Analog Future

The future is local.

I mean local in several senses of the word. The future will be local, first, in the sense that the things you do there will be somewhere close to you instead of located on a computer somewhere in Atlanta or San Francisco or Dublin. It will also be local in the sense that the majority of things you will make and do there will likely be stored on your own computer, perched on your tabletop, stored on your bookshelf, built on your workbench, cooked in your kitchen, and so on, rather than somewhere else. You will own them. Related to this, the future will be local, finally, in the sense that you will share things there with local people whom you actually know, rather than digital representations of people in chat rooms or on headsets. You will likely post the things you make there on your own website, print them in your own zine, sell them in your own community. The internet is not dead, but its role as the primary force shaping our lives is coming to an end.

When I say “the internet,” I don’t mean the technical stack. I’m not referring to the network of networked computers communicating with one another using various protocols. Instead, I refer to the “phenomenological internet” of “the more familiar sites of daily use by billions of people” that Justin E.H. Smith defines in his book, The Internet is Not What You Think It Is. Smith writes,

“Animals are a tiny sliver of life on earth, yet they are preeminently what we mean when we talk about life on earth; social media are a tiny sliver of the internet, yet they are what we mean when we speak of the internet, as they are where the life is on the internet.”

To this definition I would add another category, however: the streaming media provider. When we speak of the internet, we also speak of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Disney Plus, and so on. These multi-billion dollar corporations draw on the rhetoric of “the internet” to position themselves as scrappy upstarts opposing the staid traditional media providers, such as film studios and television networks. Viewers have largely accepted this position and view these services as outposts of the internet on their television screens.

Prediction is a mug’s game, so think of this as a prescription instead of a prediction. There are several related trends converging over the next several years that are likely to drive people away from the comfy little burrows they’ve carved out of the internet by forking over $5 or $7.99 or $14.99 or a steady stream of personally identifiable data every month. Together, these trends map the contours of serious contradictions between abundance and desire, on the one hand, and humans and machines on the other, which strikes at the heart of the internet as we have understood it since around 2004. The dialectic emerging from these contradictions will drive new user behaviors in the next decade.

The first trend is the grinding ennui which has resulted from the relentless production of entertainment and cultural commodities for consumption on the internet. Reduced in the past several years to a sort of semi-nutritive paste called “content,” art and entertainment are losing their capacity to relieve and enrich us and now increasingly amplify the isolation and pessimism of life online.

A seemingly infinite stream of money dedicated to the production of entertainment on the internet has resulted in an ocean of unremarkable “content” that does little more than hold your attention long enough to satisfy the adware algorithm or build a platform big enough to stage the next bit of content in the franchise and queue up the next marketing event. Outside of their algorithmically contoured bubbles of fandom, there is little difference between Marvel and Star Wars or DC or YouTube creators or Twitch streamers or podcasts. Netflix shows and Amazon Prime shows and Hulu shows and HBO Max shows and Paramount Plus shows and Peacock shows and so on are indistinguishable blips in time, forgotten as quickly as they are consumed. Books scroll by on Kindle screens or drop serially onto shelves. Photographs and artwork slide past on instagram, meriting a second or perhaps a moment’s notice before disappearing into the infinite past. Pop music percolates through TikTok, moves week-by-week downward on officially curated playlists, radiates out into commercials, and then disappears, poof, as rapidly as it came, displaced by the next. Independent music on the internet–even on platforms nominally controlled by the artists, like Bandcamp or SoundCloud–exists in much the same sort of vacuum as it always has. The internet promised an efflorescence of color and creativity. What it gave us instead was a flat, white light that grows dimmer over time as the algorithms which shape it converge on a single point of optimization.

The top 5 most-viewed links on Facebook in the last quarter

Because the vast majority of the “content” is indistinguishably boring, the second trend is tightly related to the first. Social media is dying. Many platforms, Facebook front and center, are already dead, gliding still on accumulated momentum but inevitably bound to stop. As recently as 2016, we believed that Facebook could change the world. In recent quarters, however, the most viewed content on the behemoth platform has either been a scam or originated somewhere else. The top 5 most-viewed links in the second quarter of this year, according to Facebook, consisted of TikTok, two spam pages, and two news stories from NBC and ABC on the Uvalde School Shooting. TikTok leads the second-place spam page by a huge margin. Facebook is not a healthy business. Ryan Broderick recently summed up the situation with Facebook admirably on his excellent “Garbage Day” Substack. “Facebook, as a product, is over,” Broderick writes. “Meta knows it. Facebook’s creators know it. Possibly even Facebook’s users. But no one has anywhere else to really go.”

