January 24th, 2017 / 2:52 pm
Opinion & Technology

Literature of the Final Interaction

A browser window of playful digital innovation has closed. Like a light wind that dies after sunset. We see the cursor move, a soft click, the tab vanishes.

Something like a literature of the web was born and then almost immediately died, along with the most ambitious social lives traversing our generation – the last generation to experience the world before pervasive digital media. Blogs (Gawker, Hipster Runoff, HTMLGIANT(?)) were like… this thing that happened and then became either institutional, irrelevant, or crushed by political detractors. Comments sections became essential and then as quickly: perverse, violent. At some point, Pitchfork became Pitchfork. Reification. 

Anecdotally, literary people from different parts of the USA met through social media sites like Twitter, for a while, and then it mostly stopped – partly because we matured, partly because technology matured. I remember this. I personally experienced it. It continues to unravel.

The social-democratic potential of the digital era has been eclipsed by passive media consumption, fast social video, memes, slippery sardonic post-ideologies. We riff on disaster. We comment on ignorance. We’re sinking back into the couch of history. Metaphorically, we’re smoking too much pot and staying in bad relationships. We’ve tried everything else.

Rather than providing individuals with a venue maintain a vocabulary of collective concerns, the connected web has become a place to showcase the self as highly regulated, optimized, and disciplined hyperform. The avatar of popular conventional success rules the digital space, in the haunting, body-less way that the century-old system of cinematic celebrity continues to dominate the post-Hollywood film markets. Cockroaches after nuclear winter, highly evolved entities amidst diminished scenery. Instagram influencers in new sneakers, traversing a brutalist parking garage. The cars have all driven themselves away.

In 2006, when Echo Boomers (also known as Millennials) born three decades from the peak year of the Baby Boom (1957) graduated primary school, the web matured into an elaborate machine for observing human behavior, both in textual and visual form. We were told by Facebook that an opportunity existed (the arrival of the new look, the constant site update) to collect our social capital (obviously important!) in one eternal and enlightened venue. We would connect in new ways! Everyone would be available to chat! But so safe! Totally private!

A decade later, Facebook has become a murky panopticon of self-censorship and values-policing, an outrage funnel for the lowest type of discourse, a town without bodies, made from the uncompensated flow of data from individuals to corporations who then pay to say whatever they want in our semi-private spaces: advertising, propaganda, public relations, mass psychology experiments, totally unregulated.

At my university, professors saw it coming. In theory-of-literature classes men in tweed jackets and women in smart, provincial dresses warned us of the underlying pools of conflict: historic inequality, nation states in collapse, academia against the ropes of product-development, biopower (the new, un-sexy Marxist term at the time) was becoming timebomb of feckless global capital seeking to to control human life. Colonial power wasn’t dead. It was fully functional, everywhere. So we wrote papers about it, graduated, and then fought each other for media jobs we didn’t understand. There was no sustained rebel alliance to contact, let alone join. We begged to join the digital empire.

At best, the web is now an ugly dating/shopping site with a (broken) breaking-news function.

I remember people in college would upload entire memory cards full of photos directly to to the Facebook photo utility. We anticipated a nostalgia for freshmen year, one that in me never materialized. I actually don’t need to save my digital documents and share them. I really don’t need it. I’m happier to forget.

Some of us (English majors) had a thing called literature, before the social internet. It was a good way to complicate the relationship between personal history and labor and self-expression. There were charming character ambiguities, lovable monsters, saints, demons; there were opportunities to fail at storytelling and to move on, relatively unsoiled. Malignant narcissism and virulent self-mythologizing could be… ignored to a greater degree. Youthful arrogance! The artist as stupid little shit. It was fine. I have three unfinished novels. They are all bad. It’s fine. Success over time was harder to tabulate, on a printed page, easier to question. Critics cloaked in light, holding sharpened daggers safely walked the streets of the literary city. Publishing paid for a modicum dissent. Professors couldn’t be fired without cause.

