After six years of construction, New York City’s latest mega-real estate venture, Hudson Yards, finally opened in March. Reviewing the site, New York Magazine’s Justin Davidson summarized Hudson Yards as a “para-Manhattan, raised on a platform and tethered to the real thing by one subway line, has no history, no holdover greasy spoons, no pockets of blight or resident eccentricities — no memories at all.”

Hamilton Nolan, writing for the Guardian, went a step further. “Hudson Yards is urban glamping,” he wrote. He went on:

It is always a little sad to see what the people rich enough to have everything actually want. They do not want to participate in the world at all; they want to build their own simulacrum of it and float away forever, secure in the knowledge that none of the lesser people or things that populate the earth will ever be allowed to intrude. This is the promise of Hudson Yards — the same promise of the Titanic.

There is indeed a sinking feeling in the subtext of society since the Great Recession — a sense that not just extreme real estate ventures but pretty much everything is designed to give the wealthiest the opportunity for a clean getaway while the rest of us disappear slowly, without notice, beneath the waves. It’s a pervasive feeling of unpreparedness for the surprises that keep popping up out of nowhere, relentlessly, like a never-ending line of icebergs in the dark. As Alex Pareene tweeted: “the new thing is things just happen and we never know why.”

Power struggles have defined history, and our era is no different. Similarly, wealth is still a way to shortcut the system or to tilt it in your favor. What’s different now is the system itself. More specifically, what’s different is how the majority of people see it through the filter of what has become the bedrock of social life, self-expression, business, and democracy: our platforms and the algorithms that run them.


In March, Tim Wu noted in the New York Times that polarization — the political bugbear of our times — is perhaps not as prevalent as we might think. Instead, Wu argued, the defining element of the current American political landscape might actually be the opposite: by and large on important issues, people tend to agree, not disagree.

For example, Wu wrote, “about 75% of Americans favor higher taxes for the ultrawealthy,” (some of those who might soon live in Hudson Yards, for example) and 67% of Americans support guaranteed paid maternity leave. “Seventy-one percent think we should be able to buy drugs imported from Canada,” Wu wrote, “and 92% want Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices.” Extended maternity leave, access to prescription drugs, good health care: each one something that, currently in America, only a lot of money can buy.

“Call it the oppression of the supermajority,” Wu summarized. “Ignoring what most of the country wants — as much as demagogy and political divisiveness — is what is making the public so angry.” But that anger, justified as it might be, is rarely directed down avenues that will lead to policy change because, more often than not, it’s directed online, where it is immediately splintered by the prisms of the platforms and splashed on myriad issues that serve only as enticing distractions.

Recently, the most enticing of those distractions has been Donald Trump, the key driver of discourse and discord since his election. His ability to not only set in motion a debate, but the terms of that debate, is unrivaled. This is so widely accepted that an official in his own interior department reportedly praised his “knack for keeping the attention of the media and the public focused somewhere else” while his government enacts his agenda. This agenda includes, as that same official revealed, opening more federally controlled coastal waters for oil and gas leasing, a policy Trump has never mentioned in any of his prolific, debate-setting tweets and that few people (certainly not the supermajority) expected.

Things we want to happen don’t happen, and instead, things we never expected to happen keep happening. Part of the explanation for why people don’t get what they seem to want lies in historical elements of politics and culture, including gerrymandering, political financing, partisan media, the Electoral College, and plain old racism. What’s new is how technology exacerbates the impact of each of these. Despite all the promise of a democratized technological society built on platforms meant to put us all on an equal level, inequalities of wealth and access are getting worse. More importantly, the platforms have narrowed our scope when we look for ways to take back control.


Despite new and potentially empowering platforms that allow us all a voice and an audience, why does it feel as though we are constantly struggling to control our own fate? The simplest answer is that power and politics (what has historically been the human expression of agency) have, as theorist Zygmunt Bauman speculated, split apart. Power, he wrote, “now rests in global and extraterritorial space” — that is, not just in the transnational banking sphere or even in something like the European Union, but even further beyond that, even more untouchable: in the algorithms that operate just beyond our screens.

So why, if power resides with the algorithms, do we feel so powerless when we express agency on the platforms powered by them?

Algorithms don’t actively force choice any more than they set a schedule for our day-to-day lives. What gives algorithms real power beyond that of suggestion (accounts to follow, news to read, etc.) is that they make the outcomes of our behavior unpredictable — most of us cannot get outcomes to match our desires. They create uncertainty of consequence and breed confusion and dependency; confusion because we can’t understand the world they show us and dependency on those same systems to explain the inexplicable. The platforms are where power lives, but it is not transferred directly to users in the way we might imagine. Instead, the relationship is more exploitative, drawing each of us in with the promise of amplifying our individual voices, and occasionally delivering on that, but less frequently motivating broad societal, or collective, change.

And while it’s still possible to take collective action in this environment, those actions often reflect the algorithms themselves, binary and dismissive.

