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Choose Reality While You Still Can

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In the early 1990s, perhaps my favorite part of the week happened between 7:00 and 7:22 on Sundays, when America’s Funniest Home Videos broadcast their best submissions.

It’s hard to convey how precious this material was at the time. A good video of someone dropping a birthday cake down the stairs, or tumbling headlong into a kiddie pool during a dizzy-bat race, was still a rare and hilarious sight. Those perfect moments of comedic human accident were captured on video only rarely, because camcorders were still an expensive luxury item. To have all the best camcordered clips concentrated in one place was something truly special. Laughing at them with my parents and sister made for some of the best quality family time I remember.

There was only that twenty-two minutes per week though. (The final eight minutes of the show always consisted of Bob Saget drawing out the awarding of the weekly ten-thousand-dollar prize.) As with most highly gratifying things, supply was very limited. After that you had to do something else.

Potential energy

Today, those natural consumption limits don’t exist. You can watch videos of people fumbling cakes and falling in pools all day long. Everyone is filming everything all the time, and TikTok and Instagram offer endless reels of the funniest bits. You can watch wedding dances gone wrong, family dogs stealing unattended sandwiches, and spouses pranking each other with air horns and fake spiders — truckloads of what was once only available in that precious 22-minute weekly stretch.

However, if you spend any amount of time consuming this sort of content, intentionally or incidentally, you might have noticed over the past two years a dramatic increase in how much of it is fake or staged. A person falls down on purpose and “hilariously” flings their milkshake at the wall. A man plays a “prank” on his wife, who feigns surprise and indignation. A dog does a trick and the family pretends this is a spontaneous event they have never seen before.

Gatekeeper no longer

There was always fake content, even in the days of AFHV, because you can fool some of the people all of the time, and fooling people into giving you views and clicks (and perhaps a ten-thousand dollar prize) has benefits. What’s unsettling to me is how the fake stuff has recently become more common than the real stuff. Just Google “prank on my wife,” and you will see mostly obvious fakes, even though a real prank would take only slightly more effort.

Strangely, the fake “funny moment” video has risen to prominence even while there are undoubtedly more real hilarious moments being filmed than ever, now that everyone has a recording device in their hands 33% of their waking lives.

My theory is that even though the supply of such content has gone up ten- or twenty-fold since the advent of the camera phone, the demand for such effortlessly-consumable content has recently skyrocketed to ludicrous proportions — especially since March 2020. When the pandemic hit, hundreds of millions of people were suddenly home and bored and unhappy, and began to consume far more of this sort of low-stakes screen-based gratification than ever before. Even with billions of people filming each other carrying wedding cakes and attempting to ride unicycles, there are only so many genuinely hilarious surprises getting captured, and it isn’t enough to fulfil the bottomless appetite of bored people swiping through them daily by the hundred.

New content arriving in port

Most disturbing of all is how many people seemingly have no ability to recognize the forced laughter, contrived setup, and omniscient camerawork that make a fraudulent “hilarious moment” so obvious. The vast majority of comments are of credulous laughing emojis and expressions of amazement. When the odd commenter points out the obvious deception, the crowd either denies the charges, or argues that it doesn’t matter if it’s fake or not, it’s still funny.

Now, if you’ve never been one for TikTok, Instagram Reels, or AFHV for that matter, this post may sound like someone ranting about an obscure phenomenon happening in some niche corner of the internet, like Star Wars fans complaining about the latest casting announcement. Perhaps it is partly that, but I believe this counterfeit video phenomenon is an omen of a much greater culture-wide danger, which philosophers have been warning us about for half a century now.

Finds their lack of faith disturbing

At first I was puzzled that so many viewers could be fooled by bad fakes, when to me they’re about as convincing as a dollar-store fake moustache. Then a terrifying thought dawned on me: I see through the fraud because I was born in 1980, and I still know what real life looks like. I know how people react to real-life comical situations, for example, because even though I grew up in the age of TV, I still spent far more of my youth observing reality than fabricated representations of reality. Today’s youth aren’t so lucky.

How Reality Shrinks

The Media Insider did a pretty good video illustrating a phenomenon Jean Baudrillard pointed out in the late 20th century: art and culture starts out focused on depicting the real world around us — nature, people, and the cosmos — but ends up focused on depicting art and culture itself.

