Several years ago, sitting on the couch in our stuffy New England apartment, in the dead of winter, my 4-year old approached me. We had finished reading a library book earlier that evening. Caleb has certain gestures when he’s feeling coy, and his big tell is the twitching corner of his mouth flirting with the idea of a smile, which he wore now.
“Daddy?” he said.
“Yeah?” I put my book aside, given his somberness.
“I think that…I didn’t like the book we read tonight.”
“Okay,” I said. “Why not?”
“There wasn’t a problem. I think a story should have a problem. And there wasn’t a problem.” As proud as my inner English-nerd was at Caleb’s stated exception to his budding literary canon, this little remark made an indelible imprint on my mind. I think of it often.
Caleb, at four, was tugging at a long, loose string, the end of which was some cheap publisher whose plastic account of a puppy, child, or talking rutabaga had touched Caleb’s inner nerve which longed - as we all do - for a coherent narrative. When I tried to reconcile my own mild annoyance at the book with Caleb’s utter horror, it hit me: for Caleb, this was like jumping into a pool with no water. It was his first taste of the American experience, the first time he was introduced to the idea that one could read - even at length - about nothing.
The Youtube Vacuum
I thought of this conversation last week, when I saw a TEDx talk by James Bridle aimed parents (or at least that accounts for its 1,089,534 views as we speak), about the dismal content of Youtube videos geared toward toddlers, pre-teens and probably frighteningly underdeveloped adults. In the talk, Bridle introduces us to a whole dark market of short Youtube snippets featuring familiar children’s characters scandalizing each-other in 2-5 minute clips.
It was truly horrifying, almost admirably so, to watch the raw hutzpah of grown men dressed as Spider-Men and dogs throwing hot sand, whacking one another with shovels, mimicking defecation - just raw, carnal, infantile stuff - to garner enough likes on the Youtube to win some pre-programmed algorithm battle for sponsorship.
I watched a few. The videos, as Caleb would say, have no problem. They have no plot. It’s the sort of thing we shrug our shoulders at, but actually this is a tectonic shift in the history of civilization: we are attempting to create a life outside a religious narrative. It’s been attempted before, but what’s truly disturbing is it’s catching on: these perverted children’s bits are chronically devoured by children the world over because Youtube is one cheap babysitter amiright? Our children, one by one, are being ex-doctrinated.
The stunning thing is even as a secularist, Bridle is as mortified as any of us should be at this attempt to scrub narrative from our collective vocabulary (except of course the parents for whom the fog of war has wrung them so dry these endless videos seem like a reasonable alternative to hearing one. more. complaint about how their two-year old’s PB & J sandwich’s crust remains intact). In fact, after sifting through the cocktail du jour of secular, bureaucratic solutions - oversight, accountability, blah blah blah - he shrugs and says matter-of-fact like: “One of the strange things about living in our algorithmically driven culture is even if you’re human, you have to act like a machine just to survive.”
It’s a stunning admission - from a guy who presumably thinks humanity is an instinct-driven machine - that he doesn’t appreciate being treated like one. In fact, he goes further in the original article the Talkx is riffing off, entitled “Something’s Wrong on the Internet” (I actually wouldn’t recommend it as it’s the type of thing that leaves me in a low-grade despair for hours, i.e. I absconded from my local Barnes and Noble after reading because I know my resting face is set to “disturbed”): “Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale, and it forces me to question my own beliefs about the internet, at every level.” He goes so far even to call these videos a “dark art”, thus upping said conspiracy to Threat-Level-Hogwarts.
What Went Wrong?
I think Bridle is rightly disturbed by the people behind the black market of plotless, effort-free video grooming. Obviously, somewhere, some weed-smoking childless bros are mass-producing this stuff at a frightening scale. Either that, or the ALGORITHMS THEMSELVES have become a self-sustaining Frankenstein, auto-producing an endless and unstoppable feed of brain-numbing dump feeds for revenue. That, if not already true, is surely a fraction of a hair away. But on the whole, I think finding the perps-at-large misses the point.
