we can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far

I can’t figure out why YouTube wants me to watch Carpool Karaoke and segments from the Ellen Show so badly. Most days, I watch two videos on YouTube: a yoga video from one of a few channels that I like, and one of two videos with a sequence of exercises for unlocking your lockjaw, both from a movie-handsome chiropractor who wears a wedding ring the size of a cuff scrounged from antiquity.

I know I should relax and learn to love the algorithm, but I don’t get it. I watched the Carpool Karaoke episode where they acted out “The Sound of Music” on the streets of L.A., and obviously I’ve watched every Taylor Swift interview Ellen has conducted, but beyond that, it’s all yoga and that chiropractor teaching me how to massage my suboccipitals, all the time.

(Pause to acknowledge how how precisely on-brand my YouTube tastes are. Second pause to glowingly recommend Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary, which you should absolutely catch before it wins Best Picture in a few hours.)

Current working conspiracy theories:

  1. Nobody binge-watches yoga classes or chiropractic instruction videos (though I did unearth what might be a subculture for watching videos of other people having chiropractic adjustments; just leaving that nugget there for you all to chew on so I don’t have to keep doing it alone) and the algorithm is trying to point me to videos that I’m likelier to binge-watch. Counterpoint: The algorithm isn’t pointing me to videos from Tony Awards performances from the ’70s and ’80s, so why is it even bothering?
  2. The chiropractor’s channel is several helpful videos on at-home exercises to alleviate various ailments, from TMJ syndrome (the technical term for “I can’t open my mouth because I grind my teeth so ferociously that I’ve nearly bitten through my night guard”) to tennis elbow, and… a video hawking the benefits of not vaccinating your children. The algorithm, which resents my affinity for woo-woo, is subtly trying to point me back toward science. If only the algorithm could see the look on my disgruntled face right now as I listen to a child cry in my vicinity.
  3. If you seek relief through stress through yoga and movie-handsome chiropractor videos, and also you’ve watched the original Broadway cast of Les Mis perform “One Day More” at the 1987 Tonys more than three times, your innate character is one that wants to watch Carpool Karaoke. Lie back and think of England (James Corden’s accent will help).
  • The problem with #3 is my niggling paranoia that one day the Internet is going to disappear and I won’t be able to do anything anymore. I usually think about this when I’m spinning around in a circle on the sidewalk trying to figure out where the blue dot is telling me to walk, but sometimes I wonder whether I could even choose my own reading material if left to my own devices (or, more precisely, without them).
  • Do I even know what I like anymore? (I guess I’ve been pondering this for a while.) I immediately forget most of what I read. I’d been blaming it on my attention span, but it occurred to me recently that maybe I just hate most of what I read. I slept terribly all last week because I started Tana French’s latest on Monday and I kept staying up long past my bedtime — reading, and then wondering if the shadows in my bedroom were intruders, and then wondering if the shadows in my bedroom were intruders, what seemingly insignificant incident from my childhood triggered their presence? Also, are all murder detectives shrewd and pithy calculators who can sniff out human weakness like the tasting notes in a fine wine, or just Irish ones? Also, how do you pronounce Gardai?
  • Anyway, it’s been nice to remember that books can be good. There are also only fifteen or so albums that have been released in the past decade that I actually want to listen to over and over again. (All of them are “1989.” Kidding! Maybe! See footnote [1].) I dutifully listen to my Spotify New Release Radar every Friday, but little speaks to me.
  • I guess the problem is that taste is eclectic. I was going to say that my taste is eclectic, but that seems unfair to everyone else who is more mercurial than predictable about what they like and don’t, which I assume is most people. How do you square that with predictive recommendation algorithms?
  • I read the first four Harry Potter books upwards of 40 times each as a child and then, while I waited for the next three, tried and discarded the canon of derivative books about boy wizards (sorry, Artemis Fowl), then gave up entirely on fantasy as a genre until I read The Night Circus, following which I wrote an honest-to-God fan letter to Erin Morgenstern. I love Tana French, yes, and I loved Gone Girl, but every subsequent entry into the unreliable-female-narrator genre is trash and I won’t be convinced otherwise. I am over misogyny as an artistic technique but I can’t stop reading Murakami, except 1Q84, which is a doorstop, not a novel, and I loved Super Sad True Love Story, though I hated Lake Success. I hit peak dystopia after the first Hunger Games and slogged through not only the rest of the trilogy but also the abominable Divergent series, which offended me so badly I swore off anything set in a future; but then the genre went highbrow, and I rolled my eyes but can’t say I wasn’t unmoored by Station Eleven (a book nobody should read until all cruise ships have been released from their coronavirus quarantines. Trust me) and Severance. I’ve already forgotten every novel I read in 2019 except Trust Exercise, even the ones that are also about bad people in positions of power, with and without clever plot devices. I’m a little devastated to admit that I think I’ve outgrown YA, though excited to eventually be ready to read Mrs. Dalloway.
  • TL;DR: My tastes are mercurial. I like books that speak to me. If I were to draw a thread between my favorite books, it’s protagonists that exist at a slight but impassable remove from reality: friendless boy wizards who make friends only to discover that friendlessness hardens into a character quality (cf. Harry Potter but also The Magicians), educated twentysomethings ashamed of their lack of ambition (Sweetbitter), educated twentysomethings ashamed of their lack of ambition even as they flee a global pandemic (Severance). I like books where the slight but impassable remove from reality is incidental, not the plot itself (ergo my dislike of Divergent, although I also prefer my books to read like they were edited at some point).
  • I’m not sure that’s a quality you can write into an algorithm. I like what I like.
  • So — where was I? YouTube’s seemingly baseless recommendations. I completely lost the plot there, didn’t I? How do I sew this back up into something? Conclusion: Art doesn’t need to be a buy-one-get-one situation; anomalies are precious. Half the reason I liked the Carpool Karaoke “Sound of Music” video was its sheer weirdness. No book that sets out trying to be Gone Girl can be as audacious. Dystopias were over before we entered into one. I’ve even developed an affinity for my anti-vax chiropractor and how he stares into my soul while he teaches me how to massage my masseter muscles. I don’t want YouTube to find me another chiropractor; I want YouTube to find me something radical that I can’t unsee. Is there a setting for that?
  • [1] 1989, yes, but also Badlands, 1000 Forms of Fear, Strange Desire, By The Way I Forgive You, Queen of the Clouds, 3 Rounds and a Sound, The Fool, Blue Neighbourhood… I’m sure there are a few more, but I can’t think of them now.

