The Atlantic is No Longer The Atlantic

atlantic_monthly_1930_09_aA trend has emerged, though in many ways its always been present, certainly since the internet began “disrupting”- to borrow a word beloved by techies and business-folk- many traditional industries. I won’t summarize the myriad ways that the internet has changed the world (many), as that’s a topic that’s both self-evident and covered to death. Instead, I’d like to look at The Atlantic‘s monetized, cross-platform business model from a quick historical perspective, and also argue briefly that the magazine’s best days might just behind it, unless something changes. The 158 year-old magazine of literature, culture and political happenings was founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes and a cadre of other 19th-century intellectual heavyweights, and while it’s always offered pleasurable, witty, insightful reading, I can’t help but resist it’s smarmy cocktail of contemporary neoliberalism and internet sensationalism. In looking at what The Atlantic once was, I hope to understand better what exactly is lost when a magazine blatantly transforms into a clickbait swamp, and what options, if any, are available to reignite it’s philosophical spark.

“In politics, The Atlantic Monthly will be the organ of no party or clique, but will honestly endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea… It will not rank itself with any sect of anties: but with that body of men which is in favor of Freedom, National Progress, and Honor, whether public or private.”

Those words are included in the magazine’s Declaration of Purpose, drafted in 1857, an idealistic, democratic mission to further press the fundamental questions of America and maybe even posit some answers. It was the dream of a “journal of literature, politics, science, and the arts” that would improve the cultural conversation. In it’s history, The Atlantic has published pieces by Mark Twain, Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hemingway’s first short story, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, to name a few. The magazine is inextricably linked to those mighty Boston Brahmins of the mid-nineteenth century, elite Bostonian abolitionists searching for and creating the “American Idea”. Granted, they were Upper-Class White Guys straight from the aristocracy of the Ivy League, but the goal was altruistic: a magazine “endeavoring always to keep in view that moral element which transcends all persons and parties, and which alone makes the basis of a true and lasting prosperity”.

Partly it’s the beauty of that 19th-century Transcendentalist egalitarianism that I’m lamenting, but The Atlantic‘s transformation into a primarily online domain has brought the magazine as far away from that initial purpose as it has ever been. Around twenty years ago, Cullen Murphy, then managing editor, wrote eloquently about the history of The Atlantic Monthly, outlining it’s purpose as America’s “dining room table”, a place to find some of the best writing in the country. Even then, he could feel something changing- verging on a time that would “fundamentally re-engrave the template by which we make sense of virtually every aspect of our national reality”. Rather than issue a call-to-arms, he re-emphasized the core values of the publication, to analyze the underlying meaning of news rather than just report it, to discover beauty through literature and poetry. It was an admirable move, and prescient. Several years later, the magazine was sold to David S. Bradley, who had cashed in big on his legal and defense consultancies for a $300 million windfall. What’s a mega-millionaire to do besides buy a storied magazine?

Bradley’s arrival was marked by dismal losses in his first few years. As a businessman, he was shocked to see the spreadsheets rife with red ink. His Harvard MBA must have been pulsing with nervous, profit-hungry energy. Then he brought Justin Smith on board. Smith came from The Week, where he had successfully packaged a readable, informative magazine for the masses. In an Adweek profile, “How David Bradley and Justin Smith Saved The Atlantic”, Smith is described as a bit of a “suit”, but perhaps a more apt comparison would be Harvey Keitel’s character The Wolf from Pulp Fiction, who is called in to help clean up a bloody mess: “I’m not here to say please, I’m here to tell you what to do and if self-preservation is an instinct you possess you’d better fucking do it- and do it quick”. Those may not have been Justin Smith’s exact words when he walked into The Atlantic‘s Washington, D.C. offices, but still, I’d like to imagine it’s what he said, the staff of writers gulping in deep-seated fear.