The whole prolonged digital moment has calcified into a great machine for political dissent – not movements, not protest – but the refusal to support anything other than a narrative of the self. The dominant last literature is a constantly screamed “fuck off” to anything that resembles public agreement. All collective engagement is branded softie activism, a sort of sadistic moral extroversion, as if people could exist in thriving communities without an ongoing conversation about ethics, race, sexuality, class, anything. Individual speech has been made to look foolish and arrogant, by mechanisms of technological order: corporations, hedge funds, state governments. These forms weren’t conceived to guide our values (religion, anyone? no?), they are formulas for political balance, rickety conveniences of mixed intention fueled by capital, but now there’s nothing left to challenge them but a chorus of idiots screaming NOOOOOOOOOOOO. Clearly not carrying a guiding narrative, these tiny giants of digital dissent rise in a foul-smelling mob-against-everything: The Tea Party, The Freedom Caucus, white “moderates” who would rather not pay any taxes at all, their pathetic orange hatefather, bending to microseasons of senior citizen outrage like a liquified magnet.

As individuals we are stupid. Together we are less stupid, but only when we’re organized together by narrative or… something else? In contrast, digital power centers are highly organized, easily purchased and lorded over by the ownership class. The artificial intelligences that emerge into this state of anti-democracy are always justified by their pure capital existance, their wealth, their ability to sustain organization in the face of so much disruptive consolidation, so much snowballing inequality. AI rules when consensus is deemed inconvenient. People choose, computers calculate. Companies grow without cause or meaning.

There’s little material value in righting injustice, political compromise, honest conversation. If anything, these highest ideals represent costs. These things can’t be easily quantified, bought, or sold, so they are gradually sidelined in favor of optimized consumer experiences, UX, as it is known. The pseudo-science of total digital control. The business-art of Holy frictionless product. The perfect Communion, dare I say.

If democracy and literature are connected by their ability to contain subtle contradictions, to realistically portray human experience, then we are fucked. Through new narrative technologies, we are happily evolving away from humanity. We’re a constellation of hopelessly weak demographics being split apart by Lifestyle. We feel like we have nothing in common but poverty and despair.

Nobody wants complicated things. Literally, nobody in power, very few people out of power. Nobody wants a long, hard contradiction, nobody wants a challenge to their ongoing project of personal narrative. When everyone wants control, they allow themselves to be controlled. When we demand convenience, we become convenience, and we can be more easily dominated, or ruled, as it used to be termed, before this glimmer of democracy began to shine across what would become (briefly?) Europe.

A bleak force has come from the depths, and risen to power very quickly. It’s nothing new, but it moves in ways most of us can’t – or don’t want – to see. Try to see it, if you can stand to.

Try to look it directly in the face. Like with LSD in a mirror. Speak with true words, if you can. Ask a question. Make a point. Don’t listen to anyone who wouldn’t listen to you. Write. Be clear about your intentions. A person who knows herself can empathize, can communicate.  

Words are the first disaster. Politicians are supposed to be ethical storytellers. Literature, whatever it has become, tries to depict the whole mess, occasionally becoming the mess, making it all worse. That’s what happens to bad writers in any generation. Probably that’s what happened to HTMLGIANT. The violent narrative overcame the mostly well-meaning authors. Words hurt us. Fists come next, then guns, then bombs. This meta unrest is the oldest story of the city-state, the origin of culture and drama. It paints blood all over our personal lives.

It doesn’t stop because somebody fits an adding machine on to postage stamp.

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  1. puzzlingcreativity

      This was a very thought-provoking read, thank you for writing it. You synthesized several schools of thought to make a very poignant argument about, amongst many other things, the fraught relationship between the individual and the culture of communication at large as created by modern social technology. Your conclusion is a tad bleak, but I hope you know that there people that do crave complexity, who are dissatisfied by convenience and avoidance of complications, such that there might be hope? Though, of course, only time will tell.

  2. Cody Franklyn Conley

      alright i’m finally fucking commenting on htmlgiant.

      as someone who found this online literature whatever just as it started its death throes, i don’t know what importance it should have. and honestly it’s hard not to look at the landscape and feel like there isn’t any hope and that any opportunity the internet offered people has ended. these paragraphs sound especially true:

      “Something like a literature of the web was born and then almost immediately died, along with the most ambitious social lives traversing our generation – the last generation to experience the world before pervasive digital media. Blogs (Gawker, Hipster Runoff, HTMLGIANT(?)) were like… this thing that happened and then became either institutional, irrelevant, or crushed by political detractors. Comments sections became essential and then as quickly: perverse, violent. At some point, Pitchfork became Pitchfork. Reification.

