🟥 "Time spent on app" is not a metric of success
What screenlife and "time spent on app" is doing to our brains. Also: Vampire capitalists, St. Patrick's Day in New England, suspense vs. surprise, and more.
When were you buried alive? There is a screen in your pocket, on your desk, and on the dashboard of your car. There are televisions in your living room and bedroom. There’s a screen in your elevator, in the backseat of your taxi, atop your exercise bike, and in the corner of every restaurant. You are screened in.
You used to talk to the bartender, but now you watch the World's Ultimate Strongman Competition on ESPN3 because it, or something like it, is inescapable. The purpose of these omnipresent screens is to indicate something is happening somewhere. The constant motion means you don’t have to face the notion of stillness. Why be here now when you can be there whenever? Here is so ordinary, elsewhere is inherently exotic.
We are the first people able to constantly stitch a new reality onto our actual lives. And that leads to an intolerable friction: Our lived realities are no match for the ones on our screens. Raw footage can’t match the sizzle reel. Truth is no match for artifice. Just look at amateur/pro wrestling: Reality is for amateurs, lying is for the professionals. As a culture, we want kayfabe. Being authentic is for suckers nowadays.
The line between us and our avatars is getting blurry. We botox our eyes until we can’t look surprised and autotune our singers until they’re devoid of soul. Used to be we just put our photos through filters; now, we put our entire lives through them. We Clarendon our bank accounts, Juno our vacations, Nashville our nights out, Ludwig our Hinge profiles, and Mayfair our resumés. It’s only catfishing if you get caught.
“That’s Photoshopped,” we used to say. But we don’t even use Photoshop anymore. Like all software, it’s been replaced by a slew of free online versions which eventually ask us to subscribe for a monthly fee because predatory capitalism requires a vampiric business model in which fresh blood must be relinquished on a consistent basis in order to sustain the insatiable veins of shareholders who sing the same refrain: “Grow.”
It’s no wonder these VCs (vampire capitalists) are so obsessed with living forever:
The Metaverse is “coming soon,” which is a hilarious thing to say about something that’s already here. Our entire lives have already become a video game. But there is no final level, grand prize, or princess to rescue. We’re not playing the game, the game is playing us. Our minds are the prize.
Each second they get us from us is money in their coffers. So they frack our brain stems, squeezing out every last drop of attention and serotonin we have to give. And then they turn around and target us with ads for apps to improve our faded mental health which is deteriorating precisely because we are addicted to their products. The arsonist is in our feeds trying to sell us a hose.
And then there are the neverending lies. All. Day. Long. That quote is out of context. That’s not his real height. Those followers are bots. She’s not really your friend. Those motivational quotes are posted by someone on antidepressants. That entrepreneur is unemployed. Binge viewing is not self-care. They’re not really laughing out loud. Those YouTube views are bought. Those "thoughts and prayers" are coming from someone who never prays (or thinks). Your feedback isn't really appreciated.
Our response: “Yeah, that’s just what goes on here.” Because lying is what we do online, right from the jump. The one question everyone answers before they can even go online: “Did you read the Terms and Conditions?” Of course, the answer is no, because no one has read them. The real subtext of that question: How do you feel about lying? And you want in so you play along: “I’m okay with lies. In fact, I’ll prove it: I’m lying to you right now.” And that’s when the Internet lets you in: “Well done. Welcome to The Land of Lies!”
Then, we put our faces in front of this firehose of falsehoods until the ordinary becomes mundane. We keep pushing the line a little further just to feel something. To hold our attention, we need UFO vids, pee tapes, body cams, teens with rifles, sex trafficking conspiracies, and border guards with whips. It doesn’t matter if it’s real as long as it makes us feel. News outlets used to make eye contact, now it’s all choking and spitting. In a world of extremes, the worst thing you can be is mainstream. No one clicks on normal.
As with any drug, the power of each hit diminishes over time. That’s when the algorithm starts pimping you out to the highest bidder until you wind up in a YouTube rabbit hole, Reddit thread, or Discord server with the harder stuff. Eventually, you drift further and further out to sea, away from the landmass of actuality and into a dark ocean of fantastical lies.
