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You may have noticed you didn’t get a newsletter last week—that’s because I was blissfully offline. I’d originally planned to work ahead and get some content ready for you in my absence, but that didn’t happen. And I had a few thoughts on that and other things that I’m going to rattle off briefly.
Somewhere during the month of January, it became nearly impossible for me to read more than a paragraph. The moment my eyes scanned the last words of one, a circuit would break and I’d notice that I’d clicked over to a new tab in my browser. There was lots of aimless clicking and I’d end up confusing the stories I was reading with each other, combining the intro of one article with the midsection of another. It wasn’t very dramatic, but it just felt like an aimless flattening of my internet experience. There’s not much more to it except that I was very burned-out—not really from work as much as from a kind of internet malaise that has hit me hardest during the Omicron phase of the pandemic. This brand of ennui felt different than garden-variety Zoom fatigue and more of a feeling of a life that (because of a digital book tour and a few family situations that required a need to quarantine) was being almost completely mediated through screens.
I was talking recently with a smart internet person about this feeling, and they connected this type of listlessness to the uptick in conversations about Web3 over the past year. The reason why people want another version of the web, he suggested, is because the current version is so disappointing, and we’re just stuck in it with the pandemic. It’s not that the services we use aren’t useful (they’re a lifeline during this time) but that the internet is a relentless mediator of our experience. It feels like we have no choice but to spend our time with this technology. And so things like Zoom become a simulacrum of an experience some of us have either lost or are yearning for. All of us, to some degree, just want using these tools to feel better and less extractive and exhausting, he argued. And this is what has primed some people to be receptive to a new, dynamic, and (theoretically) decentralized internet.
It’s an interesting argument with some merit. The impulse to desire a truly immersive internet is also somewhat worrying. The current remote-knowledge-worker-during-a-pandemic experience isn’t exactly living in the metaverse, but for some, it’s an experience where the bulk of one’s interactions are in a transitory space. I’ll use myself as an example. There’s my job, which is, rather obviously, almost all taking place online. Sessions with my therapist are mediated through a screen. A substantial percentage of my workouts happen on a Peloton, which adds a layer of gamification and extreme quantification to the part of my day dedicated to physical movement. There are graphs and virtual high fives and a digital trail associated with each exercise. My pandemic hobby—learning guitar—requires virtual lessons, which also employ progress trackers. When I veer off the path, I end up in YouTube-lesson wormholes, which then shape the autoplay videos and suggestions, which inevitably lead me to fumble through songs I may never have otherwise chosen to learn.
All of this is hugely privileged stuff, I realize. And I’m not complaining. I don’t even think the experiences I’m describing are de facto good or bad—they’re just different. But they occupy an ever more liminal space between the physical me and all those physical interactions and a bunch of my digital identities that are sometimes connected through accounts and sometimes not. A number of the conversations about Web3 and the metaverse (which are not the same conversation, mind you, but are related) seem to be about combining those digital identities into one place. Your crypto wallet, for example, can be a passport for much of your data, allowing you to take them into decentralized internet communities and leave a legible, immutable public record of your life online. And the metaverse seems to want to provide an all-encompassing digital experience that feels … less disjointed, I guess, because it takes place in a large universe (where apparently people don’t have legs).
I’m not sure these features would do anything to solve the stultifying feeling of a life totally mediated through different screens and digital services. Most plans I hear for a metaverse sound as if they will only exacerbate the Zoom-fatigue feeling into something that feels like life fatigue. Granted, digital spaces don’t have to be like this! I think a lot about this tweet from the writer Ryan Broderick: “If your metaverse drama doesn’t involve a large-scale trade war caused by the hoarding of a virtual currency and multiple people having sex with dragon avatars, it’s just a bunch of boomers having an argument on a conference call!!!”
There’s some reason to believe the metaverse could be much worse than Boomers on a conference call. I came across a story this week about metaverse mortgages that are being “collateralized using the underlying virtual real estate, which is represented as an NFT.” This is extremely depressing, in part because it is deeply, deeply unimaginative. You can build any future you want in this world, but it seems many metaverse builders just want to create a digital version of the garbage parts of adult life that grind us down.
But also, it’s just so, so good to log off and get out there and “touch grass.” I’m sure there are a lot of people who recharge by spending time in virtual spaces (gaming, etc.) and I mean no ill will toward that! But I find it really hard to break the frenetic cycles in my brain without that physical space from screens and digital mechanics. My brain works differently without digital mediation. When I run, for example, my mind seems to process long-dormant or fragmented ideas from past days or weeks. I make connections much more easily in that meditative environment. Whereas even on one of those scenic Peloton rides, I find my thinking is stuck in a kind of screen-saver mode. What does this mean? I don’t really know, but I can tell you that six days mostly away from devices has lifted a fog that was flattening my thinking. I’m grateful for that opportunity and for all of your flexibility in the timing of this newsletter.
Speaking of people who need to log off …