"Hamlet' is actually about doomscrolling
Read to the end for a conversation with The Atlantic's Kaitlyn Tiffany
An Intense Feeling Of Ephemerality
For no reason at all I’ve spent the last couple days memorizing Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. I’m not an actor or a performer, I’m not auditioning for anything or planning to, it just suddenly seemed like a worthwhile brain exercise and a good potential future party trick to whip out (only while drunk, obviously). Anyway, have you ever actually read it? Line by line? Do you know, like seriously know what it’s about? Because wheeew, it slaps.
Charlie Warzel’s most recent Galaxy Brain newsletter was a perfect companion to me as I worked on committing the monologue to memory. He speaks about how the internet is, according to theorist L.M. Sacasas, keeping us stuck in the past, unable to move forward. My God, I said, as if undergoing a sudden transformation into a person who can speak intelligently about theater, Hamlet is actually a play about doomscrolling!
In Hamlet’s keen analysis from inside his own cloud of hesitation, it is the fear of the unknown which prevents him or anyone from taking the craved-for plunge into the sweet release of death. It makes us rather bear the ills we have / than fly to those we know not of. He understood how stuckness self-perpetuates. The equally frustrating presentness perpetuates, too, in Sacasas’ contemporary formulation: when everything is commentary, what else is there to comment on, but prior commentary? He says: “We’re not building toward new ideas; we’re relating things that just happened to other things that happened before that” — and thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. The internet is a forest of inscriptions, so dense that we are far too caught up in infinite fractal brambles of things said and done to actually make any real choices, and/or to understand our situation insofar as we can affect it.
This got me thinking about Jacques Derrida (I know…). In Archive Fever, a later work dealing with the looming digital age, he speaks about how the titular fever — what he identifies as a death or destruction drive — allows in itself for the ongoing existence of the archive: “There would indeed be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression.” Basically the only reason we’re stuck in the “doom loop” of forever talking about the past, as Warzel puts it, is because the internet contains both the constant production of the past as well as an intense feeling of ephemerality. “What is no longer archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way,” says Derrida. It’s a bit of a deterministic view, but it makes a lot of sense in light of what Warzel and Sacasas discuss: how the structural, temporal properties of the internet increasingly govern how we live and experience the world.
I was reading this article because it was offered up as a good primer on longtermism, a word I’ve been hearing with increasing frequency these days. The piece did a good job making me really freaked out about how apparently the entire world is run (or soon will be run) by people who truly believe that the deaths and suffering of billions of real living humans right this very second are totally A-OK as long as it’s in service of some utilitarian sci-fi future untold millennia away. Via Sacasas’ newsletter as cited by Warzel, the whole thing came full circle for me when I ended up at a piece by Substacker Erik Hoel, wherein he looked at the threat longtermism poses to the essential human-ness of humanity. He introduces “the Shakespeare test,” asking prospective longtermists: “[Do] any of us want to live in a world where Shakespeare is obsolete?” No matter how much the discourse seems to have disintegrated our brains at this point in time, at the very least we still past the test, and are human: as proved by the very fact that I can easily relate Hamlet’s indeterminacy to our current digital situation.
Everyone knows how the soliloquy starts. But here is how it ends: And enterprises of great pith and moment / With this regard their currents turn awry / And lose the name of action. After speaking specifically of suicide, Hamlet moves at the end to a more general theory of paralysis. The human condition of not being unable to move with purpose towards some desired future, which was bad enough when he was hanging around Denmark — but even now is being amplified further and further by the futility which social media mantles us with.
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Teaching The Machine To Shitpost
Casey Newton, in his Platformer newsletter yesterday, wrote about A.I.-generated artwork. “I imagine that in the coming months and years we’ll find ever-more creative applications of tech like this: in e-commerce, in social apps, in the home and at work,” he wrote. “For artists, it looks like it could be one of the most powerful tools for remixing culture that we’ve ever seen”
This is largely my thinking, as well. And, like Newton, I don’t think A.I. tools will stop with art. I suspect we’re moving very quickly to a world where all professions will have some kind of an A.I. assistant to iterate ideas (in fact, maybe this is already happening and it’s not being disclosed). When I was in high school, there was a “no googling” policy for researching papers. That seems laughable now. I assume 15 years from now, it would be similarly old-fashioned to tell students not to use their personal study A.I. to help complete a test.
But it feels like the developments in A.I.-generated art, specifically, are happening faster than I can keep up with. In the last week, my Twitter and Tumblr feeds have begun to fill up with A.I. art, except it’s all being shared like the screenshot below — with the caption the human gave the A.I. included at the top.
