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There’s a phrase that’s been living inside my head lately.
It says you will not survive. You will not survive. You will not survive.
Earlier this year, an article in the Cutreported that the cool thing now is to have messy hair and smoke cigarettes again.
A Vibe Shift Is Coming. Will Any Of Us Survive It?
Everyone else seemed to focus on the ‘vibe shift’ stuff, but the second part was much more interesting. To talk about survival—what extraordinary stakes, for a piece that was, in essence, about how young people are wearing different types of shoes from the shoes that you, as a slightly older person who still wants to think of themselves as young, wear.
Everything is stripped back to the rawest truth: that you are a fragile creature perishing in time. And all you need to do is apply Betteridge’s Law for the real content to shine through. No. None of you will survive.
You will not survive is not only a frightening idea. The things I hope for are doomed, and everything I try to create will be a failure, but so will everything I despise.2
These days, it repeats itself whenever I see something that’s trying its hardest to make me angry and upset. There’s a whole class of these objects: they’re never particularly interesting or important; they just exist to jab you into thinking that the world is going in a particular direction, away from wherever you are.
Should I get upset about this? Should I be concerned? Why bother? It will not survive.
‘The strong iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles, who would not live long.’
In fact, one of the things that will not survive is novelty itself: trends, fads, fashions, scenes, vibes. We are thrown back into cyclical time; what’s growing old is the cruel demand to make things new. It’s already trite to notice that all our films are franchises now, all our bestselling novelists have the same mass-produced non-style, and all our pop music sounds like a tribute act.4
The things that will survive are the things that are already in some sense endless. The sea; the night; the word. Things with deep fathoms of darkness in them.
The internet will not survive
It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the internet.
In 1977, Ken Olsen declared that ‘there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.’ In 1995, Robert Metcalfe predicted in InfoWorld that the internet would go ‘spectacularly supernova’ and then collapse within a year. In 2000, the Daily Mailreported that the ‘Internet may be just a passing fad,’ adding that ‘predictions that the Internet would revolutionise the way society works have proved wildly inaccurate.’ Any day now, the millions of internet users would simply stop, either bored or frustrated, and rejoin the real world.Funny, isn’t it? You can laugh at these people now, from your high perch one quarter of the way into the twenty-first century. Look at these morons, stuck in their grubby little past, who couldn’t even correctly identify the shape of the year 2022. You can see it perfectly, because you’re smart. You know that the internet has changed everything, forever.If you like the internet, you’ll point out that it’s given us all of human knowledge and art and music, instantly accessible from anywhere in the world; that you can arrive in a foreign city and immediately guide yourself to a restaurant and translate the menu and also find out about the interesting historical massacres that took place nearby, all with a few lazy swipes of your finger. So many interesting little blogs! So many bizarre subcultures! It’s opened up our experience of the world: now, nothing is out of reach.To be honest, it’s difficult to reconstruct what the unbridled techno-optimists think; there’s so few of them left. Still, those who don’t like the internet usually agree with them on all the basics—they just argue that we’re now in touch with the wrong sort of thing: bad kids’ cartoons, bad political opinions, bad ways of relating to your own body and others. Which is why it’s so important to get all this unpleasant stuff off the system, and turn the algorithm towards what is good and true.They might be right, but you could go deeper. The internet has enabled us to live, for the first time, entirely apart from other people. It replaces everything good in life with a low-resolution simulation. A handful of sugar instead of a meal: addictive but empty, just enough to keep you alive. It even seems to be killing off sex, replacing it with more cheap, synthetic ersatz. Our most basic biological drives simply wither in its cold blue light. People will cheerfully admit that the internet has destroyed their attention spans, but what it’s really done away with is your ability to think. Usually, when I’m doing something boring but necessary—the washing up, or walking to the post office—I’ll constantly interrupt myself; there’s a little Joycean warbling from the back of my brain. ‘Boredom is the dream bird that broods the egg of experience.’ But when I’m listlessly killing time on the internet, there is nothing. The mind does not wander. I am not there. I remain in its trance, the lifeless scroll, twitching against the screen until the sky goes dark and I’m one day closer to the end.
You lose hours to—what? An endless slideshow of barely interesting images and actively unpleasant text.
You know it’s all very boring, brooding nothing, but the internet addicts you to your own boredom.
