digital capitalism (mini-📝 38/100)

Welcome to the internet. What would you prefer? Would you like to fight for civil rights or tweet a racial slur?

— Bo Burnham sings in his Netflix special Inside

In this song, Bo Burnham exposes the cognitive dissonance and existential angst we experience using the internet daily. In verse after verse, Burnham highlights the extremes of humanity that are enabled on this digital platform. If the internet is a microcosm of real life, it has all the good and all the bad in the world, but instead of getting pieces in varied doses throughout life, it magnifies both aspects right next to each other. Every internet interaction is an opportunity for whiplash with content ranked by how well they will drive engagement.

Just nod or shake your head, and we’ll do the rest.

In this verse, Burnham hints at the fact that the internet is supposedly doing all that we're asking of it. You can find anything you want, good or bad, and the internet will tune to your preferences based on a binary yes-or-no. In this world, there's no room for nuance or the grey; you're either right or you're wrong because strong opinions and reactions are the best fodder for clicks.

Could I interest you in everything all of the time?
A little bit of everything all of the time.
Apathy is a tragedy and boredom is a crime.

— the chorus of the song

Users of the internet are characterized as "insatiable" and "unstoppable." They are the all-consuming monsters of the endless content available in our digital landscapes. Consumption is the de-facto; it's the expected behavior for a normal internet citizen.

Burnham seems to be saying the internet gave us everything and as a result, left us with nothing because when you have everything in front of you, what meaning does anything have? Our senses have been overwhelmed by the flood of information and decision, and we're left to our core job function as venerable Internet users: consuming.

In Worn Out, an essay in Real Life Magazine, Drew Austin uses the tech elites' rejection of fashion as an indication of their distaste for the masses. In the piece, Austin demonstrates how the tech industry treats efficiency as king because efficiency is the key to maximal commercialization. Fashion is something free and inefficient. It's a "means of defining the self socially" as Marshall McLuhan describes, and a social definition is irrelevant to how the industry seeks to monetize. The titans, movers, and shakers of the industry treat fashion as a nuisance, preferring to maximize their decision-making reserve by creating a uniform.

Social media platforms thus structure a reality in which all “shared appearances” are also implicit transactions that can and should be priced. As long as fashion is happening in public, from this perspective, it is essentially a waste.

— from Worn Out

This characterization of the top internet companies, as capitalist machines seeking every chance to appropriate public goods for their own proprietary benefit, matches the experience that Burnham describes of the average internet user. The dissonance and whiplash we experience on the web is a result of the endless streams of content that invade our daily digital routines. Complex algorithms crunch millions of data points in order to maximize the amount of content that we click. We are like a gaggle of golden egg-laying geese; One of our most intimate features, our attention, is bought and sold in shadowy markets that we often aren't even aware of. Unlike the fable, these companies are crafty and have coaxed us into the pen with "free" features and utilities rather than trying to cash in on all of our value at once.

As long as we have this incentive of efficiently pricing all the interactions that happen on the internet, it's going to feel like a war zone to us end users. I'm not sure what the world looks like without this or how we sustainably fund useful social technology without wrapping it up in a corporate model that maximizes profits. What I do know is that I'm tired of the dissonance and rat race that the internet frequently feels like. I treasure those pockets of low-pressure joy, play, and intimacy that we stumble upon in hidden corners and cozy meadows on the internet, and I hope we find a way to make those the default experience.


This is the 38th installment in my experiment of publishing raw, lightly edited mini-essays every day towards achieving 100 public pieces. Check out the rationale and the full list here or view my evergreen, longer pieces on my website.