Turning Dust Into Mountains

or, the Composite Loneliness of Being (Radically) Online

The excellent Philly alt-country band Friendship has, among an endless number of brilliantly matter-of-fact lyrics, a line that really sticks out to me whenever I see them play. Easing into the second verse of “Dusky,” their singer Dan casually silences the room: In our house, the sickness is the same as the remedy. It’s one of those lines that could be, and therefore is, about everything. Addiction, love, politics, depression—you play a chord, those words will sing over it.

In my life, one of the more dissonant of those chords is the internet. Like all but my most self-respecting peers, and in that subconsciously ritualistic way that feels almost violently at odds with the skin-and-bones mindfulness of most Friendship songs, I spend way too much time on my phone. Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about how that lyric describes the rhythm and contour of looking at Twitter, a technology that will be remembered for, if nothing else, perfecting the concept of the vicious cycle. 

One thing that draws me and, I suspect, many others to Twitter is the feeling that something has gone very wrong in the world. People like me look around us and find that the things we have been told about society by its most established documentarians do not adequately explain its features; in fact, the lessons seem designed to mislead. If we’re lucky, we have a few non-virtual friends who also feel this way. If we’re really lucky, we might be involved in some sort of non-mainstream creative or political culture through which that feeling is acknowledged, appreciated, and cultivated. But at our core, we define ourselves against others. How is it that everyone else isn’t seeing what I’m seeing? It’s a lonely feeling, despite how many people seem to share it. 

Media studies people have something called Reinforcement Theory, the idea that people primarily seek out and respond to information that supports their preexisting beliefs. But you don’t go looking if you don’t suspect there might be something there, that there might be an antidote to this interpretive loneliness. You’d be right: you can find all sorts of people on Twitter pointing out injustices, misdeeds, and falsehoods all around us. Some of these people are hysterical, some are cynical, and some are really onto something. 

They all get made fun of. For every bit of loving satire or justified pushback, you can find plenty of callous punching down. Perhaps most commonly, you’ll find someone reproducing social or political critique with ironic detachment, either because they have no skin in the game or because they recognize it’s rigged regardless. There is a whole genre of meme that deals explicitly with the online ecosystem of non-mainstream ideas, from generalist images like galaxy brain or Charlie from Always Sunny, manic in front of a sticky-note-and-twine-covered cork board, to “Bush did 9/11”-style parodies of specific political heterodoxy. In fact, you could argue that a key point in the life cycle of every meme is the moment it gets repurposed in this context. This is usually its death rattle.

There’s one that particularly annoys me whenever it creeps into my feed, an especially vapid placeholder for the feeling of realizing something it seems like no one else has: Will Ferrell, as the effete fashionista by-way-of the KFC Colonel character from Zoolander, screaming I feel like I’m taking crazy pills! I think the experience of seeing this gif, especially when it’s used in the context of a topic you take seriously, illustrates what I’d call the Composite Loneliness of Being Radically Online.[1]

It’s a complicated and I think usually subliminal feeling, a not-always-linear pattern of, [1] frustration at the thought that you’re the only one who sees what you see, [2] relief at the realization—not new, but always comforting—that there are other people online like you, and [3] mild-to-severe annoyance at the belittling feeling of having your genuine emotions refracted back towards you via a stranger’s stock regurgitation of a totally unmemorable piece of media you’ve seen a hundred times.[2] This usually leads to the paradoxical combination of [4] mild shame at the absurdity of thinking that your perspective was unique enough that you turned to a infinite digital expanse for acknowledgement, and [5] the realization that, since you would never have posted something so corny yourself, the person who did is unlike you in some important way, even if they’re sympathetic to the eccentric opinion being discussed.[3] In other words, you feel a little lonely. You’re back to the beginning of the cycle, frustrated that no one sees the world quite like you do.

This cycle probably sounds like more of a shock to the system than it really is. It’s surely not an immediately noticeable feature of the Twitter experience for most people. Rather, it’s the hum in the background as we go about the online routines that otherwise bring us joy: laughing at jokes, keeping up with news and gossip, feeling an otherwise collective outrage towards the day’s most outrageous abuse of power or celebrity. It’s not the illness that kills the quickest or has the most apparent symptoms, but I think it’s a dynamic that has potentially serious psychological and spiritual consequences. It’s how a person who goes online and mostly finds things they agree with can still feel emotionally isolated—laughing at themselves for thinking they’re somehow enlightened, while simultaneously despairing that most people are still in the dark.[4] It’s a map onto which we can trace a clear route from unconventional thought to cognitive dissonance to conspiracist ideation. And I don’t think it’s unique to Twitter.

