140 years ago, Friedrich Nietzsche coined the phrase “God is Dead.” The fallout from such a statement hit philosophy students and the deeply religious in the face. Irate confusion continues to follow the statement wherever it arises. The philosophical rubik’s cube was first introduced in The Gay Science where Nietzsche provides a parable of the madman seeking God who runs into town during the day with a lantern only to be laughed at by the less-than-faithful townsfolk. Today, I am that madman. The internet is dead, the internet remains dead, and we have killed it.
“Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose.
God The Internet is dead.”
You probably feel like the townsfolk. You don’t believe in the internet as more than the browser on your phone, the social media app, or an email. There are others like me, the dead internet theory has been around for awhile, though I am not convinced of their conspiratorial worldview. However, it is undeniable that our culture has weakened over the last decade. I wrote about a year ago that we are in the dumbest timeline; Donald Trump was our president, and people decided he knew more about medicine than the CDC.
But it’s more than just idiocracy on the rise. John Ganz has written that even the counterculture of today is more of a “retarded avant garde” than anything lasting or memorable, much less challenging society. Kyle Chayka argues, “Globalized digital platforms and feeds of algorithmic recommendations have flattened vast swaths of culture, encouraging uniformity and frictionless mediocrity. What’s more, since 2016, the phenomenon has extended everywhere you look: Movies, TV, music, visual art, design, and marketing.”
Flat is quite the apt descriptor of our culture. Drew Austin of The Dirt noted the internet today feels more like flipping the channels of boring TV, trying to skip as many commercials as you can. Dead internet theorists contain their conspiracies as they’re scared of the truth. They believe the internet’s death came from an army of bots pretending to be humans who feed off your clicks. But the internet’s passing is so much more encompassing and it’s ruining our culture as much as the entertainment industry.
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?”
We may tell ourselves that we are comfortable and things are going well. We have endless music thanks to Spotify. Unlimited streaming TV and movie services. Phenomenal user-generated content on Youtube and TikTok. Too bad it’s all a lie. It’s all proof of our rotting culture. Ted Gioia has written about the music industry’s focus on nostalgia and continuously points out that an Ed Sheeran song from 2017 continues to be the most popular in the world. Sam Kriss goes even further, “You know, secretly, even if you’re pretending not to, that this thing is nearing exhaustion. There is simply nothing there online. All language has become rote, a halfarsed performance: even the outraged mobs are screaming on autopilot.”
It is not just entertainment like music and television. Chayka refers to this bland, inoffensive culture as Airspace. If you’ve ever wondered how Instagram, Pinterest, and Airbnb have affected our restaurants, bars, vacations, and other real world experiences, Airspace is your answer. “It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados.” Craft beer, Eames lounge chairs, and cortados are the sepulchers of our post-mortem internet. The choir sings Taylor Swift.
“How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?”
This degradation occurred slowly but it is easy to see that venture capital was behind this rot that ended our cultural highway. The push for user data has drained our culture of “new” experiences and has advertisers only selling us what we already like. Gayati Spivak reframes the hipster’s greatest sin, that chasing user data has led to a new cultural globalization. Again, perhaps you’re still in denial like the townsfolk who laughed at the madman. But I implore you to find the joy in your internet surfing.
Ted Gioia reflects on his web experiences. He is still attending service but finding no inspiration from the sermons, “We still bite at the clickbait, but it doesn’t taste so good. Something is wrong. We feel it intuitively and the numbers validate it.” The numbers have been brutal for major tech companies during a time when they should have ushered in a new future of growth. The pandemic locked us all inside and instead of encouraging a whole new online society it sped up the rot at the internet’s core.
Just a few weeks ago I wrote that the era of cheap internet is over. Google’s Youtube is about to test starting every video with five commercials. Netflix is looking for ways to introduce advertising onto each level of its subscriptions. Podcasts, video games, and smart home devices have not yet begun to stalk you and influence your purchasing choices, but they will. The ads are going to keep coming, and the cost of the premium ad-free subscriptions will certainly keep climbing and that’s due to our data not offering the payload it was assumed it would. The number’s Gioia spoke about come from Sam Kriss,
The exhaustion is measurable and real. 2020 saw a grand, mostly unnoticed shift in online behaviour: the clickhogs all went catatonic, thick tongues lolling in the muck. On Facebook, the average engagement rate—the number of likes, comments, and shares per follower—fell by 34%, from 0.086 to 0.057. Well, everyone knows that the mushrooms are spreading over Facebook, hundreds of thousands of users liquefying out of its corpse every year. But the same pattern is everywhere. Engagement fell 28% on Instagram and 15% on Twitter. (It’s kept falling since.) Even on TikTok, the terrifying brainhole of tomorrow, the walls are closing in. Until 2020, the average daily time spent on the app kept rising in line with its growing user base; since then the number of users has kept growing, but the thing is capturing less and less of their lives…The tables are already being cleared at the great tech-sector chow-down.10 Online services are reverting to market prices. The Vision Fund is the worst performing fund in SoftBank’s history; in the last quarter alone it’s lost over $20 billion. Most of all, it’s now impossible to ignore that the promise propping up the entire networked economy—that user data could power a system of terrifyingly precise targeted advertising—was a lie. It simply does not work.
I’m sure capital markets will find a way to stop the bleeding and am optimistic that the billionaire class’ stubbornness will keep the economy afloat. The robber barons of today are committed to their own bullshit. But just as Facebook’s rebranding of Meta reeks of desperation, desperation is all that is keeping our corpse of an internet from being liquefied.
“This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard.”
It’s difficult to predict what will be left of our society as the internet withers away. Politics have continued to sink lower, and the stakes become more and more serious. Culture wars are being fought at meme depth, with Critical Race Theory, Voter Fraud, and anti-Trans activism going full tilt to scapegoat any minority in Republicans’ path. There are more artists making good work today than maybe ever before, but I have little hope that our dead internet will let anything new break through the trove of advertising. New roads will need to be paved. What an exciting prospect!
Aspects of the internet will be with us forever. Email, for example, is still the most effective communication system as well as direct advertising tool. The rest of the worldwide web may wind up as more novelty. Ted Gioia writes, “In my youth, the trendy thing was to embrace tech-driven simplifications in food—at first it was canned food, and then branched out into frozen foods, microwave meals, fast-prep (just add water!) food, and processed products of all sorts.” We’ll laugh at the silliness of the Metaverse.
“After Buddha was dead, they still showed his shadow in a cave for centuries – a tremendous, gruesome shadow.” The internet is dead; but given the way people are, there may still for millenia be caves in which they show Youtube and TikTok videos. And we – we must defeat this shadow as well!