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The Endlessness of The Internet Has Broken Our Brains
Before we begin: I’ll be taking a break after this newsletter until next week to enjoy Thanksgiving. As a reminder, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Please Help Me” with any personal or professional problems for my “Here Is My Problem” newsletter. I also had a piece in The Atlantic yesterday about burnout and working remotely.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving if you’re off, and if you’re not, well, I am. Sorry!
I wanted to write a very serious newsletter today, perhaps about the future of work or remote work, or maybe burnout, but then this happened. Kid Rock, a man who is 50-years-old but could be anywhere from 40 to 70 at this point, has made a song that perfectly encapsulates the right-wing echo chamber of weaponized victimhood that has equated “rules can be added to keep society safe” with “this is a dictatorship.” The song itself, “Don’t Tell Me How To Live - ft. Monster Truck,” is a kind of aural plague, a song complaining non-specifically about the weakness of this generation, millennials being offended, and one too many uses of the words “homie” and “hoes” from a guy who looks like a skeleton with Jeff Foxworthy’s skin stretched over it.
This is the kind of product that could only be made in 2021 and only really makes sense in 2021, in that it nails the vague grievance-mongering of several generations of conservatives that (while telling liberals that they’re too easily offended) spend most of their days offended by something new. Perhaps it’s Dr. Seuss or Nicky Minaj, or just the general sense that “woke” exists, and they’re upset about that. It’s something that’s equal parts offensive and confusing, the white noise of perpetual misery with no real attachment to any real problems. The Critical Race Theory controversy was entirely engineered knowing that being a conservative in society means that one’s axe is ready to grind at any given time for any given reason.
This has become so powerful thanks to the wonders of the modern Internet - a little bit of everything, all of the time, delivered instantly anywhere in the world. People looking for a reason to be upset can’t just find what to be upset about, but can find the specific reasons and the specific ways to be upset, on their phone, 24/7, waiting for them. Despite many conservatives claiming to be free-thinking geniuses, they are easily united under the banner of causes ranging from vulgar to obtuse, creating national news stories because, as a movement, they are capable of all agreeing that something is bad at once without having to understand why it’s bad or, at times, what it is.
Without going down the “both sides” hole, this is also something that anyone is vulnerable to. The current state of the Internet accelerates this because it’s so easy to connect with (or connect to) people that we admire or appreciate the viewpoints of. As a result, we are - as many people do in real life based on the people they hang out with - likely to absorb other people’s opinions that we feel close to. Conservatives are so quick to absorb and disseminate these ideas because their big talking heads - Ben Shapiro, Dan Bongino, etc - have benefitted heavily from parasocial relationships. The fact that you can follow and hear every weird little thought that comes out of their head, get “breaking updates” from them on Facebook, or listen to their podcasts makes you feel a degree closer to them than you would if you would saw them on TV.
The imprinting of a relationship onto a form of mass media is something that’s been obvious for a long time - talk shows are inherently conversational, talk radio basically exists for people to feel like they’re “in the room” or being talked to directly by the host, and so on. TV shows are intentionally or otherwise made with characters that either exhibit qualities to make them likeable (or unlikeable) and attract people to feel a certain way about them - creating, consciously or not, a relationship with a totally fictional character. Hell, I think we all know someone that’s said (or have said it ourselves) that a particular song “feels like it speaks to them.”
The reason that I think that these relationships have become so important is that they define a great deal of interactions on social media. The popularity of influencers is something that’s grown because of how they expose themselves via social media, even if said social media is extremely mediated or contrived. Celebrities and influencers can post whatever they want and respond to anyone they want (theoretically), and as a result there are many fans that believe that there is an actual relationship taking place when they interact on social media, despite the very high likelihood that the celebrity or influencer has never nor will never see the interaction.
When you’re also peddling ideas based on the concept that those in power aren’t simply corrupt but actively working against every single idea you hold dear, you naturally create an incredibly volatile and loyal fanbase. You’re letting them behind the curtain into your life, and then telling them that their way of life is under assault and that those that reject these ideas are simply ignorant. Kid Rock’s song perfectly nails the hypocrisy underlying most of these ideologies - the musician claims that “nobody will tell him how to live” as if he isn’t worth $80 million, declaring that it’s “my way or the high way” as a rich white guy that has very likely not had any sort of impedance to his way of life in the last 50 years.
And it’s going to do really well with people who want to symbolize an extremely vague power struggle against a society that still overwhelmingly benefits white men and where a white man is President. It is the kind of thing that would not have gone anywhere if the Internet didn’t exist as a way to unite around these ideas and appeal to appeal to the least-oppressed people on Earth with ideas that frame them as rebellious heroes in a very specific way.
