Under the weeping, Willow.

If ever you’ve found yourself on a Saturday afternoon in the Spring sitting in your living room and hearing the moaning howl of some deep, barrel-chested dog outside your window only to turn around and see that it’s actually Willow, your eight-pound, thirteen-year-old cat making her way across the living room on her recently-ataxic back legs from the old office-chair backrest on which she likes to sleep under an end-table in the corner to the small “mud room” hallway where the litter box is, then you know the start of how I spent another weekend at DoveLewis Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Hospital.

First things first: this does not end with Willow’s death, either of natural causes or through euthanasia. That there would not have been such a surrender today is not something I’d have dared guarantee to anyone this morning, although a surrender of a different sort is where we’ve ultimately landed, but that’s getting ahead of things as we’re still back there on a Saturday afternoon and not here on a Monday afternoon in a drizzle of rain as I try starting to draft this while sitting outside a coffee shop in St. Johns where I’ve gone to have a latte and try to get some clear space for myself, both internal and external.

Continue reading “Under the weeping, Willow.”

Now.

I think there comes a point at which things hit a complexity threshold beyond which my autistic need for structure and predictability is stymied, and a cognitive claustrophobia traps me in cascading executive function failures. If I’m not already at that point, I’m orbiting it like a companion star spiraling the gravity well of a singularity. I’d a waking moment very, very recently whose dissociation felt exactly, and I mean exactly, like I was amidst a nightmare and could not make myself wake.

Credit where it’s not due.

Drew Austin, whose newsletter I enjoy, managed in the latest to link to an Alex Gutentag piece for Compact, which made me mentally exclaim, “Oh, no” for two reasons—the first of which being Sarah Jones’ recent piece for New York Magazine.

Compact magazine, which launched on Tuesday, boasts grand designs. “Our editorial choices are shaped by our desire for a strong social-democratic state that defends community — local and national, familial and religious — against a libertine left and a libertarian right,” it declares on its website. Yet there’s Glenn Greenwald, a libertarian gay man, and Slavoj Žižek, who’s difficult to categorize as anything but an elevated troll, on the masthead, along with Adrian Vermeuele, a Catholic integralist. What interests do they share with Vermeule, a legal scholar who’d put the world under a theocratic yoke and call it liberty?

The question matters because Compact is a symptom of something larger than the magazine itself. There is a rich business to be done in subversion or the imitation thereof. Greenwald is an expert purveyor of this pseudo-contrarianism, having fashioned himself a victim of the liberal media. Grievance is what he shares with Compact’s other contributors: a sense of being shut out from a world that should welcome him. For all Compact’s pretensions to the contrary, there’s nothing novel about this contemporary contrarianism. It’s just reactionary to the core.

(This in itself makes me think now of Lyz Lenz complaining this week about being “trapped in a hell where the people who believe they are silenced get all the headlines”.)

The second reason for my internal dismay is the actual content of the Compact piece in question.

It isn’t difficult to see how increasing desperation, ignorance, and instability can make the global population easier for elites to control. Along with these economic and social shifts came political transformations that subverted liberal-democratic norms. Although there is much concern about the potential development of a social-credit system in the West, many people don’t realize that a precursor to social credit has already been tested on us: the vaccine passport.

[…] In Canada, for example, unvaccinated people weren’t permitted to travel on trains or planesprecisely one of the punishments that can befall individuals who find themselves on the Chinese Supreme Court’s list of “discredited” people.

I can’t decide if this idea of vaccine passports being a trial run for a Chinese-style social credit system is a stone’s throw or spitting distance from the 1980s conspiracy theory that the advent of bar codes was evidence of the rise of the beast.

Resources make life, and emergencies, easier.

Let me just say that it should be unsurprising, as written up for The Conversation by researchers Catherine Ettman and Sandro Galea, that pandemic depression was “prevalent and persistent”—and just as unsurprising “that financial assets helped reduce the persistence of symptoms”.

