Sorry to be a ‘Negative Nelly’ (& co-opt a Lou Reed lyric again), but pull up a stool and let me tell you why the Covid crisis is really just a mirror to a species already in its death throes – the ‘Last Great American Whale.’ Fake news? It all started when a ‘system of tubes’ met a nation of rubes.
While the Internet was developed in the ‘70s and ‘80s as yet another mysterious tool for governmental and military ‘one-upmanship’, Englishman Tim Berners-Lee is credited with consumerizing access in 1989 with the World Wide Web (the same year Lou’s New York album was released.) The Internet was fun for a while. Snappily-named ‘Browser’ interfaces allowed you to ‘surf’ the World Wide Web til your eyes turned pink. You could play chess, browse porn or online classifieds, and send mystical ‘e-mails’ across thousands of miles in a relative flash (limited only by the speed of your dial-up modem.)
But as the ‘Great Browser Wars’ of the 1990s heated up, companies competed to give the user the illusion of ‘niche personalization’ even as they slashed-and-burned their way to corporate dominance of the digital space. Rinky-dink ‘chat rooms’ or ‘instant messengers’ allowed users to interact in real-time texting through the anonymity of their digital ‘handles.’ You could design your own website or ‘blog’ to spew content for others of ‘like mind’ to peruse (if they could find it.) But as the megaliths we know today cemented their control of the ‘new’ commerce and information distribution, what remained was another ‘vast wasteland.’
That dog will hunt – enter the Social Network. Chat rooms became delusional, inflammatory ‘threads’ and we slavishly tweaked our digital profiles to present our best ‘selves’ in digital space & time on sites that began as ‘hot-or-not’rankers for college co-eds. As we spent more time in this space (or ‘bubble’), we became sponges for whatever was thrown our way. More clicks meant mo’ money – the shit-coin of the realm. Newspapers tried to compete with the ever-refreshing flashes of ‘information,’ and facts became irrelevant as ‘cookies’ thrived. In the digital world we felt the illusory comfort of ‘community,’ and tribes formed.
At the same time, our bubbles became realized by the cellular era. We could take our illusion with us, distracting & insulating us from that pesky ‘reality’ thing that insists on rearing its head from time-to-time. What was a simple phone became our digital comfort-blanket, ensuring that you could always retreat into a colorful, reassuring world where ‘everybody knew your name.’ (We used to just go to bars.) Of course, they would also be ever-active tracking devices, providing constant details on your physical location, ‘browsing history’ and so much more. The demand for cheap production and constant profit from ‘new models’ of these devices worsened global inequality and established the new cyber-wealth dynamic in a world of dwindling resources.
Then a savvy snake-oil salesman with pressing mob debts played us right where we lived, and sucked us all into his circle-jerk cult of personality – a convenient ‘Trojan jack-ass’ for the old guard to hold power in a changing world. Loyalty to tribe and keeping the ‘others’ out became all-important. What we didn’t want to hear (medical experts, scary science) became just more ‘fake news,’ and a network that is registered as ‘entertainment’ became a ‘chat room of the air’ – a trusted source of more ammunition. Through a cosmic karma, we now live in the worst-case scenario. You want bubbles? OK – no more travel for you. Why would you wear a physical mask, when you’ve been made digitally invincible through your online mask? Caring’s for losers and science for chumps. What chance does reality have in cutting through the distorted fun-house version we constructed? We’re now finding out. Good luck and (if we’re lucky), see you at the bar!