Basically, culture is the stuff we make that depicts reality — film, books, blog posts, photos, paintings, songs, video clips, tweets — content, in other words. People make stuff that depicts reality because they find reality meaningful, especially when it’s sad, funny, just, unjust, beautiful, or awe-inspiring. People write poems about nature, direct films about unrequited love, and build temples decorated with sun emblems.

Original content

But what happens in an age when cultural content is generated and consumed in such great amounts that most of a person’s reality consists of consuming content? And what happens when much of that content isn’t even depicting reality anymore, but other content made in the past?

You might enjoy a podcast about a TV show that was based on a book that was based on traditional religious ideas. Satire of satire. Memes of memes. Reality — the original reference point for all of this — becomes more distant and more obscure in people’s minds and lives.

Still here

Seen from this perspective, the plague of fake videos, and the inability for young viewers to detect the unreality of them, makes sense. Not only are people losing the ability to discern between reality and fabrication, but they’re losing the sense that there is anything better, or more important, about reality. To someone whose life contains just as many depictions of laughter as real experiences of it, a staged joke with forced laughter becomes just as worthy of attention as the genuine surprise and resulting involuntary laughter we call comedy. (Even AFHV was known for the creepily embellished laughter of its studio audience.)

We’re all subject to this “shrinking reality” effect, but the younger you are, the more danger you’re in. Members of my generation have heads permanently filled with Simpsons and Seinfeld references, for example (if you recognize the phrases, “You don’t win friends with salad”, or “These pretzels are making me thirsty,” we probably have a lot to talk about), and of course those shows were themselves made of satirized depictions of both the reality of the 1990s and the other content we were consuming at the time.

A depiction of a depiction of a depiction of… nature?

I have no solution to this problem except to be aware of it, and not to discount its seriousness. Reality can be devalued by too much content consumption, especially when it’s content about content. Perhaps we should make sure to give ourselves intentional daily doses of first-order reality, in the same way we try to drink enough glasses of water, in the form of regular nature walks, physical hobbies, and face-to-face conversations.

Habits of automatic content consumption, such as always watching movies while you wash dishes, or always cruising Reddit while you go to the bathroom, seem especially dangerous. When those routines involve inexhaustible swiping or scrolling, it may not be inappropriate to consider the habit a properly dangerous one, because reality has so clearly lost the war for your attention in those situations.

That’s the healthier ideal I imagine, anyway — I say all this as a very content-addled and addicted person. It’s pretty scary how far we can slip, even if we’re careful. Just as some of us are already lamenting the loss of the Era of the Internet Being Fun and Interesting, I suspect we will one day look back wistfully on that innocent time, which is maybe still happening, when reality still made up the bulk of our reality.


Photos by Caroline Veronez, Jeremy Bezanger, Diego Fernandez, R.D. Smith, mana5280

Geoff September 26, 2022 at 4:09 am

I always enjoy your topics David, but not as much as I enjoy your writing.

This is really next level prose. You have a talent for succinctly describing concepts, and writing metaphors that really stick.


Mel September 26, 2022 at 4:22 am

I was down with COVID last week and tried to expand my small, locked-in reality with an endless amount of supposedly funny cat and dog videos, people having funny accidents and Karens caught in action. Now you tell me most of them are fake… So, I will watch them ALL again this week since I didn’t spot them being fake and have to make certain now because I feel like an ignorant idiot. ;) And that all with me being 38 and having experienced reality in my past… Really good article, now I’m looking even more forward to being back outside in the real life soon.

David Cain September 26, 2022 at 9:19 am

They vary by genre. It’s hard to fake the cuteness of cats and dogs. But many of the accidents and pranks and hilarious moments are set up.