For one, I’m what you might call a broad conspiracy theorist, not in the fun-loving fanatical way of illuminati alarmists, but only in the boring Christian orthodoxy way of believing there really is a Dark Power with a personality operating within our universe. In his novel “All the King’s Men,” Robert Penn Warren’s atheistic protagonist concludes of his political career: "It was as though I were caught in a more monstrous conspiracy whose meaning I could not fathom. It was as though the scene through which I had just lived had been a monstrous and comic miming for ends I could not conceive and for an audience I could not see but which I knew was leering from the shadow."
So that doesn’t surprise me. That’s a Christian idea. It’s what scandalized C.S. Lewis the most about reading the New Testament: it insists there is a personality behind the darkness. I believe that, so I expect to find conspiratory threads woven into life. But it also protects me from the insatiable need of pinpointing some cultic group huddled round a hearth whispering Free-Mason secrets of which Youtube is just the end of the pipeline.
Second, I have a mind to take the author’s conclusion pretty seriously, which is a basic resignation to the fact that this secularization is an inevitable hurricane already approaching the shore and it’s too late to evacuate: “However, a huge part of my troubled response to this issue is that I have no idea how they can respond without shutting down the service itself [Youtube], and most systems which resemble it. We have built a world which operates at scale, where human oversight is simply impossible, and no manner of inhuman oversight will counter most of the examples I’ve used in this essay.”
Yes, but isn't this what we asked for? The ultimate choose-your-own-adventure where there's nothing to do but twiddle our thumbs and rake in money from unsuspecting 5-year olds? Eat, drink, and be merry, because life is whatever-you-want-it-to-be.
A Plotless Society
This, my friends, is what we made: a system where we can create our own meaning, and thus a system which bleeds pointlessness and creates a boredom vacuum. I find myself using that line of logic with college students more and more: Secularism is boring. That’s why you’re bored. It’s nothing like the fun of having a God whom Chesterton described this way: “God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon.”
But of course if the sun is an accident, and revolves around you, really, then life is truly, utterly boring. Thus the need to be, as T.S. Eliot articulated, a society “Distracted by distraction for distraction”. And he said that last century- last century! - which is good for him because man this Bridle Talks would have dug him an early grave. But he saw it coming is the point, and here we stand casting off the moors of religion and setting sail into the amorphous sea whilst decrying its shapelessness.
So we have a culture of boredom. I think that’s a critique of Secularism we should voice more often. M.T. Anderson captures it well in his picturesque account of teen angst in his almost prophetic Sci-Fi work “Feed”, in which the main character visits the moon only to respond: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck. We went on a Friday, because there was $&!@-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Arwaker was like, ‘I’m so null,’ and Marty was all, ‘I’m null too, unit,’ but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we'd been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them.”
This is life in the secular mode, and it’s what we thought we wanted: freedom from the narrative. Only, freedom from the narrative is both boring and dizzying, but now that we’ve created this monster, we’ve found there’s no un-sewing Frankenstein’ limbs. It’s alive, sort of.
The Death of Thought
The result is a generation of folks - myself included - who can’t think. I’m not saying they won’t think, or they lack the proper logic-tools. No. They can’t. We've filled the plotless, boredom vacuum with infinite toys and stories which require infinite hours to assess and play them. Ever spent the evening scrolling through Netflix...options? Oh I have. Never decided. Just went back to sleep. And you ask me to think. To assess an idea, a worldview. What a joke. How can anyone think when we’ve got the shiny bright lights of consumerism dizzying us into benign resignation?
It doesn’t help that old fogies like me chuck the label “Narcissist” and “Entitled” around at young people like candy. You would be a narcissist too, if you grew up in a digital bubble. What choice would you even have? Criss-cross voices screaming in your ear at the rate of 10,000 ads per day while the glitz of talking-heads lob thought grenades at caricatures parading past you 24/7…good luck.
Again, I don’t mean that in the strict tut-tut way of an Objectivist philosopher but more in the sociological way of Barry Schwartz: creating your own plot (the boredom vacuum) give us infinite options (the solution to boredom) and those infinite choices paralyze us from thinking critically about anything (the death of thought). To give his famous analogy, think of the conundrum of 150 salad dressings: a small grocery store has 150 salad dressings and left to his own devices the average consumer will experience A. Paralysis, in which case we move on with no salad dressing B. Anxiety that we didn’t choose one of the 149 others, or C. Wild overconfidence in our salad dressing choice based only on an abysmally informed Consumer Theory of All Salad Dressings. Such is the thought-world of generation Z.
