#155: Under the Big Black Sun

One last reminder that tomorrow (March 20th) at 2PM EDT, I’ll be on Clubhouse chatting with Salman Ansari about cities, technology, and the future of urbanization in the context of the pandemic. Here’s the Clubhouse event link. Feel free to email me if there are any topics you’re curious to hear us discuss!

NFTs feel like the culmination of everything distinctive about our recent cultural trajectory, a final convergence of memes, influencers, content, financial speculation, video games, and climate change under a single conceptual umbrella, a chaotic union of trends that simultaneously seems impossibly artificial yet so real that it’s impossible to talk about anything else. Like the storming of the Capitol and the GameStop squeeze before it, this NFT mania feels like a potential denouement to the past year as well as the past four years, a transitional phase from mass fixation on a single awful topic toward the Roaring Twenties that are supposedly right around the corner. After the most digitally mediated year that humanity has ever experienced, our brains are collectively synced to a degree that is surely unhealthy; we increasingly log on and chew through topic after topic with an intensity verging on desperation, backed by excess money, excess energy, and excess attention. Everything is sloshing around and everything feels much more urgent than it should. We all agree that we need to log off and go outside but many of us can’t just yet.

Dean Kissick’s essay about NFTs last week was the best assessment I’ve read thus far, connecting their (largely) underwhelming aesthetics to the medium itself, a medium that very much seems to be its own message: “Today, like a chimpanzee that thinks she’s a person, we have collectively begun to act like something other than ourselves,” Kissick writes. “We’ve voluntarily assumed the logic of the systems we’ve created, and organised our lives around them. We live in an algorithmically generated culture, and we are the algorithms.” Rather than something entirely new, NFTs are better understood as an intensification of various aspects of internet culture, as I alluded above: Despite introducing novel forms of artistic ownership and distribution, they are still deeply immersed in the internet we’ve inhabited for years, and they are shaped by that environment’s incentives. As GameStop helped to clarify a couple of months ago, everything is simultaneously a game, an investment vehicle, and “content,” and domains that haven’t yet been pulled into this vortex soon will be. As Sean Monahan recently tweeted, “Real estate is art’s biggest competitor, finance is social media’s biggest competitor, video games are music’s biggest competitor.”

It would be easy to respond to the above with “always has been,” and in a sense, that’s correct (also, my use of meme language to explain myself is exactly what we’re talking about here). Social media, of course, is the digital framework we’ve inhabited for more than a decade, practically synonymous by now with the idea of the internet itself; social media’s overwriting of the cultural landscape is what makes these particular conditions possible. When everything happens not only online but within the same apps and sites—when finance, art, politics, and friendship unfold on the same gamelike platforms—the remaining barriers that kept them somewhat separate fully dissolve and everything that had already been abstracted as content flows together in highly promiscuous ways, ultimately fungible even when it’s theoretically non-fungible. Universal monetization is the latest step; now software doesn’t eat the world so much as we actively beg for it to consume us, reshaping ourselves to become more digestible because we can’t afford not to. And if the internet itself is just a highly refined abstraction of culture, an accelerated and distorted image of humanity, we have to consider the possibility that all of this is just us being our vulgar selves—a truer representation of who we are than we’ve ever seen. Long ago, the Prussian military strategist Clausewitz said “sometimes war dreams of itself.” Does the internet ever dream of anything but itself?

This newsletter is supported by paid subscriptions, so consider signing up to get the full experience. If you’re curious about the paid issues but hesitant to subscribe without reading one first, let me know and I’ll forward you an issue to check out. Last week I wrote about why more people in public spaces makes them safer, Jane Jacobs’s concept of “eyes on the street,” and why unbundling complex systems isn’t as easy as it looks.

Reads: