Photo-Illustration: El Corte; Photo: Getty
We have officially settled into “unprecedented times”. The many upheavals, cataclysms, and major shifts of the past few years have now become bogged down in a numb sense of normalcy. And through it all, we meme: COVID, lockdowns, the January 6 insurrection, mass protest movements. In February, when Russia invaded Ukraine — with real tanks — the flood of World War 3 memes on Twitter and TikTok was not only expected, but also felt unnervingly natural. At one point, the more twisted, taboo, and fucked up the memes got, the more my own ability to stay serious suffered.
The internet reacted in other ways too, of course, all in similar ways in 2022: big headlines followed by tweets with quotes criticizing or reacting to those headlines, cute slideshows and sad slideshows and slideshows that really should have been. had a content warning, man of influence activism, solidarity profile picture changes and swirls of disinformation. Images of mass migration and literal war plastered the internet, becoming more content in an already crowded space.
Somehow, we have come to feel compelled to always “say something”, to respond to events as devastating as war in the most derailing and stupid way on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, anywhere online and publicly. We respond to the devastation with mild online performances that indicate how much we know and how good we are at caring. While this isn’t entirely new, looking back over the past 12 months our online behavior has felt like a mirror version of years past: more reckless, more unhinged, and more embarrassing.
So it makes sense that we refer to the places where we spend the most time online as “hell places.” The most popular of these is, of course, Twitter, currently literally on fire since Elon MuskThe acquisition of it in October, where QAnon theorists can now buy verification, COVID misinformation is not an issue and Trump is back. It’s devil time, baby!
And then there’s the current state of the discourse about those hellish places. This spring, an entire cottage industry of commentators, “reporters,” conspiracy theorists, fans, and opportunistic content creators went to work fanning the flames of The very public trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. YouTube creators with just a handful of followers could make videos—something as simple as a villain edit of Amber Heard—earning Millions of monetizable views. Many of these creators were lawyers, people whose jobs supposedly held them to a strict ethical standard. You could let’s say they were tempted or seduced into acting out of character or in an embarrassing way, as if a demon forced their hand.
But those thousands of creators, in the case of depth v. Heardthey were able to make money with a winning formula compromise in bad faith, anti-intellectualism and hatred because Social media platforms are optimized to do so. Even if you think you’re too good to be tormented by the internet, you can’t deny that to the extent that we become data, to be mined and sold, we are, in fact, possessed. And our spoil is fed back to us as empowering data, the definitive form of self-knowledge, everything necessary to make the right purchases.
In hell, the final punishment is often endless repetition, and the internet is now saturated with nostalgics.trends” that look to the past too recent for content, as if we are running out of distant history to repeat. Trends like “stay at home girlfriends” Y “thin is in” are trends not because they are new, but because they are repetitive. Since “old money” a Catholicism, we are seeing the same, and often oppressive, ideas being repackaged and revamped. Viral aesthetics and subcultures, such as coquette (known for its nostalgic interpretation of hyper-feminine childhood), are blurring the line between conservatism and subversion. For some, aesthetic subcultures are just guides on how to dress, but for others, they’re a way to test a more regressive set of values: what New York Times labeled as “reactionary chic.”
This lack of novelty—and I mean the kind of large-scale novelty that makes it seem like shit is happening, the kind of change that makes the ground shake a little—is often referred to as the Dark Ages. When presented with the bright flames of hell, we turn inward, receding into our own darkness, finding solace in the familiar insights that once helped the world make sense. We are stuck, both in fight and flight mode at the same time.
Trend forecaster Venkatesh Rao thinks we may have been in our own Dark Ages since 2017. For Rao, who tags millennial and Gen-Z cultures with amusingly accurate terms like “mediocre premium” Y “cozy domestic” a Dark Age is “a collapse of the historical movement.” Like Rao on his website ribbon farm“The strange thing about the last few years is that the general atmosphere has been charged with energies that to feel as if they should generate trends, but they don’t”. So perhaps this constant reinterpretation of the past signals a malaise in the present and a lack of hope for the future.
All this talk about hell helps us articulate a loss of control, connection, and direction that we often rely on to help us make sense of our lives. This is why, historically, a Dark Age can be a time of religious fervor, witch-hunts, and reactionary conservatism. (Don’t fuck: The The satanic panic is actually making a comebackthanks to QAnon.)
In New Dark Age, Writer and technologist James Bridle explains that technology today works to hide and obscure the aforementioned dark forces: “That which was intended to light the world in practice darkens it.” Sure, technology can help us learn more about ourselves and the world around us, but the reality is that it’s more likely to overwhelm us these days. However, being in the dark is not an excuse to lose all hope. We just have to look for hope in different places.
I’m partial to this metaphor for hell because it’s funny, irreverent, immature, and frankly, liberating. (All the memes say there’s more fun in hell.) In a way, it’s a hopeful way of looking at things. A Dark Age can be a turning point or, as Rao would say, “it’s like being in calm weather that always threatens to turn stormy but never does.” Being stuck doesn’t have to be a tragedy; it just buys us more time. We tend to move in the dark with our arms outstretched; our bodies move more slowly, and at first we panic, but then our vision adjusts.
So maybe these times and the chaos and disorder are crucial to moving towards flexibility and resilience. My hope for the next year, and many years beyond, is that we stop talking and thinking about technology as if it were some occult practice dealing with powerful clouds or mystical algorithms. It is the cumulative application of human knowledge, and that is all our knowledge. If we can make memes and speeches, we can certainly dream of a better internet. And hell, with its great bright flames, could be the twisted light source we need to see the future we really want.