#184: Pure Pain Sugar
In Sarah Schulman’s book The Gentrification of the Mind, she laments, “Will everything (books, music, pornography, education, movies, friendship, camaraderie, love, and television) all be free if they’re consumed online and prohibitively expensive to experience in person?” She wrote this in 2012 and may not have anticipated how much further that process could go in the following decade. Facebook had already virtualized many facets of social life but iPhones were still relatively new, as was the revolution they were unleashing. During the decade that followed, the bifurcation of digital and physical experience that Schulman described actually collapsed under its own weight, with the two universes reuniting in the form of the mediated hyperreality that we now constantly inhabit. Everything online that was already free—content—became seemingly more free and more infinite (even when it’s not actually free, it still feels like it is). In-person experience became correspondingly expensive, not in absolute terms but relative to its digital version. When eating dinner at a restaurant costs the same as 4 months of Netflix and infinitely more than unlimited free social media, that contrast increases the gravitational pull of the screen and the home.
Like the mid-20th-century industrialization of food, the 21st-century commodification of social life and culture created an opportunity for their more authentic counterparts to re-emerge as luxury goods (the digital equivalent of the paleo diet or Michael Pollan, I once argued). The decade of low interest rates that followed the 2008 financial crash and subsequent recovery fueled an unprecedented bubble in asset prices as well as upper-middle-class lifestyle norms and expectations that trickled down from the wealthy but also bubbled upward from below. The former proceeded via standardization—fast fashion, apps that let you hail black cars—while the latter was gleaned from a dedicated scouring of subcultures and the vernacular landscape—streetwear, hipster culture, artisanal everything. Incidentally, the internet was the perfect medium to disseminate both. Online experience was abundant and free, and increasingly the default option, but it was also a window to the more desirable realm that we imagine we once inhabited all the time, before computers were everywhere. Hours spent scrolling Instagram may constitute the top of the funnel, but aspirational users are always hoping to graduate to the embodied experiences and tangible goods that populate their feeds.
Amid the 21st century’s endless postmodern remix of the past, it’s only fitting that inflation has made a recent comeback—perhaps the predictable denouement to the past decade’s narrative arc. Rising prices hit the poor the hardest via essentials like food and gas, but they also eat away at the middle class entitlements that have accumulated over time and express themselves via discretionary consumption. In this domain, online as well as offline, it increasingly feels like too many people showed up to the party. When you request an Uber, you no longer get an Escalade or S-Class that makes you feel like a baller, but a taxi that is just as expensive and happens to not be yellow. A social media presence is less an opportunity than a necessity, as much of a grind as an office job but with worse psychological repercussions. With innovations like NFTs, even digital content is scarce and expensive, sometimes more so than a Rolex but without the exquisite craftsmanship. Food delivery often costs more than eating at a restaurant, a tax levied on those unable to achieve escape velocity from the domestic gravitational field. Much of this is not inflation in the strict sense, but more like “inflation culture”—a swelling, insatiable demand for everything, intensified by a growing rift between our ability to fulfill digital and physical desires. There’s a saying that you shouldn’t complain about being stuck in traffic, because you are traffic. The same may be true of inflation: What if it’s just us?
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Lauren Collee on the ongoing effort to fix circadian rhythms using technology.
Northwoods Baseball Sleep Radio: Fictional minor-league baseball broadcasts that will help you chill out.