In Adweek’s revenue-centered profile, Smith is praised for trying to make The Atlantic “a place where the traditional wall between editorial and business sides could be broken down”.  Picture Georgetown and Ivy alums in slim-fit dress shirts, wielding MBA’s like shields, preaching the gospel of digital ad revenue, click rates, Facebook shares, and scalable customer acquisition models. Since Bradley and Smith’s gutting of the admittedly bloated traditional print mode, the magazine’s been sinking- into the Atlantic. The majority of content aims to be a surprising or shocking or fresh take on a safe, NPR-qualified product or idea, like HBO’s The Wire or artisanal coffee or Race in America. Every article has a snazzy, attention-grabbing headline like “5 Facts About The Porn Industry You Never Knew Were Also True About Factory Farming” or “The Seal of Approval- Barack Obama’s Failed Foreign Policy in the Bering Sea” but the articles typically don’t go much deeper into the subject matter. The obvious focus on click rates and Shares reduces the content to sensationalist surface-level writing, a kind of “you’ve-got-to-read-this” proposition with little payoff for the reader. The magazine has been around since the mid-19th century, but with a revenue-focused executive team, it’s been catapulted into the future, now referred to as one of The Atlantic Media Company’s “Brands”.

In November of 2014, The Atlantic issued a press release announcing that they’d received 21 million unique visitors in October, their highest-trafficked month on record. I’m sure many handshakes were shook, bottles of champagne were uncorked, and slim-fit dress shirts of various shades of salmon, lavender, and charcoal were untucked, maybe. The deliverables had been delivered, the cross-platform social engagement strategies had worked. With untold Likes and Shares and digital ad revenue spiking (it’s now the chief source of revenue for the magazine), attention to what’s actually being written takes a backseat. Bradley and Smith helped usher in a new era for The Atlantic, noting that they saw it is as a “Silicon Valley start-up that needed to kill itself to survive” (NYT, 2010). Its zombified corpse may be more popular than ever, but at this point, The Atlantic echoes a self-congratulatory, privileged centrism (perhaps it always did) without respect for the reader’s attention span.

I’ve been straightforwardly critical in my assessment of The Atlantic in its current incarnation. As a “Millenial”, “Digital Native”, and “twenty-five year old”, I’m expected to love the flash and speed at which The Atlantic churns out content. It’s writing style consistently displays the current preeminence of “information”- not opinion, but facts, downloaded and digested and regurgitated at light speed. But Smith (who moved on to Bloomberg Media as CEO) and Bradley’s approach to steering The Atlantic is one with only one thing in mind- dolla dolla bills, y’all. I hope a compromise can be reached, an approach that rebuilds the wall (it can be see-through) that separates revenue from editorial control, so one of our country’s oldest magazines can regain it’s footing as a socially conscious and positive force. We deserve it.

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An Analysis of Drake’s Album “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late”

Drake-1The picture of Drake above is our contemporary existence captured in a single image. Note the perfectly off-kilter snapback hat, the obscure hand gesturing in a middle finger to society/haters/everyone doubling as a mysterious gang sign, his blue Solo cup containing codeine or booze or both and the camouflage sweater recalling the endless Canadian forest juxtaposed against a crude cut-out of Cash Money artists Birdman and the Hot Boy$. Drake is the idea of Drake, a postmodern pop culture icon at once hyper-aware and completely delusional. His props are the most important signification of Drakedom. He is both a product of the culture and an important barometer that gives some indication of where our generation is going. Here are some thoughts on his new album, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.

First, some notes on the album title, of which immediacy and realness is its chiefest concern. As you’re reading this, Drake is, much to all of our amazement, Drake. He of the Dom Perignon-splashed paradise lifestyle. The best you can hope for is to live vicariously through his new album, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. It’s too damn late for much else. I’ve always been a fan of hip-hop, even finding myself concerned with it’s “realness” in middle school, when conscious rappers where much more prescient. Since the early 2000’s, I’ve listened to a lot of rap, sometimes guiltily, sometimes like a badge. I can recite “Gimme the Loot”, “California Love”, and “C.R.E.A.M.” verbatim, much to the dismay of everyone- but come on. Inspectah Deck’s bars in C.R.E.A.M.? “We got stickup kids, corrupt cops, and crack rocks and/Stray shots, all on the block that stays hot”. It’s a perfect song. I’m such a cool hip-hop head!

