pirate wires #96 // google nukes a whole ass historical record, our shapeshifting internet rewires the human mind, and is this the end of history? millennials hit hardest.
Quick note: a little bonus content for paying subscribers. Hop beyond the paywall at the bottom of the piece for further thoughts, and remember to join the conversation in our comments.
The things we don’t remember. Last week, in an effort to combat spam, Google announced the company will begin deleting inactive accounts as early as December. Targets include everything from Gmail and Drive, with untold troves of private data, to YouTube and Blogger, with countless public posts comprising entire chapters of our recent history. There’s no nit here on the policy. It’s the company’s prerogative to do what it will, and for whatever reason it deems fit. But today it’s clear that everything we do online is temporary, not permanent, and it can’t be overstated how different that is from what we all expected in the early 2000s, back when our entire civilization was trading analog for digital. Then, as Millennials entered their teenage years, our parents’ fear was what we did online would live forever. But in 2023 our generation is in no great danger of remembering embarrassing photos from college shared on Facebook. We’re in danger of forgetting — not only those moments, but everything that ever lived exclusively online. Today, that includes almost everything.
In 2009, Yahoo shut down GeoCities, an early entrant in the space of online “neighborhoods” now totally lost to time, a kind of fading that would have taken centuries in our prior human age of paper bound in leather. The overlapping worlds constructed on GeoCities comprised a significant record of our early online history: not a subculture, but a world of subcultures. On MySpace, an untold number of accounts were purged, not only from existence but from memory. Many of you have probably never heard of Xanga, but my high school friends and I erected an elaborate shared world on that platform as we kept in touch from college — photos, illustrations, essays, and a robust, lively comment section on every one of our personal blogs. The dramas born of our digital community were real. Friendships grew, several actually ended. The entire record is gone.
Just a handful of years ago, Club Penguin was a popular massively multiplayer online game. In 2017, it was abruptly nuked (a wild old story worth your time, for what it’s worth), and a small, unique society was reduced to less than dust.
In an earlier decade, many such subcultures would never have existed in the first place — the internet births as often as it burns. But the most impactful subcultures would have been erected of zines and books and songs and articles, which is to say they would have been remembered. This is not true of any subculture native to the internet. Today, there may be a few pieces we can read about the importance of this or that seismic LiveJournal drama, with some brief recollections of their existence, and of what they meant at the time. But such pieces and recollections mostly live on sites that will themselves no longer exist in five, ten, or twenty years. How would we understand the American counterculture of the 1970s if the era’s writing lived exclusively on platforms that no longer exist, an inaccessible body of knowledge itself influenced by Beatnik writers lost to time a couple decades earlier? Then, with no understanding of the American counterculture, how could we possibly understand what this country is, or why it functions the way it does, at present?
Millions of articles, chats, hours of video — whole subcultural births and wars and rebirths — following the lives of young Americans as they constructed their identities, and by extension our country, are just gone.
The last physically-bound Encyclopedia Britannica was published in 2010, symbolically marking the end of an ancient approach to record-keeping. Our assumption, including my assumption at the time, was the internet did everything our books could do and more, so how could the end of encyclopedias possibly matter? Well, no technology is merely additive. Every new medium changes the way we think, and by extension the way we live. Considered in the early days a powerful amplification of human ability, the internet has since replaced most of our tools for sharing, consuming, and storing information. That the majority of information we call “human culture” now lives exclusively online, where it is doomed to vanish sooner than we ever thought possible, is also not the only challenge we face. While it exists, information on the internet is a funhouse mirror maze of change.
I’ve considered the implications of our shapeshifting internet for a handful of years, and from a few different angles. Shortly after Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing, I wrote about the “dictionary’s” love of changing definitions, in real time, to fit narrow political agendas. Go buy an old encyclopedia while you still can, I warned. In Variant Xi, I considered the ease with which partisan actors rewrote their past positions online (also there are aliens in this one, and other ideas that can’t be remembered). Most recently, Pirate Wires published a piece by Kat Rosenfield on the stealth rewriting of cherished works of fiction, many of them without the knowledge of their authors or their author’s estate. But as dangerous as it is, the manner in which we change information on the internet is not nearly so impactful as the ways in which the practice has begun to change the way we think.
Twenty years ago, viral videos would make the news. We talked about the Star Wars kid for years. Now, you probably see at least a meme a day. Can you remember the last one? What about the last three? Over the past few years, anyone sufficiently online has seen thousands. The endlessly generated jokes and pictures live on the internet somewhere, lost to us the moment we release them back into the noise, destined for expiration in a year or two or ten. But they’re already purged from our memory, because our minds have reshaped in the image of our environment.
