#130: Every Man and Woman Is a Star

In recent years, I’ve tried to keep Twitter at arm’s length, limiting my time with the site and keeping the app off my phone. Until the pandemic started I was actually doing a decent job of that, but once coronavirus remorselessly eradicated the pretense of having better things to do, I dropped my defenses and plunged back into the hellsite. The danger of doing this, which is immediately apparent if you check Twitter for any amount of time these days, three months into a pandemic, is that Twitter becomes an almost literal extension of your brain, another little processing center like the amygdala or hippocampus. The only way to use Twitter, in my humble opinion, is to dump a certain kind of ephemeral unfiltered thought there as soon as you notice it fluttering in your head and then move on, having lightened your load every so slightly. Humans have always possessed crude tools for capturing such thoughts, such as notebooks, and even ways of disseminating those thoughts to others, but like so much digital apparatus, Twitter is a more refined and hyperefficient mechanism for doing so, and an entire universe has thus developed around it.

The word “exhaust” has become a popular metaphor for all the data the world constantly generates that is wasted unless we capture it. Myriad objects and processes give off such exhaust, and always have, but we’ve historically lacked the ability to record even the tiniest percentage of the world’s information, and we still allow most of that data to evaporate into the air as exhaust. Twentieth century efforts to comprehensively model global weather are fairly straightforward and even precede the personal computer, but the more recent revolution, fully driven by the mobile phone, has involved capturing a much larger portion of individual humans’ data exhaust—what we do, what we see and hear, and of course, even what we think. Life in the Quarantine Pod has further accelerated this by placing us in digitally-mediated environments for much longer periods of time; it would probably be possible to reconstruct someone’s entire lived experience during the pandemic using the proprietary data they’ve generated. During the past year, meanwhile, TikTok has emerged as a cultural force, and while I maintain the quixotic hope to keep it at arm’s length as long as possible, I’ve observed that one generalization about its early mode of usage has been “people dancing in the bathroom mirror.” Like the verbal detritus that accumulates in my own brain and now ends up on Twitter, performing in one’s home for no audience has happened as long as people have owned mirrors, but now a platform has transformed those same bathrooms into the first nodes of a global content supply chain—the sites where the raw material is harvested. This phenomenon has in fact been powerful enough to alter the bathroom’s very role within the home.

The ongoing transformation of various personal activities into tangible creative output is pretty fun and weird, which is why we participate so eagerly. The privacy implications of turning everything into data have never concerned me as much as they probably should. But as we grow increasingly comfortable immortalizing more and more of our own informational exhaust, that data’s more mundane (non-social media) varieties will probably have a disproportionate (if indirect) impact on our lives. Ranjan Roy recently wrote about what he calls the “Sweetgreen-ification of society,” having noticed that the egalitarian Midtown lunchtime deli line—comprising construction workers, corporate employees, and tourists alike—has given way to a sorting process that routes white collar professionals to fast casual restaurants for $17 salads while filtering other demographics out of those environments. This change, of course, is made possible by customer segmentation, which benefits tremendously from the kinds of data we all constantly emit. The decline of the Midtown deli line, as it were, signifies a corresponding decline in consumer surplus, which you may remember from economics class as the difference between what customers are willing to pay and what they actually do pay. The deli is a relic from the age of “dumb” pricing when everyone was willing to pay different amounts (as they still are today) but the world had fewer ways to group them accordingly, so they all paid the same price for the same sandwich and the lunch industry left a lot of money on the table. Another supply chain, built upon a sophisticated foundation of data collection and branding (and tricks like not accepting cash) now moves the customers (not the lunches) to destinations where they pay prices much nearer to what they’re willing to pay. The result, Roy argues, is the loss of “spaces we share across socioeconomic strata.” As Amazon’s fulfillment centers cease to organize merchandise by category, jumbling unrelated items together randomly, we find ourselves on the opposite trajectory, increasingly grouped together with people just like us.