It’s been hard to rationalize my love for hip-hop against a super white, upper-middle class suburban upbringing. A solid education and very linear path to college were essential truths for nearly everyone I grew up with. The cops in my town were either breaking up overcrowded and sloppy-drunk house parties or making sure that no one was smoking weed in a facsimile of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. Concord, Massachusetts is the polar opposite of the inner city. I mention this only because it all comes back to Drake. It always comes back to Drake. He’s the first mainstream “gangsta” rapper that can’t legitimately claim any real hardship growing up. His is another suburban bildungsroman, smoking weed and bugging out to rap videos on TV. His music is liberated hip-hop, free from the confines of gangsta rap and/or the Golden Era. Unfortunately, his art is still confined by a matrix of commercialism.

Drake’s album begins with “Legend”, where he declares that when he dies, he’ll be remembered forever, because he’s a motherfucking legend. We’ll see. Hip-hop is still a relatively new genre of music, so most of its originators are still alive. It’s a fickle culture, too, obsessed as it is with shiny newness. Drake is enjoying unprecedented fame and wealth in 2015, where he has “shit mapped out strong”, but in the rapid culture that he so willfully embodies, our attention spans are basically nil. The key element to his public persona is a sense that we all are able to partake in his debauchery and epicurean pleasure-seeking, but at the same time we are complicit in the creation of the Legend of Drake. One of the great, cathartic aspects of hip-hop is that it just throws the rapper’s ego up on the side of a skyscraper- he straight up says that he’s a legend. He needs us though.

Acting out the Legend of Drake is no easy task either. On the lead single “Energy”, he takes on an accusatory disposition- everyone else is just sapping him of his energy: “I got enemies, got a lot of enemies/gotta lotta people tryna drain me of my energy”. I get a sense that Drake is becoming somewhat exhausted with the business of being Drake. The song marks a particularly negative alienation and paranoia that I can’t recall in any of his previous songs. Hip-hop has always embodied an intense alienation, but here, it’s a fatigue due to the constant onslaught of women and haters, and he takes a more aggressive tone, threatening, “I’ve got real ones living past Kennedy Rd./I got real ones with me everywhere that I go”. During an interview with Joni Gnomeshi, he explained his aggressive lyrics “kind of come with the territory”, so as to say, the mainstream rap genre has distinct codes (violence) that he is obligated to embody. Still, the song remains firmly coded in the context of his oeuvre. His aggression is an intentional departure from his “nice guy” image, though just so. He retains his lyrical clarity throughout.

Adam Krims, a noted music theorist described rap lyrics to require a “symbolic collapsing” of the artist onto the performer- i.e., Drake’s lyrics are, within the context of rap, taken to be true. Krims evokes Phillipe Lejeune’s “autobiographical pact” in his analysis of rap lyrics as the poetics of identification, stating that we interpret the work in a completely different way when listening to lyrics if we believe them to be autobiographical. That autobiographical pact has remained one of the single most important elements of rap, and particularly gangster rap, of which Drake has always straddled the line. If you don’t buy what a rapper is saying, that rapper is fucking wack. Hip-hop is a genre that gains its strength from authenticity. It’s also the most important element of Drake’s appeal. That’s why his self-representation on IYRTITL is a really important indicator not just of rap, but of contemporary ideas of the good life, success and authenticity.

Self-identity and authenticity are major themes on track 4, “Know Yourself”. Drake seeks to establish “realness” by injecting obscure references and codes. Even for the experienced rap listener, it can be virtually impossible to make out exactly what he’s saying, but that’s kind of the point. He borrows the slang of other street rappers and Jamaican patois to construct an authentic persona. He begins the song with a string of code-names- “that Oliver, 40, Niko shit man, 15 Fort York shit ya know Boi-1da, what’s poppin’?” and continues that in the main chorus, where he’s “riding through the 6 with my woes”. In appropriating cultural signifiers, he’s once again asserting his hip-hop authenticity. That the song is called “Know Yourself” is a curious irony. It’s posturing, but like most music Drake makes, it sounds cool.

“Yeah, I stay up late at night, thinkin’ ’bout my life
Want a lot, will I get it all? Ain’t no tellin’.”

