An Anthropology of the Profoundly Boring Data Age
At some point late at night, about an hour after I say “goodnight” to all my friends, I hop on a shitty app that beams directly to me the worst content I have ever experienced. I want to smash my phone; I consider gouging my eyes out; I must scream blasphemies at the god that made this abominable nothing before mine own eyes possible. All the same, however, I hop on TikTok, and watch all the funny little videos the website has to offer. It never gets any better—and rarely it gets worse. I can’t quit the app because sometimes there’s something good on it—a terrible excuse, I know, but an excuse all the same.
The dystopian future was supposed to be cooler than this, right? Blade Runner promised me robots so human they were played by real people. Deus Ex promised me I could be a weird conspiracy theorist and be right. Cyber City Oedo 808 promised me I could commit a crime, and then become a vampire-killing goth twink. All we have now are Google engineers trying to tell me a dumb computer is a person because it did what it was programmed to do, weird fascist conspiracy theorists—who are wrong—holding public office, and worst of all: I’ve committed plenty of crimes and somehow I’m still not a goth twink! What the fuck happened?
Back in the twentieth century, when companies wanted to make their stuff better, they hired scientists and engineers to work in massive, internally funded research laboratories. We got transistors, computers, CDs, the first video calls designed to help deaf people, and a whole bunch of other nice stuff—we also got a bunch of really good scientific discoveries out of them, like the quantum Hall effect, among many other discoveries in the fields of physics, computer science, mathematics, and chemistry. While they were unified in their goal—to make better shit—they wound up doing far more than that. Capitalism does, by all means, suck, but that part wasn’t too horrible.
So what do corporations do now? They’re clearly not in the market of making anything better—they go by the motto “move fast and break things,” and YouTube barely works on my phone without the user interface somehow catastrophically failing. All of their internal research departments work in various fields, like natural language processing, quantum computing, and machine learning—all of them very impressive sounding to a layman, or even an initiated Real Scientist™. In truth, though, they’re all trying to figure out the same shit:
- how to make you spend more money
- how to make human decisions seem like computer-automated process
- how to get more information from you so they can sell it and make even more money.
And they all have the same vocabulary too—they all try to toot their own horns, suck their own dicks, etc. In some cases, like in Mark Zuckerberg’s dull Metaverse, they also want to find out ways to keep you in their fancy little machine for longer. Most of these new corporate research labs don’t publish their main accomplishments in journals like Physical Review—they might make a press release about their Customer-Focused Innovations® to drum up hype, though. Most of the time, they just patent it, keep it for themselves, and call it “open innovation,” because sometimes they let other companies come in and do the same.
In order to apply all of this, they utilise data science, which, while often shown as this be-all-end-all field of deep research, comes down to being mostly just statistics with Python instead of Excel. The methods it uses are designed, in social media, to do one thing and one thing only—to solve an optimization problem to make you spend as much time on the app, and engage as much as possible. Time, and engagement, are money—they are directly correlated to the amount of data a company can gather on you, and the amount of advertisements they can show you. The more data they have, the better they can “tailor” advertisements to you, and the more likely you are to click on them.
At one point, advertising was done by some of the most pathetic people you can think of. They were good at manipulating people, sure, but that doesn’t make anyone less pathetic. Nowadays, however, the Internet superhighway has allowed for people to get information at a moment’s notice—people could outsmart advertisers. So what do they do? What happens when people are able to see through a marketer’s bullshit? Simple, they hire scientists and mathematicians to work on automating the process for them—get people that can program, and make them create models of people’s entire lives. Eventually advertising will become so integrated into every facet of society that it will be inescapable—you can tell a lie an infinite amount of times on billions of interlinked devices, each containing billions of transistors, each made of thousands, or hundreds, or tens of atoms, connected to at least one or more human. The only limit is the amount of electricity the grid can supply, and baby, more offshore drilling was just approved!
Big Data is harvested and sold because it allows for products, advertisements, music, and culture to be tailored to people’s wants; trends are often dictated by people at the top—just take a look at WSGN. Market research then becomes less about gathering people into a small room and making them take a survey, and more about people-watching—a hybrid between a robotic stalker and a documentarian, where surveys, scripts, and questionnaires are sewn into the very fabric of the web. It is a feedback loop: companies create trends, which influence people, which then influence the companies (but only to what commodities the company creates). People talk about the ethics of it all, how it’s immoral and wrong to harvest everyone’s thoughts and feelings—to make it just another accursed share, another commodity-money-commodity transaction—but it’s business. Morals and ethics don’t apply to business until they are codified in law.
