Are we ready to see memes of our death? | Technology
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“I’m not ready to start watching content on how to survive a nuclear attack.” Neither do I.
The phrase is from Ryan Broderick, co-host of a podcast called The Content Mines. The key word in that sentence is precisely “content”. “Content” is not just information, documentaries, videos, posts. It is everything that is produced on the internet to be consumed: from a tweet to a three-hour YouTube video, through a photo on Tumblr or a Tiktok. Everything is content.
In the title I put “memes” because “content” is too broad. But actually I mean “content”. With the invasion of Ukraine, the remote specter of the use of nuclear weapons smaller and directed than Hiroshima has become plausible. That terrible window of opportunity has spawned content on how to survive a nuclear attack. The goal of the content is obviously to get your attention.
I don’t see myself after two years of the pandemic (I myself wrote in March 2020 about the “preppers” who stored food at home, typically catastrophic content) making mental calculations about where I should take my children if a nuclear bomb flies over the Pyrenees . Perhaps I am late: I have heard a case of a family that has taken out a passport for their small children in case they should flee.
But I’m talking about the internet here. The theme of this newsletter today is how the content about my death is going to sneak into my attention, even if I resist. And how that is a novelty of our era and we don’t know its implications or even if it will have. It is simply one more feature of the internet.
The episode where Broderick says that phrase is about something they call “structural dissonance.” Two journalists have invented it, it has nothing serious, but it describes an obvious phenomenon. This is how Broderick describes it in a nice elaborate phrase: “It’s the inherent strangeness of seeing the seams of real life through the trivializing structure of the internet.” On Twitter it has the more common name of “context demolition” (context collapse):
Experiencing such bizarre context collapse on this site. War war war war wordle DISCOURSE war war war wordle war war war war war war DISCOURSE war war war war war war war
— Hanna Kozlowska (is in Poland) (@hannakozlowska) March 12, 2022
On the internet everything is in boxes or indistinct presentations. On the same platform that I use to discuss with my partner (WhatsApp), I see memes of Barça Madrid, the Washington Post he uses it to manage his team of reporters in the Ukraine and soldiers are likely to make life and death decisions in it, all under the same format.
Myself when I use WhatsApp and see my chats one right on top of the other and that I manage within seconds of each other, I think what slightly toxic human drama they would cause if they saw each other. Or if someone could stick their virtual head out and see what the neighbor chat is saying.
In networks, while I look at opinions of mommy or elXokas I see refugees, sanctions and rubles for gas. Everything has the same background, the same aspiration and is designed to bristle my curiosity or emotion. Everything is an accumulation, nothing is compartmentalized.
On The Content Mines They defend that this has not happened the same in other times. For example, with the famine in Ethiopia in the eighties. That was confined to the newscasts, to the newspapers and there it stayed when they finished and you turned off the TV. One went on with his life. We can imagine what would happen today in networks. Again, I don’t know the consequences or implications of this change.
In 2019, the American science fiction writer William Gibson explained how he had lived through 9/11 from Vancouver (Canada): “I was in my office in the basement, on a watch website that I spent a lot of time on. Someone wrote: ‘Plane hit World Trade Center’. I went to Google and there was nothing. I went to make myself coffee and when I came back: ‘Impact of a second plane. It wasn’t an accident.’” It was a page about watches. The content haunts us. The journalist then quotes a paragraph from the following Gibson novel where a character says:
“We have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, violently, profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ do not have a sufficient “now” to sustain them. We don’t have futures because our present is too volatile. We only have risk management. The turn of the scenarios of a given moment”.
This lack of standing in the “now” means that any change in the way we consume content or reality has an impact. This week Instagram has announced a small change: it has introduced the feed chronological. A few days ago Twitter tried to suppress that feed and it went wrong. The difference between feed Chronological and algorithmic is the order in which we see the messages: in the chronological order they appear in order of publication and in the algorithmic order of the one that may interest us the most, according to criteria that only the platform knows.
I have said it other times: the algorithmic is a drug. It knows what each user wants and gives it to them, along with a menu that is one of the most viral on the platform. It’s like covers of Interviú, The Case, Brand, Vanity Fair and Soon one after another to infinity. It’s hard to look up based on interest.
This type of feed is the one that takes us time after time to a network: there is always something interesting, be it a meme, a goal, a bomb, a tragedy, a viral post or a joke. Everything is content ready to be ingested. In that feed, however, you can see news from Ukraine that happened two days ago or terrible trends in South Korea about covid that it was better not to see until they get closer. Or when they are digestible.
Everything happens so much
— Horse ebooks (@Horse_ebooks) June 28, 2012
With the chronological feed there is something more difficult to feel today: it is boring, there are photos or dull tweets. The networks know that we enter less and, therefore, we see fewer ads in the timeline, that’s why they try to have the algorithm activated by default.
For this world where disabling the brain is complicated, the timeline is a small salvation for each user. I do not comply, at the moment. I’m in algorithmic mode, maybe that’s why I wasn’t ready for nuclear war content. I’m a little saturated with crazy virality.
That content easily becomes absurd or replaceable because it is not easy to live with the rope around your neck always. Even if it happens. That is why a famous Trump congresswoman goes viral saying that the problem of a war “would cause food shortages.” At least you laugh. But it is still a perhaps unnecessary content. I prefer not to think about what I will do if I survive an apocalypse.
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