How the Internet Is Like a Dying Star

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Do you ever get the feeling that we’re all just…stuck? The notion keeps coming up in conversations I have with friends, relatives, even the occasional stranger. It is the context of most of the news I read. It is the vague vibe that I get when I’m observing conversations online. More children are killed inside their schools. More innocent people are killed by gunfire while trying to buy groceries or while worshipping or even at a hospital. And we are stuck in a doom-loop. You cannot open your phone or turn on the television without experiencing and absorbing untenable levels of grief. Nor can you avoid the hollow offerings of thoughts and prayers, and justifications of inaction from lawmakers.

The stuckness doesn’t just apply to arguments about guns. It applies to our sclerotic politics more broadly: the overlapping crises from climate inaction, the constant bungling of our pandemic response, and the seemingly successful attempt to roll back abortion rights. The stuckness isn’t part of a debate about how to move forward. It is, instead, a tacit acknowledgment that the status quo must change, but will not. We are experiencing the same problems and having the same arguments. It’s all leading to a pervasive feeling, especially among younger people, that our systems in the United States (including our system of government) “are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing.”

When it comes to the internet and our media ecosystems, it is easy to hurl vague, blanket critiques like Social media is making everything feel worse. That is mostly true, by the way—but it’s obvious. Which is why I was drawn to a recent idea from writer and technology theorist L.M. Sacasas:

The internet, as a mediator of human interactions, is not a place, it is a time. It is the past. I mean this in a literal sense. The layers of artifice that mediate our online interactions mean that everything that comes to us online comes to us from the past—sometimes the very recent past, but the past nonetheless.

Sacasas (go read his post) was interrogating our stuckness, and his simple idea provides a helpful frame. The internet—this connecting and mediating force we use, in part, to relate to each other and make sense of the world—is often described in terms of speed. Those of us who’ve been using it for decades conceive of the internet as a technology that makes everything move faster and more mysteriously. The thinking is that our connections to information and to each other form in real time, which generates magic and volatility. Sacasas asks us to revise the notion of real-time communications online, and to instead view our actions as “inscriptions,” or written and visual records. Like stars in the galaxy, our inscriptions seem to twinkle in the present, but their light is actually many years old.

“Because we live in the past when we are online,” Sacasas suggests, “we will find ourselves fighting over the past.”

Around the time I read Sacasas’s article, I came upon a grim chart, published by Axios with data provided by Newswhip, tracking social-media engagement around recent mass shootings. It showed that four days after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, online engagement around the tragedy plummeted. Something similar happened after the white-supremacist shooting at a Buffalo supermarket. “The unrelenting pace of mass shooting events in the U.S. has made it harder for a single event to rally the country’s attention,” the article concluded.

This depressing observation struck me as one outcome of living on an internet that is stuck in the past. It might seem the other way around: that our fleeting attention is the result of an internet that’s unrelentingly feeding us the now. But my hunch is that people feel stuck or move on because online, these events feel like things that have happened, rather than something that is happening. Mass shootings, like any tragedy, don’t end with the apprehension or death of the shooter. Their shockwaves ripple through families, communities, and nations, causing lasting damage. But media technology rarely allows us to experience events the way they’re actually lived.

“What we’re focused on is not the particular event or movement before us, but the one right behind us,” Sacasas told me when I called him last week. “As we layer on these events, it becomes difficult for anything to break through. You’re trying to enter the information environment and the debate, and you find layer upon layer of abstraction over the initial point of conflict. You find yourself talking about what people are saying about the thing, instead of talking about the thing. We’re caking layers of commentary over the event itself and the event fades.” This is, if you ask me, a decent description of the last five years of news cycles.

Still, besides live television, almost all news media—from the nightly packaged broadcasts to newspaper articles—are a dispatch from the recent past. So, what’s changed? Why do we feel more stuck now?

“I think it also has to do with the proportion of one’s daily experience to dispatches from the past,” Sacasas said. Pre-internet, “the totality of my day wasn’t enclosed by this experience of media artifacts coming to me.” He argued that, for a certain class of person—let’s call them the smartphone-bound, reasonably-but-not-terminally online people—the amount they spend engaged with the recent past has increased considerably, to the point that some are enclosed in this online world and develop a disordered relationship to time.

“There’s a well-ordered way of relating to time—how much attention you give to the past, present, and future,” he said. “I don’t mean to suggest that one way is the good way or the bad way, but it seems as if most of us are disproportionately focused on what has already happened. Not just the events themselves, but the layers of commentary atop of them.”

Constantly absorbing and commenting on things that have just happened sounds to me like a recipe for feeling powerless. Online, I frequently feel both stuck in the past but presented with a grim projection of the future. There is very little focus on the present, which is a place where we derive agency. We can act now.

Sacasas agreed. “That feeling of helplessness comes out of the fact that all our agency is being channeled through these media,” he said. “We have these events that are ponderously large, like climate change or gun control, and to view them only through the lens of what happened or the abstraction of what people are saying strips away the notion of our agency and makes it all feel so futile.”

And so we fight against that futility, in part, by weighing in. And posting certainly feels like having agency. There are multiple ways to exist online—you can lurk, or you can contribute. But the social-media platforms we live on push us toward contribution, and they make it feel necessary. Yet what is the sum total of these contributions? “If I’m cynical,” Sacasas said, “what I think it generates is something akin to influencer culture. It creates people who will make money off of channeling that attention—for better or for ill. Everyone else is stuck watching the show, feeling like we’re unable to effectively change the channel or change our circumstances.”

