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I. The Obverse of Mook Manor.
It’s really easy to get down about the state of collective discourse on the internet. It’s easy to think that the only consequence of our increased inter-connection is an increased capacity to be ass-holes to each other.
That’s true. I’m pretty sure the internet has a polarizing effect on people, because it’s easy to be a shit-head to someone behind a screen. It’s easier to demonize someone you don’t have to meet after you dox them and ruin their lives.
At the same time, I’m not convinced that wasn’t always the state of human collective consciousness. That didn’t stop us from doing some other really beautiful things, like all of the art in history, for example.
Or at the very least, I don’t know to what degree the state of human collective consciousness could naturally progress beyond that sort of petty imperialism — what Venkatesh Rao terms ‘mook manorialism.’
This is the phenomenon wherein some cultural figure-heads fight each other, with all the plausible deniability inherent in the direction of a Twitter-mob.
I’ve never used Twitter before. I’m thinking about it. I recently discovered lots of my favorite niche academics and public intellectuals use it. I’m not sure I’m brave enough. Those seem like perilous waters to me.
On the other hand, however, there is something genuinely magic about the internet, and I think that’s something we should work harder to appreciate. For example: I can communicate with perfect strangers in massive numbers! They can communicate back! That’s pretty cool.
I can spend hours reading and studying blog posts, book reviews, long-form You-Tube content, I can reference a frankly ridiculous range of e-books. I can produce essays on topics and ideas that interest me, and I can find an audience for them! That’s strictly fantastic.
It is not a problem that the internet is saturated with the stuff. The problem is that we don’t have the cognitive Kung Fu to sort through the trash.
I’d be tempted to call the approach to internet consumption that makes you a mook to someone else’s ideological viewpoint a monolithic or receptive approach to internet consumption. There is an alternative, however, which I’d term participatory internet consumption. This is a mindful, and more small-time approach to culture. It’s well suited to niche interests, and it doesn’t get corrupted by the profit motive.
The magic of the internet is in the community. It’s in communication. I really don’t need to tell you that. But when we talk about the internet, let’s start emphasizing the good parts.
We can focus on how the internet is poisoned by our own human foibles, or we can focus on the unique opportunity it affords us to engage in meaningful and novel modes of interaction. Both discussions are worth having, don’t get me wrong. But let’s not pretend we don’t see the critical discussions a lot more often than we see the sympathetic ones.
This is an important conversation!
II. The Magic of Lo-fi.
Sure, there might be loads of algorithms that are designed just to get me to buy things I don’t need. But there are other, similar algorithms that exist to find me content that I’ll actually like, and sometimes they get employed in systems that I don’t feel bad about participating in.
That being said, I think people always have a better idea of what people will like than computers will. I’m not sure that will ever stop being the case.
I also suspect that simply knowing someone liked a quantized experience like a film, a book, a work of art or a video-game enough to put effort into sharing it can change your perspective on it. A recommendation is like a recognition. If I’m watching something a person recommended to me, I’m also receiving a communication from them.
I think curated content is very important, and I think that outlets for curated content can participate in and support some really interesting online ecosystems.
Do you ever listen to things like “lo fi hip hop radio — beats to relax/study to?” The Youtube algorithm just suggested it to me one day, and it’s become a fixture of my study cycle since. There is something special about the aesthetic that surrounds this genre that I’d like to discuss in greater detail. It’s special because it might contain the seeds of a happier, psychically healthier, and more intentional way to approach the internet.
The first relevant feature of lo-fi is that, lo-fi tracks like these are made by a community of producers, who, as far as I can tell, produce the music solely from a love for it and a desire to share it. When the profit motive is removed from the picture, smaller forms of variation become possible without getting priced out of a market that demands appreciable novelty.
This leads me to my second point, which is that the pieces make such heavy use of sampling. Sampling is a technique that involves cutting out parts of audio files and recycling them. For lo-fi, the relevant samples are mostly sourced old jazz tunes.
I’ve heard the same Chet Baker trumpet riffs employed across forty different tracks, and all of them employed it in slightly distinct contexts, to slightly distinct effects. There is something ecologically valid about lo-fi. It’s rich. It’s a sort of evolution at work. It’s really pleasant to watch, because it’s naturalistic and organismic. It’s alive.
The third interesting feature of the lo-fi community is the live stream chat. For the most part, the comments sections and the live stream chats for these sorts of radio videos are really chill and calm. In my experience, people just share their moment to moment lives. Arguably this is because lo-fi is like Smooth Jazz for Zoomers. But there is one very important relevant distinction, and this is what helps lo-fi maintain its soul: that’s in large part the lack of a profit motive.
Nobody is trying to sell you lo-fi tunes. They are abundant. How could you copyright something that’s just a mishmash of other copyrighted things? Lo-fi is ecological. That sort of makes it incorruptible.
III. DO NOT GIVE UP.
Disclaimer: This part includes mechanic spoilers for the amazing Nier: Automata. Don’t worry if you haven’t played it and want to. I knew about the ending before I played it and it still had a transformative effect on me. If you haven’t played it or heard of it, I would encourage you to check it out. It’s sort of transformative.
It is easy to feel alienated in the world. Often, it feels like nobody is watching to see if our efforts succeed or fail. It seems like nobody is sharing our experience. In those cases where it is evident that someone shares our experience, we can never necessarily trust that bond. It is one-way.
In the case of You-Tube influencers, for example, there is no Skin in The Game. Their perspectives might be valuable to us, and they might help us reflect our own perspectives, but at the end of the day, we are still drops in a bucket. There is no interplay, and there is no real recognition. Humans need recognition. We need to see, but we also need to be seen.
At the end of Nier: Automata, in to reach the actual ending of the game, and in order to see the end of a narrative arc you’ve likely spent upwards of thirty-something hours pursuing, you have to first complete a mini-game. The mini-game is a bullet-hell style shooter set against the backdrop of the credits sequence. It is also completely impossible. Or at least, it is completely impossible without help.
As you keep dying and failing, the game keeps asking you if you want to continue. At first, you keep trying simply out of hard-headedness. Then you realize that it’s hopeless: as you get better, the game gets harder. You realize this is designed to break me.
Suddenly, quotes from people in different countries start to appear on the ‘Retry?’ screen. They tell you things like ‘keep going!’ or ‘do not give up!’
So you keep trying. And you keep failing. Over, and over again. At a certain point, you stop doing it because you want to win, and you start doing it because you don’t want to let the strangers down.
At a certain point, the game asks you if you want help. So you click ‘yes.’ Or maybe you click ‘no’ once or twice until you realize it’s hopeless alone.
Then, some cursors that are just like you start appearing, and they start to help you. The help comes from some of those names that were just telling you to never give up. They follow you around and form a shield for you, they shoot at targets that are about to kill you, and they protect you.
Sometimes, they get hit, and they die. But eventually, you and your comrades from a great distance away — or at least those of them who are left — overcome the mammoth task, and you get to see the end of the story.
At which point the game asks if you are willing to trade all of your progress to allow someone else access to the help that you received.
If you say yes: the game deletes your save files, which means that the whole world you just experienced and impacted disappears.In exchange, someone else out there, who is struggling with their own world and their own experiences gets to have the same opportunities you were afforded. You just have to pick ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ when it asks if you’ll trade your world. Then someone else can reach the end of their story.
What could be more participatory than that!?
I dunno. Maybe I just sound like Newt Gingrichright now. I hope someone would tell me if so.