We blame the algorithm, as if it just descended from the heavens, instead of being intentionally and meticulously concocted by tech company execs. The algorithm is their shield, the same way NFL owners use Roger Goodell to absorb the criticism they deserve. Is it even the fault of these tech execs though? They’re just running the grow-at-all-costs code our culture tells them to run.
Think about the metrics of success these platforms use. Number of comments left. Did whatever you post lead people to fight with each other? Huzzah! That’s great. Time spent on app. Did it keep you hanging on? Mission accomplished. They’d hook you up to an IV drip of content if they could.
The incentives for creators are increasingly perverse; quality is slowly losing out to engagement time. “Kill your darlings” is passé. Why would an artist edit and refine when they can increase engagement time by adding more b-sides, demo versions, and whatever “live from Oakland ‘93” version they can scrape from the bottom of the vaults. Shelf space is unlimited so why not drown us?
We’re too sedated to revolt so we pretend it’s all fine. It’s not a pyramid scheme, it’s a referral program. “Congrats on your work anniversary!” the robot suggests as a message to someone we haven’t talked to in three years. Everything is plant-based, VR goggles are exciting, and the guy who made Ethereum hates the people who love Ethereum. Why not? Web3! Ape cartoons are art. B2B is more profitable than B2C, according to people who use 2C-B. We are true crime, we are community, we are consciousness hacking, we are life coaches, we are frictionless flywheels. (I don’t even know what a flywheel is, I just know that I’m supposed to know.) Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to build brand awareness. Let me show you my deck.
What’s the end game? I keep thinking about this bit from a profile of Agnieszka Pilat, the Silicon Valley elite’s favorite artist. “[Pilat] thinks the Matrix is already coming true in the form of the metaverse. The masses will increasingly, and voluntarily, plug in. The waking world, real-life experiences, will be for only the one percent.”
Scary yet makes sense. Like everything else in our society, there will be two classes. IRL will become OTM (Outside The Metaverse) – and it will only be available to those wealthy enough to afford it. The new luxe spots will be places that take your phone away from you. Everyone else will sink deeper into the online pit.
Joshua Brown, a financial advisor, recently wrote about how smoothly his life is rolling along. He explains that avoiding this online circus is key:
I don’t do internet stuff. Not a part of anyone’s fake community. You will never see me in someone’s mentions anywhere on the internet unless I’m saying “happy birthday!” or “congrats!” I don’t have a bad word to say to anyone. I don’t want to “join the conversation” or “be heard in the debate” or any of that bullshit. No virtue signaling, no piling on, no co-signs, no group DMs, no clout chasing, no influencing, no being influenced, no pseudonymous burner accounts, no online persona. I’m busy.
In my own life, I’ve noticed the direct correlation between transcendent experience and forgetting about my phone. At a silent meditation retreat, the first thing they do is confiscate your phone. Enlightenment does not come via the App Store.
At dinner with an old friend, I don’t refresh a thing. It’s actual conversation, not faux community.
At a standup comedy show, I seal my phone in a pouch. Then a roomful of people laughs at all the things that social media tells us isn’t funny.
My phone stays on the beach while I swim in the ocean. The waves crash like 0’s and 1’s, except each one is slightly different. I can stare at them for hours.
And perhaps that’s the real metric of success for your soul: How long has it been since you last looked at a screen?
The Rubesletter • by Matt Ruby (Vooza) is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
🟥 Has anyone tried calling Putin a “short king” yet?
🟥 My favorite thing about the increasing popularity of Mediterranean food is watching people in the Midwest try to pronounce tabouleh and babaghanough.
🟥 “Trust the science” is like saying have faith in atheism.
🟥 In 1942, 8 hours of sleep was the norm. Today, people get an average of 6.8. Theory: The huge increase in mental health issues is the result of a culture suffering from mass sleep deprivation.
