the anxiety of information
please stop making content
There are too many interesting things in the world. By which I mean: I think the internet was a mistake. By which I mean: I think that social media was a mistake.By which I mean: many of the things I see online are from the same six websites and much of what I see is not actually interesting but infects my brain and builds itself a home there so that when I take a shower now I can’t not help thinking about people who don’t wash their legs.
I am doing the washing up but actually I am listening to a podcast about Japanese children doing errands for the first time and why Japan’s urban cities are built specifically to enable this. I am cooking but I am actually watching a YouTube video of someone play a point-and-click adventure game set in spooky nineteenth-century England. I’m hanging out my washing / taking the dog out for a wee / pretending to write but really I am reading a newsletter about watching the Queen’s funeral in a gay sauna.
Thanks for reading the tiny narrative! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
There is so much to read and learn and listen to that I am becoming afraid of silence. Most especially in the face of chores. I am afraid of the emptiness of wasted time. It’s a kind of anxiety of production where the product is knowing x thing about the world that isn’t really that important to me. It’s not like I sit and watch the news or read up on climate change (far too scary). Instead, I worry that I’m not using my twenty-four hours in my day to the best of my ability. Yet at the end of every day I look at the screen-time usage on my phone and it tells me I have watched two hours of TikTok and I know I will watch an hour more before I let my eyes close. The distance between what is valuable/useful/important information and what is silly/entertaining/vapid content to be forgotten is getting harder to distinguish as the two collapse into one another on social media.
This feels like a uniquely modern problem. But then The Library of Alexandria contained up to 400,000 scrolls according to Wikipedia before most of them were lost. And we’ve long passed the point when someone might realistically be able to keep up with every book ever written. Every day 500 million tweets are sent. I couldn’t find any data on how many of those are read. If you like you can watch the terrifying, unstoppable expansion of the internet in real-time. The internet has an incredibly long Long Tail - a plethora of websites that are effectively useless and unseen. And yet I’m worried that all the information and data held in them is at risk of being lost. Maybe one day this hyperlink won’t exist anymore. How much of the internet is/was never read or captured in the first place? Not everything is on the Wayback Machine.
How many times have you seen a TikTok with zero views and zero comments? I find them cringe af, a sign of failure that I am the first person to see this content and so I scroll by as fast as I can. I don’t want to see something that a thousand other random strangers haven’t verified as worth my while. I can’t find it nowbut there was a Twitter bot that retweeted tweets with zero likes or engagement: an ironic celebration of mundane online content failure.
Over the past few months I’ve managed my Twitter usage down to less than an hour a day. That may still sound like a lot to people but it used to be much higher. There’s a smug joy now when I do go on Twitter in scrolling through and realising half of the jokes and references to drama I have no context for. It’s a sign of my success. But it’s so easy to be pulled right back in. Twitter is an attention economy model. I’m not saying anything new here. In fact two years ago a wrote a whole essay about this, which I’m lazily going to regurgitate below as a homage to the internet practice of recycling content for easy clicks:
In Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies Jodi Dean argues that capitalism reconfigures communication networks to uphold and embolden neoliberal globalization and that such a move has stunted progressive political and social development.Dean defines this as communicative capitalism, or ‘the materialization of ideals of inclusion and participation in information, entertainment, and communication technologies in ways that capture resistance and intensify global capitalism’ (p. 2) and, later, succinctly as, ‘democracy that talks without responding’ (p. 22). Arguing that democratic rhetoric has been neutralized and even weaponized against progressive left politics to further the goals of global capitalism and increase profits for its beneficiaries through the manipulation and monetization of communication networks.
Dean highlights three core ways that communicative capitalism operates through fantasies of abundance, participation and wholeness:
1) The fantasy of abundance is found in the proliferation of facts, opinions, images and affect that create an overwhelming stream of content so that a message’s contribution to the flow of data is valued above its content (p. 26).
2) The fantasy of participation refers to a misplaced belief that one’s own content will make a difference and is an active interaction with a subject or cause. Dean argues such activity within a network ‘involves a profound passivity, one that is interconnected, linked, but passive nonetheless’ (p. 31). This fantasy involves condensation, displacement and denial by the subject.
3) The wholeness fantasy asserts that the internet is not a global or equal space. Dean builds on the work of network theorist, Albert-László Barabási, to show that the network of the internet is a scale-free structure, since it has growth (whereby older sites have a network advantage by being there first) and preferential attachment (whereby popular sites generate more links) which create hubs and hierarchies (p42).
Democracy as it is configured today, Dean argues, does not and cannot exist free from capitalism and all who enter into it are produced and trapped by these systems however they choose to participate.
Before I fell asleep the other night I saw a tweet about a perfect terrarium that had been sealed shut over 40 years ago and because the ecosystem was precisely balanced it survived. Perfectly self-sufficient. It created just enough CO2 and oxygen to keep itself alive, balancing out its intake and output of water and energy. It was the last thing I saw before I turned off my phone. I wondered if I had the choice would I want to live in such a dome? I tried to convince myself that I would smash the glass and escape. I’d want to see what else was out here. But that was a lie. My last thought before I went to sleep was if I could guarantee I could live a peaceful quiet life, albeit confined to an environment that never changed, that was in perfect equilibrium with itself, I would most likely stay there. I wouldn’t have to worry. Perhaps inside that terrarium, I’d finally have time to read, watch and listen to everything.