Freddie deBoer has a devastatingly poignant and sweepingly inclusive critique of the cultural, creative and like moral impoverishment of today’s young, tech-absorbed generation. Here’s an analogy from his essay:
In much the same way as those speaking about the importance of New York City are often actually speaking about the importance of themselves, so those who crafted the oral history of the internet were often really talking about their own revolutionary potential.
The general trajectory of deBoer’s essay is that Internet culture perpetuates a vague and narcissistic apathy draped in the ameliorating garments of competition, recognition and order, which is (this type of order) characteristic of visions of upward mobility. He calls Internet culture, “the resentment machine” and points out that it’s often only a tool for the expression of class-anxiety. (As an aside, psychoanalysis teaches us that whereas excitement is the feeling we get from thinking we’re winning, anxiety is the feeling we get from thinking we’re losing.) What is unclear to me is whether deBoer thinks Internet as medium causes or merely enables the kind of meaningless and bitter production that distracts from or negates the possibility of meaningful creation. Like that model on the billboard on the highway, Internet might look really hot, but all it really is is blank stare.
I have two comments to make about the essay. First, deBoer, as he himself acknowledges, doesn’t offer any way out of this predicament. Not that he should or that not doing so makes his criticism any less valuable or correct. But by remaining simply descriptive and critical, deBoer risks becoming a member of the class he’s trying to destroy. Second, the critique of modern culture as somehow inimical to the discovery or creation of an authentic self is at least as old as Heidegger and Hegel and so, insofar as this is true, Internet should be judged only as enabler. (Internet didn’t cause a revolution, it enabled one. The causes didn’t involve Internet qua communications platform.) At times it seems deBoer thinks that there used to be a kind of authentic “traditional” self with firm consciousness-confronting convictions in the days before Internet. I would argue that this description is an extension of the kind of nostalgic yearnings humans are often susceptible to: It was so real back in the day, and now things are so plastic, or socially constructed, or aesthetically produced, or meaninglessly parsed, or whatever. This is dangerous for many reasons, not least of which is that it represents a reconstruction of things past for tendentious purposes of things present.
These are relatively minor, mosquitoish points I’m making though. The essay has much of value (and meaning) to say, and deBoer’s a terrific writer so he deserves to be read. A few more quotes:
If straightforward discussion of virtue and righteousness is socially unpalatable, straightforward political engagement appears worse still. Pushed by an advertising industry that embraces tropes of meaning just long enough to render them meaningless (Budweiser Clydesdales saluting fallen towers) and buffeted by arbiters of hipness that declare any unapologetic embrace of political ideology horribly cliché, a fussy specificity envelops every definition of the self. Conventional accounts of the kids these days tend to revert to tired tropes about disaffection and irony. The reality is sadder: They are not passionless, but many have invested their passion in a shared cultural knowledge that denies the value of any other endeavor worthy of personal investment.
This endless posturing, pregnant with anxiety and roiling with class resentment, ultimately pleases no one. Yet this emptiness doesn’t compel people to turn away from the sorting mechanism. Instead, it draws them further and further in. Faced with the failure of their cultural affinities to define an authentic and fulfilling self, postcollegiate middle-class upwardly-oriented-if-not-upwardly-mobile Americans double down on the importance of these affinities and confront the continued failure with a formless resentment. The bitterness that surrounds these distinctions is a product of their inability to actually make us distinct…
This, then, is the role of the resentment machine: to amplify meaningless differences and assign to them vast importance for the quality of individuals. For those who are writing the most prominent parts of the internet—the bloggers, the trendsetters, the über-Tweeters, the tastemakers, the linkers, the creators of memes and online norms—online life is taking the place of the creation of the self, and doing so poorly.