Most striking to us was that a year into the pandemic, depression rates remained high, despite hopeful signs of reducing infections and deaths. In April 2021, people were lining up for COVID-19 vaccine shots, doctors were finding better COVID-19 treatmentsand efforts to reopen society were under way. But by that point, the share of adults in our survey reporting symptoms of depression had gone up to 32.8%.

Worse yet, that higher 2021 number included 20.3% who had reported symptoms of depression both in April 2020 and in April 2021. This finding suggests that poor mental health driven by the pandemic was both prevalent and persistent.

Ettman and Galea found that in 2020 “people who came into the pandemic with relatively few assets – especially financial ones – were more likely to be affected by COVID-19-related stresses”, while in 2021 “people in households earning less than US$20,000 a year were 3.5 times as likely to report persistent depression symptoms as those making $75,000”, while “people who had $5,000 or more in savings or a bank account reported less persistent depression”.

None of this is surprising precisely because we live in society in which people already experience the pressures of the intrinsic field which tells them as a matter of routine that their economic worth determines their value. The added pressure of a global pandemic couldn’t do anything but make that even more evident to them. Of course we’ve been depressed, persistently.

Spoiler alert.

It’s another day where I don’t have much to say because everything but I thought it was worth noting some of the parallels between s.e. smith on disability hierarchies (I don’t remember what blog or newsletter linked this, but it’s from 2021) and Jonathan Malesic on burnout one-upmanship this past week.

They aren’t analogous things (which is why I chose “parallels” instead), but together they got me to thinking about how the intrinsic field pushing us toward conformity and performance does its work in part by convincing us that there isn’t enough to go around. Its power is dependent upon the idea of scarcity.

The reason we have able people telling some disabled people that they aren’t disabled, and disabled people telling other disabled people that they aren’t disabled enough; the reason we have millennials, and black people, and autistic people all vying to have their voices heard in the burnout discourse—it’s because the intrinsic field makes for us so many battlefields.

Thing is, it doesn’t take much to convince us of this, because as it stands today it’s actually true. Not because there inherently isn’t enough to go around but because those with the wealth have convinced us that they deserve not just the lion’s share but some of the lamb’s, too, all out of proportion to the work they put into gaining it and at the expense of those whose work provided it to them.

The intrinsic field relies upon sowing these sorts of divisions between the various degrees, forms, and types of have-nots. The more we fight amongst ourselves for the scraps, the more they get to roll around in the spoils.

Silicon Valley is neither model nor mirror.

I’m having a difficult time with Carolyn Chen’s piece for The Atlantic purporting to show “what the anti-work discourse gets wrong”, and I think in part it’s because she seems to generalize from conversations she had with people who work in Silicon Valley.

Contrary to the new wisdom, work does love us back. That’s what I found while researching my new book, Work Pray Code, a study of work and spirituality in Silicon Valley tech firms, which are sometimes seen as models for American work culture. Despite professionals benefiting in several ways from our jobs, many of us talk about work as extractive: We say that we sell our souls at work; we describe it as draining. But in Silicon Valley, work is where many people find their souls. Over the course of five years, I interviewed more than 100 tech-industry professionals who echoed this sentiment. One young engineer, a former evangelical Christian who moved from Georgia to join a San Francisco start-up, told me that he had transferred his fervor for religion onto work. His company became his new faith community, providing him with the belonging, meaning, and mission that he’d once found in his church back home. In the fellowship of his start-up, he developed the faith that their enterprise social-networking app would “change the world.” The engineer was one of many people who described themselves as becoming more “whole,” “spiritual,” or “connected” because of work.

It might seem from this that she’s distancing the Silicon Valley work ethic from that of others, given that she mentions how people describe their jobs, but the bulk of the piece appears to be suggesting that these complaints we have about work are lies we tell ourselves. In reality, Chen seems to be saying, we love work—and, per the above, it loves us back.

That last bit especially is ludicrous. The mere fact that human resource professionals claim they create environments where workers can “be that fulfilled person”, or that their job is to “nourish peoples’ souls when they are working so hard”; or the fact that Silicon Valley behemoths “bring in Buddhist teachers and have dedicated meditation rooms”, or provide senior leaders with “spiritual advisers”—none of this is proof that work loves us, let alone loves us back.