It’s the result of the growth of mass communication laced with 20 years of Americans being told to be terrified of their neighbor, all while the gutting of social services reached fever-pitch. People are angry - and I’d argue should be! - at how hard things are and how difficult living a basic life is, and are being fed virulent truth-adjacent statements like “millennials don’t work as hard!” and “they want to teach everybody that white people are all racist!” because it’s far easier to be angry at something very immediate and personal rather than the larger, uglier, harder-to-grasp erosion of the social safety net that makes life suck for most people.
People want answers, and the Internet is so good at giving you them. On top of that, most people want “the” answer rather than realizing there are many answers, and that while that may be an answer, it isn’t necessarily the right answer. Hell, the thing in question might not even be true, but it’s said into a nice microphone with a nice camera from a guy that kind of looks like you - so it must be right. Why would they lie?
The Internet is also really good at making you feel like you’re smart because you found a lot of sources (please do not say I’m doing this, it’s very rude). You can find research or reporting to back up almost any viewpoint, and as a society, we have really failed to update people on what “good” reporting or research looks like, or what critical thinking actually is. The result is a polarized mish-mash of people saying they’ve “done the research” because they’ve found a medical journal with 4 or 5 names, all of which have PhDs, that back up (in the Abstract) what they believe if you read it the right way. And when you’re specifically dealing with people sourcing things that are being told not to trust those in power, the natural reaction to any source that you send them will be “I don’t trust that source,” at which point all logic and reason are gone…but they did their research.
We can confirm any bias from anywhere in the world, and we have people that helpfully will confirm our biases for us and tell us that those who don’t confirm our biases are either liberal wusses or politically-funded spies. The Post-9/11 growth of surveillance and paranoia - along with the general shit deal that most people get - made the Internet a perfect place to go to when you’re scared or angry, with so many well-groomed sources to tell you that all of the things you’re mad at are valid, and all of the things you’re worried about are worse than you thought.
Someone is going to sound off in the comments and claim that this is what the liberals do, and I’m not going to have that debate because you either know what the deal is here or you’re actively engaged in denial. Conservativism has grown so bloated and paranoid because the Internet is so perfectly-made for engaging people that are incapable of introspection and always want somebody to blame, and, frankly, angry headlines sell. People love being pissed off. Reading is difficult - this is a universal, apolitical statement - and oftentimes it’s easier to be told you’re mad and what you’re mad about so that you can focus on being mad and then find the reasons.
The problem is that most of the problems we’re facing are messy, convoluted, and have no real villain. The reason that “Eat The Rich” as a statement (and a podcast) has become so popular is that, while the actual villain here is a little more complex (the systems that make people billionaires, the systems that allow billionaires to continually avoid taxation, the politicians that fight for these rights, and so on), it is very easy (and, honestly, true!) to look at someone who has multiple billions of dollars and does not pay their fair share of taxes as a villain. The people that jump to protect the billions of people like Elon Musk claim that he’s “worked for his money,” and because the Internet is so good at spreading factionalized anger, people will jump to his defense because they too aspire to be a wealthy person, and have mixed the idea that someone should be able to have money with the idea that someone should be able to have a billion dollars and not pay taxes.
People are also lost - even outside of (say the line, Ed!) remote work, people have fewer friends and are less religious, and spend more time online than ever. We are more likely to obsess over the endless Internet, to give extreme importance to those people online, and to be led by others as we do so. We crave community and acceptance, and the Internet will happily provide both - but that provision may come with the catch that said the community may inform our values in a negative way.
This is not a newsletter that ends with much of a solution, other than that we need to educate kids early about how the Internet works and how people’s agendas may operate. While the right may claim that the Times or Washington Post has “liberal agendas,” they are still papers with rigorous editorial standards and lack a hard-line agenda (other than that we should go back to the office) as you’d find with a Fox News or Ben Shapiro. The problem is that understanding the nuances involved - the occasions where biases have been involved - is never blamed on human error or an editorial mishap, but on a cruel force intent on destroying conservative lives.
Perhaps an easier way to critique an agenda is to ask who benefits from it. I don’t believe for a second that Kid Rock really cares about cancel culture, or vaccines, or anything, really (his song is deliberately empty so that people can project their own thoughts). What he does care about is money, which is what he will make from people streaming this song. Why did Fox and others push the Critical Race Theory debate? Because angry people click things and buy things and share links about the things they’re scared about, and keeping people angry and scared is good for business.
It’s a greasy, nasty business to be in, one that is focused entirely on monetizing misery. And it works, because the Internet is so, so good at spreading it.