Tim September 26, 2022 at 4:52 am

This topic has been bothering me for some time now. And I was born in the 70s…

I’ve stayed away from TikTok and Instagram, but recently I’ve been increasingly sucked into Facebook Reels, which I assume is similar…

I can LITERALLY feel myself being pulled into keeping on swiping endlessly for the next short video / dopamine hit… And before I know it 10/20/30/40 minutes of mindless swiping have passed… sometimes several times a day…

And even as I am aware of it happening, I somehow just continue with “just one more swipe”… it’s so short…

And the joke is I see myself as someone who is pretty damn good at not being addicted to (the obvious) stuff…

I really feel terrified that these mediums are becoming WAY TOO ADDICTIVE and that especially young people with mobile phones are going to have their lives sucked out of them… with nothing to show for it…

I suppose everyone has their own addiction(s)… and the best thing we can do is to choose our addictions wisely…

But I REALLY fear that as a society we’ve mounted a beast that will by far more likely ruin us than us being able to tame it…

I am beginning to be of the opinion that social media as a whole is just too damn addictive – BY DESIGN!!! – and that it should either be abolished, or at the very least carry a 18 age limit…

Controversial? Maybe, although I think such an opinion will be gaining significant support…

David Cain September 26, 2022 at 9:23 am

They are extremely addictive and some of us are especially susceptible. Even though so many of them are low quality, it just takes the tiniest finger gesture to swipe it away and boom there’s another one. And it’s endless, so it feels inevitable that you will land on something worthwhile. My friend said “It’s like fishing around in a toilet bowl for golden turds” and I know exactly what he meant.

Paul Davies September 26, 2022 at 5:33 am

If you haven’t already done so (and I’m guessing by not referencing it in this post, that’s probably the case), I think you’ll get an unfathomable amount out of reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things :)

David Cain September 26, 2022 at 9:29 am

I haven’t, but I just put it on the list. Thanks Paul.

Ashish September 28, 2022 at 6:23 am

thanks for the recommendation. I will also read it.

Vilx- September 26, 2022 at 5:54 am

I’m not sure I agree with you on this one, at least not entirely. It’s a nicely written piece for sure, but it gives off too much of this “when we grew up” and “the world is going to hell” vibes. It reminds me of an old joke: Everything you encounter before the age of 15 is a normal part of of the world and how it should be. Everything between 15 and 35 is new and exciting and you can probably make a career out of it. And everything after 35 is obviously unnatural and will lead us to our doom!

Anyways, I feel the same way.

But I also try to see the good in things and remind myself that changes in the world have always been this way.

So, in more detail:

I do agree that fake content has skyrocketed. I don’t trust almost any “caught on camera” videos anymore. Anything can be faked. But I don’t agree that it’s the demand for material that is to blame. There’s enough funny videos on the Internet to keep you entertained for the rest of your life, even if you didn’t need to sleep or take toilet breaks. No, the overabundance comes from the supply side. People have smelled money and they are flocking to create such content because it generates revenue for them. And it generates revenue because The Algorithm which underlies our social media platforms prioritizes new content over old content.

It’s really scary how much influence The Algorithm has. That’s a separate horror story in and of itself.

As for people who seemingly don’t see the fakeness – I think there are two reasons. Firstly, the fake videos are _just_ good enough to be mistaken for real. Secondly, I think that most people who watch them just don’t care. They are watching the Internet to be entertained, and the Internet is entertaining them. What more do you want? In fact, we have a name for that – it’s called “suspension of disbelief” and it’s what you do when you watch two young Hobbits trying to deliver a ring with a starship Enterprise to Hogwarts in order to destroy a Death Star. Same thing here. The authenticity of a funny video is simply irrelevant to most people who watch them.

As for the effect this has/will have on public health… I don’t really know. Trying to speculate on that is like saying that these new-fangled telephones are ruining people from good old letter-writing and the society will collapse as a result. But if I had to guess, I’d say it probably will have less of a harmful effect than you might imagine. Although people (and kids especially) do sometimes consume up to several hours of videos per day, that’s still not the majority of their time. Other people still exist and interacting with them is still mandatory. This isn’t going to cause a societal collapse. Yes, it will probably change the way people perceive and interact with the world, but I think it will just be… different, not better or worse.

Of course, this is another thing one can develop an unhealthy addiction to – but then that’s true for anything that gives us pleasure.

David Cain September 26, 2022 at 9:38 am

Good points. The “kids these days” lens is definitely a part of the vibe here, for sure. But I think there’s something to that. My parent’s generation surely lamented the way we latched on to media and overlooked good and real things that were important to them. And they were right.