      “Anecdotally, literary people from different parts of the USA met through social media sites like Twitter, for a while, and then it mostly stopped – partly because we matured, partly because technology matured. I remember this. I personally experienced it. It continues to unravel.”

      but if they’re true, why bother being on the internet for literature at all then. like i still blog into the abyss, i still tweet to mostly bots, i still write stories and poems i expect no one to read. i’ve given up on people caring and most days i feel good about it still. because given a different technological and social context i think i would write anyway. that’s probably the only answer to these concerns so i doubt i’ll stop. i’m not trying to complain.

      but does anyone really see any point in pursuing these mediums?

  3. cake lamb

      everything you say in this piece is true.

      but guess what- if you fail to reach out & connect authentically with other people online, if you fail to go against the culture of self-absorption & ego that makes the internet so toxic to genuine life & expression, you have ONLY YOURSELF to blame!

      it isn’t the government’s fault we’ve all bought into this fake dream of individual greatness & grandeur– it’s our own fault.

      it isn’t social media’s fault we don’t know how to relate authentically to language anymore because we’re afraid of seeming “out of step” with the Cool New “i-don’t-give-a-fucc-here’s-a-selfie-of-me-with-a-bong-up-my-p*ssy” milieu– it’s our own fault.

      it’s no one’s fault but our own that we’re all convinced we’re “going places” if we can only learn to market our personalities as a winning formula of prepackaged counterfeit Lifestyle Motifs.

      everyone always wants to blame something “else” for the lack of substance in their life.

      but on a daily basis we pass up opportunities to be who we really are & connect vitally & passionately with other people.

      why? because we aren’t brave enough, because we don’t believe enough, & because golly we’re still holding out hope for that camera crew to rush in with the winning Lottery ticket saying “Are you ready for your close-up, [Insert Brand here]?”

  4. Erik Stinson

      certain complications become too large to avoid

  5. Erik Stinson

      i think there’s a newly codified digital social structure that is (always?) changing and maybe getting harder to understand – i would hope that something better could replace; i fear my own perspective is inaccurately shaped, in a negative way, by my aging, the sorts of experiences i’ve had (and haven’t had) when it comes to writing and writers

      if you are worried about what other people think of your work, how many people read it, which people, you are normal

      for me at least, the deeper benefits of writing have nothing to do with other people reading stuff – it’s a sort of labor that mostly involves one person, which is the opportunity and the problem

  6. Erik Stinson

      literature isn’t the sort of thing that has opportunities in a grand sense – it’s mostly about passion and work and failing gracefully… friendship in a very complicated sense? um… beauty? ….identity

      i know a lot of brave writers and i don’t think there’s any argument to be made that contemporary writing lacks anything at all

      contemporary life, maybe – less alcohol, less totally unprotected sex, less famine, less war (for now), less unwanted kids

      but not writing – it’s quite robust, especially considering how little money is in it, and how few people read books, how public art education is being defunded in the usa

      in terms of the broadest sort of literature, i’m shocked every day at the quality journalism and analysis i can get from npr, pbs newshour, the times, the post, mother jones… in a bad situation, words appear to work fairly well, in a mechanical and informational sense

      and there are plenty of other literatures, constantly emerging in the oddest places

      you can tell a story anywhere, and about anything

      there’s no sense in following the rules of whatever digital or non digital platform you happen to communicate on

  7. deadgod

      Nobody wants complicated things […] a long, hard contradiction […] a challenge to their ongoing project of personal narrative.

      That is, of course, too bleak and dire: there are people who seek opposing, or mixed, views, and if only to sharpen their own, still, their own views get transformed—at least a little—in what they, in that moment, might feel to be a ‘win’. I think most people can handle, and even want, a little pushback.