***

If my media studies hack-job holds any water, it’s fair to say that we turn to the internet precisely because of the scarcity of relatable perspectives presented in the other forms of media, forms more dominated by corporate and establishment voices (at least for now).[5] In no recent moment has this scarcity been more obvious than in the controversy surrounding the Iowa Caucus, blamed on cable news and in the papers of record on garden-variety bureaucratic incompetence, but interpreted by a certain amorphous segment of the left-leaning internet as a conspiracy of some sort. Fair enough: the meltdown involved an opaque delegate counting process involving an apparently malfunctioning app built by a company called (no joke) Shadow, Inc, funded by an umbrella organization called (for real) ACRONYM, who employ a consultant named (still not joking) Robbie Mook—a combination of plot points that would be too on the nose in the script for the next Fast and Furious movie. And the details get shadier from there, albeit less funny.

Plenty of people found this interpretation of events outrageous and insulting. You can’t blame the volunteers, regular Iowans who freely spent their Tuesday night interpreting the inscrutable rules of an outdated political tradition, for bristling at the implication that they were willing pawns in a stolen election. That said, you also can’t blame those who realized that the CEO of ACRONYM was married to a senior Buttigeig staffer—and then watched as Buttigeig declared victory with a shit eating grin, before any official results were released—from wondering if something untoward was going on. At the very least, it seems fair to suspect that the inscrutability of caucus rules is, to borrow a phrase from programming that the Shadow developers might recognize, a feature, not a bug.[6]

When the crime is something as ostensibly offensive to the credo of liberal democracy as miscounted votes, how much does it matter whether the criminal was negligent or intentional? If the system is designed to fail—and the rate at which overseeing failure is rewarded with increasingly cushy consulting and media gigs would indicate that the people doling out those gigs welcome it—then screwing up has the same material outcome as being in on the scam. Accordingly, some left commentators have repeated the point that to argue Iowa was a conspiracy is to make “a distinction without difference,” borrowing (some pedants would say inaccurately) the name of a fallacy in formal logic. The point is well taken, except for the fact of one obvious difference: only one of these interpretations of the events of February 3, 2020 will cause your NPR-listening friends and family members to wonder if you have all your marbles. You have to wonder if the fading of the conspiracy narrative ultimately represented a bunch of self-appointed Sanders surrogates realizing that appearing crazy isn’t the best coalition-building strategy. 

It’s a shame, really; shouldn’t we all be going a little crazy? Maybe it’s a conspiracy, maybe it’s standard issue self-serving bureaucratic incompetence; the truly vexing realization is that you’ll never actually know. Maybe it’s a bunch of people who have so completely internalized the profit motive that they find the phrase “conflict of interest” to be antiquated at best, and incoherent at worst. One thing is for sure: for some people, going online is the best if not only way to meet peers who haven’t internalized a colorful variety pack of the most soul-immolating motivations that our culture rewards. If only that were enough.

***

Iowa was of course the tip of the iceberg, and the counterculture response to it was as much motivated by past suspicions as it will inform future ones. Even a casual observer of the world in the past 50 years finds many reasons to question received wisdom, from seismic scandals like Iran-Contra to the banality of bread prices.[7]

Among the best sources for this questioning I’ve found recently is the writing of David Graeber. In the last few weeks, his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs has provided me with one of the more profound experiences I’ve ever had of hearing a vague suspicion I’ve long held about the world articulated thoroughly and convincingly. The suspicion is this: a huge number of the jobs available in the modern economy serve no purpose other than to further the myth that humans ought to keep their nose to the grindstone for 40 hours a week, and the system that perpetuates this absurdity is allowed to exist because of the benefits it affords certain people, benefits far in excess of the wages that 40 hours of “gainful” employment will ever net the average worker.