Silicon Valley is not the world of work that most people experience, in pretty much any way, shape, or form. The religious fervor with which the denizens of Silicon Valley see themselves and their “callings” is a kind of lunacy; it’s not Chen’s new religion. It’s a cult.

The fact that “70 percent of professionals said that their sense of purpose is defined by their work” doesn’t confirm that most workers in general view work the way Silicon Valley does. That people find their purpose in work doesn’t mean they find their fulfillment there. That they find their purpose in work might not be because work is satisfying an existential need but because our society doesn’t let people find their “purpose” anywhere other than work. We are very nearly required to do so.

That same survey cited by Chen also found that “nearly two-thirds of US-based employees we surveyed said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life” and “nearly half said that they are reconsidering the kind of work they do because of the pandemic”. This is not a sign that people consider it fulfilling that they’ve little choice in that their job is their purpose.

One of the problems with the way Silicon Valley has “pioneered” some sort of woo-woo work place wellness program is that it treats the problem of existential dissatisfaction as an individualized problem of personal actualization. To paraphrase Jonathan Malesic today (who was speaking of burnout), the answer to this existential dissatisfaction isn’t individualized; it has to be more collective.

To be fair, my problem is that I don’t understand what Chen is after, because on that one hand I think she misconstrues the “purpose” thing. On the other hand, Chen, too, sees that the answers can’t come from the individual.

Even for those of us who have started looking elsewhere for fulfillment by starting a new hobby, taking a sabbatical, or securing a better, more meaningful job, all of these solutions leave the theocracy of work intact. These individual actions do nothing to change a system that concentrates all of its material, social, and spiritual rewards in the institution of work. The only way to reorient is by revitalizing and building shared “houses of worship” outside of work, changing the structures that organize our fulfillment. These houses of worship would have to claim our time, energy, and devotion like work does. We would have to sacrifice and submit to their demands, as we do for work. We would have to build communities of belonging, together seeking meaning and purpose outside of our productive labor. These houses of worship needn’t be only religious ones; they could also be our co-ops, neighborhoods, unions, reading groups, or political clubs—anything in the panoply of civic organizations that can help us visualize human flourishing that rises above a company’s bottom line.

Yes, to all of this. What I can’t seem to grasp is why Chen thinks that the way Silicon Valley thinks about work is the same as the way everyone else thinks about work. There’s a certain sort of messianic culture in and around Silicon Valley, and I do think many people there truly believe in what they are doing. That’s simply not true for everyone else.

Do most people not want to be bored at work? Do they not want to feel like they are wasting their time? Do they want to feel some degree of satisfaction? Sure. But I simply don’t think it’s the case that most people actually want work to be the source (originally I typo’d “course”, which does also fit) of their purpose. They see it as their purpose because we’ve given them no choice in the matter.

Here’s my doped-up cat.

Meru all hopped up on goofballs.

It was somewhat accidental, but I’ve ended up blogging exactly once a day here. Today got away from me, as one of my two cats was off having dental surgery, and I buried myself in housework while she was at the veterinary clinic. So, this post is mostly filler. I don’t intend to post short asides like this, and I don’t intend to post photos. I just wanted to keep up with daily posting but not have to try too hard today.

Welcome to the occupation.

Sam Haselby writing for Aeon has a good look at the hows and whys of America’s work ethic mythology, suggesting in part that we tend to think about the entire thing kind of backwards and so misconstrue what most of us might actually believe.

The economist Juliet Schor, however, found that workers have adjusted their expectations as work hours increased. On surveys, they reported satisfaction with their hours, despite reporting a preference for shorter hours in previous years. She concluded that workers ended up ‘wanting what they get’ rather than ‘getting what they want’. The work ethic, in other words, is a form of resignation, a product of defeat.