This was tweeted by an account called Weird DALL-E Generations and the input was “Joe Biden At A Furry Convention”. I think the A.I. did a pretty good job with it!
This has quickly become the main format by which I see A.I.-generated images now. The funny prompt the human wrote followed by surreal or sometimes upsetting images below. Many of them are going viral right now. But there’s another word for a viral image like this, one in which there’s text at the top and a funny image or images beneath: a meme.
This is A.I.-assisted meme creation. An A.I. can’t do the hardest part, the set-up to the joke, but it’s actually doing a pretty good job with the punchline. It’s a little uncomfortable to consider, but there’s no denying that that’s what’s happening here. And when looking at these artworks like memes, you can start to get a sense of what the path forward here is. Memes mutate as they’re iterated on. So right now the formula is human input, A.I. output, but it won’t stay that way. It’ll get weirder and stranger. Maybe the next step is A.I. input, human output, where artists begin to draw machine-generated gibberish. And then, maybe, at some point, it’ll no longer need humans involved at all.
TikTok’s Creative Center Has A Real Curious Feature
This week on my podcast, The Content Mines, my co-host Luke and I messed around with TikTok’s new Creative Center. It has a lot of the same tools that you can get from Facebook’s Ad Library and their transparency reports, but also has a few TikTok-specific features that definitely stood out. The main one being a section called “Similar ready-to-use music,” which you can find at the bottom of the analytics page for songs that are trending on the app.
I’d estimate 70% of TikTok’s success has been due to the fact audio can be shared and remixed on the app (the other 30% would be that its an Adobe Premiere that works on your phone). The problem is that a marketer or brand can’t just use, say, Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” in a campaign. So, TikTok now suggests a bunch of royalty-free music that they can use instead. I went through a bunch of them and I wouldn’t say any of them are particularly close to the real thing, but it’s interesting that this is a problem that’s being acknowledged.
A Good Tweet
The Bath & Body Works Queen Has Returned
Az4angela, the woman who went viral a few years ago for ranting about a Bath & Body Works candle on YouTube, is “back” on TikTok. Users discovered her account and are now making excited duets with her videos. As my friend Katie Notopoulos tweeted, “I keep trying to be cynical about it, but it’s hard to not just be very delighted when people from old memes show up on TikTok.”
But what’s interesting is a lot of these people never actually went away. In az4angela’s case, she’s taken time off, but has been pretty consistently posting on YouTube under the same name. Which seems to be true for a lot of the old meme people who
“resurface” on TikTok. It’s not that they disappeared. It’s that we disappeared. A lot of people who went viral during the peak viral age stuck to the platforms they had success on and are only now jumping to TikTok. And it’s not the first time this has happened — I found old Tumblr friends later on Twitter and Instagram. And it’s kind of nice. It’s good to know that our attachments to different people or personalities aren’t totally dependent on the companies running the platforms we discovered them on. It’s cool to know that we can find each other again online.
The True Promise Of The Metaverse
Ecoterrorism Is So Hot On TikTok Right Now
Here’s a weird TikTok trend: Doing wildly unethical things with the environment. Last month, a TikTok user claimed they were going to unleash thousands of ladybugs in parks across New York. (Which I think was a hoax.) And now, a user is claiming that they’re breeding a “frog army”. This user said that they breed 1.4 million tiny frogs to have a “frog army” and now the frogs have completely taken over their neighborhood. Since February, they’ve been posting videos of them taking frogspawn out of various rivers and creeks and bringing them back to their home. Unlike the ladybugs incident, this one feels more real, even though I really don’t want it to be. Anyways, this should probably not need saying, but please stop committing crimes against nature for TikTok clout.
One More Good Tweet
BONUS: Here’s Kaitlyn Tiffany’s Biggest Pop Culture Blindspot
Everyone loves to ask the internet’s most-plugged in writers and creators questions like “what are you reading,” or “what’s in your bag,” or “what’s your money diary,” etc. So I decided to do something different! I’m reaching out to the most tapped-in people on the internet and asking them the opposite question: What aren’t you paying attention to?
The Atlantic’s Kaitlyn Tiffany is an excellent reporter and, as of this month, a published author! You should absolutely go check out her book Everything I Need I Get from You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It. I consider her one of the best internet culture writers around. So I was excited to find out what big pop cultural thing she totally missed out on. And it turned out to be a real curveball. Find out after the paywall jump! (Hint: It involves folk music.)