I think it should be clear we have entered the Age of Unreason. Like entering into an enchanted forest complete with hallucinatory spores, you usually don’t know you’re irrevocably lost in the labyrinth of your own confusion until you’re hanging suspended in the web of some spider that’s chowing down on your liquified insides. Yes, it’s that bad.
So why do I think we’re already safely lodged in the annals of history as the most mediocre and irrational age? There are many signs, but first let me illustrate the problem with a thrilling story about children:
Once two children were allowed to eat anything they wanted. They chose to eat sweets and treats exclusively, because, being children, they did not possess the foresight or maturity to plan on or for the future. After a few months of eating nothing but sweets and treats, they were offered delicious organic broccoli, perfectly steamed, glistening with butter, dusted with fresh-ground sea salt and black pepper. The children looked intently at the broccoli for exactly no seconds, then promptly replied, “Pass the twinkies.” They died of diabeetus-cancer three months later.
See, in the battle between empty calories and healthful nutrition, empty calories will win every time if the judges are children. And this is the problem with the United States in a nutshell: we are a nation of children. Perhaps you can already see that my elementary alimentary analogy encompasses more than just food. It holds in the world of reason as well. As a nation of children, we don’t want to put forth short-term effort for long-term gain. Which is another way of saying that we hate the truth. It makes us feel stupid, powerless, ashamed, and guilty. We don’t like feeling that way. Enter virtual junk food.
So what is virtual junk food? It’s absolutely accessible entertainment that requires absolutely no effort to process. It rots the very instrument required to consume it, and it pretends to super-stimulate the most primal appetites of the animal parts of all humanity without actually slating those appetites: sex without procreation, fear without survival, outrage without conquest, accumulation without value, friendship without community. The list is nearly endless. Rather than bettering our circumstances, virtual junk food makes it impossible for us to pay attention to anything other than virtual junk food. But it rewards our attention with a constant stream of schadenfreude candy to assuage any of our vestigial guilt. You’re never as bad or as stupid or as ugly or as guilty as your next-door neighbor with a reality TV show. Sure, you’re big-boned. But at least you’re no Honey Boo Boo. Or that hussy from Real Housewives of Skanktown.
Recently, the Washington Post decided to discontinue its column “What’s Fake on the Internet” wherein they would uncover the myriad hoaxes clogging the inboxes and choking the newsfeeds of countless unwitting, mouth-breathing drool-machines. Why did they choose to discontinue it?
Frankly, this column wasn’t designed to address the current environment. This format doesn’t make sense. I’ve spoken to several researchers and academics about this lately, because it’s started to feel a little pointless. Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.
In other words, again, people hate the truth. It makes sense. The truth is harsh to horrible childish people. And it takes so much work to actually become something un-horrible and mature. So people have chosen not to attempt to be anything anymore. After all, no one thinks one can be anything in any objective sense.
So instead, we just want to feel important, right, smart, beautiful, wealthy. Being those things usually involves an effort. But feeling just requires the right virtual community feeding you the right virtual junk food. You want to feel smart? Hook up a mainline to your nearest comment section (the one under any article on this website will do just fine). There are a bunch of brands of smartness in which you can be petted. You’re just one “your stupid” comment away from showing all of your virtual opponents (but more importantly, yourself) just how much smarter and better-informed you are than everyone else. Even though you’re not. Sorry. If you don’t like it, you can unfriend me.
Precisely. By manicuring your virtual community, there’s really no end to the irrational things about yourself you can believe. Just pay out a little money and manage a few clever turns of mutual self-interest, and voíla. You want to be told that abortion isn’t murder, even though you are a living human being who obviously wouldn’t be here if you had been aborted? There’s a virtual community for that. You might be a man in objective terms, but you can find a community that will gladly call you a woman if that’s what you want to feel like. And they’ll do a pretty good job of ejecting any members from that community that might make you feel otherwise. Don’t have money but want to feel wealthy? Hashtag because-credit-cards!
Just look around you. It’s everywhere. Discourse barely exists. We have devolved into a nation of ape-like children who refuse to step even a half-step out of our comfort zones. We cry out like little brats at every imagined offense. We stare in gape-mouthed wonder at the flashing screens all around us. We giggle as we diddle ourselves and coo at our supposed parents in Washington, completely blissful in our complete ignorance.
And we’ve been this way for quite some time already. Sweet dreams.