Imagine being hit by a very slow-moving bus. You see it coming. You have time to prepare. There are certain poses you can assume, angles to mitigate the damage, but you don’t quite escape. You still get hit by the bus.
Now imagine doing this professionally.
Every morning, you go out in that crosswalk and you get hit by that slow-moving bus. This is all you know how to do. You get used to it, you find weird doctors and chiropractors who know your situation, but you know it’s not sustainable. You can’t even consider getting hit by that bus at 50.
That’s what it’s like to write outside the news cycle. After the bus ditches the scene and you stand up, you never quite get your grit back. It’s like having a vice around your head that tightens every work day and occasionally but infrequently loosens on weekends. It’s like going to a job interview in cargo shorts and a band t-shirt. It’s like selling VCRs out of a van – it feels shameful, criminal, and predominantly futile. Nobody wants a VCR in 2015, and no amount of self-determination will change that.
Writing to the pre-determined trajectory of the news cycle is the temptation and the rewards are great. But you wind up getting thrown blindfolded into a pool of data where all prioritization is arbitrary and all sense of self must be forsaken to an imaginary, constantly fluctuating audience. You become subservient to day-to-day ephemera, trivial information inflated into a narrative through sheer rhetorical will, and gossip masquerading as political or cultural analysis.
Engaging in this, of course, is how Screwtape advises Wormwood to send his patient to hell, but what else is wrong with it? At least you feel relevant and modern. You feel like you can talk to anybody about anything and have good cause to do it. Besides, you can get famous and never write a single thing with a shelf life greater than one morning.
The problem isn’t new, but the internet has heightened it to the point of destruction. Articles don’t sell to the old reliable lowest-common denominator anymore. They sell according to split-second virality and have a potential audience of the whole planet, you and me included. This is not a matter of craftsmanship, even evil craftsmanship, but of algorithms, manipulating pre-existing publicity mechanisms like Facebook, and the science of traffic analysis. And you have instant numerical quantification of your success. You can figure out exactly what sells and the time of day to sell it.
Such writing must be loud, and it must be of the split second. Every daily failing of every single person is fodder for those articles. That writing has to be a blood sport. You’re a boxer. Your diamond ring-bedecked boxing promoter is Facebook shares. He tells you what virality demands. “Get out there, kid, this is New York and they came to see blood. The mob wants a murder,” he tells you, puffing a cigar to a 4/4 beat.
It’s my opinion beating up your opinion. Making my opinion tougher, louder, flashier. It’s performance.
And if it’s not that, it’s the content farm. The fear is that if you’re not out there with your blood sport, you should be posting videos of, you know, wow, that monkey’s really helping that squirrel. That monkey is being pretty nice to that squirrel. Pretty damn nice monkey.
Then denial of self creeps in. Nobody cares about your normal opinion. Nobody cares. Not one person. They only care about your performance. They only care how far an attack strategy can get you. The new public dialogue is run by Ric Flair if he knew what game theory was, but it’s not nearly as fun as that sounds. All the new method does is destroy trust. You can’t tell what’s earnest, because it’s never you, it’s performance. Is that a real opinion or a gussied up fake one that gets 5,000 engagements in an hour?
This culture encourages needlessly aggressive pieces. It creates scandals where they don’t exist. It can make villains out of people who are dully mediocre or harmless. Then traffic goes up, then money goes up.
I’ve tried to engage and found myself unable because I just don’t have the energy or philosophy to do it. If I wrote to the specification of this culture, my whole life would be a process of working up the energy to be outraged, then crashing down. If I wanted to do that, I’d just take uppers and downers and tour honky tonks 50 years ago. I see no merit in doing it now. Human nature is unchanging. Our weaknesses are constants, and our new scandals are repackaged old scandals. Follow any beat long enough and you’ll realize you’ve done nothing but repeat yourself, and your soul has not grown.
Getting caught up in the coked-up propulsion of New York, or the foibles of the rich and powerful , is a losing proposition. It gets you high for about a day, you feel like you have a stake in power even though that’s an illusion, you feel a part of an exciting modern movement, and then you have to replenish your ammo in two, three days. You have to constantly move. You have to find the next target for your narrative. The supply is inexhaustible and the lesson is always the same: that movement is imaginary. You forget all about it when you sit down and turn off the noise.
The theater of urban power brokers is hackwork. Sure, they’re corrupt. Sure, they’re statistical outliers and therefore novel. But that’s too easy. It’s too easy to think exclusively about novel people. It’s too clean a victory. It’s robbing a liquor store with a shotgun when a laser pointer in a jacket pocket would suffice. Self-righteousness in the face of powerful people is a foolproof position to assume and it makes you look good, but it’s an affected antagonism.
Writing culture has devolved into Yankee Stadium in 1936, but nobody’s a spectator. Everyone can get a crack at headlining a fight if they announce themselves loudly enough. It’s not intellectually solid, it’s not philosophically stable, and the joy of clean hard thinking is too quiet to be noticed. We need to start over. The social media metrics need to be destroyed. Virality is a rigged game. It’s determined by algorithms and timing and written in key words. It burdens everybody. It turns the whole business of reading and writing into a struggle not to throw your computer in a river and walk away forever. And I’m only here because I haven’t found the right river yet.