I don’t buy the “suspension of disbelief” explanation because they do believe it. Many will argue to the death over it. It’s not like watching a horror movie where you know on some level that the killer is an actor and not a killer, even though you do feel the thrill of vicariously fearing the killer he is depicting.

Interacting with real people is less and less mandatory, and kids are getting demonstrably worse at it. I noticed this ten years ago when I was training summer students. Each year they were less present in the room, more on their phones, less willing and able to talk to people when they didn’t have to. It’s a trend, and obviously there are exceptions, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it’s nothing to worry about.

Vilx- September 26, 2022 at 4:26 pm

Hmm, maybe you’re on to something. I wonder how it will all turn out?

Corey October 1, 2022 at 9:39 am

Hi David and Vilx: First, great column as always, David, and I agree with you. I also see what Vilx is saying. I think older generations tend to catastrophize what the newer generations get up to, as Vilx said, but I’m with David on this. Social media – the interwebs in general – are a really different and horrible beast. I find that there is almost no way of interacting with them that is healthy and sustainable. I’ve tried. Everything online leaves me tired, angry, sad…just, ugh. And I really see what David is saying with kids. I’ve seen it with my own: their inability and often unwillingness to interact with real life people. The phone is the way they prefer to do EVERYTHING. I rue the day I bought them phones.

David September 26, 2022 at 5:55 am

What a great post. Uncharacteristically pessimistic (not a bad thing), and very well put. I think we definitely underestimate the effect of constant content consumption on our poor monkey brains. And not all content is equal. Books on the toilet don’t have the effect of Instagram on the toilet, probably because of the single context rather than a constant context switch.

David Cain September 26, 2022 at 9:46 am

That’s a good distinction — the single context provided by a book compared to the ability to switch contexts. Books take effort to create a stable context, and you can stay in it quite a while, then bring what you learned back to the real world.

Keith September 26, 2022 at 6:55 am

Really good read. Thank you for that. I especially like how you share the observation without being finger-wiggy about it. But it is a really interesting take on the current situation.
Another data-point for you:
I’m a little older, born in ‘66. I certainly watched plenty of tv growing up, but as you say it wasn’t something that could be done endlessly because most of the programming didn’t interest me as a kid. I got kicked out of the house to go play with friends.
Fast forward to now, I consume a fair bit of content online, but those reels and similar content leave me cold. Im sometimes lured into clicking on one by a cut line or the still, but watching them is usually excruciating because they’re so fake, so I am not tempted keep going.
I am uncertain whether that lack of inclination to follow fake-seeming content is because of my childhood experience of reality, my length of experience on the internet (since ‘95), or just because I’m an older person with different interests. I’ll ponder that. Thanks for a thoughtful article.

David Cain September 26, 2022 at 9:52 am

They leave me cold too, but there is simultaneously a strange comfort in them, perhaps because they’re so perfectly frivolous and pointless. Their role in my life seems to amount to a way of procrastinating on having to consciously choose my next course of action, which is part of the complex of procrastinatory habits stemming from long-undiagnosed ADHD. It’s really horrible, and made worse by the fact that the occasional video is worth watching.

Katie September 26, 2022 at 7:29 am


Rocky September 26, 2022 at 7:49 am

The older I get, the more I value all things authentic. People, places, spaces, food, music, art, the list goes on and on…..Authenticity, or lack there of, these days has a lot to do with technology and the difference between virtual reality and actual reality.
It’s not difficult to spot what’s “real” in the world. Persuing authenticity is very rewarding.
My religion is Orthodox Wabi Sabi.
Thanks David

David Cain September 26, 2022 at 9:52 am

Orthodox Wabi Sabi sounds like an excellent philosophy for our confusing modern times

Pam September 26, 2022 at 8:37 am

I’m gonna agree with Vilx- on this one, who said it much better than I could have. I think it’s just suspension of disbelief in a desire to be entertained.

Maybe I’m wrong and young viewers are being fooled. If kids today are gullible, well, kids have always been gullible. It’s part of being young. I believed all kinds of things as a young adult that I cringe to look back on now.

Even when I disagree with your ideas, I still love to read your writing because you’re so good at it. And the funny captions on the photos are extra fun!

I appreciate that you take the time to write well and give us something to think about.