      But yes, confirmation bias, personalization of grievance, Balkanization: all seem to me, too, to be amplified or accelerated in social-media interaction. In a seminar or barroom, when someone comes with empirical compulsion or ideology that contradicts a commitment of yours, and the (mutual, usually) temperature rises beyond the ability to take on the opposing view calmly in an organized way, well, a mediator will part you from what feels like an antagonist (unless there’s a physical fight?) — and you have to sort out, in repose, how the conflict could’ve been avoided (or shouldn’t have been). But on the internet, it’s easy to block, mute, appeal to moderators for deletion… it’s easy to call whatever you don’t understand, and whatever baldly—even if impersonally—contradicts your commitments, “trolling”.

      On social media, it’s narcotically easy to identify any disagreement of principle as unprincipled, and even to form communities in which the trust, the coherence, depends on a shared understanding that disagreement would be ridiculous and therefore must be abusive.

      That’s cool! —everyone on the internet can exercise the privilege of protecting herself or himself by not being there to talk to. What might be less fortunate is a norm, a self-reinforcing virtuous belonging, of repelling any engagement—perhaps especially non-abusive interaction—that doesn’t confirm one’s commitments.

  8. deadgod

      i fear my own perspective is inaccurately shaped, in a negative way, by my aging

      I enjoyed the piece: with the (temporary, I sure hope) victory of the stupidest conservatism in the shape of a fake-presiding goblin from Wonderland, a “final interaction” feels palpably close. But, reading it, I did feel a bit like one is supposed—yes, smugly—to feel during the last scene of St. Elmo’s Fire.

      This culmination of 50+ years of right-wing ignorance, mendacity, incompetence, and corruption looks like the end of something that was never as good as it understood itself to be, but was arcing too slowly towards ‘justice’: a country in which people could decide, together and individually, for themselves, what they wanted to do.

      But the generational—that is, from mid-teens to early 30s—maturation of personalities and rise and decay of websites? That’s pretty normal, isn’t it? as a western-civ pattern, at least.

  9. Erik Stinson

      people will conflate any type identity (or even just a stated rhetorical position) and confirmation bias – yesterday someone (a real person on twitter who i knew from a chatroom) called me a “neo nazi” bc i thought that actual neo nazis were, by violently attacking antifa protesters, exceeding their first amendment right to free speech (a neo nazi shot a protester at my university and was released by police when he claimed self-defense). from a narrative standpoint, this very argumentative person saw me (a guy who simply wanted to point out the danger of extreme racist views, to express unambiguous opposition) as more of a threat than someone who shot (at a school) an unarmed person protesting anti-constitutional white supremacists.

      there’s simply no way to… intellectualize this scenario to a point were it makes any sense at all – at a certain point both logic and language are useless, if your opponent wants them to be

      everything is very hot and slippery; there’s very little to ground people who don’t want to be grounded

      online or IRL, i haven’t talked to any trump supporters who are capable of organizing any argument that would pass as a primary school thesis – that’s not the kind of opponent a thinking person wants to square off against. what do you do when you share nothing in common with someone, from a narrative standpoint?

      it’s a horrifying anti-literature, supported by the language president of the united states, and in a lesser (more disturbing way?) by the technological circumstances we find ourselves in, the primary mechanical ‘institutional racism/sexism/classism’ of our times: the algorithms, the occulted hyper-mediation of reality that social media represents, the quantized nature of online participation, consent, speech. it’s the ultimate distortion of reality in favor of spectacle.

      thanks deadgod

  10. Cody Conley

      i agree with what you say about the deeper benefits of writing and that it’s a “labor that mostly involves one person.”

      i’m struggling to express what i’m asking. because i’m not asking like “why don’t people read blogs the same way” or “why aren’t people making friends online the same way,” though i am also asking those things i think. maybe what i’m asking is if the digital social structure has become like you say harder to understand, and the possibility of like “community building” or of making literary friends is more remote, for myriad reasons, does blogging or twitter offer value outside those aspects? because those forums were designed to be social and became prominent for being social.

      like i like the opportunity that writing online gives me, but i don’t think it’s the same avenue to building readership it was 10 years ago. and maybe i’m just on the wrong parts of the internet but that’s my impression anyway. combine that with the paranoia induced by a decade of surveillance online that will surely accelerate and it’s easy to view these avenues as having been closed before they really even opened.