i contain multitudes of data

This is part 3 of an ongoing series about the Internet. Previously, I explored the positive role that social media can play in modern life and bemoaned how e-commerce has bastardized the art of writing. I don’t have future posts planned for this series, but stay tuned several years from now for my Silicon Valley tell-all, working title The Emperor Has No Track Jacket.

A few weeks back Twitter served me a Netflix ad promoting the new season of “Stranger Things.” I wondered briefly, as I often do, whether what feels like algorithmic ad targeting is actually just the result of a chip having been surreptitiously implanted in my eyeball at my last eye appointment. (You know, that thing where they touch your eyeball with a laser? That cannot possibly be medically necessary. It’s obviously The Man.)

How else would Twitter have known that just the night before, I watched “Stranger Things” for the first time? I made my boyfriend turn it off after one episode because I’m afraid of the paranormal and also because now I understand why my best friend keeps telling me to be Eleven for Halloween and I can’t decide whether to be offended or not, but that’s beside the point. We were using his Netflix account, so I couldn’t possibly have left a digital footprint. I don’t even have my own Netflix account, not because I’m an overgrown child who still uses her parents’ credentials but because… well, that’s beside the point.

What does it mean to be so predictable that an algorithm can guess what I was watching last night? As a teenager I struggled a great deal with the notion that I could be reduced to a set of numbers. I felt both unprepared for the promising future that my numbers implied and constrained to the kind of future that could be promised by numbers. (You can only imagine the durm und strang had I gotten an actually good SAT score!) I find it incredibly frustrating today that after finally having broken out of the cycle of numbers that is secondary education, I can somehow once again be described by data. I was under the impression that I contained multitudes. And I do, I suppose, but measured in a metric that translates directly to cash.

Algorithms can, I suppose, know both who I am and what I mean, more so than even I myself do. I trust them to tell me what to watch next — or at least I would if I watched TV, which I still don’t, although I did enjoy the first season of “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” — and what music I might enjoy. It’s fashionable to wisecrack about how your casual Google searches turn into targeted ads on your Facebook feed and good practice to use an incognito window when you’re trying to figure out if, say, pregnancy tests expire. I’m not usually a nihilist, but I get a kick out of Googling everything from my own profile just to fuck with the ad targeting algorithms. No, I’m not interested in buying a tiny house, Google, I just want to read a bunch of schadenfreude-inducing horror stories about how many people who buy them get divorced within ten months of moving in. Take that!