In February, Matt Williams took to Twitter with screenshots of a 1971 interview actor John Wayne gave to Playboy magazine. “Jesus fuck, John Wayne was a straight up piece of shit,” Williams typed in a tweet that has amassed tens of thousands of retweets. In the interview, Wayne said, “I believe in white supremacy,” among other racist things. It wasn’t the first time in recent memory the interview caused public outcry. In 2016, lawmakers in California scrapped a proposal to name May 26 as John Wayne Day, partly because of Wayne’s comments to Playboy. But when the interview surfaced this time, it wasn’t just a commemorative day that was canceled — John Wayne was.

It was perhaps the zenith of “cancel culture” — the reactionary and frequently revisionist mass dismissal of people who don’t adhere to a strict code of modern acceptability online. In this case, Wayne, though dead for 40 years, was canceled. He joined a long line of people and things that have in the last year been canceled, including Kanye West, Bill Gates, Cardi B, and the year 2018. “Canceling” someone, or something, has reached meme status and a point of near-satirical overuse, but, as Meredith Clark, a professor at the University of Virginia’s department of media studies, told the New York Times last summer, “it’s ultimately an expression of agency.”

Is it? And, if so, what kind of agency is this? Social platforms can and do offer a venue for people who have never been heard to speak to a large audience and create a movement for positive change — the most recent and best case being #MeToo — but they remain a venue of final recourse. Generally, people take to social media after change via traditional structures or systems, like politics, has proved impossible. Cancel culture is the logical end point of that. Canceling anything is a last resort, a throwing up of the hands and walking away and, importantly, an acknowledgement that you cannot change things for the better. It is a mark of helplessness.

What that agency really amounts to is obvious when considering the medium. Cancel culture takes place on platforms built on the same algorithms that obscure the consequences of our personal actions and are designed to create an illogical stream of information that holds our attention by keeping us confused and angry. If this is the only vehicle left through which the majority can affect change, if this is the only avenue of power left to most of us, then it’s no surprise that inequality of influence remains so stark, and the broad change most of us hope to see isn’t happening.


How did we get to the point where, despite all the new tools at our disposal, we’re constantly surprised and unprepared for what’s coming next — where, despite broad agreement on key issues, we feel so… helpless?

Part of the answer seems to rest with the tools we’ve adopted, the ones we were so convinced would usher in new power structures, rather than solidify old ones. Because, it turns out, the techno-society we’ve created and continue to build is one in which our actions are immediately taken from us and used by the tools necessary to live a normal life — the computers and platforms that surround us and the algorithms on which they operate. What we’ve adopted along with them is a logic that dictates that our behavior doesn’t solely belong to us; instead, all the things we do — the conversations we have, the photos we take, the stuff we buy, the books we read, the emotions we convey, even the things we think about and seek information about — are immediately subject to analysis and interpretation and used in ways we can’t fully understand.

“Even when knowledge derived from our behavior is fed back to us as a quid pro quo for participation, as in the case of so-called ‘personalization,’ parallel secret operations pursue the conversion of surplus into sales that point far beyond our interests,” Shoshana Zuboff writes in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. What we gain in this system is consumer satisfaction and user experience. What we lose is power. “We have no formal control because we are not essential to this market action,” Zuboff continues. “In this future, we are exiles from our own behavior, denied access to control over knowledge derived from its dispossession by others for others.”

What is taken from us is, in effect, our agency, because though we are participants in this system, unlike one where power is (theoretically) expressed through majority choice via a political process, we’re not necessarily in a position to influence it. There are exceptions to this rule, but generally speaking, the more we rely on these channels for change, the less we may see that change occur. Meanwhile, those who have long held influence over the levers of power — which, in the past, have been occasionally tempered by the force of majority political action — continue to assert dominance and make decisions, to the constant surprise and increasing annoyance of those whose power is tied ever more economically, democratically, and personally to the platforms.

And so, we look around as things just happen — and we feel helpless.


Back at Hudson Yards, New Yorkers and tourists are now able to explore the mammoth Vessel, a 16-story, $150 million inverted cone of 154 flights of stairs twisting up around its interior.

Within days of its unveiling, Hudson Yards was already tweaking the terms and conditions visitors agree to in visiting the Vessel, clarifying ownership of photos and videos taken at the site. Initially, Hudson Yards sought to claim, as the Times summarized, “the right to use any picture taken in the vicinity of the art installation for commercial purposes, with no royalty fees and no restrictions, forever” — terms that would unilaterally and immediately claim everyone’s personal content for the benefit of a major corporation, most likely without their knowledge. A bit like White Star owning the rights to everyone’s story of drowning on the Titanic.

After a Gothamist article sparked backlash over the language, Hudson Yards updated the terms. Now, Hudson Yards will only claim the right to redistribute photos and videos once people have shared them publicly. It’s the kind of triumph one might point to as proof of the power social media can give people. Yet, the victory is perfectly apt for the age of helplessness: winning back agency only so far as earning the right to share, on a platform of confusion and dispossession, photos of our attempts to navigate purposefully discombobulating stairs to nowhere.