I have a hard time believing that Drake receives his checks in the mail, as he claims on “No Tellin'”. He’s all but rapped his Hidden Hills street address in other songs, so I can’t imagine he’d be receiving seven and eight-figure checks by snail mail- he’s probably on that direct deposit tip. Drake seems to gain a sense of himself, and plays with the autobiographical nature of rap lyricism, through the mention of seemingly mundane details into what are otherwise contextual raps. On “No Tellin'”, he raps about eating Alfredo pasta in the kitchen, which, regardless of context, is an image that’s not usually associated with a global hip-hop star. It matches another line of his, from a guest spot on Rick Ross’s “Stay Schemin'”: “Spaghetti bolognese in the Polo Lounge/me and my G from DC that’s how we roll around”. Of course, in both instances, his eating pasta is a display of wealth and luxury, but even the mentioning of food brings Drake down to a more human level.

Where his pasta references resonate, Drake’s treatment of women is a cloying kind of objectification. While not as graphic as Lil Wayne’s bars, Drake’s lyrics- “I saw potential in you from the go, you know that I did/I don’t know if you know, but I know who you are”- place him firmly in the realm of misogynistic rappers. In their paper “Woman of Color in Hip-Hop: The Pornographic Gaze”, Margaret Hunter and Kathleen Soto write that there are two categories of women depicted in hip-hop- the “video hoe” and the “loyal girlfriend” (i.e. the “ride or die”). They connect the proliferation and popularity of porn to increasingly misogynistic and pornographic hip-hop lyrics- a interrelationship that Drake’s lyrics and music videos are definitely indicative of. Considering that the Alfredo pasta in “No Tellin'” is eaten at V-Live, a popular strip club in Houston, it’s pretty clear that Drake isn’t moving the dial forward at all on this album in regards to his treatment and depiction of women. He’s always struggled to consolidate his “nice guy” image with a persistent misogyny. In an interview with Katie Couric, who presses him about it, he tells her candidly, “sometimes you just gotta chalk it up to hip-hop”. He doesn’t own his words but instead blames his misogyny on the essential culture codes of rap. It’s a cop out.

The significance of Toronto in Drake’s life is essential to the album, and remains a central element in rap music in general. For IYRTITL, he’s adopted a new moniker, 6 God, in reference to Toronto and his god-like status within the city. On several tracks- “6 God”, “6 Man”, “You & the 6”- he juggles fame and wealth with his personal desire to stay true to his roots and rep the 6. Like a handful of tracks on Nothing Was the Same, he emphasizes that fame hasn’t changed him, but it’s changed the way people treat him. Fame is pretty complicated terrain to navigate, especially in the context of rap music, and Drake has openly grappled with its trappings, rather unsuccessfully. His subject “I” becomes conflated, both the Drake of humble origins and niceness and the rich Drake clutching bands and spending $100,000 in one night at the strip club.

ifwt_drake-ig-2“Preach” is primarily concerned with Drake’s fast-paced and consumptive lifestyle. He’s always been emblematic of a gross conspicuous consumption that has been a blight on rap, but his is a newer, sharper form. “Glo’d up off a gate way, man, you can’t afford me”. The freedom that immense wealth offers is, for many twentysomethings, the goal. The best symbol for it is the private jet. It’s a common theme cropping up in mainstream, luxury hip-hop. My favorite lines about the enviable wealth of rappers come from Jay-Z and Kanye on “Otis”: “Can’t you see we getting money up under you/Can’t you see the private jets flying over you?” There’s a new sense that these rapper-kings are winning and untouchable, having tapped into a career above wage labor- as Krims puts it, “like professional sports, a way to preserve individual integrity while still making money through legal means”. Drake is no office worker, strumming on a computer keyboard in a cubicle. He is a business in himself, flying high above. Preach.

On “Used To”, he raps, “Only see the truth when I’m staring in the mirror/Lookin’ at myself like, there it is there/yeah, like there it is there,”. That ethos is pretty clear in every single moment of Drake’s album, if not his whole career. His particular brand of self-actualization is a natural endpoint for commercial rap music. By the late 90’s, rap had already become an unprecedented global phenomenon. The genre’s popularity has risen parallel to an overall process of globalization, led by the rush of technology and rise of international and infinitely profitable media conglomerates in the last 30 years. S. Craig Watkins writes, “hip hop matters, quite simply, because it is the voice of the streets.” Drake’s chief concern on “Used To” is to “make sure the plane have a phone now/so when we bout to land I can call to tell the wolves I’m home now”. When you erase community and connection and replace it with empty capital-collecting gestures and private jets, the “movement”, an amorphous and difficult-to-place political and social movement called “hip-hop”, is flushed down the Gulfstream V’s toilet.

