5 Creeping Forms of Madness the Internet Is Spreading
The Internet is making us all crazy. And I'm not talking about the obvious stuff, like third graders screaming racial epithets over Xbox Live, 4chan stalking, or YouTube (literally anything YouTube; it's all nutbars and crazyshakes up in that place). There is a subtle and creeping type of madness slipping into us as we stare numbly at our monitors, digesting an endless stream of cats adorably failing to do things. Mental disorders that have always been present, in some form, but are now becoming commonplace. Disorders like ...
For me, it all started with work. I have to know things. It is part of my job to find the ridiculous -- to collect, catalog, and comment on the outlandish and strange information out there. So I started with the gateway drug: bookmarks. I began manually bookmarking every interesting link I found, and at first, I sorted through them every single week. All was right with the world.
But then saving useful links wasn't enough anymore.
Maybe I should expand my focus beyond interesting scientific studies and pop culture theories, I thought. Maybe I can use these badass random images in my columns. Maybe I can find a use for this crazy Chinese shovel that can do everything. Maybe I can somehow pair it with this Chinese man crashing his scooter like 18 times. Maybe there's a link there that I can't see right now -- better save both, just to be sure.
Soon there were too many links to sort through every week, and after several months of buildup, I deleted that folder entirely. Not because I knew I had a problem, but because there were better ways to hoard links. I didn't notice I was smoking too much weed and decided to take a break; I noticed I was smoking too much weed and figured out that heroin would be more efficient.
I began downloading apps. I installed Instapaper and Dropbox, started using the "save" feature on Reddit. And let me tell you, brother, it is great!
Now I never have to read anything ever again.
Instead of clicking links, perusing their content, and then collecting that knowledge in my head, I now collect it on an external service just in case I want it later (spoiler: I apparently do not!). It's like building a library so you have somewhere to store the unread books that keep piling up on your nightstand.
I have done it: I have broken 100 games in my personal Steam collection.
How did I find so much time to game when I work a beyond-full-time day job and write books in my off hours, all while balancing a relationship and a social life? Simple!
I don't play them.
Well, that's not entirely fair. I have played perhaps 75 of those 100. It's just that, of those 75, I have only played about 50 for more than 10 minutes at a stretch. Of the 25 I haven't played at all, I knew, even at the time of purchase, that I was never going to play them.
It's not the same thing as link hoarding: I wasn't collecting them because I thought I might need them later. It's because they were only $3! $7! Only $10 for the whole collection, marked down from fucking $600! At that price, my brain says, you would be stupid not to buy this thing that you don't want and will never use!
This wouldn't be a problem if I were less picky or had more free time -- I might end up exploring some properties that I otherwise would never check out. But that's not the case: I have strict requirements for a game, and if even one of them isn't met, I will never play that game again. If it launches some bullshit third party thing -- Uplay or Rockstar Social Club, for example -- ye shall be banished from my gaming kingdom forevermore. If a game doesn't support independent audio controls, blasting out of my speakers at full volume every time I start it up -- I will never play it again. If a game doesn't support a controller (I know, I know, I'm one of those bastard console/PC hybrid gamers -- but son of a bitch, I spend two-thirds of my life in front of a computer, I'd like to at least sit in front of a differently shaped one in my down time), I will never play it again. If it turns out to have been published by EA, I will never play it again.
You'd think, considering my insane list of prerequisites, that I would ensure that a game meets them before purchasing. And I'm usually pretty good about my due diligence. Unless the game is discounted 90 percent or more. That's the magical number. If your game is a meager 85 percent off, you'd better meet my crazy demands or I'll start executing hostages. If it's 91 percent off, I will buy whatever crap you throw at me on pure muscle memory, and then shove it in a virtual closet like a digital NordicFlex, never to be seen again.
I subscribe to both Spotify and Netflix. They're fantastic. Excellent services. I heartily recommend them, especially if you never plan on experiencing anything new ever again.
Oh, they offer the world: Netflix has more hours of entertainment in their back catalog than there are hours left in the lifespan of the universe. There have been perhaps two albums that Spotify didn't have available for instant streaming when I went to search for them. They have the complete discography of Boris the Sprinkler, for fuck's sake: I've barely even heard of Boris the Sprinkler, and I love those guys!
And therein lies the problem: They have so many options that they're bound to have your favorite thing.
So there I am, with virtually every piece of televised or recorded media in the world at my fingertips -- all for less than 20 bucks a month -- and I'm watching reruns of Supernatural for the sixth time (god damn it, Sam, can't you see that you're all Dean has?!) and listening to the same album for the 500th time. Even if Spotify pays a ha'penny per listen, I still think I bought Ted Leo a new house this summer.