David Cain September 26, 2022 at 9:54 am

That may be. I guess I was not picturing kids watching them but Millennials and Zoomers. Maybe I am the only adult watching these haha

Kerry September 26, 2022 at 9:26 am

I tried Facebook when it came out. I seemed innocuous at first. Turns out it is a manipulative money maker for billionaires. Since then I sidestepped TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, and “reality” tv. I recognize a potential addiction when I see it mainly because I have had hard drug issues. Their purpose is to let you get away from reality, like the above mentioned digital drugs. I sympathize with persons whose lives are consumed by social media and are always thinking about the next fix. The shiny lure dangled in ones face hides the mind numbing fake world it offers.
Take your pick, gritty boring reality or a sugar coated one. You’re an adult. But the kids need to be sheltered from social media. It’s warping their world view.

David Cain September 26, 2022 at 10:01 am

I think at first Facebook was innocuous. People were just using it to share vacation photos and keep track of old friends. I can barely remember that phase because it didn’t last long. Because it was so attractive to people, it quickly became subsumed by the profit motive, which has changed the user experience drastically, and made it more addictive, and less useful to the end user. I often wonder how Mark Zuckerberg feels about this, because he was definitely there for the “wholesome” phase of Facebook, and now he is stuck in a role where he must pretend that is still what it is, and he’s too smart not to be aware of what has been lost and the harm it is now causing. I really wonder if he will ever reckon with this publicly, or continue to pretend it’s still a net good until he retires and dies. Amazingly, the guy is only 38.

Corey October 1, 2022 at 9:44 am

Cynically, and from all the things Zuckerberg has said, I believe he knew what FB would be all along.

Remember, The Facebook started as a way to rank “hot” girls ☹️

Jason September 26, 2022 at 11:07 am

Great article.

The scary thing to me is it’s not just fake “funny” social media videos that people have lost the ability to detect, it’s fake traditional news stories as well. I can’t believe how many people accept what they see on social media and traditional media without seeing the obvious bias and agendas. To me those are even easier to spot then the fake funny videos.

The ramifications of a dumbed down society that blindly accepts propaganda from corrupt leaders and institutions is terrifying.

David Cain September 26, 2022 at 1:58 pm

Definitely. The news is even more complicated because they are in the business of providing worldviews to people, but each organization is deliberately spinning their reporting to affirm their audience’s existing views. So even if they stick to “facts” they are still simplifying and spinning everything they say, even if only reporting certain facts and not others. Fake news is a thing, but even real news is misleading, virtually always. This becomes obvious whenever you read an article or news story on a topic you happen to know a lot about (say one involving your job or area of expertise). Every single time, they get basic things wrong that anyone with even a 101 knowledge level of the area in question knows. And if they get that wrong, presumably that’s true for other areas as well.

aman September 27, 2022 at 8:45 am

“Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this. …

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. … You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. …

You read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know. …

In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. … But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. … The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.” – Michael Crichton

David Cain September 27, 2022 at 9:20 am

I have been thinking about this effect for a long time and recently discovered this quote on the SlateStar Codex subreddit. I intend to write a post about it soon.

Eric September 26, 2022 at 11:43 am

So on point. I have nothing to add, other than thank you!

Oh, and one other thing: “Why do you hate my trains?!?”

David Cain September 26, 2022 at 1:59 pm

I choo choo choose you

Eric September 26, 2022 at 4:24 pm

Nicely played!

Jim September 26, 2022 at 12:03 pm

I have noticed this more and more with reels on different social media. I’m also seeing it more and more with the 1/2-hour sitcom. So many come out, and the laughter is obviously forced while the writing is obviously terrible and not remotely humorous. I’ve watched friends and family stop watching the shows after I point this out (surprisingly), like it doesn’t take a lot to break the spell, the curtain just needs to be drawn back. Too bad we can’t do that with politics…

David Cain September 26, 2022 at 2:01 pm

Oh man. I once tried to watch the Big Bang Theory with someone and I had to excuse myself. Once you see that the humor is just simulated, by making a “joke” and then adding a pause with canned laughter, you can never unsee it.