So we’re bored. Thanks, Secularism. And that boredom means we must be endlessly entertained, and that means we don’t think critically, nay, we can’t. In other words, freedom from plot has quickly given way to a freedom we didn’t ask for: freedom from rationality. Actually we passed the exit for “unfair” ten miles back. Asking rationality of the coming generation is blowing right past unfair and comes dangerously close to mockery, like Tommy Devito popping shots at the bartender’s toes: “Dance, boy!” They CAN’T. My wife and I have a running joke about confusing our feelings with our environment: “It’s tired out today.” Well it’s not too far from the truth. It’s not human out here. It’s machine.
It's odd to hear people describe “Relativism” or “Postmodernism” as this generation’s “worldview”. No, it’s not their worldview, it’s their world. It’s not like they’ve thought it out and concluded all truth is relative. Of course it doesn’t make sense - yes, yes, the well-worn “saying all truth is relative is an absolute" argument holds water but here's the thing: it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense because we have traded brains for experience (and that’s not by the way a case for brains over experience, the important thing is the trading).
The Deficiency of "Worldview" Comebacks
I say that because certain pockets of American evangelicalism tend to burrow down against the logical inconsistencies of our world as though to say "if people only understood everything would go back to the 50's". Well no they wouldn't. The world is different. The world is relative. Arming our children with an arsenal of handy rhetorical punch-lines is like training Rocky Balboa by teaching him classical piano. That is the wrong game. As Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has brilliantly complained, going into a college classroom today playing the Rationality game is like trotting out onto a football field thinking it’s a soccer game. You’ll get your lights knocked out. The modern classroom is not playing the Rationality game, but the Power game.
Thus the onslaught of in-house"apologetics" books which tend to be, in fact, subtle deep-tissue massages to the wounded ego of religious rationalists, who apparently think Jesus also was a post-enlightenment logician whose cold common-sense changed the world (the label "apologetics" serves as a salve allowing us to believe we’re actually doing something useful for society by reclining in our Lazy-boys and seething against it).
The problem is what Pascal said 500 years ago still applies, but magnified one hundred fold: “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” except now the closest concept we have to “alone” is exploding kittens on our iPhone. No long-winded treatise decrying the logic of the unChristian world holds a candle to that.
Thoughtlessness in Culture
All this adds up to the current crisis. “Truthiness” was the word of the year in 2006…2006! And now we have “Newsiness”. It’s how we get away with “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’, is,” and, “Oh I meant I see no reason it COULDN’T be the Russians”, and other forms of Orwellian double-speak ad infinitum.
With the advent of technology-creating-techonolgy, the situation grows severer by the hour. This very year Washington University successfully distributed a video of a full Barack Obama speech but with one caveat: it’s not him. It’s his voice, his face. Except he never did or said any of those things. That to be honest feels like pluralistic relativism just dropped the mic on us.
The other day my friend Daniel jokingly referred to the NY Times as the former newspaper, and as an open-minded devotee of the Times I still snorted out my cheap party wine. The marked shift in particular angles of “news” in the post-Trump era has been remarkable. I say that, by the way, as a Never-Trumper: I honestly don’t expect America’s largest syndicated newspaper to be unabashedly propagandist, so I keep being surprised.
This all is not something I’m touching with a ten-foot pole: this is me. This is us. Thought is just barely possible for those of us who still believe. I just felt this recently, when I realized to my horror that I could not even tweet. I’ve been avoiding Twitter for two years because when I try my words scatter across the screen like jigsaw pieces I can’t for the life of me reassemble. I learned today that if I go to my writing-app-for-writing-only, type out my tweet then copy and paste it back onto the Tweetbot, I can form a thought as per usual.
Yes I realize how pathetic I sound. And maybe it’s me. But once I take my thoughts “out there” to the interwebz I deep down feel the weight of all these disparate forces crushing whatever modicum of rationality I thought I had. And so it goes. We’re a society underwater, desperately running off stores of religious oxygen whilst denying land exists. Time is running out.
The Onset of Tribalism
So we’re dizzy, we’re bored, and we’re irrational. So what?