We've always done this to some extent. We bought DVDs of our favorite movies and TV shows, reread our favorite books, listened to our favorite albums on repeat. But we had an excuse for repetition then: New stuff just wasn't available to us. Where do you look? Where do you even start? Do you really want to drop the money if you find something? What if it turns out that album sucks?
But that's not the same issue that services like Spotify and Netflix present to me. I subscribed to both of those services specifically to explore. I forked over my money and the hangar gates opened. Before me stretched boundless vistas of new content -- then I looked two feet to my left and noticed my favorite chair sitting there, and thought, "Damn, that looks comfy!"
And I'm going to die here, comfortable in the thing I know while staring out at the unexplored territory. Captain Picard would be so disappointed in me.
Hey, look, they have Next Generation on Netflix now! I could rewatch that!
This is the age of access. Between Wi-Fi, mobile computing, and the sheer, boggling size of the Internet, all of the information in the world bends to our every curious whim. Every question we can think of can be answered within nanoseconds, no matter where we are. Reach into your pocket, a few taps on your smartphone, and you can know anything. We are all omniscient. I have the complete repository of human history sitting two inches away from my dick all day, every day -- and the enticement is too much.
With so much available, we need to suck in as much information as possible in the shortest amount of time. Because there's always more to know and more to see, and there's not always going to be more time.
Here we are: part of the problem. This is Cracked's primary sin.
We just offer you guys too much amazing stuff. And we're sorry -- lord, we are sorry, but we don't know how to stop!
It is not enough to sit down and learn about one thing when I could learn about only the five most mind-blowing examples of that thing!
The impulse is totally understandable, but still, it means that I'm reading 2,000 words of infotainment instead of 200,000 words of education. I'm not going to sit down and read a 700-page book that will make me an expert in tank maneuvers of World War II, but I will read a two-page article about the funniest tank fails throughout all of history. Instead of taking in careful, measured intellectual nourishment, I binge on cheap comfort facts.
I suppose we could chalk this impulse up to humanity's short attention span and inherent laziness. That's something we, as a species, have always struggled with. But it's certainly different today: Now we intake info-bits in a constant stream. Broad knowledge with no specialty. That's the opposite of the problem we used to have: It used to be that if you had a question back in ye olden times and nobody within earshot knew the answer -- tough shit. Maybe if it really bothered you, you'd go to the library. Sort through a microfiche roll, order a set of specialty books from another library, wait six weeks for them to arrive, and then sit down for a month of afternoon studies. And then, when somebody else asked that question -- that first question that started your journey of discovery -- you would know the answer. You would know all of the answers.
And they would call you a geek and beat you up for it.
Hey Reddit, if you're seeing this, look at my eyes and understand that I mean the words I'm about to speak with every fiber of my soul: Fuck you, buddy.
Not because you're a shitty service -- you're great -- but because you have enabled me to ruin myself. Somebody needs to put an asshole-proof lock on my Reddit account. I play Reddit to the exclusion of virtually everything else. I used to check certain sites, every day, because I needed my fix of information. I needed my links to hoard. And then Reddit came along and blew them all out of the water. Why would I go door to door begging for information when I can sit down with this infinitely scrolling service and never, ever stop learning? Every single day is like that Twilight Zone episode where the dude finds that all of humanity is dead, and he rejoices because there's finally time to read now.
Only our glasses never break; there's no ironic twist. We are free to read about decade-spanning Civilization games until our muscles atrophy.
But why is this a problem? It's endless knowledge. Even if you complain about the cluttering memes and obnoxious karma whoring, you can customize your experience. Pick your subreddits carefully, and you'll only see the information that pertains to your interest.
And there it is. Media isolation.
Back in the early days of Internet news, either you couldn't customize the experience or it was so faulty and shitty that nobody bothered. If you wanted information, you had to read special interest blogs, and even they didn't have your exact priorities pinned down. Slashdot might regularly publish stories that you love -- in-depth reviews of phone-phreaking porn, for example; all those sexy clicks and whistles -- but they also did world news. Even if you just scrolled right by a story, you were still dimly aware of its content. Maybe something in the headline would catch your interest, and you'd accidentally expand your horizons. But with user-selected information as the standard (I call out Reddit because it's my vice of choice, but every service does this now, from RSS feeds to Google to Pulse), now I pretty much exclusively read about motorcycles, video games, and fringe science. I'm losing the larger picture. And it's all my fault, obviously: This isn't about externalizing blame, but identifying the weird, diseased parts of our own brains that are screwing us when we're not paying attention.
I'm just saying that I used to pick up the paper and throw everything away but the comics. But occasionally I'd glance at the ground, see a headline screaming at me from the floor, and pick a section back up for a look. Now I have a massive paper that's nothing but comics, and I wouldn't find out about a fucking alien invasion unless it was a reference in today's Ziggy.