Attributing our exceptional work hours to an ideology woefully mistakes cause for effect. Ideology isn’t the driver of our lived experiences, but the product of them. Our ideological commitment to work is the result of incessant and repeated activity – literally doing our jobs day in and day out. And there’s nothing we do with as much regularity, intensity and unquestioned submission as work. We rationalise our quotidian experiences by shaping belief systems to accommodate them, not the other way around. 

Haselby also gives a familiar refrain: that we’re compelled by “a need to prove ourselves as worthy citizens in capitalist society”, because “those deemed worthy – of benefits, rights, privileges, entitlements – are those who can show they do legitimate paid work […] and have therefore contributed to the state of the nation”. This is that intrinsic field I’ve talked about, guiding us both implicitly and explicitly to conform and perform—or else.

This is why earlier I was so taken by an eighteen-year-old piece by Sunny Taylor that talked about how the only way society has figured out how to make the disabled and the elderly productive is by converting them into mere “beds” for the nursing home industry.

In other words, we tell ourselves a story (as we do) to try to make some semblance of sense out of the cognitive dissonance that our lives do not actually match our needs; or our sense of worth our knowledge of our own innate, human value. Out of fear, we tempt overload and burnout, lest we be deemed to be of no use, and only good to be warehoused for someone else’s financial benefit or simply to be forgotten and abandoned to the elements.

Your autistic pandemic.

More than once on a previous incarnation of this blog, I’ve kind of marveled at the number of pandemic experiences people were reporting that easily seemed to be analogues for what it’s like to be autistic. It began nearly two years ago when folks like Maxfield Sparrow reacted to a Manyu Jiang story on “Zoom fatigue” for BBC Worklife by noting that it was “a taste of the autistic experience”.

(I should note that this post will be a bit sloppy. It’s a little bit cobbled together from older posts and a little bit haphazard because that’s how I’m feeling at the moment. I almost left it unpublished because reading it through made me feel claustrophobic and unsatisfied. It’s entirely possible that it will get taken down.)

It’s why I can’t work a traditional full-time job. All that constant scrutinizing and analyzing and feeling out of sync…that’s what every moment of every day of my entire life feels like when I’m interacting with people in person. I had a job once digging pits with a shovel, alone. At the end of the day I had twenty times more energy than after a day at any other job I’ve had, because interacting with people is that exhausting. (And I’m an extrovert.)

If you are socially disoriented by Zoom and desperate for the pandemic to be over so you can return to comfortable, easy socializing, please lean into that feeling and remember it later. For me and for many Autistic people, there is no end to that experience. It is where we live and it is why some of us are among the most anxious people you’ll ever meet.

C. M. Condo made a similar observation in response to some Julia Sklar reporting for National Geographic about what’s happening to the brain during “Zoom fatigue”.

This article discusses how taxing social interaction is over video platforms because of challenges in interpreting unspoken information, which may be obscured or absent due to teleconferencing platform issues. Critically, it discusses the amount of concentration required and how exhausting it is, something those of us on the spectrum are all too familiar with, as this is how hard communication is for us all the time

Other disability communities found complaints of “Zoom fatigue” similarly familiar, in ways somewhat analogous to autistics. Patrick deHahn focused on the deaf community for Quartz.

“Zoom fatigue” is also about the feeling of always having to be “on.” The endless video calls for work or leisure are exhausting. It’s similar to—but not nearly the same as—how deaf and hard of hearing individuals never stop working in processing sounds, despite the barriers, and translating what they mean throughout each day.

It wasn’t just “Zoom fatigue”. Sarah Manavis reported for The New Statesman on people having difficulty focusing or concentrating during the pandemic due to the sustained stress.

This brings us to our current situation, in which we are being faced with danger that is ongoing but not acute. It means that, rather than dealing with the immediate danger and then moving on, we are cutting off the part of our brain that helps us think beyond the primitive – for extended periods of time. And our ability to focus is significantly affected.

This, too, is akin to the ways in which autistic people often find they need to navigate the world around them: like an ongoing stressor that precludes us from “dealing with the immediate stress and then moving on”.