Companies nowadays are more in the market of creating “experiences” than products. The commodity you get—the thing you hold in your hand, on your lap, or that sits on the ground—is simply one facet of the experience: it’s all theater, it’s all Disneyland. And like Disneyland, you get people hooked on an “experience,” and you get them coming back just to drink from a fountain full of pennies and bird shit.
People on TikTok get dangerously close to evolutionary psychology race “science”—a terrible term, I know—and just use vaguely social justice–adjacent terminology to make it sound appealing. I’m sorry, but chances are your social behaviours are a product of environment, not your genes; don’t bring up epigenetics either—that’s about gene expression, not genetic code.
What makes TikTok so dangerous a platform is its reliance on data-driven recommendations. The “For You” page is able to scale and change with your digital footprint—your interests are catered to, and your biases are verified. People can, and do, take advantage of that. You’ve heard about this a million times. Most social media platforms do that—but there is a bit of an insidious difference compared to, say, Twitter or Instagram: you don’t get to choose what you see on TikTok. Yeah, there’s a search feature, and it does get used, but overall, you don’t get much granular control over your feed. Videos are better attention grabbers than text, and when you get attention, that gets people hooked on whatever they’re seeing. Unlike YouTube, which has become heavily professionalised, TikTok still has the illusion of being made by people “just like you,” using their phone to record a silly little dance, despite the fact that the people recording the dance live in LA, in a mansion, making money from corporate sponsors.
People take advantage so they can spread their bullshit phrenology. People take advantage by selectively pushing against an “acceptable” target, the “yt woman,” the “yt neurodivergent”—often not as a critique of current praxis or racism, but to get away with upholding patriarchy or ableism while seeming vaguely socially conscious.
People get on, and argue on the most idiotic, hyperbolic, terminally-online drivel about shit no one cares about—like who can relate to that shitty Radiohead song, or whether or not bisexual relationships are considered queer; none of it matters in the end. It is not only a waste of time, but more signaling to the algorithm—the algorithm wants to maximise engagement, and horrible discourse is a perfect meal.
Meanwhile the data feeds the algorithm to deliver to fourteen-year-olds content that glorifies the military, the state, and “Western” values—or in many cases, blatant ecofascism—to annoying, samey drift-fonk music; they are being subject to misogynistic gym-bros with no regard for personal health, creating what will become a generation of men who will be forever insecure about their bodies in a profound way never seen before—and for women it can only get worse.
TikTok is a platform comprised of bastards and fools who have no regard for anything they say or do, so long as it can be vaguely categorized as ironic complacency. TikTok and the rest of the major social media platforms are the epitome of everything wrong with everything—of data-driven consumption, and the unseen influence of capital and spectacle driving people to say the most inane shit for the sake of internet points.
Gen Z, my generation, likes to think that, since it has—and will continue to live forever through, without reprieve—tragedy, that it is immune to capitalism and spectacle; Gen Z, however, in its ironic complacency, is acutely vulnerable to spectacle, capital’s primary influence on the mind. And with Gen Z’s constant exposure to suffering, and massive, mindless fan collectives, we have become pathologising machines: our every thought, feeling, and action is a sickness that must be cured; our every desire and hobby is a red flag that must be lowered, and must be replaced with this month’s alternative; and when next month rolls around, it too must be lowered. Every aspect of the self must be openly and plainly exposed for flagellation—as one learns with a whip when they must—as every “ick” is a disgusting disease that must be exterminated with brutality. Many people on there say, rightly, “all cops are bastards,” but they never kill the one living in their heads. They love it—they love when the cop gives them the power to be cruel to the weird kid, and they love when it confesses their weaknesses in tandem. Humiliation is a disease—nothing beats them like a cop.
All of personality is manufactured on there by a vast network of machines. Disparate interests are sewn together to create new types of people: breakcore-obsessed transgender women, cottagecore, dark academia, and all manner of subcultures—now often labeled aesthetics—that bubble up and die from the internet tar pit. This isn’t new. Fandoms and subcultures can arise everywhere—people had a whole subculture dedicated to The Lorax’s Once-ler (2011)—but what makes TikTok different, however, is the acceleration of it all: things just start and die quickly in such a manner that it cannot be compared to a flash or a quiet whimper, they simply are born, and later die. The machine it not new—the TV always told you how to dress, after all—but it has been accelerated, and refined, as though aviation went from a P-51 to an SR-71 in five years.
Sometimes though I see hot people on there—that’s pretty cool. And sometimes I also see a video of someone playing some Sonic mobile game while bell hooks is being read in the background, so all in all, I guess it’s alright.