The debate over “real” and “fake”  has always been a huge point of contention in the game. When I was in middle school in the early 2000’s, I loved listening to Outkast and Mos Def, both of whose CD’s I actually purchased from actual stores. Drake was not much different in his hip-hop education. He didn’t learn the culture from the streets. He downloaded mp3’s, traded CD’s, and watched music videos on TV. Bred not from a real urban environment but from a Baudrillardian simulacrum, “the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere”, he consumed hip-hop while generating his own image of authenticity. That he was on television for years before his rap career is no accident. Drake is a new breed of fiercely capitalistic, confessional rappers that must generate meaning in an increasingly vast and cold world of late capitalism. On “6 Man”, Drake owns the means of production, which is himself: “no ho shit/I don’t need no fucking body, I run my own shit”. Rather than defying the confines of the inner-city, however, Drake’s rapping breaks the shackles of a larger, more life-threateningly boring system of wage labor.

On IYRTITL, he continues furthering the sonic world that he’s already established. Keeping true to a long tradition of rap about the trappings of wealth and the necessity to stay true to to where you’re from, Drake name-drops his hometown of Toronto- “I’m managed by the people I grew up with/I’d rather give that 15% to people I fuck with”. On “Energy” he raps, “I got two mortgages 30 million in total/I got niggas that’ll still try fuckin’ me over”. The career that Drake has built, and strengthens with the release of IYRTITL, is one that deals chiefly with authenticity and authorship. Drake is a real individual living his life on this planet. His commercial and critical success speak to the resonance that his music has with people across the world. Yet still, as if beating his hands against an invisible wall, he hasn’t truly broken free from a larger, limiting context of commercial rap. Drake’s freedom is merely an economic one.

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We Need A Real-Life Batman

The Dark Knight

James Eagan Holmes walked back into Theater 9 at the Century 16 in Aurora, Colorado two years ago in a gas mask, assault vest, and groin and throat protectors armed with a 12-gauge Remington 870 shotgun, Smith & Wesson M&P15 rifle, and tear gas grenades. It was the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s newest and final installment in the Dark Knight Trilogy. Audience members thought he was part of a publicity stunt, until he fired his shotgun at the ceiling, then directed it at the back rows of the audience. The most up-to-date figures account for 12 audience members killed and 70 injured, but staring at the death toll fails to relay the devastation. According to newspaper reports, police found Holmes standing by his car in the theater parking lot, claiming to be the Joker, and he’d dyed his hair a toxic shade of Cheeto- orange. We still don’t fully understand what compelled him to open fire in a sold-out movie theater, but his rampage is shocking for its capriciousness as well as its grim link to a pop culture phenomenon. While the shooting took place during The Dark Knight Rises, there’s no doubt that the film which held a psychic grip on Holmes was its predecessor, 2008’s The Dark Knight.

I was attending a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in the pungent broccoli mecca of Santa Maria, California, 1,156 miles west of Aurora, and I was inappropriately excited about it. Having just graduated college, TDKR was a convenient bookend to my higher education. Four years earlier, the summer before I left for school, I saw the midnight premier of The Dark Knight, and to say that I enjoyed it would be to disregard a significant aspect of my post-high school worldview, especially as it pertains to art and commerce. I’ve received plenty of eye-rolls for my near-frantic effusiveness for The Dark Knight in the past six years, but even as much else has changed, I’ve remained steadfast in my belief that TDK is an astute social critique whilst concurrently serving as one of the greatest escapist action movies ever. The battle between Batman and the Joker is a colossal, Miltonian morality play, set to a pulsating Hans Zimmer score in a hollow, metaphorical Gotham. There is an abstract tension throughout that raises it far above the level of comic book super-heroics, a Platonic cogitation that, with box-office profits totaling over a billion dollars, was a glimmer of hope that a film can indeed be both a commercial and artistic success.

