A newspaper cannot exist: it must have a website. Newsprint cannot exist: it must become a burden. When Y2K came and went, it quickly became “cost ineffective,” and circulation of physical newspapers dropped precipitously. I’m amazed The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal are still printed at all. But they weren’t decimated by the pandemic. Paper, words printed on a page that you can stare at without straining your eyes, always being replaced in the 21st century as metal and motherboards rear their ugly heads. Corporate consolidation 40 years made the culture more bland; soft/hardware has made the world more inhuman in the last 20 years. Like any corporate entity, technology grows like cancer. Essays on spiritual death brought about by technology aren’t anything new, but as we move deeper into the 2020s, the robots are leaving more ghosts.
Anyone who’s traveled in the United States in the last few years has seen it: QR code menus, irate and insane passengers, vacant storefronts, fake drugs sponsored by Bart Simpson. The only “reliable” piece of technology is the smartphone, the one that the world assumes we all have, the one that they plan around. You will own an iPhone or Android product made in the last five years because you have to. There’s no choice.
A non-linear pop culture is no popular culture at all; there are only pockets, there’s no pool. Not knowing who’s watching what or when isn’t a matter of taste as a much as a social concern, especially when the “politics” became American pop culture on November 9, 2016—“politics” as another spectacle, better than the movies, something good to get glued to. You could opt out of entertainment, but evidently you can’t opt out of being “a good person.” Being cool isn’t as important anymore as being righteous—or is it changing? Are we living in 1973? One didn’t have to participate in “appointment viewing” like Seinfeld or Lost to feel good about themselves, nor did they worry what the community would think if they knew they enjoyed the films of Michael Bay. All of that belongs to the past.
A protest in Times Square supporting the people of Palestine happens blocks away from the listless Ecuadorian Day Parade. Manhattan’s now the city that Philip K. Dick wrote about so often in his novels: high-tech, but dirty. Broken digital billboards, fluorescent lights flanging all day, cyborgs smoking cigarettes wearing sweatpants walking with white boogers hanging out of their ears (a load for every earlobe). In the absence of entertainment, politics becomes distraction, and people flail as helplessly as ever trying to solve three impossible problems: how to be cool, how to become famous, and how to not die.
A newspaper doesn’t print pictures of women raped and torn apart. A person doesn’t ask to see violence, real violence, because that will never be a distraction. “Kids in cages” are still alive, still intact—we’re used to seeing people in cages. We’re not used to the blood of a gang rape in Live Mode, and to see how many peoples’ “politics” crumble as soon as they’re confronted with reality, is to understand why the physical world keeps disappearing. Jonathan Rosenbaum saw civil rights activists hit in the head with lead pipes in 1950s Alabama; Jean-Luc Godard went to Palestine before he made his polemics; millions of Americans poured into the streets over the last decade because they too had been harassed by the police.
A world will not survive if its tools run the show. The world’s run on an installment plan, an arrow stretching straight into the sun, the final stop.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith