Hello from the midst of another round of COVID chaos. All plans are canceled. All that’s left to talk about is what you’re watching on TV. (We’re doing the eight-hour Beatles documentary, it’s like if Terrace House were about famous musicians. For my other recs see this Dirt post.) The year is ending — or is it? — so I thought I’d write a little progress report.
First, my year in writing, with most of the entries coming from my c. 2021 column on digital culture for The New Yorker, then, an update on my second book!
10 Pieces I Wrote in 2021
How Nothingness Became Everything We Wanted (NYT Magazine): An essay on quarantine and numbness in culture: TV, books, music, graffiti.
The Meme Economy (newsletter): On the absurdity of Gamestop and cryptocurrencies, when a meme can make you richer than a job.
The Digital Death of Collecting (newsletter): On how digital platforms mediate our access to culture, like Spotify changing its interface.
TikTok and the Vibes Revival (New Yorker): Vibes are momentary collisions of sound, sight, and emotion, and TikTok captures them perfectly.
How Beeple Crashed the Art World (New Yorker): On the king of NFTs and the moment Christie’s sold his work for $69 million.
Why Bored Ape Avatars Are Taking Over Twitter (New Yorker): On Bored Ape Yacht Club and the mania for avatar NFTs that hasn’t abated.
The Poetic Misunderstandings of AI Art (New Yorker): On machine-learning systems that generate imagery — the aesthetics of AI.
Facebook Wants Us to Live in the Metaverse (New Yorker): In 2021, Facebook began rushing toward virtual reality. I wrote about why its vision is bad.
Raya and the Promise of Private Social Media (New Yorker): A secretive dating app points toward a safer way of connecting online.
The First Wave of Digital Nostalgia (New Yorker): Pixel art is getting more popular and Pokemon comes back forever — the late ‘90s are back.
Right now, I’m working on a chapter of my upcoming book, Filterworld, which is planned to come out from Doubleday in fall 2023. It’s a book about how algorithmic feeds like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok have taken over our culture and flattened it, turning users into passive consumers and pushing artists toward predetermined, homogenizing molds. It’s a cliche to say that every book must be written differently; writing in general is a maze that changes every time you walk into it. But I’ve had to come up with a different way of working and a different voice for Filterworld than my first book, The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism.
The two books are trying to accomplish different things. TLFL, as I think my agent Caroline was the first to abbreviate it (like FLCL lol), was part of a genre of essay-writing that evokes more than explains. The writing is driven by sketching out images and stories that have some beautiful quality to them, that hint at the essence of some idea. In that case it was encounters with works of art, artists’ lives, and philosophies that demonstrated the deeper meaning of minimalism. There’s a challenge to the reader to enter my personal headspace and see those things through my eyes, as I describe what I see in them. Filterworld, in contrast, is about breaking down a collective experience: the way our cultural consumption is mediated by feeds of automated recommendations. The book is my way of understanding what the consequences of that shift are and how it shapes culture for everyone.
Maybe the subject is bottom-up rather than top-down. Readers will bring more of their personal experiences and encounters, anecdotes from their own lives, to the material. It encompasses moments like Facebook accelerating misinformation, Instagram failing to show you a particular friend’s account, or Spotify getting your taste all wrong. I’m trying to provide more of an explanation, a framework that can make sense of the state of culture in the 21st century. In the writing itself, that seems to require a slower speed and a structure that’s less associative than constructive: each section, each chapter builds on the last. In some ways, TLFL fought conclusions, because it was working to widen the definition of minimalism. Filterworld might lead toward a single fundamental conclusion or realization.
Lately, I’ve been more attracted to simple sentences, with words that are like bricks in a wall. The content is what matters most — that the idea can reach the reader, or that the reader and I can mutually construct a meaning. The sentences are like lines in a mathematical proof. Through the writing, I am constantly asking myself, and asking the reader, can we agree on this? If so, let’s proceed. Like an algorithm, A+B+C = D. There’s an elegance to the simplicity and clarity (minimalism again, I can’t escape it). Another way of putting this: Essays don’t always have to be ambiguously poetic.
I’ve also found that the field of digital technology is, even given the internet’s utter flood of publishing, underwritten. What some of my favorite nonfiction does is describe the particular feeling of some experience in a given moment, at a particular time in history. The value in that literary accomplishment is that human experience moves on so quickly; it’s only in writing that we can feel what it was like before something became mundane. Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 essay “In Praise of Shadows” captures a time before electric lights arrived in Japan. Walter Benjamin’s 1935 “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” documents the shift from images being scarce in visual art to infinite with the advent of photography. Even Proust discussed how telephones were normalized in the early 20th century. In In Search of Lost Time, he describes the telephone as “a supernatural instrument before whose miracles we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or to order an ice cream.”
My unreasonable ambition is to do something similar for the 2010s, the decade in which algorithmic recommendations and automated, personalized content feeds went from niche technology to nigh-universal experience. While I can’t predict the future (and have no desire to), if these feeds become as prevalent in our lives as websites or smartphones, it will be useful to capture the moment of that transition, with the evidence that it didn’t always work this way — a reminder to readers both today and many years from now.
PS: You can’t pre-order the book or anything yet. If you’re interested, the best thing to do is just keep opening these email newsletters for updates (and tell your friends to sign up). Next up, maybe I’ll write about what the word “Filterworld” means.