Well it gets worse. The death of narrative means the death of conversations. All of us, consciously or no, relate to one another out of a story - the story of mutual cause, self-fulfillment, utilitarianism, etc. It’s no surprise (is it?) we’ve bumped up against the most severe versions of tribalism over the last election. It’s not so much a problem with politics - politics is the trigger, the instigator of what is already inevitable in a plotless society: your authentic self is rubbing up against mine. If the self is a machine triggered by instinct, politicians are emblematic figure-heads that help our personal wish-fulfillment blossom. We know in the back of our minds this is true, but there’s no stopping the tide.
So a good example of this - on a macro scale - is Oprah’s Emmy speech last year. The rhetoric was telling - it was an appeal to civil rights based on “telling your truth”, and the vague promise that the liberals have enough power to take the house. At the end of the day, with no narrative, there was really nothing to say other than: “…what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I'm especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories. Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories that we tell, and this year we became the story." Notice: speaking your truth is not an appeal to rationality, but to experience: telling your story.
But she brushes up against a problem, which is that she has to make the impossible leap from “your truth” to the “absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice.” Is it a logical leap? No. It’s a direct contradiction, but the speech still gets rave reviews because why? Because actually the speech’s logical poverty is only a problem for a rationalist. Oprah is not a rationalist, and neither are we, which is what made it so powerful: what gives these women credibility is not cold logic but their power: “We became the story.”
The justification for Oprah’s truth as absolute truth is simply that she’s winning, and in a world-such-as-we-have that’s all we really need to know. To win an argument in the secular world, you don’t have to be right. You have to be loud. We yell at one another not in spite of - but because - we have nothing credible to say. The absence of plot, and the death of thought, means increasing the decibel is our only recourse.
Tribalism in the Church
Let me put it another way: in a secular world, power creates truth. Let me say it again: in America, right now, secularism means power creates truth. You believe that lie, don’t you? I do, too. All of us do. “But I read Christian books and do Christiany things!” Who wrote those books? A mega-church pastor? Why listen to him? Because a mega-church is power…and power creates truth. Why do you believe it? “Because he preaches the Bible!” No, not actually. Not if you’re honest with yourself. You listen because he has power. And now you can pursue it with an absolved conscience because it’s all encased in “biblical principles” lingo and self-help platitudes. The Evangelical market is just alternative secularism.
We church leaders have only accelerated this Seculargelicism, if we’re honest. It’s a subtle-shift, isn’t it, from “Let’s do what Willow Creek/Saddleback/Mars Hill is doing because it works,” to: “Whatever they say is true because it works”? What did we mean by “it works” after all? Weren’t we already secular back then? Didn’t “works”, after all, mean “It gave them power?” Let’s be Purpose-Driven because it creates power. Let’s become young, restless and Reformed because it creates power. Let’s be social justice warriors because it creates power. Pragmatism has always been secularism in disguise.
The only difference between now and then is in the last five years, this lab-created truth got away from us and is running rampart. But it was a slipper slope all along, and now the scale tilted ever-so-slightly from “Truth creates power,” to something more insidious: “Power creates truth.” So now the Rob Bell whose truth you justified by the size of his church is today infecting your church members with shoddy theological truisms and and weird sermonette-stand-up act podcasts from San Diego. But we taught them that. We did.
We also created the tribalistic talking-heads we’ve got from both directions in Christian America.
So back momentarily to politics. We see this “power creates truth” sentiment on both sides of the aisle. For example: This is why Oprah and Black Lives Matter’s leadership has decidedly cut ties with our Civil Rights forefather. Dr. Martin Luther King’s appeal was to the imago dei, to the overarching plot of humanity: “We must never forget this as a nation: there are not gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God.” BLM has vocally rejected that because the leadership is not about plot. Not at all. It’s about raw power: “Yes we can.” But should we? Doesn’t matter. We should do it because we can do it.
It’s also why the white evangelical parade of time-frozen talking-heads (Dobson, Franklin Graham, Grudem, Falwell) so seamlessly play their fiddle to the tune of whatever potential republican is vying for office. So Trump doesn’t have integrity, so what? He has something more important: he has power. And power creates truth.