I can only describe everything I have said thus far with religious fervour because, in all honesty, it is the one thing that brings some excitement to this dull time period. In 2020, there was armed joy in the streets—in response to brutal murders by the police against the Black people of America, former citizens came to march, and sometimes it turned into a true riot, a personification of anger and brutality. In the end, it died, because the police were too heavily armed—both in their budget, and their military surplus MRAPs—to be conquered by the often peaceful, nigh always disarmed crowds. Eventually it simmered down again. It died.
However, Black Lives Matter didn’t die because it was overwhelmed by military brutality. It is true that, yes, people were gunned down—with rifles and “less than lethal” projectiles—and, yes, they were cordoned into tear-gas- and pepper-spray-laden islands where the cops could quickly destroy all protest. Social movements don’t die out because people get shot—they die because the state finds a way to weed them out from the roots. The roots are often snipped out by offering compromise. The police won because they successfully wormed their way into people’s heads.
“Please Mr. Bezos!—let me take a shit!” the worker begs. “I’ve worked for ten hours today!—is there nothing I may do to satiate you?”
Jeff Bezos seemed disappointed. “Did you not get your Amazon Basics colostomy bag?”
“No Mr. Bezos, that’s a privilege I can’t afford because of—” the worker cut himself off as he saw the reaction before him.
Jeff Bezos smirked. “The bathroom is open, just in that room over there.”
In a corner of the room is a large cylindrical part. A door slides open. There stands the throne: a toilet. On the side of it is painted “R. MUTT.”
“Oh, happy day Mr. Bezos. Thank you so much.” The worker is happy. He can finally take a shit—his day of work, after his night of Thai food and laxatives—his one escape from the life given to him as a true shit-core enjoyer —was finally about to get just a bit better.
Jeff just nodded and grinned in that inhuman way tech billionaires tend to do—rehearsed and profoundly robotic.
The worker goes in and shuts the door. It locks on its own, and the earth beneath him begins to rumble. Out the window he can see he’s on Wallops Island, about to be launched into space.
“Mr. Bezos, why?!” the worker, to no avail, screams. Beneath his feet wailed rockets powered by fuel that could disintegrate a man if he sneezed the wrong way within a kilometer of it. There was nothing to do but wait as the rocket moved him upwards.
“I’m sorry, but you’re going to Mercury,” Jeff Bezos whispered to himself. “This is a sacrificial mission—there will be no survivors. We will see you and we will hear you on the video feed. Now, more than ever, you must do this.”
Many people talk about the death of magical thinking as being important to the capitalism’s rise, but I think, as Horkheimer and Adorno did, that magical thinking has merely changed—the “enlightenment” has merely shifted the magic from the external to the internal: from providing God a sacrifice of an innocent creature’s blood to the sacrificing of one’s own body and mind. Many people have said that science—given the rise of Fordism in the twentieth century—is the dictating logic of capitalism. I can only disagree.
We no longer have capitalists funding science for their own profits, as giants like Bell and Westinghouse did. Companies are no longer invested in science itself, but instead the rapid development of technology and manipulating people—everything is agile, and a select group of people are made into influencing machines.
Indeed, during the twentieth century, not only did science fuel industry, but, at the top, so too did magical thinking. Companies funded retreats to “exotic” locations where spiritual teachers would make them better—the hippies became yuppies, and the world was at their mercy. Profits soared, and the “Third World” they loved so much became their slave; the end of history came, “world music” hit the radio, and the internet connected the world in a way vaster than ever before.
At the very heart of the capitalist economy is the invisible hand, and the invisible hand is God. Managers hone themselves, become more attuned to the market through psychedelics and performance reviews, and make employees do mindfulness drills to attune them as well. God speaks through the stock market, and as prices go up, it is only those favorable to God who will remain. Blue chips are God’s favorites, and the companies who are struck down are those of Sodom and Gomorrah—they have sinned against God so severely He destroys everything.
Neither science nor magic is the engine of capitalism, the driver of its continued existence: there is only God. God allows children to starve in Africa because they mine Him cobalt; God allows single mothers to work two jobs because they make Him money; God allows America to bomb innocent people in the Middle East because He watches them die, and masturbates with His invisible hand. Neither magic nor science have, in any way, the power to dictate God, because God’s will cannot be known to any one person. Is faith not the most wonderful thing? Do not the towering glass cathedrals in Manhattan make you feel liturgical ecstasy? Do you not pray to God for your bottom line? Do you want to end up like Job, being pursued by the FCC?
God is not—as a series of shitty Christian films have expounded—dead, but He should be.