Tim Kreider in The Atlantic looked at people having difficulty with the idea of re-entering normative society after the adjustments of the pandemic.

“For the last year,” a friend recently wrote to me, “a lot of us have been enjoying unaccustomed courtesy and understanding from the world.” When people asked how you were doing, no one expected you to say “Fine.” Instead, they asked, “How are you holding up?” and you’d answer, “Well, you know.” […] You could admit that you’d accomplished nothing today, this week, all year. Having gotten through another day was a perfectly respectable achievement. I considered it a pass-fail year, and anything you had to do to get through it […] was an acceptable cost of psychological survival. Being “unable to deal” was a legitimate excuse for failing to answer emails, missing deadlines, or declining invitations. Everyone recognized that the situation was simply too much to be borne without occasionally going to pieces. This has, in fact, always been the case; we were just finally allowed to admit it.

This experience of not having to observe the social niceties is one that neurotypicals might want to keep in the mind the next time an autistic person has difficulty with such things or doesn’t bother with them. If you ask us how we’re doing, we very well might give you the honest answer. Offer us the same slack and understanding you offered each other during the pandemic.

It didn’t stop there. Tanya Basu wrote for MIT Technology Review about potential ways to combat “Zoom fatigue” by making things more immersive by using more enveloping technology such as virtual reality or video games.

The entire experience was bewildering. I was disoriented by all the things I felt I had to do simultaneously: talk to Martin, be sure to stay within earshot or risk losing him as he moved around, and traverse the various obstacles that popped up—waves from the beach, a radio that drowned out our conversation if we got too close to it, my “wine” glass emptying on its own. I found it hard to concentrate on the meeting. In fact, I felt overstimulated and anxious.

“Overstimulated and anxious” often is as good a description of an autistic everyday as any other, if nothing else because of our common experience of sensory processing disorder. This difficulty with simultaneity speaks to something Colin Nagy said that people grappling with life under the pandemic were experiencing: the need for “cognitive transitions”.

Scott hit the nail on the head with this. Sometimes, with a tightly-packed schedule, jumping from video call to video call, we lose out on the mental space to unpack and process information. Even the most fastidious note-takers or Zoom recorders likely need a little bit of time to move from one topic to the next, particularly for more creative or strategic topics. As was nicely articulated in this blog post by Josh Kaufman: “In order to take action, your brain has to ‘load’ the context of what you’re doing into working memory. If you constantly switch the focus of your attention, you’re forcing your brain to spend time and effort thrashing, loading, and reloading contexts over and over again.”

For many autistic people the day-to-day normative world we have to navigate even without the pandemic is one in which people and processes frequently do not give us the time we need for transitions. Normative society often seems to think transitions are a one- or two-step process; for autistics, it can be more like five: the first thing, winding down from it, a transitionary pause, spooling up for the second thing, and the second thing.

Most recently, I encountered the state of Oregon’s blog about the pandemic talking to Alfonso Ramirez about still another challenge people have been having: “change fatigue”.

The thing about the pandemic is the sheer number of changes, and the unpredictability. When things are unpredictable and extreme, and that goes on forever, it leads to sensitization, which means you are sensitive to any kind of stress. […] All these stressors make us really sensitive to the next thing. That’s why we have a lot of change fatigue. It’s the feeling, ‘I can’t deal with one more thing.’” […]

Ramirez suggested that “people like routine […] and we can get fatigued when those rhythms are disrupted”. Autistic people typically have an even greater need for structure and predictability (I find these terms less wishy-washy than mere “routines”), so here’s another great opportunity to take your pandemic experience and exhibit more empathy toward autistic people.

There’s one last thing I think is relevant here, although it’s less about your pandemic experience and more about the conversation about getting through it: Shayla Love’s reporting on the idea of “resilience”.

Bonanno’s work has consistently found that people are remarkably resilient—and that resilience may be the norm after adversity. But in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, it’s to be expected that people would still be struggling. “It’s natural to have some stress,” Bonanno said. “It’s natural to be a little fed up with the whole thing.” Since chronic events like a pandemic don’t just end on a specific day, people will be on different timelines for resilience; their “after” periods will take place at mismatched times.

