What Matters to us?
A plea for intellectually engaged writing
If we started obsessing about moving thinking forward instead of metrics, mindsets, and streams, what might we achieve? If the desire to share signal is what brings us to the page, the desire to find out more is what keeps us reading when we remember how to. Because our attention span has shrunk and become variable, there’s no shortage of listicles offering simplistic takes on every topic under the sun. Those pieces do not gently leading readers to reflection but excel in the art of condescending condensation. Formatted for mindless ingestion while emptying one’s bowels or waiting in line at the grocery store, they inevitably feature a final takeaway section.
Instead of providing usable data readers can parse at leisure, they’re narrating what we’re reading about and we learn nothing. Those pieces often feel like snooping on insecure and desperate people. From intimate details and pictures to past and current humiliation with every new shocking revelation. It’s not so much shock and awe and schlock and “Ow!”, a guaranteed kick in the teeth of editorial probity while greed flashes its gummy smile.
Since whatever we focus our attention on tends to grow and the language we use defines our reality, the above shows us who we are becoming as a society.
Is the digital mirror lying or are we really this taken with ourselves, in equal measure entranced and repelled by our reflection?
Or lack thereof.
The day we become the digest of all those listicles we read and our vocabulary has shrunk to a few hundred words, it’ll be too late to turn the internet around. Or humanity, now divided into two distinct categories; those who think or those who don’t know how to despite having the same brain and who consider thinking an elitist pursuit.
Before the internet came along, reading was one of the primary sources of knowledge acquisition and we did it with attention. But the proliferation of filler content has created a huge online garbage patch whose girth is a threat to platform ecosystems. As a result, we don’t know how to read anymore as we have to skim a lot of content to determine if it contains any information. This is a process entirely devoid of joy as the odds of stumbling upon something thought-provoking get slimmer every day.
If everything we post on social media is content then we are both media and message, imbued with inherent newsworthiness. We no longer need to ask ourselves why we should be the ones telling the story when we’re it. And we aren’t just the story, we’re also the reporter, and the beat, and the bureau, and the editor, and the publisher, and the news outlet. We fit into a media landscape of 8 billion others, our candor and desperation mirrored in our relentless parallel quests for attention on a global scale.
And yet, we live among others we often relate to via interfaces and devices even though we are all right here, together. Our ability to have a mutually enriching conversation has been replaced by hashtags, emojis, and GIFs. When tech lets us down, many of us feel uncomfortable, awkward, frustrated, even scared; we have come to depend on it for everything. Meanwhile, smartphone addiction among children is problematic.
And so we do not know, we no longer remember, or we cannot figure out how to be a human in the world without it; no smartphone, no agency.
Online as in offline, we hope the person we are might make sense to someone, albeit someone else as many of us still struggle to know, understand, and accept ourselves exactly as we are. To get noticed, we transmogrify into a marketing campaign complete with tagline, humans as branded products. And the tool that was going to bring us together turns into an agent of propaganda for profit as everyone attempts to monetize something. In a global elan of entrepreneurship, curious cottage industries sprout up and emotions start retailing at a premium.
The heart is the soft target and it is always the heart we seek to dupe as we attempt to parlay our shame into fame, our humiliation into traction. By the time we understand the wealth we sought was within us all along, our heart has either given up or given out, and we don’t have the words anymore. The only thing left is the reflex to feel, dry heaving for barren hearts selling squalor by the listicle to numb the pain of alienation.
What are we writing for if not to disseminate ideas and debate how to add value to our lives by coming up with alternatives to what currently is? Life isn’t a copywriting job, we don’t have to market ourselves to death or write our privacy into oblivion in the race for clicks and bucks.
With everything we read and write, we direct our attention toward what ends up mattering most.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.