Jenni September 26, 2022 at 2:22 pm

I read a heart-breaking article in the AARP newsletter for September about children’s mental health. They mention the effects from Social Media. Snapchat allows them to see friends/acquaintances out having fun while they feel left out and apart from them. They can compare themselves to staged “perfection” in posts on Instagram and feel unworthy. They can fall into Tik Tok and down a rabbit hole-no matter the darkness. They can read about suicide until it seems popular and normalized. It does mean that they can reach out and bullies and perverts
can reach out to them 24/7. Statistics tell that 1 of 10 high school students had attempted suicide, and 1 in 5 had considered it.
It’s frightening.
I agree with Kerry. I rarely visit FaceBook anymore, and I have not gone onto the other platforms.
Children ARE gullible, and they’re also in danger.

David Cain September 27, 2022 at 9:22 am

I suppose one of the most damaging depictions of reality is the filtered version of one’s peer’s lives they see on social media. Even just making sure that the selfies we post are especially good (i.e. not representative of how we usually look) is warping apparent reality to some degree, and the result is that more and more people think they are below average at everything. I’m so glad I was born before this all got going.

Jon September 26, 2022 at 3:02 pm

Social Metaphysics is defined as an affliction where one’s reality consists of other people’s opinions. We are in a worldwide epidemic of Social Metaphysics, thanks to the abuse of the World Wide Web by individuals and megacorporations alike.

It’s estimated that automobiles have physically killed nearly 4 million people since they were invented. Mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, the WWW is slowly killing us at a rate orders of magnitude greater than automobiles have. Just one example: The proliferation of “influencers”, who are nothing more than evangelists for the religion of Social Metaphysics. Witness the Tide Pod and NyQuil Chicken challenges, and the widespread abuse of Instagram’s “beauty” filters.

I wish I had a solution to propose, but I don’t, and I’m not optimistic about our future.

David Cain September 27, 2022 at 9:28 am

I’m glad there’s a term for that, because it sure is a thing. It feels like we’re at the phase where we recognize something really bad is happening but we’re still trying to work out exactly what it is and develop concepts for it.

Somehow the NyQuil Chicken thing passed me by.

Angie September 30, 2022 at 6:06 am

The concept of social metaphysics as an illness strikes me as some sophisticated scapegoating. Marginalized/stigmatized people have to live in a world created by the social metaphysics of others’ opinions, with reduced and/or lower income opportunities as just one of many results. Social distancing cures the other-imposed aggravations but does not eliminate the…disease or evil? of others.

Sheryn September 26, 2022 at 7:30 pm

You made me LOL for real, I love your topics and writing David!
I didn’t just LOL, I (born in 85) got a smack in the face from reading this.
I’m quadriplegic and in bed half the week. I live in a nursing home. I’m ALWAYS on my phone. My reality is often less pleasant than the depictions of reality I can see online. It’s getting so difficult to curate our own Internet ride-or-dies as we head more and more into the Internet mess of moremoremore. We Internet elders must use our keen eyes to spot the quality content and focus on that… quality content like yours David!
I fell in love with your site (I loved your ‘how to drink tea’) in 2015 and broke my neck in 2016 then everything was crazy and now that I’m mentally sane again I went searching for your website again! I’ve missed reading you. I was going to scroll on past the email but you pulled me in! Lots of love to you and yours!

David Cain September 27, 2022 at 9:31 am

Thanks Sheryn. Finding the good stuff on the internet is harder and harder, and sometimes it feels like there’s less good stuff. My hope is that is an illusions, and it’s just that the big platforms have succeeded in shaping how we use the internet so that we’re always looking at what they’re promoting. I dream that one day someone will invent a way to more easily escape the gravity of “The Algorithm” and help us find the best stuff on the internet again.

Steven Schrembeck September 27, 2022 at 9:47 pm

You know… the internet is just a network. It’s possible to set up a new network with different rules

Cool club only.

I have a friend who collects “off the beaten path” websites. Personal blogs about weather, obscure hobby sites running on pure HTML, intentional geocities look and feel. There’s probably enough energy out there to stand this up

“Classic Internet”. Hah. Much like 1990s television, it’s impossible to binge. A show you don’t like comes on, the commercials make you wait. May as well go outside and risk making a friend

David Cain September 28, 2022 at 5:30 pm

Part of the problem of “going outside” is that people need to feel like there’s still an “outside” to go to. In the 90s, sometimes TV sucked and you knew there was quite a lot of other stuff to do elsewhere. Today I think a lot of people don’t have a very strong sense of “everything else” because recreation is becoming synonymous with online content consumption.

