Written Just for You
Here is a list of several real Washington Post headlines from the past year: “An Indiana parade featured a ‘disgusting’ float showing Donald Trump executing Hillary Clinton,” “Mother accused of throwing ‘naked Twister’ party for teenage daughter,” and finally, the baffling “Chinese teen starves mother to death in fury at brutal internet addiction boot camp.” Compiling this list was shamefully easy, as I send Dylan screenshots of all ridiculous Post headlines so we might further sharpen our sensationalist iMessages (Dylan: “Family shocked, disturbed I eat merely eggs and high-calorie breath mints”), to bemoan that the Washington Post considers these word salads appropriate headlines, and to rebel against whatever Facebook algorithm has decided to force feed me this content.
Before 2010 I would have never assumed personal responsibility for the online content I saw, but last week, phone in hand, I spoke with a friend about her favorite shoes and the next day platform Tevas were in every online ad I encountered. (I am not the History Channel Aliens Guy of Facebook; this is a thing). Surmising Facebook thinks I’m a liberal, cyber-addicted, female Twister enthusiast is fair. I don’t need to describe how accustomed we’ve grown to different platforms adapting to our perceived interests; at some point recently most of us have probably been frustrated our phones don’t know the word EGOT is not a misspelling of EGO because maybe we were having a conversation about things Whoopi Goldberg does and doesn’t have?? (Has: EGOT; Doesn’t Have: Eyebrows) And WYD is an abbreviation for “what are you doing?” not the Anglo-Saxon concept of Wyrd, though, touché iPhone.
This entitlement to feel understood by the technology suffusing life is more harmful than just your Netflix suggestions affirming your decision to watch full seasons of Underground Barbecue Challenge. Personalized online experiences are convenient for marketing purposes, but they also power an isolating narcissistic trend. The first Washington Post headline I listed is less absurd than the others, but also more dangerous. [Depending on your search history] online lamentations of American political polarization are near-ubiquitous. I’m not the first to note that the personal newsfeed aggravates this polarization. Seeing headlines already attractive to you entrenches you further in your own beliefs, including your belief that your beliefs are the right ones.
Combatting the passive and atomized way we consume information every day with active cultural participation seems an appropriate antidote for our increasing collective solipsism. In other words, reading books can help us remember that other people are people. Some experience feelings of inadequacy and helplessness when engaging with visual art, but even if you don’t know what the hell this is, you can’t stare at it without knowing its creator has a different, more terror-filled reality than you.
A more objective terror-filled reality: below is a chart documenting the number of books Americans read in 2014, 1990, and 1978. I stole this from an Atlantic article celebrating the end of a dip in the younger demographic segment’s reading rates (not that they’re rising), which is kind of like telling someone who’s just had a leg amputated that you’re glad they didn’t also have their other leg amputated. The National Endowment for the Arts reported that in 2012 only 33.4% of adults in the United States attended one or more opera, jazz performance, classical music performance, ballet, musical, play, art museum or art gallery, so visual and performed art engagement is pretty much a wash too.
Moving on from books and museums—like apparently everyone else has—one can say the movies Hollywood funds today are quality, but one would be wrong. Not only have movie attendances been falling for a while, but to turn a profit studios have been churning out proven-to-sell-tickets gritty-comic-book-reboot-biopic-James Franco-romcoms, making the film industry a large-scale imitation of the personal suggestion algorithms streaming services use. Instead of pandering to my concerning habit of always being *somewhere* in the middle of the Eagles documentary, Hollywood is pandering to popular demand for mindless blockbusters. As someone who knows every line to the 90s classic But, I’m A Cheerleader! (honestly this movie has great themes and I’m abusing its title to cover my ass), I understand the merits of mindlessness, but in the context of appreciating the experiences of others, watching different iterations of something you’ve seen umpteen times is unhelpful.
Music streaming services, though they certainly make connecting with music easier and cheaper, contribute to the fracturing of America’s listening habits and encourage us to stay in whatever sub-alt-genre our favorite bands occupy. Meanwhile, the concert has transformed into the festival, which affords the live-action customization of what is intended to be a communal experience. Don’t want to see Grimes? Don’t worry, there are three other bands playing! Only like two Cage the Elephant songs? Just roll up from Chance the Rapper right before the end; they’ll probably save the hits for last.
The antitheses to these patterns are absurd. I’m not suggesting mandatory museum visitation hours, and I don’t think you should see Grimes if you don’t want to, although she is a magic sprite-woman, so, your loss. You can try turning off autocorrect but I can’t, because people can barely respond to my texts as is:
I only emphasize that how we interact with each other on small scales, either through normal human communication or through the cultural artifacts we contribute to the world, informs the way we interact with each other on big scales.
The bigger scales also have higher stakes. The hyper individualism I’ve been describing has been influencing global political trends in dangerous ways too. Intense nationalism — narcissism on a national scale — is a hallmark of fascism. I’m not going to waste space telling you whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist. (Here are people 1,028,470,293 times more qualified than I discussing just that!) At the very least, his constant xenophobic rhetoric, insistence on excusing himself from paying Federal taxes, and inability to acknowledge climate change (plus this garbage which conveniently surfaced a few days ago) make him inconsiderate of others on a mass scale. Western Europe’s handling of the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as the implications of the Brexit vote, and the disturbing increase in popularity of far-right populist groups across the continent indicate that apparently everyone has decided that going it alone is better than participating. Though of course these are massively complex issues, the solutions global leaders have found follow a pretty clear trend of isolationism. Self-interest has won.
I’m not suggesting we throw books, paintings, and Radiohead records on crowds at Donald Trump rallies. That would be expensive, and exposing a lot of older white people to Kid A will only reinforce their all-encompassing fear about the state of the world. In an effort to assuage my all-encompassing fear about the state of the world, or at least transfer some of it, I offer that the way you see things will always be at least partially deficient, but will become less deficient every time you try to understand another person. The mechanisms governing how we exist in a virtual space are making this more difficult by the day.
Honestly, after skimming it I’m only 37% sure the Twister article isn’t just a cleverly-branded Hasbro ad.