#166: Radiation Vibe

I tweeted the other day that “there’s too much internet now” and blamed it on the pandemic. Have you felt that way lately? Regardless of whether the vibes are on or off, this summer is unquestionably vibe-saturated, and (at least in NYC) it has felt very outdoors, in a manner entirely distinct from last summer’s mandatory al fresco socializing—more like an explosive release from captivity this time around. But if our bodies have logged off and left the house, our brains still haven’t. The current “hot vax summer” or David Foster Wallace summer (or whatever you’re calling it as we run headlong into the vibe buzzsaw that is August) serves as proof that you can be outdoors, day-drunk and fabulous, and still tethered to the internet with an unhealthy intensity, just as much as when you were stuck at home. Instagram was always the most narcissistic social media platform (quite an accomplishment) but 2020’s dearth of travel and parties stifled it, causing Instagram’s characteristic energy to spread elsewhere (Twitter’s recently-euthanized Fleets feature co-opted a big piece of that Instagram energy directly). Describing last summer, zeitgeist-chronicler Dean Kissick wrote, “Here in New York lots of people are hanging out in public spaces, on the streets and in the parks. But it’s far less documented and performative than before; no pictures or videos, or shared invites.” 2020 was the year of undersharing.

This summer, we are oversharing again, big time. When people declare that the “vibes are off,” in New York or wherever else—a statement that is usually made online, crucially—I suspect this is what they’re describing: After a year and a half of mainlining the internet to a degree that would have embarrassed us in 2019, our brains are warped, perhaps semi-permanently. Subconsciously we no longer know how to log off. Meanwhile, there is still always a massive pulsating cluster of Substacks and articles and DMs and groupchats and Slack channels that seem to demand our attention more constantly and aggressively than ever. There was always too much internet, and too much of everything we now call “content.” (Yes, I realize that I am part of the problem.) But we used to be better at ignoring it or compartmentalizing it or pretending it was secondary to whatever we defined as our actual lives. Hence our fraught relationship to “algorithms” today: Despite our ongoing heavy usage of social media, we have supposedly overthrown the algorithm, as the rise of email newsletters seems to attest—a declaration that we are better at choosing what we like than letting an impersonal tech platform choose for us. Rob Horning writes that newsletters “come to your email and make a specific claim on your attention, requesting that you live up to the promise implicit in your subscribing, that you would make time for it and read it.” More and more, we experience this accumulation of promises as an excessive burden.

The significant expansion of the digital edifice we call the internet since March 2020 requires ongoing maintenance by the billions of users who doubled down on digital-first life during the pandemic (many of whom hope to escape it now). We can’t just abandon the internet, it’s trying to tell us every time we go to the beach or park and put our phones away for a while. In Horning’s essay about newsletters, he continues, “there is also a special gratification in deleting a newsletter without opening it: I feel like a master of time management when I delete a few newsletter emails without opening them—it's like closing a tab without any anxiety over why I opened it in the first place.” This speaks to an increasingly urgent desire to downsize the bloated post-pandemic internet that (to me) feels quite oppressive at times. Unlike the physical world, where abandoned cities and neighborhoods visibly decay into dysfunction and then ruins, we seem to believe that the digital spaces we build up and then vacate will just elegantly vanish, that the internet can flexibly expand and contract in proportion to our collective presence. In my last newsletter before the pandemic—February 21, 2020—I cited an Adam Curtis interview where he compared the future internet to a post-apocalyptic Escape from New York-style wasteland full of “weird, mad people in post-goth outfits,” one that would resemble “a strange swamp where everyone sensible has left, an escapist post-truth zone where people go to have fun.” This prediction was certainly a product of the post-4chan Trump era, and one that didn’t account for the pandemic, but it correctly posits that the internet could collapse unevenly just like a deindustrializing city. The massive voids in the post-’00s archive that correspond to the disappearance of sites like Tumblr and the millions of cautiously self-deleted tweets and Instagram posts are voids in our actual culture, not just gaps in a digital simulacrum. The internet is rotting but bigger than ever. It’s possible to have too much internet and too little at the same time.

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