[…]

Resilience might sometimes look like grinning and bearing it. “But there’s times when resilience may look like crawling back into bed and crying,” Bedard-Gilligan said. “Feeling those emotions and processing through whatever it is that’s causing them. It may actually be the most adaptive thing you can do at that moment.” Bonnano coined the phrase “coping ugly” for the things we have to do in some situations to manage in the moment.

What does life look like if the “chronic event” isn’t a pandemic (which no matter its length so far still will be transitory) but one’s entire, persistent, day-to-day autistic life? What does resilience look like there? What can you do to assist autistic resilience?

In the rush to get back to “normal”, neurotypicals could do worse than to take stock of how the disruptions of the pandemic affected them, and consider the ways in which the day-to-day of what they consider normal itself can be a daily disruption to those of us burdened with very different brains.

The content, mine and yours.

Luke Bailey over at The Content Mines has been pushing this idea of “structural dissonance”, described or defined by them as “that feeling you get seeing images of the invasion of Ukraine in the same content feed as memes, viral animals, lifestyle influencers, or video game playthroughs”. They claim it “defines the internet”.

In this week’s podcast, Ryan Broderick’s summation was that it’s “the inherent weirdness of viewing […] the horrors of real life through the trivializing structures of the internet”, and Bailey tries to explain just what it is he’s finding so problematic and new about the internet that it required new terminology.

If you compare it to art, for example, you can go and see Guernica or the Mona Lisa, and those two things have completely—they have similar forms, but equally very different forms: Guernica’s like ten meters long and the Mona Lisa is like two-foot high, it’s very small. It’s pathetic. […] So those two things have completely different forms. The problem on the internet is that doesn’t happen in the same way. You are listening to this podcast in the same way you’d listen to BBC News Radio, or Joe Rogan, or if you really wanted I’m sure the Azov Battalion in Ukraine have a podcast, it seems like the sort of thing they have. And this all has the same form. And similarly if you look at Facebook, your fun, magician content where they don’t do something for five minutes and then they eventually do it and it’s disappointing, that is going to have the same functional form as a news report from Ukraine, or a story about Universal Credit in the north of England, or a story about the opioid crisis in the United States. And all of these things ultimately have the same form, so it’s all crushed into these boxes, in a way that hasn’t really happened before.

That bit at the end there, that’s where I feel like Bailey comes off the rails. It’s certainly where he loses me.

Once upon time, on the same rabbit-eared television set in my childhood living room, over the course of a few hours we theoretically could have watched an episode of Star Trek or Space: 1999, an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus or The Benny Hill Show, and a report on domestic violence or the latest political scandal from 60 Minutes or 20/20.

All of these things ultimately had the same form, so it was all crushed into this little box.

None of what Broderick is identifying is structurally new on the level of the communications infrastructure, even though broadcast television in the 1970s is not the same as a distributed packet-switching network in the 2020s. What he’s identifying here isn’t a new phenomenon even if we limit our focus to the internet. It’s an aspect of—or, really, a kind of corollary to—context collapse, itself an idea that first arose in the 1980s around television and radio.

The new part that really powers the dissonance Bailey is trying to pin down is the organizing principle of social media, specifically: the feed.

Growing up, I wasn’t watching three minutes of Star Trek, interrupted by thirty seconds of an apologizing politician, followed by one minute of Benny Hill, and then another two minutes of Star Trek. Each different thing had its own time and breathed its own air, and even if we went right from one thing to another, each one thing required an attentional focus that’s almost entirely disputed by the feed.

At issue here is not any level at all of the internet’s structure. The problem isn’t structural, it’s organizational.

So, two things are happening in Bailey’s attempt to talk this through: he’s misidentifying as new and unique and problem that isn’t new and unique—wildly different kinds of content coming through the same communications channel; and he’s failing to identify the actual problem—the jarring juxtapositions of the feed.