Bush’s evangelical fluency created the truth that integrity mattered a decade ago, and Trump’s grope-brags and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale vague religiosity created the truth that integrity doesn’t matter this year. Use the Bible, sure. In the end the logic is always the same, because it doesn’t really matter. The logic behind the logic - no matter what convoluted strand of faux biblicalisms are ostensibly behind it - is the same: power creates truth.
And Power Would Love Nothing More
And this is where things get weird as I’m tempted to give Bridle’s conspiracy theory some credit at least broadly speaking. We would come to this, wouldn’t we? Every society does, eventually. Killing rationality has been power’s schtick from the beginning. That’s because rationality vertigo makes the “truthiness” of politics digestible. In possibly my favorite Tweet of all time, theologian N.T. Wright quipped: “Empires thrive on religious relativism; the more gods the better, since the more there are the less likely they are to challenge the ruling ideology.” Brilliant.
Relativism isn’t a rational conclusion, but a well-worn tactic: tell them to believe anything, and they’ll believe us. It’s the strategic art of misdirection: scream in someone’s ear from both sides and they won’t see you pilfer their wallet. It’s genius, really. Power would love nothing more than a generation of headless pleasure-seeking automatons, and we, like the hapless characters of Huxley’s Brave New World, have happily traded our brains for its empty conciliation prizes. Power would love nothing more than the society we’ve handed it on a platter, but we’ve done one better: we’ve christened it.
The Final Death: The Death of Relationships
But enough on politics because, really, who cares? Politics is just a macrocosm of what’s really happening. The real issue, the deep-seated thing, is this kind of relational voyerism whittles all the way down to the one-on-one level. We can’t relate to one another because we know, at root, at the end of the day we’ll just be two people eating each-other’s truth for ours. One of the things I’ve noticed about this generation is no one knows how to use their anger outside the Social-Media Selfie-Anger context. Mad at your roommate, boyfriend, teacher, friend, pastor? Just leave them. Zone out into iworld. Why? Because we're all floating in a plotless, amorphous outer space: on what basis could I ever tell you "my truth" about you?
Welcome to the zombie generation.
This all is where that half-plugged look comes from when I try to have a face-to-face with a typical college student. Sometimes the look is your classic deer-in-headlights speechless, white-knuckled terror. I never thought I’d say this but I miss that look. That was so last decade. Now it’s tough to put a finger on: it’s a kind of benign absence. They aren’t here, they’re in the Elsewhere, the anything-but-here. It’s in the way they talk in dutifully insincere sarcasm proverbs: “I’m so chill right now,” means “I’m freaking out.” “You are literally the worst” means “You’re literally not the worst.”
I’ll give them this: this generation is sincerely hilarious. Way more funny than me and my people, who grew up ROTFL at Bob Saggot’s Dad jokes on Full House. They make me laugh, and they know it. They can play me. It’s endearing. But it’s all they do, which is concerning.
In one of his essays on televisual culture, David Foster Wallace pinpoints this trend toward pervasive, hysterical irony before the internet even killed us: “…[I]rony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks…And make no mistake. Irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. Irony is based on an implicit, ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’…Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: ‘How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.’” And why are we impossible to pin-down? Why must we be ironic?
Because we are a plotless people.
We’re banging our heads on the nothing wall. It’s in Caleb’s dumb book about a gum-chewing suit-wearing hippopotamus having issues with his unmentionables. It’s in yesterday’s news. There’s no golden thread. Life actually is like opening one giant prize-cradling chocolate egg after another. And so we end up with Youtube as the new socializer. Sad!
I think the state of the union for Gen Z can be aptly summarized by the following Reddit forum. Topic: “It's like I'm just subsisting on pure inertia. I have no purpose, I have no motivation.” *Most liked* answer: “I know that feel. It's a hard idea to escape from, especially if you aren't particularly ‘successful.’ But take a step back from your life; what is the world? What is reality, even?…On the worst days I tell myself, ‘Yes, for a while I must exist. It wasn't really what I'd planned, but I guess there's no reason not to see if there's anything worth seeing while I'm here.” No wonder American teenagers are the most depressed generation in recorded history: Here’s the moon, folks. It’s dust all the way down. Pretty null, huh?
Welcome to the digital age.