At the risk of sounding like simply another mainstream sycophant, Nolan’s serious take on what is a fairly ludicrous world of costumed vigilantism transcended Bob Kane’s source material. The flitting, dead energy emanating from Heath Ledger’s Joker, who, since the release of TDK, has come to rest on the mantle within global film culture as a kind of tragic icon, is a bright star exploding rather than fading out. He traipses around Gotham caked in grotesque make-up, wandering into Savatore Maroni’s blue fluorescent hideout and Bruce Wayne’s penthouse cocktail party with equal parts nonchalance and menace, and throughout, it is unclear what exactly he wants from Gotham’s inhabitants or Batman in particular. Without a past to speak of, he’s a strange, anonymous terrorist who is seemingly willed into existence by Batman’s nobility. He starts to reveal himself when at the bedside of a freshly disfigured Harvey Dent, he explains:

“I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. I just DO things…I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.”


The Joker’s speech limns a society requiring the purge of a pure anarchism- ruddy-faced and corrupt politicians, amoral Banks- and in that moment, the Joker is iconic, if not charismatic. He relishes in the destruction of system and order. On the one hand, he’s like precocious 14-year old listening to too much Rage Against the Machine and reading too much Catcher in the Rye; on the other, a radical political terrorist. It’s not hard to see where the Joker is coming from. When taken as an isolated gesture, his incineration of a gigantic mountain of cash towards the end of Act II is an act of radical political protest (it’s also perhaps the most unrealistic scene in the film). There’s a cathartic edge to his actions, and in that scene, he’s gone into a netherworld that is neither good nor evil- it’s freakish and absurd.

Where is Batman during most of the Joker’s killing spree? He’s relegated to playing catch-up. With no rhyme or reason to the Joker’s targets or motives, Batman is a troubled and quixotic do-gooder. It’s impossible to stop the Joker from blowing up Gotham Hospital or killing Rachel Dawes, or planting explosives on two passenger ferries and orchestrating a psychological experiment in fear and cynicism. If a villain’s motivation is to burgle a big diamond in a museum, or take over the world, as the League of Shadows aims to accomplish, Batman’s action steps from point A to point B are relatively clear: stop them from doing that thing. When the thing that Batman is stopping the Joker from accomplishing is unknown, Batman can’t do much of anything. Salvatore Maroni describes this when he tells a frustrated Batman that everyone is “wise to your act. You got rules. The Joker, he’s got no rules”.  Our hero’s only option is to set up a complex surveillance system using sonar technology on every cell phone in Gotham, turning them into tethered waypoints, a prospect which his advisor Lucius Fox has serious moral qualms with. To stop the Joker’s terrorism, Batman must adopt extreme, invasive security measures.

Back to reality: Holmes had been stockpiling weapons for months, purchasing guns from Bass Pro Shops and other Colorado weapons-sellers and gearing up for a full-mounted assault. A PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Department at the University of Colorado, he had dropped out of school that June. He was “bright”, albeit heartrendingly awkward. All told, he was a white 24 year-old living in Aurora, Colorado, watching Batman movies, spending time on dating sites like OKCupid and AdultFriendFinder, and eating Subway sandwiches. He played Neverwinter Nights. He had a history of mental issues but there were no obvious or actionable red flags. Not much else is known about him, as his trial has yet to begin and there has been a gag order placed on any information relating to the case. Holmes seemingly appeared out of nowhere with a single, unprovoked goal.

No one could have predicted that Holmes planned to pervert his obsession with the Joker into such senseless carnage. Waking up to the news of the Aurora shooting the day after the film’s release was heartbreaking. Whatever sense of significance and moral weight that was to be gained from Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy had manifested into something much darker and more qualitatively evil than could be fathomed. Holmes’s assault proved, unimpeachable to the world, that “evil” continues to exist, regardless of how obfuscated and postmodern our moral barometer has become. Within the neatly crafted world of Gotham City, Batman has an omnipresence that allows him to arrive at any crime scene just in time to prevent serious loss of life. In Aurora, there was no superhero to counteract Holmes’ villainy.