I’m starting to think that the last thing the internet destroys might be itself. I think they might be vindicated, Ken Olson and Robert Metcalfe and even, God forgive me, the Daily Mail.In the future—not the distant future, but ten years, five—people will remember the internet as a brief dumb enthusiasm, like phrenology or the dirigible. They might still use computer networks to send an email or manage their bank accounts, but those networks will not be where culture or politics happens. The idea of spending all day online will seem as ridiculous as sitting down in front of a nice fire to read the phone book. Soon, people will find it incredible that for several decades all our art was obsessed with digital computers: all those novels and films and exhibitions about tin cans that make beeping noises, handy if you need to multiply two big numbers together, but so lifeless, so sexless, so grey synthetic glassy bugeyed spreadsheet plastic drab. And all your smug chortling over the people who failed to predict our internetty present—if anyone remembers it, it’ll be with exactly the same laugh.52. That exhausted is a whole lot more than tiredYou know, secretly, even if you’re pretending not to, that this thing is nearing exhaustion. There is simply nothing there online. All language has become rote, a halfarsed performance: even the outraged mobs are screaming on autopilot. Even genuine crises can’t interrupt the tedium of it all, the bad jokes and predictable thinkpieces, spat-out enzymes to digest the world. ‘Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incorporated into the ritual.’ Online is not where people meaningfully express themselvesbeing real. Whoever you are, a role is already waiting for you.
When I say the internet is running dry, I am not just basing this off vibes. The exhaustion is measurable and real.
On Facebook, the average engagement rate—the number of likes, comments, and shares per follower—fell by 34%, from 0.086 to 0.057. Well, everyone knows that the mushrooms are spreading over Facebook, hundreds of thousands of users liquefying out of its corpse every year. But the same pattern is everywhere. Engagement fell 28% on Instagram and 15% on Twitter. (It’s kept falling since.) Even on TikTok, the terrifying brainhole of tomorrow, the walls are closing in. Until 2020, the average daily time spent on the app kept rising in line with its growing user base; since then the number of users has kept growing, but the thing is capturing less and less of their lives.And this was, remember, a year in which millions of people had nothing to do except engage with great content online—and in which, for a few months, liking and sharing the right content became an urgent moral duty. Back
round the same time, strange new conspiracy theories started doing the rounds: that the internet is empty, that all the human beings you used to talk to have been replaced by bots and drones. ‘The internet of today is entirely sterile… the internet may seem gigantic, but it’s like a hot air balloon with nothing inside.’ They weren’t wrong.
The same thing is happening everywhere, to everyone. The more you relentlessly optimise your network-facing self, the more you chase the last globs of loose attention, the more frazzled we all become, and the less anyone will be able to sustain any interest at all.7Everything that depends on the internet for its propagation will die. What survives will survive in conditions of low transparency, in the sensuous murk proper to human life.3. That you have been plugged into a graveFor a while, it was possible to live your entire life online. The world teemed with new services. Like everyone, I thought this was the inevitable shape of the future. ‘You’ll own nothing, and you’ll be happy.’ We’d all be reduced to a life spent swapping small services for the last linty coins in our pockets.
But this was not a necessary result of new technologies. The internet was not subordinating every aspect of our lives by itself, under its own power. The online economy is an energy sink; it’s only survived this far as a parasite, in the bowels of something else.That something else is a vast underground cavern of the dead, billions of years old.
The Vision Fund is an investment vehicle headquartered in London and founded by Japan’s SoftBank to manage some $150 billion, mostly from the sovereign wealth funds of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which it’s poured into Uber and DoorDash and WeWork and Klarna and Slack. It provides the money that effectively subsidises your autistic digital life. These firms could take over the market because they were so much cheaper than the traditional competitors—but most of them were never profitable; they survived on Saudi largesse. Investors were willing to sit on these losses; it’s not as if there were many alternatives. Capital is no longer capable of effectively reproducing itself in the usual way, through the production of commodities. Twenty-five years ago manufacturing represented a fifth of global GDP
The only reliable source of profits is in the extraction of raw materials: chiefly, pulling the black corpses of trillions of prehistoric organisms out of the ground so they can be set on fire. Which means that the feudal rulers of those corpselands—men like King Salman, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques—ended up sitting on a vast reservoir of capital without many productive industries through which it could be valorised. So, as a temporary solution, they stuck it in the tech sector. It didn’t matter that these firms couldn’t turn a profit. The real function was not to make money in the short term; it was to suck up vast quantities of user data. Where you go, what you buy; a perfect snapshot of millions of ordinary lives. They were betting that this would be the currency of the future, as fundamental as oil: the stuff that rules the world.8They were wrong, but in the process of