Not for nothing, but your average metropolitan newspaper is the same as my childhood experience of television. (Bailey observes as much, but somehow it doesn’t make him realize that the problem he’s after has nothing to do with “the internet”.) Generally speaking there’s a news section, a sports section, a financial section, and the comics. Imagine if newspapers instead gave you a few column inches of war reporting, followed by today’s Nancy strip, followed by a few sports scores, then the Jumble, followed by a bit more war reporting. The newspaper would be almost entirely unusable. It would not, however, be a structural problem with newspapers, but an organizational one with how that particular newspaper is laid out.

Whoever wrote this week’s Real Life newsletter hit upon one way in which both television and newspapers did and do manage to partake a bit of our modern-day plague that is the feed, noting that “flipping through a Sunday newspaper to see images of Pakistani refugees interspersed with ads for whiskey and luxury bath products” presents a kind of “flattening of different moral contexts, of the commercial function of media and the humanitarian function of empathizing with suffering”.

That said, Real Life also more directly questions the Bailey’s premise that there’s something fundamentally or inherently awry in platforms or services more accustomed to one type of content also playing host to dramatically different kinds of content.

Implicit in the surprise and shock at seeing war aestheticized on social media is the idea that suffering should be documented only through a strict photo-journalistic lens, in images that take on a metonymic quality, evoking the larger official narrative or capturing some universal sentiment lurking behind the specifics. But the conversational images, the rhetorically staged video, of social media also capture additional aspects of the lived experience of war, which includes the full range of emotions: boredom, confusion, anxiety, absurdity, and disavowal, as well as terror, resilience, and grief.

This doesn’t, to my mind, somehow negate that the everything in one pot with no rhyme or reason organizing principle of the feed nonetheless presents some cognitive challenges (and not just for autistic and anxious people like me for whom feeds have been known actually to hurt). Where the “structural dissonance” posit and I diverge, I guess, is not just that in reality social media has no true structure whatsoever (which is part of the actual problem) but that Bailey seems to talk about this admixture of, say, lifestyle posts and war posts as if it transgresses in some moral capacity, as if it’s simply somehow unnatural for social media to be used to communicate “the horrors of real life”.

To be clear, I think you can both credit Real Life‘s “flattening of different moral contexts” and discredit the implied idea that the user behavior itself somehow is immoral. The moral questions actually arise from the same place: with the feed.

Again, and I really need to stress this point, I do not think the phrase “the trivializing structures of the internet” makes any sort of sense whatsoever. At issue here very much specifically is social media, and we ought to say what we mean and mean what we say when we are talking about these sorts of things. The social internet drawn more broadly does not automatically fall into this sort of trap. Boards and forums might have index pages that potentially could juxtapose wildly different kinds of topics (although, typically, this isn’t how they are organized) but once you’re into a thread of discussion, it’s both social and focused.

It’s not a problem of any real sort that people use the internet both to post memes, dances, and challenges and to post racism call-outs, pleas for trans acceptance, or what it’s like to be living in the middle of a war. There’s nothing about the so-called “structure” of the internet that makes this a problem. There’s nothing about the “structure” of the social internet, writ large, that makes this a problem.

What makes this into a problem is the feed, made all the more complicated by its algorithmic and commercial character.

(I’m not even going to get sidetracked into their discussion of how 9/11 played out on Something Awful. There’s no dissonance involved in an SA poster reacting to the attacks in New York while having a forum signature of a bleached anus, because no one on SA was going to be taken aback by that. Well, no, I’ll get exactly this amount of sidetracked: this is what I mean by this weird sort of unstated moralizing that seems to thread through their discussion. Broderick especially seems flabbergasted that people were live-posting through 9/11 in the online spaces they frequented and where they knew people, although he also expresses some recognition that the behavior was very human. It’s really important to understand, though, that a bunch of people who know each other from frequenting an unserious website suddenly discussing a serious news event on that website is extremely different in kind from everyone in the world, most of whom don’t know each other at all, discussing a serious news event all mixed together with memes and cat photos on a social media platform. Broderick repeats this nonsense later when he complains about Reddit being the site he visits to see whether or not someone is the asshole and where he reads a subreddit about “guys who are going to fight in Ukraine”. You simply cannot conflate the very different organizing principles of Twitter and Reddit.)