In Jump, I tried to think through the hidden dangers of rapid viral sharing. We focus a lot on misinformation, or censorship, two sides of the same debate that switch depending on who holds power. But men have grappled with these questions for centuries. The real danger of social media concerns the things we haven’t yet grappled with because they’ve never before been possible. What does it look like when panic over some invented story courses the entire planet in a 24-hour period? Or what about the ease of rapid social momentum, and coalescence, which is to say “mob shit” at scale? Covid was a virus, but it was also a meme. Almost overnight, the planet locked itself inside. Only three years later, and there is no commonly accepted consensus on who said what and when and why in those early hours of pandemic.
While the internet in total is a swarm, consuming, creating, and vanishing information, the social internet is our distribution channel, surfacing the most polarizing information available, and driving us insane. Our only escape is the tribal path, away from our natural desire for a broad consensus that is impossible to reach at the scale of millions, and into the arms of our like-minded friends. In this, there are actually some clear benefits. A national consensus sounds a lot like peace, but has historically lent itself to war — there was consensus on Korea, on Vietnam, and on Afghanistan. In at least one sense, we’ve returned to the era of our Founding Fathers. We live in a chaos of information, now, while our intellectuals wage anonymous war for the future of our national identity. But the scale of this chaos would have been unthinkable for the Founders, and we haven’t even gotten to AI.
Following a string of layoffs, and the end of its news division, Buzzfeed announced it will be replacing writers with computer-generated nonsense, in the company’s ongoing, sociopathic effort to command as much attention as possible, no matter the adverse impact on society. I recently interviewed Grimes, a favorite artist of mine now pioneering in the space of the open-sourced pop star (she has let the robots clone her voice, and share it with whoever wants to use it in their work). We talked about a world of endless art, and the liberation of artists from the Hollywood machine. It’s a white pill vision for sure, and I’m excited for many aspects of the future Grimes describes, but the implication here is also a digital world of more information than ever before, or at least before it vanishes — more information than can even be consumed. My intention is not to be shocking or facetious when I say we are approaching a world of information in such quantities as there will be entire volumes generated by AI that will never be read. Not once, not even by a living author. That is a concept that has never before existed. Ghost novels, written in the trillions, and forgotten.
The San Francisco Chronicle just ran a piece of satire in which the author posited perhaps our solution to the gerontocracy is artificial intelligence. Senator Dianne Feinstein seems barely alive, and hardly aware. Should we generate a chatbot version of the woman, and let it run the country? It’s not so far-fetched, as clearly we’re a culture now accustomed to belief in illusions, no matter how transparent, before forgetting they ever existed. The words of Senator John Fetterman, a man who appears to be seriously mentally handicapped, are often rewritten by the press completely. Instances of such journalistic malfeasance are pointed out, but nobody seems to care, because the practice is entirely in keeping with who we are. This is no simple degradation of our culture. This is the natural shape of a culture that lives online.
The promise of the internet was a free, immortal “library” of information. I myself enjoy this metaphor — it’s sticky, and core in some sense to human understanding. But it’s a lie. The digital world was never a library. The internet has been from its beginning an all-consuming, collectively-generated information swarm. It changes over time, expunging old corridors or gardens or cities, while raising new playgrounds and towers and stadiums, and it remembers nothing. New information is assimilated, old information is distorted, rewritten, and ultimately lost. Plugged in, our culture exists in some very specific sense, with rigid norms, and an entire, fiercely-policed, constantly-evolving language, but we don’t know why or how or where it all began. Elsewhere, our actual libraries slowly rot.
On this current record-keeping trajectory, the story of the 2010s will be edited and rewritten, before our eyes, into several competing myths. These myths will be sourced by links to videos and tweets and articles that no longer exist, with entire internet histories either lost to the chaos of information glut, or simply deleted. I’ve been told “bitcoin solves this,” a nod to the ostensibly unbreakable blockchain, but it’s been almost 15 years. When specifically is bitcoin planning to solve this? Because our nation has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and we need a cure — fast, before we forget that we’re forgetting.
But how do you build atop a world that shifts, and that you can’t remember? Grown accustomed to our blindness, how long will we even see it as a problem?
Tomorrow, will you remember that you read this?
A couple darling thoughts that didn’t make it in this week below the wall for paying subscribers. Let me know what you think in the comments.