Riffing on Venkat’s newly-envisioned class structure in The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial…
How do you survive the feeling of sensory deprivation brought on by having all your complicated, complex feelings expressed through the light emitted from a 7 inch by 3 inch rectangle?
Imagine a world where…
There’s an underclass who experience life only via screens. They work, relax and socialise via screens. Their bodies are numb, fat and weakened, their experiences are flattened and dead, and they live in physical wastelands that are too spread out and dangerous to travel in.
Everything they own is made from the same cheap polyester in different forms (injection mounded, extruded, 3D-printed, made into shitty brittle thread and woven into fabric that holds every transient stink forever). Everything they eat is made from the same cheap corn, wheat and soybeans in different forms, encased in saccharine technicolor labels with auto-generated imitation branding that litter blue-lit bedroom floors next to the desk and the bed.
Only two types of people spend any time outside – the vagrants and the luddites. The luddites are mostly older, although there will be an occasional precocious teenager, the kind of kid who you imagine in previous times would have gotten super into Shakespeare and the harpsichord when their friends were out getting hammered. The luddites live in remote oases in mostly deserted areas, in tiny communities of aging people perfecting a depreciated craft nobody needs anymore like macrame, carpentry and making ham radios. Perennially broke because of their commitment to ‘sticking it to the man’, some try to sell their goods to the mute smartphone users at roadside stalls, never making any money and stifling a vague sense that what they’re doing is pointless. Some are more cluey and have adapted to sometimes making artisanal crap for the elites, their souls hollowly adjusted over years to stomaching the poison of having ‘sold out’. They grow their own food and fix their own bicycles but they can’t afford their own health insurance and they tell themselves that the herbs are better anyway.
The vagrants are mostly addicted to drugs and numbed out from trauma – they scream on the street and everyone politely ignores them. Some push shopping carts and live in cobbled-together hovels; most people’s only interaction with them occurs when they rummage through suburban garbage bins like raccoons, and the bins’ owners summon up the courage to beat them away in a flash of aggression. Others wear the unstated hazard symbols of low-slung pants, gold teeth and blackness; they have colonized the outside to the quiet terror of the paper-pacifist elites. They are the only ones to really inhabit the outside, apart from the luddites who stubbornly ride bicycles and scooters and hack up a lung breathing the polluted air. It’s too hot and polluted to go outside, and the rich mostly don’t live there; but rather follow the trails of historical moneyed networks crisscrossing the world. While they live in secluded gated communities, they’ll fly in to megapolises, breathe clean air, have sex and fly out again.
For the elite, hyperconnectivity has uncovered and aggregated previously isolated intellectual and emotional jewels from every nook and cranny of the rapidly expanding global cultural empire.
Complex informal social networks form the backbone of hyper-specialized powerful subcultures with tentacles in every major city in the world, expressed as expensive fly-in-fly-out conferences, nourishing retreats and transformational festivals where close relationships flourish between people with the most unique and specific preferences imaginable. There are illegible clusters of people exploring the philosophy of the Tibetan golden age a millennium ago, or making millions on underground trades in incomprehensible crypto asset classes that most people have never heard of, or inventing new kinds of psychedelics and learning how to experience the non-duality of the universe through cultural rituals cannibalized from remote Peruvian shamanistic religions.
Every one of them has found their tribe, truly and deeply; taking advantage of the sheer categorical precision of the Internet age to discover their optimal lovers and allies, and then collectively burrowed deep into an illegible, analogue warren of private mansions, intentional communities and invite-only parties that no one could find unless they followed the same social rabbit hole down and spoke the same subtle, cryptic language that these communities originally used to signal their existence to one another. Every so often someone wrings their hands about how white they all are, and a vague collective guilt ripples throughout various performatively altruistic communities followed by the corresponding sombre and faux-vulnerable discussions of their own, icky privilege, but efforts to dismantle any exclusionary behaviours fail precisely because those inside the communities never wanted to deal with the traumatized and downtrodden anyway. Their communities are for people who have ‘done the personal work’ and won’t spill messy human suffering all over their tribe’s aesthetic and spiritual perfection.
Owning physical items made by hand is an expensive aesthetic luxury here. The elites experience all the richest parts of physical reality augmented by the wonders of the internet – illuminated interactive art, postmodern permaculture green spaces, visual fashion trends performed with the shifting emotional tempo of slam poetry and built with a combination of competitive thrift-store uniqueness-hunting and constant Amazon deliveries. They co-create ‘immersive experiences’ that embed historical riches into physical space, take drugs that open their eyes and ears to the cacophonous beauty of the universe, and fly around the world to have exquisitely curated one-night orgies. Million-dollar deals are made high on molly in a hot tub.
