#158: Exit Planet Dust

This week I wrote an essay for Real Life about the creator economy, the ongoing monetization of the web, and the speculative tendencies that are unleashed when ownership of formerly free content becomes possible. The essay describes how the decentralized, blockchain-based Web3 is now replacing Web 2.0, the advertising-driven internet embodied by Facebook and other megaplatforms. One of the piece’s implicit points is that there are certain good and bad elements of digital existence that don’t necessarily go away when new platforms and models arrive, probably due to such factors as Capitalism and Human Nature, which always loom large in technology criticism. That criticism can easily fall into one of two traps, being overly positive or overly negative—everything is getting consistently better or consistently worse—but there’s a third trap as well, arguing that nothing ever really changes at all, and that anything new is just a repackaged version of something familiar. Each fallacy is off-putting in its own way—do you want to be an optimistic shill, a pessimistic grouch, or the person who thinks there’s no point in saying anything because it’s all the same? But while it’s hard to argue that we are experiencing monotonic progress or decay, the constant repackaging and reframing of human activities becomes more interesting once we realize that the history of technology largely involves moving good and bad things around to different places rather than creating or destroying them altogether.

The recent explosion of Clubhouse, the live audio chat app, has invited the observation that it’s essentially talk radio, but of course the differences between Clubhouse and talk radio are crucial, and constitute the precise reason they occupy such distinct cultural niches. I’ve argued before that the quality of “liveness,” once synonymous with television (and radio), vanished with rise of the asynchronous internet before reappearing on Twitter in ersatz form (Twitter is actually asynchronous but at such a granular level that it feels live). And apps like Clubhouse have reintroduced content that is truly live, with all the good (excitement and serendipity) and bad (lack of editing) that accompanies that. Liveness is just another aspect of reality that gets passed around mediums, popping up and then disappearing only to reappear elsewhere. Everyone remembers a time when Slack was new and, like most other new products, assimilated via our understanding of messaging apps that already existed. Slack provided a welcome relief from the horrors of the work email inbox, allowing us to treat a large chunk of office communication as ephemeral; in 2015, Venkatesh Rao wrote that Slack’s stream workflows “avoid the illusion of perfectibility of information flows implicit in notions like Inbox Zero altogether.” But Slack has since come to function like another email inbox for many, which suggests that unpleasant work communication is yet another feature of reality that we can’t eliminate just by moving it to a new medium. We can only suppress it temporarily.

As the internet continues to mature, there’s a growing sentiment that there’s too much of everything. Complaining about the surplus of podcasts is a time-honored tradition, while being overwhelmed by a flood of Substack newsletters in one’s inbox is a newer version of the same feeling. People frequently speak of being “behind” on Netflix shows and needing to “catch up.” Read-later apps like Instapaper and Pocket play an unusual role in this milieu, giving us a place to stash the articles that accumulate as browser tabs with plausible deniability about whether we’ll ever actually read them—because we’re unable to simply close the tabs ourselves (a friend once told me that he simply didn’t feel like he had to reply to emails, in a rare assertion of psychological control over one’s technology). Efficient asynchronous communication was one of the internet’s key innovations, but it made it difficult to let go of anything, allowing content to accumulate in various buckets until the dam bursts chaotically. Meanwhile, there is content that no one ever complains about there being too much of: Twitter, for one—the algorithm shelters us from the deluge—but also that of any other live medium, such as Clubhouse. In an age when any information can be digitally captured and preserved, confining content to live consumption is yet another form of artificial scarcity that goes against the grain of the technology itself. That’s surely one reason why logging off and going outside feels increasingly peaceful relative to being online: It’s the only place where excessive information doesn’t pile up all around us.

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This week I wrote about the increasing mobility of the affluent, the likelihood that climate change will intensify that mobility, delivery apps and the restaurant industry, and why capital itself wants to “travel light” rather than assume responsibility.