People who rely on social media to promote and build businesses are beginning to note a general decline as well. According to a poll detailed in a recent article on “creatives” frustrated with social media, 82% believe that “engagement” has declined since they started using social media. “I’ve given up on Instagram,” one freelance artist noted. “I wasn’t even sure it was making a difference with getting more work. And I seem to be doing okay without it.”

Facebook and Instagram are in rapid decline, but what about TikTok, YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, and others? A third problem, more profound than the others, faces these: there are no more users to gain. Two decades into the social media era, the market is highly segmented. New platforms like TikTok will continue to emerge, but their surge will climb rapidly to a plateau. The decades-long push for growth that fueled platforms like Facebook and Twitter through the 2000s and 2010s dovetailed with the proliferation of smartphones. Now that the smartphone market is saturated, social media companies can no longer look forward to a constantly expanding frontier of new users to sign up.

Relying on content algorithms to retain existing users or coax those back who have already left, platforms accelerate the ennui of optimization. This leaves precious little room for new types of content or new talents to emerge. Still, people will entertain each other. Those who create art will seek approval and criticism. Others will seek out new and exciting art and entertainment to enjoy. When there is no room on social media for to put these groups of people together, they will find each other in new (old) ways: on the street.

You may have recently heard that machines are going to solve the problem of creating new and engaging content for people to consume on the internet. AI models like DALL-E, Stable Diffusion, GPT-3, various Deepfake models for video, and others use the oceans of existing images, text, audio, and video to create new content from scratch. Some of these models, such as Nvidia’s StyleGAN, are capable of producing content indistinguishable from reality. Artists are beginning to win prizes with AI-generated work. AI-generated actors are appearing in media speaking languages they don’t know, wearing bodies decades younger than the ones they inhabit in reality. GPT-3 is a “shockingly good” text generator which prompted the author of a breathless article in this month’s Atlantic to swoon. “Miracles can be perplexing,” Stephen Marche writes in the article, “and artificial intelligence is a very new miracle…. [An] encounter with the superhuman is at hand.”

Some critics of these AI models argue that they will prompt a crisis of misinformation. Deepfakes may convince people that the President of the United States declared war on an adversary, for example, or a deepfake porno video could ruin a young person’s life. These are valid concerns. More overheated critics suggest that AI may one day surpass human intelligence and may, therefore, power over its creators like masters to pets. Setting aside the Social Darwinist overtones of this argument—that ”intelligence,” exemplified by the mastery of texts, translates automatically to power—machine learning algorithms are limited by the same content challenges facing social media. AI may create absorbing new universes of art and sound and video, but it can only generate content based on the existing corpus, and it can only distribute that content on existing networks. People have to create new texts for AI to master. The willingness of a continuous army of new users to generate these texts and upload them to the phenomenological internet of social media and streaming video, where they can be easily aggregated and made accessible to machine learning models using APIs, is declining. The same types of algorithms that prompted Stephen Marche to proclaim a New Miracle in The Atlantic are driving the most successful corporations in history right off a cliff as I write this.

These critiques of AI-generated content assume that people will continue to scroll social media and engage with the things they see there in ways similar to their behavior over the past decade. In this model, to review, users scroll through an endless stream of content. When they see posts that inspire or provoke, impress or irritate, they are encouraged to like, comment, and share these posts with their friends and followers. The content may be endless, but the people on both sides of the transaction are the most important elements in the decision to like, comment, or share. Users are not impressed or provoked by the content itself, but because of the connection it represents with other people. They respond and share this content performatively, acting as a bridge or critic between the people who created the content–and what they represent–and their friends and followers. If you remove enough of the people, all of the content loses its value.

At a more fundamental level, people are the appeal of any creative work. Art without an artist is a bit like clouds or leaves: these may be beautifully or even suggestively arranged, but they offer no insight on what it means to be human. GPT-3 may tell a story, but it does so mimetically, arranging words in a pattern resembling something that should please a human reader. You may level the same criticism at your least-favorite author, but at least they would be insulted. GPT-3 will never feel anything.

AI-generated content will neither solve the content problem for platforms nor prompt a further crisis of misinformation and confusion for users. AI content will be the nail in social media’s coffin.

As a result of these interlocking trends–the crushing ennui of “content,” the decay of social media, the dearth of new smartphone users, and the incompatibility of AI-generated art with human needs–“culture” is likely to depart the algorithmic grooves of the internet, sprout new wings offline, and take flight for new territory. Perhaps, once it is established there, the internet will catch up again. Perhaps then software will try, once again, to eat the world. This time it has failed.