It’s actually pretty freaky, though, that I can post an Instagram story from a fancy restaurant one day and get an ad for Louis Vuitton the next. It makes me ask myself whether I should be shopping at Louis Vuitton if I’m going to fancy restaurants now, as if I should trust the signals of my behavior that inform how algorithms treat me as guideposts for what I should do next, too. (You’d think Instagram would recognize that my single visit to a Michelin-starred restaurant was an anomaly, given that it was bookended by visits to a dive bar that hands out free pizzas with your beer and evidence of my sad attempts at Blue Apron, but the singularity isn’t here yet.)

I am reminded of learning about symbolism in high school. I was convinced for a while that it was a conspiracy of my high school teachers to find something interesting to say about The Scarlet Letter, that surely Nathaniel Hawthorne was simply describing the Bostonian flora. You can’t possibly claim to know definitively what a dead man meant to say, I would grumble to myself as I dutifully typed out essays that I trusted would get me the As I needed to maintain the perfect GPA that was the hallmark of my presence here on Earth.

It didn’t occur to me to wonder what I was working toward beyond that number and it’s only in the last year or two that I’ve realized how much numbers crippled me when I was younger. Since the election I’ve been reading intensely, first as a means of proving myself right and lately as a means of understanding why it doesn’t matter whether I’m right or not. I aced everything in high school, so I believed that I’d learned everything, but the world and its systems are at last revealing themselves to me as too complex to be distilled down to answers on a multiple-choice exam.

Though high school prepared me poorly for critical learning, it prepared me well to navigate today’s Internet, which demands precision. I feel constantly anxious to prove myself with facts, as though my thoughts are worthless without data behind them. It’s the corollary to how I feel when presented with a targeted ad: should I just give up and buy some Allbirds since obviously I’m supposed to be wearing them given how frequently I am in Palo Alto? Does the fact that I think they look like stupid slippers mean nothing if all of my behavior signifies that I’m the kind of person who should buy them?

In essence it’s the same problem I have with content marketing: the notion that all you need to thrive is a playbook. Get the grades, get the degree, get the job, and happiness will follow. Dangle some keywords in front of people, context be damned, and watch them flock to your product. Let formulae tell you what to do and never make a bad choice again.

But the cybernetic approach to everything saps the power of human subjectivity and free will. I used to shop impulsively. I bought clothes because they were soft and books because they were on sale. Now I follow fashion and check out the ebooks that my library recommends to me. I wonder if I’d live more impulsively if I didn’t have a constant ticker of advertisements and my friends’ experiences and fucking sponsored posts following me around. I booked my first real international vacation — Japan — because in 2013 I picked up Kafka on the Shore from my parents’ bookshelf and it transported me to a world that I knew I had to see to believe. (I was disappointed to learn that the talking cats were a fictional device, not a cultural difference.) I don’t feel quite as inspired to follow flights of fancy as I did just a few years ago. I’m not sure whether that’s because I’m growing older or because technology is eating away at my human subjectivity.

Data — the systematic recording of facts in forms that can be made useful — is immensely useful. Machine learning is, too. I haven’t worked at a certain “Big Data” “unicorn” for five and a half years because I really like track jackets. Used well, data and technology will improve the way we live. I believe in their power, but I also believe in creativity. I believe the best art is art that responds to context, not trends. I believe in the power of context to make art meaningful and I believe in the power of art to mine meaning from context. I struggle to reconcile my desire to live impulsively with how easy it is to select a book from the curated list that the eBooks app shares with me. I struggle with how violated I feel when an algorithm tells me that it knows what I was watching on the couch with my boyfriend last night.

At the end of the day, I am well aware that connectedness and convenience aren’t free. I love social media, I love the ease of living in a technologically advanced society, and I mostly feel happy to subsidize it with my data, not my money. It’s sort of like the calculus I use to justify buying an extra pair of pants on ASOS to qualify for free shipping even though the pants are ultimately more expensive than the shipping would have been. Only instead of pants, I get a debilitating spiral into questioning whether I am still a human with free will or just a pair of eyes that should be watching “Stranger Things” attached to a body that should be wearing Allbirds powered by a mind that couldn’t possibly have voted for anybody but Hillary* and fueled, probably, by Blue Bottle.