🟥 We went from a world where everything is binary to one where everything is fluid and the reality is somewhere in between those two extremes which I guess just proves that actually everything really is fluid.
🟥 Every comedian headshot is them 10 years ago. Every band headshot is them with the former bass player.
🟥 Remember those two years where rich people in LA were eating sushi off of women's bodies at dinner parties? Like what the hell was that? Seems like it shoulda been a whole slew of health code violations.
🟥 No one wants you to know they are hard more than white guys who wear knit caps and blare gangsta rap while working as a barista in a Brooklyn coffeeshop.
🟥 It’s tough to believe the economy is doing that bad when at the same time we’re undergoing “the great resignation.” I doubt tons of people were quitting their jobs in the middle of the Great Depression, y’know?
🟥 “Decentralized is the future!” Um, you know what’s really decentralized? Chaos.
🟥 Carlin was Bob Dylan and Pryor was Marvin Gaye.
🟥 A lot of incompetent people think they have Imposter Syndrome. We need to acknowledge the existence of You've Judged Your Mediocrity Properly Syndrome.
Tuesdays NYC | Hot Soup @ Comedy Cellar
Wednesdays NYC | Good Eggs @ NY Comedy Club
3/25 New Brunswick, NJ | Stress Factory (w/ Alingon Mitra)
3/26 New Brunswick, NJ | Stress Factory (w/ Alingon Mitra)
3/29 Cary, NC | The Matthews House
3/30 Durham, NC | The Fruit
3/31 Raleigh, NC | Clouds Brewing Taproom
4/1 Asheville, NC | Getaway River Bar
4/8 Bristol, TN | Blue Ridge Comedy
4/9 Bristol, TN | Blue Ridge Comedy
Hitchcock long ago explained the difference between surprise and suspense. A bomb under a table goes off, and that's surprise. We know the bomb is under the table but not when it will go off, and that's suspense. Modern slasher films depend on danger that leaps unexpectedly out of the shadows. Surprise. And surprise that quickly dissipates, giving us a momentary rush but not satisfaction. "Rear Window" lovingly invests in suspense all through the film, banking it in our memory, so that when the final payoff arrives, the whole film has been the thriller equivalent of foreplay.
2) Will You Ever Change? Good examination of restorative justice in the light of #MeToo. Asks if face-to-face meetings between a victim and an abuser help a society overwhelmed with bad behavior.
After an hour, Cheryl was ready to ask Troy the question she had turned over in her head for years: “When you were fighting with your ex, when you were hurting her, what were you thinking about her?” The question threaded through each of her relationships, all the way back to her father. When she asked it, Cheryl remembers that Troy looked right at her and said, “I wasn’t thinking about her at all. I was just thinking about how angry I was.”
Related Rubesletter: The age of the unforgiven.
3) Great questions. Storycorps’ suggestions for getting a good conversation going.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person or those people teach you?
Are there any funny stories your family tells about you that come to mind?
If you could hold on to memories from your life forever, which would they be?
If you could talk to a younger version of yourself, what would you say?
4) The DSM just labelled “prolonged grief” a mental health disorder. A while back, Allen Frances railed against this notion in ”Good Grief.”
This would be a wholesale medicalization of normal emotion, and it would result in the overdiagnosis and overtreatment of people who would do just fine if left alone to grieve with family and friends, as people always have. It is also a safe bet that the drug companies would quickly and greedily pounce on the opportunity to mount a marketing blitz targeted to the bereaved and a campaign to “teach” physicians how to treat mourning with a magic pill…
Turning bereavement into major depression would substitute a shallow, Johnny-come-lately medical ritual for the sacred mourning rites that have survived for millenniums. To slap on a diagnosis and prescribe a pill would be to reduce the dignity of the life lost and the broken heart left behind.
5) Will and Ariel Durant, in The Lessons of History, on how conservatives and radicals complete each other.
The conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it — perhaps as much more valuable as roots are more vital than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection and opposition; this is the trial heat which innovation must survive before being allowed to enter the human race.
Solid disclaimer at the start of the lessons too: "Only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed."
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