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#190: Theatre Is the Life of You
First—RIP Real Life, which announced this week that it no longer has funding and will shut down. As both a reader and a writer, Real Life has been a formative publication for me, putting out a specific brand of technology criticism that was immensely valuable (their archive will remain online and is worth exploring). Real Life’s approach was a good match for my own, which is why I wrote more for them than anywhere else, including some of my favorite pieces I’ve ever published. A few personal highlights: this essay about AirPods and public space; this one about tech’s fraught relationship with fashion; and this one about Amazon’s quest to make consumerism our primary identities. Another piece I wrote in early 2019, which I think has become more relevant over time, was about the video game Fortnite and how digital technology has gamified reality itself. As more facets of life become gamelike—work, social life, health, sleep—games themselves become correspondingly less gamelike, and more like places to just hang out, with everything in both categories converging upon the same vaguely gamified experience. In other words, LinkedIn and World of Warcraft are surprisingly similar. Racking up professional skill endorsements, becoming the “mayor” of your neighborhood bar, hitting 10,000 steps a day, maintaining a Snapchat streak, or accumulating valuable in-game items in Stardew Valley are all variants of the same thing. The video game achievements are often even more valuable than the others.
The pandemic’s acceleration of remote work—the virtualization of the office—intensified the gamelike aspect of professional life. Cryptocurrency and Robinhood layered game aesthetics and interfaces atop financial speculation. Dating apps have distilled the already-gamelike qualities of romance. Streaming entertainment and written content (such as this post) file into endless queues that we are constantly “catching up” on, like email. Each increasingly assumes the form of discrete, measurable tasks that pop up on screens and demand action—sets of reminders and red badge notifications that presume the same urgency regardless of category. And ultimately, it is all artificial, to varying degrees. What’s stranger, though, is the inverse phenomenon: Video games have broadly become more like *work*, as though we have no choice but to play them. I’m not a gamer myself and never played World of Warcraft, but Steve Rousseau used to write an amazing Substack about his experience playing the game. In one post, he describes the tedium of spending hours a week “farming” gold in order to level up his character enough to actually go out and fight a boss. “Everyone more-or-less has a ‘Profession’ in WoW, and if you want to do the ‘fun’ stuff in game you have to use your ‘Profession’ to fund it,” he writes. “Because I am a huge idiot and have no idea how to make money in the real world, I also do not know how to make money in World of Warcraft.”
Another online multiplayer role-playing game, EVE Online, takes these dynamics even further: “The universe is so detailed and demanding that players have been known to joke that playing EVE is like having a second job.” In the game, players form massive corporations; the process of training and applying to join them is as wearisome as seeking a job in the real world. The game even offers grief counselors for players who have lost their first ship. As one surveys the sprawling landscape of online gaming, the billions of hours of real effort being sunk into its manifold missions and side quests, and the enormous monetary value that all that effort ends up producing, one can’t help but wonder if it’s somehow more real than a social network like LinkedIn, which doesn’t recognize that it’s also basically a game. Meanwhile, anyone who has plumbed the depths of Reddit or even Twitter knows that the internet now manufactures and aggregates self-taught experts on every imaginable topic, powered by an incentive system that is as inscrutable as it is intricate—a global hive mind made up of people in their parents’ basements, gathering and regurgitating information like termites converting wood into their massive enigmatic mounds. It would be easy to dismiss it all as pointless, but if you zoom out far enough, aren’t most things?
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Reads (Real Life highlight reel edition):
Chenoe Hart on self-driving cars as the end of transportation itself. “Our future passenger experience might bear little resemblance to either driving or riding within a vehicle; we’ll inhabit a space that only coincidentally happens to be in motion.” (2016)
Kelly Pendergrast describes consumer goods that end up in your house and prove weirdly difficult to get rid of. For her, an unwanted corkpull symbolizes this: “a tiny piece of flotsam on a tide of material that flows through ships, stores, houses, hands, and all I can do is try desperately to manage the rivulet running through my own life.” (2021)
Jathan Sadowski on the fallacy underlying the smart city vision, which is usually just the convergence of privatization, smart infrastructure, and ubiquitous surveillance. Policing is the smart city’s killer app. (2019)