 

* I obviously voted for Hillary. Come on, I’m not watching Infowars.

pics or it didn’t happen

This post is the first in a two-part series about the Internet. In Part 1, below, I write a pages-long excuse for wasting all of my time on the Internet. In Part 2, I’ll illuminate the inseverable connection between trying to buy a mattress and the declining art of writing. Keep yourselves busy in between posts by contemplating whether Twitter will, indeed, be the downfall of Western democracy.

I got Instagram in June. (Yes, this June. In 2017. I still don’t know what David S. Pumpkins is, and I can’t confidently identify dubstep, but I get millennial pink now. It’s a start.) What converted me, ultimately, was being in Stockholm on the longest day of the year. I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the waterfront that I could think of nothing but how best to brag about seeing it.

I avoided Instagram because I have a fraught relationship with my own image. I can think of few photos taken of me over my lifetime that I can stand to look at, fewer if I don’t count the ones where I think I’m cute only because I’m so cringingly awkward, fewer still if I tell myself not to look fondly on the photos from when I was starving myself. I’m not sure if I want to get married in no small part because I so dread the photos. I dread looking at them and I dread what I will do to myself to create photos that I can tolerate looking at.

But I’m a child of the Internet, a geeky, lonely kid who didn’t understand that there were people like me in the world until I found them on the message boards of the early 2000’s. The Internet was the first place where I felt that I could be myself — and the place where I learned how to reinvent myself. (Did I once stage a dramatic departure from a message board I frequented then re-register under a new screen name just to see if I could make strangers believe that I was a different person than the one they already knew? I’m not saying I did, but I’m also not saying that I haven’t known from a young age just how distinctive my voice is.)

When social media took over the message board as my Internet drug of choice, I fell in love with what I saw as a new tool for self-expression. I was about to make a crack about how I mean self-expression, not corporate brand expression, but then I remembered how much I love that I can tweet at United when my flights are delayed, for example by sending them them a prose poem in the style of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” 140 characters at a time if they strand me at Heathrow for 29 hours. It was more productive than taking myself on a pub crawl around the four Star Alliance lounges in Terminal 2, which I know because I also did that. And having to acknowledge that fast-food restaurants are now sentient entities that communicate with one another feels like a small price to pay for being able to channel my constant, low-level rage at United to United.

I’m being facetious — as a former customer service professional I don’t make a habit of attacking them — but more to the point, I am who I am as much because of my Internet presence as my physical presence. I dated a man who, on principle, avoided social media, and while that was hardly the only way in which I wasn’t my authentic self in that relationship, it felt more significant than I would have anticipated. If you don’t follow me on Twitter, can you really know my id? (My id, apparently, wants to troll customer service professionals who represent airlines that fly planes from the Soviet era. We all have our vices.) My Twitter self is an abstraction of my physical self that gleefully flouts the rules of grammar, communicates complex sentiments with images instead of trying to unpack them with words, and blurts out shameful thoughts in a way I never would aloud. I see Twitter as a place where I can put this version of myself on display in a sort of ironic light that exists separately from the articulate, measured identity I strive to cultivate in real life.

Much of what I loved about the Internet as a child and young teenager was how I could exist in words but not being. I wasn’t an ugly child, but I was a gawky one, and I felt limited by the body that I lived in. It wasn’t that being on the Internet allowed me to pretend I looked different than I did — I think all of us spending time online in the early 2000s were well aware that none of us were secretly babes, you know? Even better, it was irrelevant. I was my brain and my wit and nothing beyond that mattered, except my sweet avatar.

In 2017 it feels tragically unhip to be enthusiastic about social media. I think I’m supposed to be casting aspersions on people who post frequent status updates on Facebook because #YOLO, and it’s bad to think about what your life looks like to people on the Internet rather than simply live it. It’s like being twelve again. I know that Internet cool isn’t properly cool but frankly, I don’t feel like I can be cool in any way except Internet cool. (And Facebook isn’t even Internet cool anymore. I’m fucked, basically.) Not having Instagram had always been a minor point of pride for me. Like, I was an Internet-obsessed loser, but at least I wasn’t part of this weird cult of disembodied hands holding ice cream cones.

But then I went to Stockholm.

Over the past couple of years I’ve become a frequent traveler. I look at my passport as a symbol of triumph over adversity, and I don’t just mean that I have listened to to four screaming babies in dulcet harmony for eight hours without throwing myself out of the overwing exit. For many years I was so afraid of flying that I couldn’t really do it without medicating myself. And within that period, there was a long time when the idea of putting myself in an unfamiliar environment — i.e., one where I couldn’t rely on my food and exercise routine — was unfathomable. Even after the worst of my eating disorder had passed, travel still felt like something that was beyond me. There’s more than a paragraph’s worth of material to uncover here, so obviously I’m going to save that for the next time I want to write something really clickbaity that gets me on the WordPress Discover page (“How I stopped worrying and learned to love the fact that if you’re in France, there is no breakfast but croissants”).