Brady Faught September 26, 2022 at 8:25 pm

I can’t help but think of Bo Burnham’s reaction video to his reaction video of his new song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZVMB8mrNO0

David Cain September 27, 2022 at 9:32 am

A perfect illustration of our postmodern times

Dean Wilson September 27, 2022 at 11:10 am

Good morning
Well thought out. I have recently been thinking about what my parents would think of society as we know it today. I’ve read everything you have offered for years now, I enjoy your ability to compose with objective introspection. This is an essay for the ages, I’m (approximately) 30 years older than you; my dad was approximately 30 years older than me. We watched AFHV together on Sunday evenings with my kids…
The thing I find insightful about your offering (and my parental thoughts) is that you could easily trade the prevalent media “circus” in any of the generations I mentioned and come up with very similar conclusions.
Both my parents were significant forces in the content of the Winnipeg Free Press in the 60’s – 90’s. A transition charged period where the story was all that mattered.
Harold quietly admitted to me one day “don’t believe anything you hear and only 10% of what you read”. This from the guy who had final say of what went in the paper…
Keep up the good work!

David Cain September 28, 2022 at 5:27 pm

Good advice, and of course goes double today. The optimistic part of me wonders if the unreality of our time becomes much more pronounced, it will be too obvious to people not to cause a bounceback effect. Right now, it is still quite gratifying to succumb to the nonsense, because of the pleasures of confirmation bias. But it is also becoming less tolerable in a sense, because it’s too overt to completely ignore. It feels bad and wrong and I think a certain subset of the population is tuning out of the whole circus.

izzy September 27, 2022 at 11:57 am

I was born in 1947. In 1961 Newton N. Minow, then chairman of the FCC, declared television to be “a vast wasteland”. He was right, and today it is an entire universe of misdirected time and energy. The public introduction of the internet in the mid 90s produced an uneasy feeling that something similar was developing, and the subsequent years have only made the situation worse. We (sic) have inadvertently hijacked our own minds, and there seems to be no easy way out. The future remains to be exploited, and it will be.

Steven Schrembeck September 27, 2022 at 9:40 pm

When no one is around to be capable, whoever is trusted to power will run the board without opposition

It’s tough selling an initially unsexy alternative, and yet, here we are. Aren’t we?

There’s good reason hope. Hope and act

David Cain September 28, 2022 at 5:23 pm

I think it is a new version of the same worry, yes, although it’s hard to argue that it’s not worse this time.

And of course the next generation will be subjected to an even more severe version. The other week I went to a Virtual Reality arcade. It was really fun — the moment you put on the goggles you really feel like you’re somewhere else. But I can see how in ten or twenty years there will be people living as much of their lives as possible in a virtual reality machine, just taking breaks to eat and get groceries and get the mail. It is going to be really tough for anyone who goes too far with it.

Steven Schrembeck September 27, 2022 at 9:27 pm

Reality will be ceded to the people who still know how to do things. The careers and skills of today feel eerily like the “over financialized” economy. Too many layers of derivatives in the market, essentially. Paper value far exceeds real value.

Likewise, if your sole earning skill is only useful as the 40th layer of a very complicated stack, it’s quite fragile.

These problems are mirrors that intertwine with the content examples. Even the term “content” is laughable and quickly becoming double-speak.

Since I feel comfortable monologing in your comment section, I’ll take a stab at the shape of a solution.

In my experience with machine learning models, they start off trying many random and highly varied approaches to the problems you show them. As they get better they stop trying oddball approaches and hone their approach (deeper and deeper exploitation over exploration).

There are times when a model will squeeze its chosen approach to the exclusion of trying anything new (this is called “overfitting”). The perceived cost of trying a new thing is higher than the cost of a 0.05% improvement.

They can get stuck like this in a local minima. Better than trying random things, but permanently flawed. It can only get better at what it already knows. It lacks horizontal intelligence.

There’s deep wisdom in observing the ways even non-human learning agents thwart themselves. Maybe those lessons are universal.