Anyway, the most frustrating thing about the conversation is that Bailey and Broderick (the latter especially) keep stumbling into the fact that it’s very specifically the feed that’s the problem but then veering off into referring to “the internet”, failing to recognize that the issue isn’t structural, it’s organizational and contextual. There’s nothing inherently wrong with people discussing wildly divergent subjects that don’t necessarily go well together, but there sure seems to be something wrong with it happening without bothering to establish an organizational model designed to make sense of it.

Feeds, or at least your typical social media feeds on massive platforms with mainstream adoption, are not designed to foster any kind of cognitive sense-making. They are designed—specifically, explicitly—to generate engagement against which to sell advertising. Again, this isn’t structural but organizational.

That’s important, because if we say “structural” and we say “the internet” it sounds like there’s not much to be done about it, because it’s very, very difficult to change structures. Properly identifying the issue as an organizational one exhibited by particular (plat)forms means that there are ways to tackle the problem, because it’s much easier to change organizational forms.

In the back third of the podcast, Bailey tries to home in on what he’s after. It doesn’t go well.

The structural dissonance has grown so big that [people] no longer understand the things they are saying as ideology and they understand it purely as content, and therefore they are trying to set it into a form that they understand—which is typically a live stream, it’s different sometimes; maybe it’s a live-tweet thread, maybe it’s a Facebook live, maybe it’s a TikTok live—but everyone is setting this stuff into a form that they understand, while not necessarily appreciating that the content is not the same? It flattens everything. And what this ultimately leads to is a situation like Ukraine where everything is flattened into entertainment, and war is flattened into entertainment.

This pretty much is exactly what I mean about the weird sort of moralizing seemingly underlying this “structural dissonance” critique. Notice how the blame here is placed on the user for sharing their world—and, worse, for not understanding their own actions—not on the organizing model of the feed for causing cognitive (ahem) dissonance. It’s not the fault of any person for sharing their world using the tools they’ve been provided. Any “flattening” entirely is the fault of the form and those who promulgate it, not that of the user who faces very little real, functional choice.

It’s important also to distinguish, as Bailey and Broderick don’t, really, between the fact that people post things that when juxtaposed in a feed hit as dissonant, and the very, very different fact that some people simply are not terrific people who have and post bad takes. There’s a distinction that we miss at our peril between actual Ukrainians trapped in a war and “posting through it”, and some Australian ex-soldier who switched-up his travel vlogging to go tourist post from the war zone. There’s the contradictory messiness of someone’s lived experience, and then there’s influencer carpetbagging. They are not the same thing, and it’s dangerously unfair to (ahem) flatten them into a single, malformed argument. (At almost the last possible moment in the podcast, Bailey does make a single, passing remark to this effect.)

I’ll be honest, the further into this podcast I got, the more disturbing I found it. Bailey seems especially unnerved, for example, by the fact that the aforementioned subreddit for people going to fight in Ukraine might also be for people just talking about the people going to fight in Ukraine, as if there’s something inherently and innately problematic in these different groups of people being in conversation with one another. I find that attitude to be unnerving. It’s as if the flattening he’s really concerned with is people talking to one another.

The “structural dissonance” critique, at least as framed by The Content Mines, very much lands for me as an ugly sort of victim-blaming. Internet users, on the whole and in the main, are at the mercy of an organizing principle over which they have little to no control, and they shouldn’t be held responsible—certainly not morally so—for making use of the tools that exist. There’s a late attempt by Bailey to recognize this distinction, but after over an hour’s discussion which often seemed not to recognize it, it feels a bit too little, too late.

Blame the platforms, and blame the feed. Don’t shame people into thinking that it’s their fault for sharing and discussing their views of the world.