Night Flight (Excerpt)

When I was young and sleepless
I imagined opening the window and
taking flight like one of the Lost Boys
twinkle-dusting into the night chill.

Slowly ascending over the flat roof,
I would embrace the oak outside the window
on its own terms, finally, and turn to face
The great sodium lamp world.

And then southward I would plot a course,
Wind sweeping away my terrestrial cares
As, above the elementary school, rising,
I might rejoice for a moment at the majesty of time.

Video Game Spaces: Super Dodge Ball (1989)

This is part of a series of posts exploring video games as spaces players inhabit. If you’re wondering what this is all about, I tried to explain myself here.

Cosmopolitan Liberty: Dodgeball Nationalism

“Any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.” — Julia Kristeva, “Word, Dialogue and Novel”

Super Dodge Ball is an NES game in which the player takes control of an American dodgeball team and competes against other national teams on a journey around the world.* There is an English team–replace New York and the Statue of Liberty in the screenshot with London and the Tower Bridge–an Indian team, an Icelandic team, a Kenyan team, Team Japan, and, finally, a boss battle with Team USSR. You should watch the playthrough here if you want to see the game in action. Nintendo thought highly enough of the game to include it with the NES games on Nintendo Switch Online, which is where the screenshot comes from.

Odds are, if you played this game in 1989, you were familiar with Rocky IV, which debuted in 1985, and Top Gun, which came out a couple years later. You might have watched the 1988 Olympics, which were relatively drama-free following the political scrimmages surrounding the 1980 and 1984 games, but still drew huge audiences to a spectacle of nationalist competition. Maybe, inspired by the World Cup in 1990, you pulled the game down from the shelf to play through it again. That is something I would have done, substituting dodgeball for soccer to reenact the thrill of the television event. Maybe the looming Kremlin in the game’s final showdown flashed across your mind when the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR along with it. Super Dodge Ball probably sat on your shelf when the United States invaded Iraq for the first time in 1991.

Rocky IV, Top Gun, the Olympics, the World Cup, Super Dodge Ball (and other games like it), the fall of the Soviet Union, Operation Desert Storm. These things appear disconnected, but they were woven together in an intricate pattern, disparate phenomena contributing to a noumenon of nationalist triumph in the eye of the American beholder.

Super Dodge Ball USA vs ICELAND - YouTube
Is this the moon? No, just Iceland. Screenshot from Youtube.

Set against world-historical events like wars and political collapse, cultural products like films and video games seem to speak with an infinitesimally small voice in the historical record. We should reconsider this point of view. Because these events take place out there in real time and space, the vast majority of people experience them passively. Movies, games, recorded music, and other cultural products occupy personal time and space. We experience them actively and use them to think through events.

For most Americans, the Soviet Union collapsed on the news. Americans who played Super Dodge Ball contributed to this collapse in their minds when they played the game. Along the way, they internalized certain ideas about difference, about strength, agility, and development. Many of these ideas were expressed spatially. Players have inhabited these spaces for more than thirty years.

* I’m describing the American version, of course.

Flash Fiction: Spanish Moss

From Shade: Selections from the Shade Tobacco Region Oral History Project

Off in the woods there was a palace I saw it with princes and prelates and fools up under the swingin moss dancin their old jigs in them fancy getups like in the old movies what used to come on TV on Sunday. I saw one he was jinglin them little teeny bells like a song at Christmastime just a prancin around back in there like you know what and I thought that was funny but it hurt my head too. My dogs they didn’t hardly know what to think about it all Rex he looked at me like what is all this and I said I reckon I don’t know but we best be gettin out a here. And that’s what we did too but I sure wish we had stuck around to see what they was doin back there and what they was gonna do next because I don’t reckon we will ever see anything quite like it again long as we walk this earth. I been back in there since and they wasnt there no more and that made me a little scared and a little sad too I aint too proud to say. Theres things in this world we dont know nothin about and we aint got no business knowin it neither.


On a trail once, I saw a tree which
should not have been, a magnolia
in the pine flats, by the influence of
some creature planted out of place.

I gave that tree a name, and when I
can’t sleep the name crosses overhead
like Radio On in the darkness static
a nebula of memory flashing to quicken me still.

Und die blumen von meine Magnolien
sind Weiß in der raum dunkel
like footlights in the gloom
shining daylight past in the room.

Like magnolias, too, we bloom in the dark
putting out flowers brown by morning and
passing ancient signals through the
rhizomous earth from which we came.

It is the same earth to which we return and
what more can we ask of the soil mysterious?
Let it be together, we might ask,
let us glow together like blooms in the hunter’s night.

M.F.K. Fisher by Book Light

“Any normal man must nourish his body by means of food put into it through the mouth.”

M.F.K. Fisher, “When a Man is Small”

It is a cold winter night–cold for these parts, anyway–and I am lying in my bed, cringing my feet to escape the little insidious tendrils of icy air creeping under the blanket and reading M.F.K. Fisher by the miserly glow of a little reading light. I’ve progressed through thirty-five years of a reading life, somehow, without once encountering Fisher’s name. That all changed a few weeks ago, when an essayist I was reading mentioned her in passing. Since then I’ve seen her name again and again, as though a magical door opened from some parallel universe into this one and out stepped Fisher, master of the essay. 

When I read the sentence with which I opened this little anecdote, it was like another light, warm and simple and welcoming, began to glimmer from the opening of that door. I had to turn off the light, set the book down. I’m done. It is an extraordinary sentence. To set it down on the page and move on, as though nothing happened, must have felt like flying. It is a remarkable thing and I love it. I love it the way an artist loves a deft turn of the brush. The way a chef loves a surprising flavor. 

Perhaps one day, if I read and write hard enough, I may enjoy a glimpse through the door at a master like Fisher. Until then, I’ll try harder to stay out of the cold.

McDonald’s: Communion

A large Diet Coke and a medium fry.

It is the second day of January and I am on the 5th day of a “vegan cleanse.” I’m not quite sure of what I am cleansing myself. I agreed to the cleanse because it felt, somehow, like cleansing myself of the worst parts of American capitalism. Those parts that reduce thinking creatures to so many dollars realized per dollar spent, no matter the cost in misery, in health, or whatever other problems we imagine we could escape if we just had enough money. Enough money to be somewhere else when the knocker and the butcher come for us, too.

I said yes to the cleanse, but here I am: in the drive-thru line on a rain-soaked Saturday afternoon, waiting impatiently for the line to move up so I can find something, anything, without animals or their “products” in it to go with my drink. I still think like an omnivore, so I consider for a moment picking up a sundae as a surprise for my wife at home. It takes me a beat too long to realize why that is a bad idea, why it might be a different sort of surprise than what I had in mind. It’s got to be fries, I learn. That’s all there is.

There is something vaguely shameful about McDonald’s. Even if you don’t mind the cruel calculus of fast food, if you love the idea of an international supply chain delivering dripping death from the killing floor to the PlayPlace in a neighborhood near you, you’re still likely to feel a little shame waiting in the line at McDonald’s. You’d rather be somewhere else. You probably wouldn’t want a friend driving by to see you there. Perhaps our willingness to wallow in this shame, time and again, for food that nobody seems to actually like, is evidence that we’re all in an abusive relationship with the golden arches—but that is a thought to unravel some other day. Right now my order is up at the window.

I take a sip and pull around the building. My dog pokes her little shaggy gray head into the space between the driver and passenger seats, her eyes boring a hole in the bag of fries in the passenger seat. For her this is what it’s all about, really: food, always. I share a fry with her and think, in that warm glow of peace and well-being unique to salty, fried foods, that it’s much the same for us. Down there at the bottom of everything it’s always about food. Our lust for travel, our finest memories and innermost desires: food. Everything else, from sex to symphony orchestras, is a distant runner-up.

It is in this salty afterglow that I reflect, too, on the good radiating from this building. The teenagers working their first jobs behind the counter. The managers—if they’re good ones—imparting a new category of knowledge to their young charges. The meals on the table, directly and indirectly, for which this place is responsible. I think about the homeless men and women inside, safe from the rain and cold in one of the few places that won’t turn them out. I think about my father-in-law, for whom McDonald’s is somehow a wonderful meal, and the complicated generational differences underlining my inability to understand his opinions about this and everything.I think about my mother, who passed a tiny portion of the damage our culture has done to women down to me in the form of a deep and abiding taste for Diet Coke.

This place smooths, in a small way, the jarring gaps of age, of race, of gender and wealth and sensibility and morality that divides us all. Maybe that good flowing out of the front door offsets some of the bad flowing in through the back. I take a sip. I pass a fry to my dog. She takes it, ever so gently, from my hand and retires to the back seat. She’ll be back for more before I can finish my own. I eat another fry, savoring the salt, the hint of oil, and think, soon the rain will stop. Out in some featureless place, where I don’t think it ever rains, McDonald’s will continue turning cows into dollars. Tomorrow my cleanse will continue. But today we have shared some fries, we two, and that is all we really need.