being wrong, they created a monster. Your frictionless digital future, your very important culture wars, your entire sense of self—it’s just a waste byproduct of the perfectly ordinary, centuries-old global circulation of fuel, capital, and Islam. It turns out that if these three elements are arranged in one particular way, people will start behaving strangely. They’ll pretend that by spending all day on the computer they’re actually fighting fascism, or standing up for women’s sex-based rights, as if the entire terrain of combat wasn’t provided by a nightmare head-chopping theocratic state.9They’ll pretend that it’s normal to dance alone in silence for a front-facing camera, or that the intersection of art and technology is somehow an interesting place to be. For a brief minute, you’ll get the sociocultural Boltzmann entity we call the internet. ‘But nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.’The tables are already being cleared at the great tech-sector chow-down.10 Online services are reverting to market prices. The Vision Fund is the worst performing fund in SoftBank’s history; in the last quarter alone it’s lost over $20 billion. Most of all, it’s now impossible to ignore that the promise propping up the entire networked economy—that user data could power a system of terrifyingly precise targeted advertising—was a lie. It simply does not work. ‘It sees that you bought a ticket to Budapest, so you get more tickets to Budapest…All they really know about you is your shopping.’ Now, large companies are cutting out their online advertising budgets entirely, and seeing no change whatsoever to their bottom line. One study found that algorithmically targeted advertising performed worse than ads selected at random. This is what sustains the entire media, provides 80% of Google’s income and 99% of Facebook’s, and it’s made of magic beans.A dying animal still makes its last few spastic kicks: hence the recent flurry of strange and stillborn ideas. Remember the Internet of Things? Your own lightbulbs blinking out ads in seizure-inducing Morse code, your own coffee machine calling the police if you try to feed it some unlicensed beans. Remember the Metaverse? The grisly pink avatar of Mark Zuckerberg, bobbing around like the ghost of someone’s foreskin through the scene of the recent genocides. Wow! It’s so cool to immersively experience these bloodmires in VR! More recent attempts to squeeze some kind of profit out of this carcass are, somehow, worse.
Yes, the future is always capable of getting worse. But this future is simply never going to happen. Not the next generation of anything, just a short-term grift: the ship’s rats stripping the galley of all its silverware on their way out.4. That the revolution can not be digitisedIf you really want to see how impotent the internet is, though, you only have to look at politics. Everyone agrees that the internet has swallowed our entire political discourse whole. When politicians debate, they trade crap one-liners to be turned into gifs. Their strategists seem to think elections are won or lost on memes. Entire movements emerge out of flatulent little echo chambers; elected representatives giddy over the evils of seed oils or babbling about how it’s not their job to educate you. And it’s true that the internet has changed some things: mostly, it’s helped break apart the cohesive working-class communities that produce a strong left, and turned them into vague swarms of monads. But as a political instrument, all it can do is destroy anyone who tries to pick it up—because everything that reproduces itself through the internet is doomed. Occasionally, online social movements do make something happen.
But these movements build no institutions, create no collective subjects, and produce no meaningful change. Their only power is punishment—and this game only works within the internet, and only when everyone involved agrees to play by the internet’s rules.11 As soon as they run up against anything with a separate set of values—say, a Republican Party that wants to put its guy on the Supreme Court, #MeToo or no #MeToo—they instantly crumble. And if, like much of the contemporary left, you’re left with nothing on which to build your political movement except a hodgepodge of online frenzies, you will crumble too. The post-George Floyd demonstrations might be our era’s greatest tragedy: tens of millions of people mobilised in (possibly) the largest protest movement in human history, all for an urgent and necessary cause—and achieving precisely nothing. At the time, I worried that the mass street movement risked being consumed by the sterile politics of online; this is exactly what happened. Now, even that vague cultural halo is spent. Whatever wokeness was, as of 2022 it’s so utterly burned out as a cultural force that anyone still grousing about it 24/7 is a guaranteed hack. More recently, there’s been worry about the rise of the ‘new right’—a oozingly digitised political current whose effective proposition is that people should welcome a total dictatorship to prevent corporations posting rainbow flags on the internet. You can guess what I think of its prospects.5. That this is the wordThings will survive in proportion to how well they’ve managed to insulate themselves from the internet and its demands. The Financial Times will outlive the Guardian. Paintings will outlive NFTs. Print magazines will outlive Substack. You will, if you play your cards right, outlive me. If anything interesting ever happens again, it will not be online. You will not get it delivered to your inbox. It will not have a podcast. This machine has never produced anything of note, and it never will.
I am aware that I’m writing this on the internet.Whatever it is I’m doing here, you should not be part of it.
There is still time for you to do something else. You can still unchain yourself from this world that will soon, very soon, mean absolutely nothing.