Travel has become one of my favorite ways to get out of my own head. I’m too disoriented by jet lag and language barriers and the staggering weight of history to worry that I’m not supposed to be eating simple sugars for breakfast. When I look up from the Marienplatz or down at the Tokyo subway map, I’m free from the burden of thinking. I need only react. (Especially because Google Maps is really good with Tokyo subway directions. Otherwise I’d probably still be wandering around Shinjuku, living off corn-soup-in-a-can from the alleyway vending machines.) And I get to look constantly outward, away from myself.

In Stockholm, I wanted to share what I saw when I looked outward. Stockholm is impossibly precious in a way that makes me want to peer around every corner to make sure that I’m not missing some charming little staircase tucked in an alley that in New York would just be another place to store the trash. It’s the kind of place that feels worth getting off your couch to explore. But I have long felt overwhelmed by leaving my house. Inside, in the confines of my routine, I know what I have to do to feel accomplished; outside, the world overwhelms. I lack the rules to navigate it and it refuses to conform to my expectations. Instagram gave me a framework: a means of knowing what I was setting out to do and, ultimately, to do it. “Look,” I could finally say, “I left the house, finally, and it’s scary, and there were screaming babies on the plane, but aren’t you proud of me? I left the house.”

The zeitgeist would have you believe that the keep-up-with-the-Joneses pressure of social media is net negative. Quitting Instagram is the new quitting gluten (probably healthy but mostly an opportunity to show your moral fiber). Looking outward can so easily deteriorate into comparing yourself to the rest of the world and invariably coming up short because you don’t have an eight-pack or a baby or interior decorating skills.

For me, looking outward is what I do to remind myself that the world is there to experience — and now Instagram is what I use to remind myself to experience the world. I recognize the paradox. I leave the house so I can find photos to prove that I left the house. And, critically, I am not in those photos. It’s not like in college, when every weekend meant a new slew of Facebook photos that I could only cringe at and criticize. I feel, like I did in 2002, that the body I live in is irrelevant. It’s only a tool and when I use it as intended, instead of letting it lie fallow or cultivating it beyond practical utility, I can climb a mountain or even visit Hogwarts.

And anyway, I like to people-watch. I like to read fiction and magazine profiles. (It occurred to me recently that if I never achieve notoriety such that someone is tasked with writing a magazine profile about me — or if by the time it happens, magazines no longer exist — I might need to pay a freelancer to write me one before I die. Just to have, you know? I just really want to know how they describe the way I eat my lunch salad and see how far backward they have to bend to depict my home generously.)

Social media is just another lens through which I can observe human behavior. I find it terrifically fun to look at how my friends and family live their lives. I scroll through Instagram and wonder idly whether I, too, would like one day to travel to Hawaii (sure) or have children (nah) and admire how other people manage to hang their curtains straight. I empathize with people I’d otherwise be quick to judge — I can’t stop thinking about @butlikemaybe who has made me realize that maybe liking brunch and being perceptive aren’t mutually exclusive — or whose plights I’d never consider. I have college classmates whose work opens my eyes to how the structures that have elevated me over the course of my life have served to oppress others. And all this on the same platforms that are disrupting Western democracy and forcing me to listen to long-lost high school friends pontificate about healthy eating like they weren’t the ones begging to hit the Del Taco drive-through at 4 A.M. after the club!!!

The Internet has always been the most powerful tool I have to cultivate the image that I want to present to the world, and now it’s the most effective way for me to understand a world beyond the one that I encounter in my daily life. As a child, it was where I discovered that there were people in the world who wanted to listen to me. In college, when a classmate created a Facebook group called “Dana Cass’s Facebook Statuses are the Highlight of My News Feed and My Day,” it occurred to me for the first time that words could be my profession. (S_____, if you’re reading this, I’m not sure I ever thanked you properly for that.) Today, the Internet inspires me to cultivate a memorable and, yes, enviable life, and to strive for an offline life that extends beyond the borders I was born knowing. When the call comes in now, I go, whether it’s a work assignment on the other side of the world or just an evening on a rooftop in Brooklyn. Going, I’ve learned, is better than staying. Going means finding a photo to share — and stories to tell.