The internet is the antithesis of the medieval university. The internet absolutely mirrors the modern college. The internet is nothing at all like modal jazz. The internet to a tee echoes the ambiance of William Basinski’s “Disintegration Loops.” Making these claims amounts to saying that our experience of the internet is pregnant with the same spirit of autonomy and suggestion, themselves intimately locked in a violent symbiosis which animates the age. By “autonomy” I mean things, events, experiences, are locked up in themselves self-referentially. Scrolling through Instagram, a friend’s puppy is quickly replaced by a different friend’s banal political exhortation which is itself replaced by cleavage. No common value connects these images. And by “suggestion” I mean, to channel an argument which is decades-old in many circles, that we have given up on the idea of truth being objective, rational, and therefore expressible. So we communicate our moral positions in absurd gestures, never quite able to justify ourselves with anything beyond the maudlin dramatics of our emotional experience. In this way the internet ensures that all politics are power politics.
Our culture uses the internet like a cargo cult of communication and thought, play-acting reasoned argument the way Pacific Islanders built cardboard airplanes hoping the shape of the crafts and ceremony of boarding would allow them to fly. Once we’ve sated our impulse towards magical thinking we can get back to the business of praxis: looting, dead-eyed sexual consumerism, canceling comedians, and demanding empty genuflection from corporate PR departments.
Our kind of freedom is eager to meander. Our conception of liberation is a strange autonomy which demands purposelessness and rejects objectivity, moral or otherwise. A popular online trope goes “Men will literally do X instead of getting therapy.” In the Anglo-West, people will literally kill themselves from a surfeit of meaning before accepting an external sense of order. As a once celebrated and then maligned artists long-ago lamented: “And in the end the age was handed / the kind of shit that it demanded.”
Autonomy of the kind we’re talking about finds its highest expression in the modern university, where subject to subject and department to department, specialization demands that each field of knowledge be unable to share coherence with another. Aesthetics, ethics, politics, geology – subjects which in a healthier culture would combine to reinforce one another in a kind of gestalt of knowledge – each claim their own fiefdom. But it didn’t happen in an instant. The university didn’t decay into a collection of mute and incoherent fields by a single act. There was a historical process at work here, tied in with the more general excesses of modernity, in which the classical liberal education was gradually replaced with a much wider variety of subjects while the center to which each field of learning was fettered itself disintegrated. This center was theology. Without it, the cart tumbled off its axle.
“The university,” writes Alasdair MacIntyre in God, Philosophy, Universities, “thus soon became a place where it is nobody’s responsibility to relate what is learned and taught in any one discipline to what is learned and taught in any other. The irrelevance of theology to the secular disciplines is a taken-for-granted dogma. Although philosophers as different as German Hegelians and French positivists attempted to define for their academic colleagues in other disciplines the significance of their various enterprises, such philosophers were largely ignored by those colleagues, and philosophy itself soon took quite other directions.” And so, philosophy, once intimately tied to theology (and still is, where practiced), took on the same underlying disunity as every other subject.
What replaced moral coherence once it’s vanished? Quantifiability. For the university, that means stats: GPA’s, SAT’s, LSAT scores, and diversity numbers, in particular. At which point it seems convenient to suggest that racial and gender grievances might themselves be a kind of counterfeit replacement for the theology which once existed at the center of liberal education. You can refer yourself to any number of incisive takedowns of woke “thought” to learn why this ad hoc series of moral gesticulations fail as a replacement for actual religion.
The point is that the modern university and the internet share these same attributes, the same lack of coherence, and the same cargo cult of ersatz attempts at moral consolidation. You can take 300 hours of sociology courses, or you can scroll through blue-check Twitter for 7,000 hours and the results will be, in a sense, similar. Inchoate images flicker by, tenuously held together in the mind by time-stamped trends and big feels. The modern university and the modern internet are models of one another. And both were born in California.
There are multiple contradictory theories on where the name “California” comes from. The most appealing origin story has a version of the name first appearing in a 16th-century novel called Las Sergas de Esplandián, about a fictitious Amazonian Queen Calafia, who rules over an island nation off the coast of Asia and assists Muslim armies in capturing Constantinople. The etymology of Calafia’s name likely has its origins in the word “caliph”, which is a shortened version of either ‘deputy’ or ‘messenger’. Las Sergas de Esplandián is also the first book Don Quixote’s niece picks to be burned for being a contributing factor to her uncle’s dangerous illusions. A fiction within a fiction. An infinite refraction of fictions. This all may have nothing to do with California as it actually exists, but also it might echo in some fundamental sense the same host of dreams and illusions which we project onto California today and which the state sells back to us as product.
When the Donahoe Higher Education Act of 1960 was implemented, birthing the California State University system, the dream was to create an educated and culturally vibrant middle-class at little to no cost to the individual student. And when the first ARPANET link was established between UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute on October 29, 1969, the dream was that the educated and culturally vibrant middle-class students would be able to share information, also at little to no cost. There was no housekeeping niece to throw the collective illusions onto a funeral pyre.
What was invented in California was the contemporary blueprint for a “lifestyle,” the expectations we would come to share about what shape our desires should take.