They eat meals made from hundreds of different therapeutic ingredients, grown or raised by artisanal farmers and then assembled into gluten-free, allergen-free epicurean delicacies sold by companies whose branding is built around proof-of-sustainability, proof-of-nutrition, and proof-of-taste. They zip in bubbles through highways and airports and air-conditioning from one private, lush space to another, without ever touching the acidic, incoherent world outside.
He ‘product manages’ the security of elections in 150 nation states (whatever those things are anymore) at Facebook. She optimises algorithms that keep the eyeballs of the underclass tracked on videos about pedophilia and Islamic terrorist plots at YouTube. Another tends to the giant server farms that store every piece of personal information ever created to be combed over, combined, re-analysed by looming ad algorithms that chase the underclass around the internet. He personally uses an ad-blocker and has disabled all retargeting.
At Burning Man none of them talk about what they do for a living.
The worst kind of work is work that’s boring but uncertain, or dangerous – air traffic controllers crammed into tiny boxes and doing the same thing over and over again until the unfortunate second when it isn’t and people might die from their lack of reaction. Much atomized work is like this – hours filling out paperwork that is boring but slightly different every time; driving the same routes but you’re in charge of a big metal box and people die in car accidents every single day. Most of the time, it’s an app telling you what to do, and you can theoretically log on and off when you want but you’re subject to market forces now so you really have at least as much restriction as a regular 9-5.
Few people have just one job, but the ones that do (with slightly fancier incomes) are at the mercy of bureaucratic algorithms when it comes to where they live. People are shifted all around the world for work, pulled through a tube into the same sanitized corporate box they were sucked out of in their previous city. Atomized employees are rarely relaxed or excited; they exist in a constant haze of semi-work that aches into the bones and seeps into the neural pathways. The ones with a paycheck worry most of the time that their job will disappear next week; the ones without one worry most of the time that their jobs will disappear tomorrow. It happens a lot.
Most of their time at work is spent either filling out forms for a byzantine corporate bureaucracy, or trying to sanitize or interpret the output of computer generated data they have no control over. They are under the API.
Some drive for Uber or Lyft, and their submission to the algorithm is made plainly obvious by the logo on their car. Others submit more subtly, trying in vain to stuff walk-in freezers to the brim with ice-cream that the inventory AI over-ordered on a hot week in summer. They open their inbox and every message is from a bot, demanding a reply on behalf of a company, which is probably owned by humans at some point in the chain, but maybe not. They live with one finger constantly scrolling; one feed for shiny, hyper-saccharine inputs (posted, scheduled and curated by bots), the other for outputs (fast-moving job postings – when that video game trigger finger comes in handy). Sleep is the only minor refuge from the constant pinging, invading one’s mind even in dreams. They huddle and daydream about getting offline, and trade secret location details for places with no wifi.
The atomites all conduct their romantic relationships over the Internet. Nobody’s making babies, but they’re doing a lot of sexting. Fingers constantly type bright but vacuous words and Silicon Valley’s emojis while the relationship slowly weakens from a lack of touch, like monkey babies dying of hunger while cuddling an empty breast. Their relationships are always either in a plastic, hyper-ok phase, or in a lull of despair – each thinks their long-distance relationship is abnormal, not realizing that their next-door neighbours are on Skype too, masturbating in sync with a lover on the other side of the globe.
At some point Facebook announced that those posting sexual content in messenger would be banned from the site (at Facebook’s discretion). Many spent a while mildly terrified that having sex with their lovers would get their public profiles destroyed. You can’t do gigs without a public profile – when you sign up for the service you have to Oauth into whatever network’s gonna be paying you using Facebook so they can make sure you’re not a rapist or a murderer or something.
Sometimes when she was moaning for him, strobing over a spotty internet connection, she was also wondering whether FB was recording their fucking in their database.
The future’s frontiers are all virtual, leaving peoples’ bodies abandoned in physical space.
The atomites live in a constantly flickering, dull haze of depression, fatigue and numb anxiety, guzzling down a constant stream of pharmaceutical cocktails and artificially generated rage-lust-envy sentiment.
The elites augment their environments with artificial intelligence; a lush, vibrating complexity interweaving living organisms with emergent technological phenomena; the creation of personal and communal artisans, curators and virtuosic technicians.
It’s hot, the air is toxic and searing, and everyone stopped trusting the news years ago. There might be an uprising or two of the most frustrated of the underclass in the works but it also might be the incessant wriggle of Twitter bots.
There isn’t a way of telling, really.