human psyche and of your anatomy, if you’re already into investing into as many niches as you can. Anyone who is overwhelmed, vulnerable, even desperate or has been ostracized or overlooked in any way will be particularly sensitive to this kind of copy as there is no shortage of people who feel they have been left behind.
For example, “Make America Great Again” is about as vague as “Get Brexit Done” yet look at us now, a transatlantic shit show of mind-boggling incompetence wrapped into pitch-perfect slogans while the English language keeps being plundered, one definition at a time. First the strategists read the internet then they published on it. As it turns out, tone— not voice or truth — is all it takes to get your message across. In short, it all boils down to decibels, persistence, and probability: The more content you churn out, the more chances you have of something going viral.
Since the global power grid for hearts and minds that is the internet fits in our pocket, we entrust it with all that we used to entrust our brains with before tech gifted us a portable hard drive.
And if it can’t lead us to meaning, the internet might as well lead us to means.
We’ve come to rely on the internet to guide and inform our every move, which many of us dutifully broadcast without second thoughts. We may not know how to read a map anymore but we’re allowing tech to track us. Better still, we’re slowly realizing we can monetize every inch of our privacy by publishing it on platforms we do not own, creating a gigantic psychometric database. The more we emote and make others emote, the more we get paid, perhaps by some strange twist of fate designed to make up for years of stiff upper lips and puritanical culture, depending on what side of the Atlantic you stand. This is human life in 2020, several people are typing, force-feeding algorithms to strengthen reputations aka personal brands. And we’re all visualizing so hard we’re having a live action role play collective hallucination called the internet, hoping to manifest some grand prize.
It’s like virtual cosplay, almost everyone we read or watch is editing life, showcasing the juiciest bits into digital soundbites, quotes, and clips. There’s no dialogue, just a continuous feed that never stops, humanity filibustering itself in a grand displays of greed. For all our trials and tribulations, we don’t seem to have learned all that much; our narratives are steeped in the overwrought pathos that stuns eyeballs into submission but often they’re painfully short on humility, dignity, and self-compassion.
Voyeurism isn’t our most attractive trait as a species and neither is schadenfreude but the internet is the place where they intersected and became a business, just as they had in print media beforehand. Regrettably, self-inquiry doesn’t have mass appeal or generate traffic; it is an inherently private endeavor that doesn’t lend itself to the company of prying eyes looking for shortcuts and troubleshooting. While it sometimes finds its way in print, it is known to cause reflection therefore it doesn’t appeal as much as tales of misfortune, mischief, and malice.
If we all understood that all it really takes to fix their lives is to take a long hard look at ourselves in the mirror until we fully accept what we see, there would be so self-help industrial complex, no productivity hacks, no growth mindset. But a culture of instant gratification demands quick fixes and immediate ROI; getting people to think is the scenic route while getting them to emote is teleportation.
Beam me up, blogger!
We are never not in a hurry so we consume life lest it should consume us, which it inevitably will but we always nurture this vague hope we may attain the heights of greatness at some unspecified moment in the uncertain future. We want tomorrow today and we love underdogs, those who beat the system, those who rewrite the script, those who flip the bird to “the Man”,those to whom the rules blighting our life do not seem to apply because they’ve chosen to live on their own terms. To us, they are tomorrow, they’ve already arrived while we’re still figuring out how to get started. And yet, underdog is a template, a framework like any other that inevitably posits we are the victim of someone or something else, somehow. Even if that entity is ourselves. Is it really so groundbreaking to suggest many of us are so well-versed in the art of self-sabotage and resulting self-destruction not everyone needs outside input to fuck up their life?
If WHO depression statistics are anything to go by, our collective mental health is not good and we’re losing our ability to focus while the link between internet use and depressive disorder is now observable as early as childhood. Like limpets, our eyeballs suck up to whatever piece of digital driftwood comes their way for sustenance, and the more it can comfort us in what we already know, the longer we cling on. Being exposed to the echo of our own beliefs and prejudices isn’t just a mental health hazard, it’s an intellectual chemical spill that drowns out critical thinking into crude snake oil.
Instead of figuring out how to shape reality into something a little more tolerant and tolerable, we spectate the lives of others, feeding on whatever squirt of self-empowerment porn they deign throw our way, junk food that contains so little nourishment our minds are still hungry and horny for transcendence and money. The more we consume, the more we crave. As long as we’re being kept entertained, it saves us from having to look at ourselves in the mirror and taking stock of what we find.
Nevertheless, this is exactly what we’re doing whenever we’re online. The internet is what the bathroom mirror used to be, had it come to life and augmented our reality with instant knowledge and connectedness. How many among us use the selfie mode on our smartphones to check we don’t have spinach stuck between our teeth? We may behave like zombies but there is some amount of very basic cerebral activity going on, if only to swipe and scroll and click. Thankfully — praise be to our indomitable sense of curiosity again— we are still fascinated with our shared humanness.
And despite the constant threat of ushering in an irreversible post-truth era that could destroy democracy, we still have language rather than only the outline of words we’ll eventually get if we keep disagreeing on their meaning or misusing them.
Can the internet still help us self-actualize though? When some random starts rah-rahing their way toward our eyeballs, we’re blindsided by the vim and vigor of their ambition and by how hard they try to appear self-assured when, deep down, we know they’re just as scared as we are of claiming their spot in the world. We’re so candid we believe they fear failure rather than being exposed for using human disempowerment as their stock-in-trade; they would rather no one noticed.
Doubt is internet gold; we’re so desperate to get rid of it we’ll follow any huckster who offers answers, even if they’re absurd. Swaddle whatever in enough layers of simplistic emotional language and appeal to our basest instincts, that’s all you have to do; we will believe anything if you mention sex, money, and fame. You see, we are so taken with your relentless willingness to monetize the very act of living in all its minutiae that we cannot look away. We’re not quite sure what it all means but we’re wondering whether we, too, could convert our humdrum existence into hard cash.
The answer, it seems, is no longer a straight yes, depending on how clued up some readers are getting. For example, no matter how fond we may be of our own person, not all of us abide by the self-made myth whereby those hosting our dreams are systematically erased. The self isn’t people; we all need that one fellow human who tells us not to quit, that one fellow human who first believes in us, that one fellow human who takes time out of their busy day to offer us the gift of attention. The internet is the best technology we’ve ever had to combine the various visions of our hearts and minds into a coherent whole that evolves the more we learn; we can collaborate across borders and create the society we want to live in, one where everyone is able to meet their needs.
Thanks to tech, we stand an unprecedented chance of getting there but not before we stop championing bombast and greed and begin putting our heads together.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor whose suitcase now has fixed geographical coordinates in North Holland. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.