In Don DeLillo’s White Noise, the protagonist Jack Gladney joins his professor colleagues in the lunchroom to get their take on why he feels so insatiably drawn to natural disaster footage coming out of California. The scene emits an invisible heat, and there’s something almost reverentially Talmudic about joining them in order to discuss his furtive appetites among a minyan of intellectual disaster junkies. A professor named Alfonse suggests that we seek disaster footage because we suffer from “brain fade,” an “incessant bombardment of information.” He elaborates at length:
The flow is constant, Alfonse said. “Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style and this alone warrants their doom.
The dreams that California sold us include visions of its destruction. We don’t watch disasters on television anymore so much as we seek it out online. We doomscroll in a kind of ritualized technological question begging. Whatever form your “doom” might take, you can meander through it online and get that dopamine hit of fear and righteousness. All your worst fears can be confirmed and safely explored, independent of any organizing principle higher than the biochemistry of your brain stem.
Let’s give it a try. I open up a Google search bar and type in something timely: “unvaxxed people are killing kids.” The first hit – and it’s probably more than coincidence that the same word describes a junky’s temporary euphoric release – is from the New York Times. It’s an editorial from August, 2021, “Unvaxxed, Unmasked and Putting Our Kids at Risk” by Jessica Valenti, in which she goes into detail about her infant daughter’s rare genetic disorder and how she’s worried that unvaxxed people are putting her and other sick children at risk. She mostly talks about how angry she is and how she knows that her anger won’t do anything. Imagine all these children being literally strangled to death by sadistic rednecks. That’s basically the point of it. The next hit is another Times article from the same year warning parents about vaccinations for children under twelve. I click over to the “Images” tab and see masked, sad-eyed children, some of them with shirt sleeves rolled up to receive needle jabs. One photo shows a roadside memorial with lit candles and framed photographs, flowers and stuffed animals. Who knows what’s actually happening or if children are actually at risk (they aren’t), but these images sure make you feel very big feelings.
Pulling back to take a more generalized path through the doomscroll, I just search for “news.” Russian invasion. War in Ukraine. A terrible, disheartening series of events for sure. But how are my “friends” on social media reacting? A mom compares her own child safely sleeping to what the children in Ukraine must be experiencing. Profile image Ukrainian flags to, somehow, gesture towards a nebulous attitude of support. Photos of buildings in Kiev with vaguely melancholy captions. I don’t doubt that all the emotions being conveyed are sincere, I just question the value and meaning of the emotive action. If the sympathetic pain is so true and deep, why the vapid online posturing which can only cheapen the sentiment? We must return to Alfonse’s monologue in White Noise about consuming disaster. On some level, the doomscroll has completely replaced traditional, cyclical or liturgical, ceremonies of meaning. Instead of lighting a candle and saying a prayer on Maundy Thursday, we’re left reading updates on international violence and posting digital flags on social media. Nietzsche suggested that the cult of the body replaces God in the modern moral imagination, which is true, but trend diets and gender-confirmation surgeries are also supplemented with heavy dopamine hits of very safe and ever-shifting sympathetic terror. We snuggle into the distant chaos like a comfortable old sweater. We eat our outrage like junk food.
The internet gives the illusion, and only the illusion, of variation and choice. It’s the opposite of how modal jazz works. Traditional jazz or bop (and most other types of music, for that matter) rely on a series of recurring chords within a certain key and the soloist plays strictly within that structure. The skill of a soloist like Charlie Parker is that he’s able to do so much while confined in such a tight musical “space.” In modal jazz, however, there’s a greater freedom to explore various modes, or scales which share certain harmonic and melodic characteristics, so long as you remember where “home” is. It takes a lot of skill to play modal jazz well. The danger is that you meander around with nothing really all that interesting to say. This is also the danger of discourse in the offline world. You have the freedom to shift between ontological modes, so long as you know how to rationalize what you’re saying. You can say anything you want, but you have to think and speak well to make it worthwhile.
The internet works more like ambient music, however. Anyone who has played William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops or The Dead Texan’s eponymous album while working on their computer understands the slow-burn appeal of contemporary ambient music. Perhaps the best thing about it is that you can ignore it, which I don’t say cheekily but as a sincere compliment to the genre. What makes ambient music so special is that it front-loads the sameness of everything, makes it explicit. Most songs you hear on the radio are pretty much the same, but ambient music makes that monotony glow with an eerie occult energy. Subtle variations in sound are highlighted because of the sameness underlying everything. And so with the internet. Trend to trend and catastrophe to catastrophe, the shifts in discourse take on the illusion of novelty simply because the entire project is monotonous to its core.
What holds the entire doomscroll experience together is the algorithm. The coded heart secretly beating at the center of things. It balances the illusion of freedom of intellectual movement against the terrorizing prospect of people actually sharing information with one another, completely unfettered. It corrals us back to the doomscroll, the infinite refraction of our own biases, and keeps us tethered to the solipsism of banal emotivism. You can imagine what the ramifications might be for democracy. Even a recent panel hosted by Harvard, of all places, emphasized the detrimental effects of algorithmic attention-control, with Stanford law professor Nate Persily saying, “Google and Facebook have more power over the information ecosystem than any institution since the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. Their algorithms and their content moderation policies are taking the form of law.” By playing to our desire for the sensation of freedom without the actual attendant moral obligations which true freedom entails, the internet and its handlers have tightened their death-grip over the American mind. We could just all log off. But then how would we signal to strangers that we support the people of Ukraine?