#147: Friend to Friend in Endtime

One year ago, a new decade had just begun, and for the first time ever I felt the urge to make predictions about the future. Fortunately, I only got halfway through a draft about what I expected from the ‘20s before giving up and moving on to something else, sparing myself the indignity of having my predictions go up in flames just a few months later, as everyone else’s did. This week, freed from the pressure of a decade transition as well as the belief that it’s possible to predict anything right now, I became curious what I actually was thinking about a year ago at this time, so I reread my newsletter from January 3, 2020 and was surprised to find that I’d actually predicted the pandemic zeitgeist (if not the pandemic itself) more accurately than if I’d tried, by simply looking backward. In that post I reflected on the 2010s, a decade defined by smartphones and their cultural impact, and how we’ve drifted from using mobile apps to get out of the house and augment our analog lives—Foursquare, Yelp, Google Maps, Uber—toward inhabiting a full-fledged digital reality. “Mobile devices massively increased the amount of time we could spend online, and this transformed the internet into a robust universe of its own that finally came to rival meatspace as a real place we could continuously inhabit and consider primary…The ultimate result of unlimited iPhone-supported mobility, in other words, is domesticity—an erosion of place that makes it harder to justify going anywhere at all.”

It turned out, of course, that we still had a long way to go: We were not yet as extremely online as we would soon be, and we were still getting out of the house plenty. But last January it already felt like we had become much more domestic and the pillars of that domesticity, such as Netflix, food delivery, and gaming, were already in heavy use. When the pandemic started gaining steam—on March 4, before lockdowns even began—Ian Bogost was able to proclaim that we’d already been living in quarantine. This year I’ve become intimately familiar with the contours of my home, as I’m sure you have too, and it’s become clear that the trend I just described has reached a saturation point. AirPods, rather than reframing our relationship to public space, have achieved the more modest goal of allowing us to leave our phones in one room while roaming around the house listening to podcasts. The internet’s illusion of global collectivity thus papered over our ever-heightening atomization: “Homebound and antisocial, Netflix is the anti-Foursquare, with each of us the permanent mayor of our own solipsistic content universe.” But at least when a new Netflix show drops now, it creates the shared context that the physical world can’t currently provide.

As this week’s events unfolded, I had the powerful sense of existing in pure media hyperreality—layer upon layer of it—with no firm foundation to stand upon except still more layers of digital information. Assuming none of us were physically near the US Capitol on Wednesday, we all consumed the mob attack the same way, bombarded by chaotic imagery of people wearing horns, bear pelts, and war paint, and dependent on a multitude of pundits, bloggers, social media armchair quarterbacks, and friends to interpret it for us. As of this moment, people everywhere are solidifying vastly divergent conclusions about what happened and what it means. We have to view everything through this flawed lens because we’re largely stuck at home. But if we weren’t, what better source of “reality” could we even grab onto? The other day, in the Well’s annual State of the World discussion (which I read every year because Bruce Sterling is a genius), Jon Lebkowsky said, “Like everyone, my sense of the state of the world depends on what I perceive through intermediaries. My sense of reality is inevitably distorted, especially as I'm sheltering in place and depending more than ever on media for access to the world.” If we were going out to bars, restaurants, parties, and workplaces, would our perspective be any less distorted? Face-to-face interactions would surely expose us to viewpoints even more parochial and dubious, many of which originated online and filtered through individuals’ fallible brains. But we’d be consuming far less media and spending much less of our time thinking about distant events, which would paradoxically make us less solipsistic. The fact that ignoring the news for as much as a full day sounds strange and perhaps even irresponsible now is proof of how much we’ve changed.