  11. Erik Stinson

      most social venues online were designed to sell ads while offering some vaporous notion of self-expression or community as a carrot

      nobody has built a digital community for its own sake, on a large scale

      RIP dump.fm

      recently i find bars and after-work/school events to be a much better option, vs. online community

  12. Cody Conley
  13. Weeatherhead

      enjoyed reading this

  14. deadgod

      And thank you —

      at a certain point both logic and language are useless, if your opponent wants them to be

      is exactly the minor premise of the question, does social media put a “final interaction” closer? (You could say, you know you’re after the final interaction when you’re at this “point”.)

      The Trumpty-Dumpty supporter ‘problem’ is a tough one: this person turns to shouting uninformed, chaotic, lazy slogans almost instantly, and, putting, say, Solnit on HRC’s fake-inadequacy into their reach is beyond me, anyway.

      If you can get the interaction to something relatively emotionally unthreatening, you have a chance at at least beginning a conversation: with AGW, for example, you can point out how a car parked in the sun with its windows rolled up, whether it’s 35° or 95, gets hotter inside than the air outside. And carbon in the atmosphere is physically measurable. And so on.

      But when we talk of racial inequality, abortion, immigration, taxes… it’s tough.

      This carapace of simplifying obstinacy isn’t new—an addition of social media’s rapidity and saturation—, though: this is Thrasymachus in the first book of The Republic, Callicles in the Gorgias, the jurors at Socrates’s trial who voted ‘innocent’… then for the death penalty (after he’d taunted the assembly for convicting him).

      And I’m not sure “spectacle” isn’t epiphenomenal. ‘Systematic distortion of communication’ seems to me more useful—that is, a concept of greater practical engagement—, and ‘biopower’ does, too.

  15. cake lamb

      i was meaning to make a point about internet use generally, how there are so many opportunities it gives us to connect & communicate with each other that we fail to use. in fact using them now requires very real bravery because the internet has become essentially a vast spectacle of ego by which people are hypnotized. social media is gravitized entirely around individual egos that are like large magnets capturing people’s attention & making them sympathetically bound to something with no relationship to them, to their life or concerns. everyone is oriented the same way like iron filings around a magnet. the collaborative utopia that could be becomes instead a competition to “get” the “most” {something}– likes, follows, contacts. the goal is to build up one’s ego higher & taller than everyone else– like a Tower of Babel. & just as the Tower of Babel’s destruction scattered its builders into remote atomized communities, each speaking a different language, so does the collapse of our online ego world make us even more lonely & disconnected from each other, more isolated not less.

      that’s the price of building ourselves up rather than reaching out & communicating with each other.

      that’s how i see it anyway.

      sorry for the late reply on this.


      I really fucking enjoyed reading this from the middle of my dumb bomb shelter buried deep in the nuclear hinterlands

  17. Mike Young

      nice piece, dude // interesting comments too // i am too old to have the time or puff the sense of need to do this, probably, but i feel like identifying zoetrope as a very specific online literature community where a lot of “us” (endless warning bells and hollow giggles) including “big players” (oh no the warning bells all choked on their clappers and died) originally “met” and think about “what made it different” esp re:

      A) your summary that “most social venues online were designed to sell ads while offering some vaporous notion of self-expression or community as a carrot”

      B) echoes of historical models like patronage // francis ford coppola was selling us his magazine and his wine and his movies and his kids’/friends’ movies, sure, but he was also just sort of a crazy old rich artist person

      C) particularities of historical context both in the social internet’s development and maybe the economic or political U.S. climate of the “time” (~2003ish-2007ish)

      D) zoetrope skewed U.S. and white (i think) about how you’d expect but skewed older and more female (i think) than one would probably guess // so it did and didn’t fit the cyclical narrative of another-generation-throws-a-literary-movement-up-the-popcharts with all the attendant usual demographic suspects

      E) it’s still around!! // but yeah there are ghostly scare quotes around “still” and “around” that are too tired to come to full life and fulfill their resistive potential as scare quotes


      in other words, does anybody wanna pay me $100 to spend a week researching/writing this piece that people will mostly read to see if their name is in it // didn’t think so // i love you all anyway // today i had a vision of a small group of friends sitting and staring together at the phrase “along the way” until a great blue heron lands in the middle, and i wondered what the maximum and minimum size of this group would need to be to get the bird