Alfred Pennyworth could be describing James Eagan Holmes when, as Bruce Wayne struggles to understand and defeat the Joker, he tells him:

“…some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

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Facebook is an Infinite Loop

There’re already too many “The Way We Live Now” think-pieces associated with technology and the Internet Age, touting apps that allow us to broadcast our more unique bowel movements and raise money for Goonies 2, to instantaneously speculate about minutiae and global events with equal rigor.  Everywhere, the culture is saturated like butcher paper with grandiose verbiage heralding the next new era in Tech, dripping with profit and optimism. With 1.2 billion Users, Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is the leviathan of the Information Superhighway. Marshall McLuhan claimed over 40 years ago that we were moving towards a “global village”- well, with the help of Mr. Zuckerberg, we blew past the village and created a web-based megalopolis. But we lose when we worship at the altar of Zuck.

Facebook, Inc. is just that- an incorporated Silicon Valley firm, with Zuck and Co. acting upon shareholder interests. When tasked with ascribing the platform a purpose, like any ubiquitous cloud-based intangible technology, the company’s PR department figures that the ubiquity of the brand trumps the need to risk any potentially divisive philosophy. Facebook continues the trend of ergonomic multi-platform tech entities by offering up a broad and amorphous Mission, probably thought over a game of ping pong or glow-in-the-dark mini-golf at the office’s Recreation Zone. Here’s Facebook’s most recent Mission Statement:

Founded in 2004, Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.

It’s a big open sky of communication, the same azure hue as Facebook’s background color. Zuck said himself,  “The question isn’t, ‘What do we want to know about people?’, It’s, ‘What do people want to tell about themselves?”. In a cascade of selfies, infinite terabytes of uploaded pictures and updates and Likes, we document our lives. A tidal wave crashing through darkened bedrooms lit by LCD screens, Facebook rips apart intimacy from the inside out, inverting conversations into pixel-drawn hypertext superimposed on a programmatic structure of tables and one-click buttons. Our corporeal bodies, beating hearts and misguided impulses, our doubts and fuck-ups, uncooperative hair and skin sensations, are erased at the altar of straight lines and HTML code. Like a mall, Facebook surrounds us with mirrors and clean surfaces, perfectly lined rows of friends, family, acquaintances, that one person you met when you were drunk at a party and never saw again. It twists our drive towards rationality into a collection of digital content.  The most apt metaphor for this onslaught of self-rationalization is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill- it flowed relentlessly, mucking up natural beauty, injecting millions of gallons of man-made sludge daily into the world at a speed heretofore impossible without technology, a force too great to plug up.

We cast our updates off into the ether like model sailboats, watching as our comments float through the proper channels, rooting for our missives. In creating a marketable “personal brand”, we are complicit in what is certainly a dark point in late capitalism- turning both our public and private lives into pure commodity. To harken back to McLuhan, “the medium is the message”- so on Facebook, a social marketplace, we are both consumed and consumer. Through willfully touting ourselves as a collection of preferences and connections, we cede our right to a real, fluctuating self-hood.

It is more and more difficult for us to imagine the real, History, the depth of time, or three-dimensional space, just as before it was difficult, from our real world perspective, to imagine a virtual universe or the fourth dimension.
Jean Baudrillard

It is this writer’s belief that the most significant and damaging aspect of the Facebook platform is the News Feed, which “updates a personalized list of news stories throughout the day, so you’ll know when Mark adds Britney Spears to his Favorites or when your crush is single again.” Since the dawn of time, human beings have been social creatures and there has been a proverbial “grapevine” of communication through which news (read: gossip et al) would spread. With the News Feed, Zuck and Co. have eliminated the need for real connectedness by replacing it with automatic, ever-shifting array of posts and updates from the farthest reaches of our social circles, bereft of any work on our part to actually risk potential discomfort by interacting with one another. In yet another part of our lives, we’ve ceded control to automation, algorithms, and the screen.

With the News Feed, we are engaged in a level of ambient awareness that has been proven to have deleterious psychological effects on our mood while also contributing to our general habit of social consumption rather than participation. Friends become morsels, their status updates, pokes and Likes akin to Nestle Dibs. It’s either an extension of the truth of existentialism, as if we’ve all finally settled on the fact that we’ll never truly know anyone else, or it’s a temporary illusion that we’re forced to live through until the system collapses and from the rubble, we realize what we’ve lost.

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