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.