Sacasas isn’t taking cheap shots at influencers. Instead, he’s suggesting that ubiquitous connectivity and our media environments naturally lend themselves toward an influencer-and-fandom dynamic. If the system is built to inspire more and more layers of commentary, then that system will privilege and reward people who feed it. On an internet that democratizes publishing, what this might mean is that all media takes on the meta-commentary characteristics of political or sports talk radio. Again, this doesn’t have to be awful. But, if you were going to design a nightmare scenario, it might look a bit like what is described in this Washington Post story from last Thursday:

When the Depp-Heard trial began gaining traction online in April, Internet users around the world recognized a fresh opportunity to seize and monetize the attention. Christopher Orec, a 20-year-old content creator in Los Angeles, has posted a dozen videos about the trial to his more than 1.4 million followers on Instagram across several pages. “Personally, what I’ve gained from it is money as well as exposure from how well the videos do,” he said. You can “go from being a kid in high school and, if you hop on it early, it can basically change your life,” Orec said. “You can use those views and likes and shares that you get from it, to monetize and build your account and make more money from it, meet more people and network.”

Like the Depp-Heard coverage, the forces that Sacasas describes can be deeply cynical and destructive. They’re also almost always exhausting for those of us consuming them. In his article, Sacasas argued that on the internet, “action doesn’t build the future, it only feeds the digital archives of the past.” We’re always arguing about the same things, and our fights become “tired routines” filled with “unimaginative and reactionary responses.”

I wrote about this dynamic back in March after the “slap” event at the Oscars. Even when wild, unpredictable things happen (like, say, a physical altercation on Hollywood’s biggest stage), the commentary around them feels boring and rote. We’re not building toward new ideas; we’re relating things that just happened to other things that happened before that. And maybe that’s exciting in the moment, but it quickly becomes exhausting. People tune out, and they move on. When was the last time you thought about Will Smith?

I don’t mean to suggest that Sacasas’s theory is the only way to describe our current feelings of stuckness. Our media and technological environment is not the root or the only cause of our cascading crises. And I don’t wish to argue that our stuckness is imagined either—many of our problems feel intractable because they are immense and complicated and rooted in history. Examining and discussing and understanding the past is important, and our technologies are enormously helpful in this respect.

But it’s crucial as well to understand what exactly our technological and media ecosystems generate. I think of Sacasas’s thesis as it pertains to cryptocurrency hype and all the scams that have come from that movement. So much of the culture of crypto investing takes place online in places like Twitter, where, if you subscribe to Sacasas’s idea, people are discussing not the future, but the past. Crypto prices and supposedly revolutionary products are breathlessly touted as rising opportunities where the line goes up. But the conversation is rooted in what has happened, not what will happen. Of course it’s a system that fuels greedy and predatory behavior. People take advantage of past performance knowing full well that it isn’t indicative of future results. It’s a system that is naturally dangerous for unsavvy investors who are responding to prices in the market that feel current but are really stuck in the past.

“There are all these financial feedback loops where the data flows are shaped by our capacity to observe them,” Sacasas said when I brought up the crypto example. “A weird observer effect is looped into all of it, especially as it is swallowed up by the media ecosystem.”

In other words: A group of people direct their attention to something, and that changes its value. This, in turn, draws the eye of various media and attention merchants, which in turn changes the value again. Crypto hype is the purest and most logical endpoint of this phenomenon. What most people are talking about with a given crypto asset is just the layered abstraction—all the metacommentary—instead of what the asset really represents.

While the blockchain is a distinct, intricate technology, the crypto phenomenon is probably better understood as a product of our deeply entrenched online media systems. For a technology that’s billed as an architecture of the future, crypto is powered by a discourse that’s rooted in the past. Perhaps that’s why so few cryptocurrency-based, Web3-style projects meaningfully address big, future-facing problems. Instead, they seem to want to re-create financial structures that already exist, only with new people at the top. Even in supposedly innovative spaces, we’re still stuck.

Near the end of our conversation, Sacasas compared the way our media ecosystem works—and all these feedback loops—to a novelty finger trap. “Almost every action generates more difficult conditions—to struggle is to feed the thing that’s keeping you bogged down.” I feel this most acutely with the rise of shitposter politicians who view content creation and online fan service as the key component of their jobs. As politicians—especially those on the far right—transition into full time influencers, they no longer need to govern even reasonably effectively to gain power. They don’t need to show what they’ve done for their constituents. Simply culture warring—posting—is enough. The worse the post, the more attention it gets, and the more power they accrue.

One outcome of elected officials adopting the influencer model is a politics that is obsessed with, and stuck in, the past. I don’t just mean a focus on making America “great again,” but a politics that is obsessed with relitigating its recent past. It creates cycles where elections never die—where we are forever talking about Hillary’s emails or Hunter Biden’s laptop or Merrick Garland’s thwarted Supreme Court seat or the legitimacy of the previous election. There is a deeply corrosive effect to all of this, which is that our politics becomes recentered around reaction instead of action.

As with the finger trap, to resist the things that feel dangerous or threatening simply seems to trap us tighter as we turn more energy and attention on them. How do we break the cycle? Is silence our best weapon to starve the attention? That feels wrong. I don’t have answers, but Sacasas has given me a valuable guiding question: How do we train our attention on our present and future, when so much of our life is spent ensconced in dispatches from the recent past?

This article has been updated to accurately refer to the location of stars in the galaxy, and the age of the stars that are visible to humans.