The solution in machine learning is to inject noise. Wiggle the stimulus around to be more unpredictable, change the penalty for trying the same things, etc. You have to shake it.

Force it to take short-term pain for longer term gain. Force it to temporarily be worse so it can get out of the local minima in search of the global minima.

I think we’re stuck in a local minima and we need to be shaken. Otherwise you end up as the 40th-layer specialized worker offering dubious value, being paid in promises that far exceed the real value they purport represent, and watching content that has no content made by some sucker on the 41st layer.

David Cain September 28, 2022 at 5:20 pm

Interesting analogy. No doubt we need to be shaken some way or other, but it’s not clear quite what that means for human beings. I remember at the beginning of the pandemic, it was often argued that this disruption will help dislodge us from our current political and behavioral quagmires, but it really just made them both worse.

Humans are different than machines though, in that something in us craves meaning. We want gratification of course, and we can settle into patterns of low-brow gratification, but I think that becomes intolerable eventually because it’s obvious that something we used to have (meaning) is missing. I suppose what a person does then depends on where they think the meaning used to come from.

Florine September 30, 2022 at 2:31 am

Very nice post! Reminds me of “How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy” by Jenny Odell, which has a strong focus on reconnection with the nature and people around you. Would recommend!

David Cain September 30, 2022 at 10:58 am

Added to my list. Thanks Florine.

Pipsterate September 30, 2022 at 2:37 pm

The scariest part isn’t that people are getting fooled by fake pranks—there have always been gullible people looking for a laugh—what really unnerves me is that people are even forgetting what real crying looks like. I’m worried we’ll reach a point when anyone who displays real human emotions is treated as a faker or a lunatic because they aren’t matching the fakers we’re used to watching on a screen.

Yes, people have said similar things in the past, but that doesn’t mean they were wrong. In 1950, people said the world population was the highest it’s ever been. They’ve also said it just about every single year since then. So what? It’s still true.

Jenn September 30, 2022 at 9:17 pm

Thanks David, great read. Thought provoking as always

ثبت شرکت October 2, 2022 at 1:42 am

Thanks David, great read.

JC October 3, 2022 at 12:48 am

And we’re just getting started with AI produced “fakes” – images, videos, audio, etc.

A key survival skill may be discerning real/true vs. fake/false.

David Cain October 3, 2022 at 2:01 pm

Oh man, this is adding a whole new layer to it. And it’s going to come at us so fast.

Chris Miller October 3, 2022 at 4:33 am

Hi David,

Thank you for your contemplative insight. I’ve been reading and enjoying your blog for a long time. I don’t know if I’ve commented before, but I think I may have something of value to add here. Have you heard of the Peak Shift Principle? To distill some psychology terminology into layman’s terms, I would describe it as an inborn, human adaptation towards extremism (and a lot of other animals share this too). You know what’s cooler than big boobs? Bigger boobs. You know what’s better than “cheese” on your Cheetos? More “cheese.” Extremism is exiting. We’re always chasing that boundary–but the boundary is the proverbial carrot. Dopamine and shit. And life is hard, so please don’t skimp on the dopamine.

My #1 soapbox to stand on is this: Culture and technology change faster than biology. How can we best take care of our health and happiness when there is such a discrepancy between the animals we evolved to be and our ever-changing environment?

There was an experiment that allowed rats to extract a reward, via a lever, without limits (sorry, it’s been a long time, I’m fuzzy on the details). They gorged themselves to death. I think in many ways the developed world are these rats with a lever–having overcome many of the fundamental ills of our ancestors (famine, disease), but now we have to figure out how to live with these instincts that we no longer serve us. Instead of pressing the lever let’s–meditate? Drink oat milk to help the environment? Go for a walk? At the very least, let’s talk to each other about this strange moment in history we are all experiencing together, please.


David Cain October 3, 2022 at 2:07 pm

That’s definitely a thing and we are seeing the effects. One thing that’s new about modern social media is that it really does provide infinite gratification, albeit of a very low-level sort. We are certainly not made for this.

My hope is that the misery we are starting to experience as a result will drive us to more durable ways of enjoying life, such as face-to-face interaction, physical hobbies, and spiritual practice. Those things never really go out of style and can be the best things in life.

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