The title of Graeber’s book doesn’t refer to jobs like dishwasher or garbage collector, which serve a clear purpose even though they might suck. Rather, Graeber is talking about “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or even pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that is not the case.” The book is inspired by a 2013 essay Graeber published in Strike! Magazine, and draws on hundreds of testimonials Graeber received after said essay went viral. He talks to everyone from uneasy corporate consultants to unhappily stranded administrative seat-warmers, by way of a Hollywood “development” person who keeps themselves busy working on never-to-be-aired reality series with names like Too Fat to Fuck. There are many recurring themes—Graeber is an anthropologist, and produces both a rich theory and detailed taxonomy of bullshit employment—but the one that sticks out most is devastatingly simple: these people all seem very unhappy. Moreover, the fact that no one will acknowledge the uselessness of their position is central to their unhappiness.[8]

Bullshit Jobs describes the depression and alienation of the bullshit employee with sympathy and concern. The book also offers a detailed example of how a system can be designed to serve power without technically being a conspiracy. Graeber’s methods involve an obvious selection bias, in that the people who reach out to him tend to be well-meaning victims of a broken work culture. But while his account of the modern workplace is populated mostly with those who wish things were not as they are, the model also implies (and implicates) at least a few of the sort of feckless, self-preserving sycophants who seem to have been responsible for the Iowa Caucus disaster. (Maybe Will Ferrell’s Zoolander character was onto something: Blue Steel? Ferrari? Le Tigre? They’re the same face! Doesn’t anybody notice this?)

Drawing in part from a YouGov survey conducted in the wake of the Strike! essay, Graeber estimates that roughly 37% of jobs in Western economies are bullshit, and 37% of the remaining jobs are support work (cleaning, clerical work, etc) for bullshit industries, meaning that in his eyes over half of all labor falls into what you might call the “bullshit sector.” Nearly all of them suffer from the emotional distress of seeing something clearly about the world that few of those around them seem to recognize. Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. 

***

It’s a paranoid land, America, and paranoia runs through our fiction and film. The ‘40s and ‘50s saw a gritty, alienated, art-deco film aesthetic calcify into a genre French critics called film noir, but the strict stylistic categories for stories of suspicion and intrigue seem to have dissolved as, from the 60s on, the movie-watching public found more and more to be suspicious about. Today, neo-noir touches everything from Brick to Batman.[9] I recently watched one from last year that probably won’t go down as a classic of the genre even though it should: David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake. The movie follows the classic noir formula—guy goes looking for girl, finds way more than he bargained for. But the viewer gets more than they bargained for as well, namely some quietly tragic moments that are given a bit more time to breath than is perhaps typical of noir’s exaggerated paranoia.

Under the Silver Lake careens dizzyingly through the maze of a just-barely-imaginary LA underground, depicting the banal pleasures and depraved ulterior motives of various suspicious characters with an ironic detachment that nears kitsch. The movie’s feel may be drawn from noir, but it’s eerily familiar to the internet age. Fans of Chinatown and Pynchon will find lots to like; if you’re like me, and recent obsessions with Jeffery Epstein have left you diagnostically eager to suspend disbelief, you’ll love it. Thankfully, the plodding seriousness of some recent failed stabs at this sort of thing (read: True Detective season 2) is nowhere to be found. Instead, the action floats past us at a bouncy pace more reminiscent of comedy or even blockbuster horror. It’s easy to float along with the plot, assuming that the stakes are low until suddenly they’re quite high. 

Our main character Sam isn’t a particularly likeable guy; in fact, he could charitably be described as a sex creep, and much of the film’s effect lies in slowly chipping away at the emotional distance the veiwer instinctively maintains from him. That distance bluntly collapses when Sam comes digitally face to face[10] with the very woman he’s mined the dark recesses of Angelino nightlife in search of. He’s been after a connection, but of course the resulting conversation leaves him brutally, decisively alone. I’ve been looking for you, he says.

Really? You hardly know me.

At this point, Sam knows a lot he didn’t know a few days before. But she’s right; he’ll never know her. The scene captures—devastatingly, at least to me—the feeling of talking to someone who you realize will simply never see the world the way you see it. Any communication of substance, any potential exchange of information, is over before it begins. The cult member who’s patched Sam into the subterranean tomb where his crush is waiting to die (long story) says perhaps the one absolutely true thing we’ve heard in the last two and a half hours: Their chamber was covered in a mountain of concrete. It can’t be opened. There’s no reason to upset that girl. 

You’re left to conclude that, by the cult guy’s logic, there wasn’t much reason for Sam to upset himself, either. But he did, with a compulsive single-mindedness that I think anyone who’s suddenly snapped into the present to find themselves once again taking a shit and scrolling through Twitter might recognize. We go looking for people like us, and on good days, the joy we take from finding them might drown out the sadness of talking to someone buried under a mountain of concrete. I could turn mountains into dust, goes that Friendship song. Where would that leave us?

Of course, most people are a little bit of both: lots we recognize, lots we don’t. We’re all entombed in individual concrete mounds, but the mounds have windows; we can reach out and hold each other’s hands. Some of us have learned to take visitors. 

But there’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned coverup to put you on edge in unfamiliar surroundings. You start to make it clear you see the world a certain way, and suddenly your neighbors are painting shut their windows from the inside. Even (or perhaps especially) my own sister pointed out to me the irony that the experience of reading this essay might reproduce for the reader the very same sense of isolation from another’s views that the essay itself discusses. I don’t feel like I have a choice: the last few years seem to have brought with them more and more of the watershed political and cultural moments that you just can’t talk about with some people. Who knows, maybe before I wasn’t looking.

If it’s trite or obvious to point out that the internet age has been marked by the apparent fracturing of shared cultural narratives, then that might help explain why noir seems to have gone out of fashion (Under the Silver Lake bombed, despite the success of Mitchell’s previous outing It Follows). Truth is now stranger than fiction. If we used to sympathize with Jake Gittes’ anger and revulsion, now we’ve adopted the resigned outlook of his partner. Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown. 

There is plenty of art about the frenzied frustration of someone beginning to glimpse the whole corrupt picture. There’s much less that deals with the feeling of resigning oneself to the fact that those you love might be looking at something entirely different. Once the hysteria of realization subsides, it can feel very quiet. That silence makes a nonsense of politics; it belies the supposed interconnectedness that our technocratic overlords will tell you characterizes the internet age. Once you can finally hear yourself think, it’s the last thing you want to be listening to. 

***

[1] I use the word “radical” not necessarily in it’s left political context but in the simpler, traditional sense of “unorthodox” or “advocating change.”

[2] This comes in part from the cognitive dissonance between using such a mainstream pop culture product to describe a countercultural take on an issue, but I suspect it’s way more than that, since I’d still find this gif annoying if I received it while trying to explain my most normie opinions to my most radical friends.

[3] I will venmo $5 to the first person who plugs this schema into the galaxy brain meme.

[4] I also suspect this dynamic is central to understanding the left’s widely bemoaned tendency to cannibalize itself. Namely, it illustrates yet another way that the most “radical” thought (again, in the sense of heterodox) can lead to a mindset that is actually antithetical to radical organizing: left untouched, this sense of isolation will eat away at the very parts of one’s humanity that make organizing possible, like mold at an unused sponge.

[5] I’m sympathetic to the argument that this founding myth of the internet is largely bullshit and that, as a military R&D project turned private utility, the internet has always been just as dominated by establishment influence as any form of media. A conversation for another time.

[6] In my opinion, the least radical conclusion a thinking person ought to come to from seeing the events of February 3, 2020 unfold is that caucuses are a voter suppression mechanism.

[7] Enter Mayor Pete.

[8] In discussing what he refers to as the “spiritual violence” of bullshit employment, Graeber focuses mostly on how the unproductiveness of these jobs cuts against the essentially human desire to create. But his analysis makes it clear that the gulf between the supposed purpose of one’s job and the reality of purposelessness is a significant undercurrent of the bullshit employee’s sadness.

[9] Screenwriter and producer Larry Gross (Streets of Fire, True Crime) wrote in a 1976 article for Film Comment that neo-noirs were “attempting to switch from a psychological to a sociological analysis.” Many people (including Graeber) might of course wonder if the two can be meaningfully distinguished, and at the very least I think you could reasonably argue that, as modern life provides more avenues for the simultaneous and reciprocal fraying of the social and psychic fabric, a huge swath of otherwise dissimilar films have adopted elements of neo-noir.

[10] I don’t think it’s an accident of narrative that this conversation happens over video chat, refracted through a screen.

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