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How Nothingness Became Everything We Wanted

Before the pandemic, the malaise that defined our culture was periodically broken by huge protests, acts of physical solidarity. The Trump presidency started with the Women’s March and proceeded to provoke a series of mass public outcries, against the travel ban, the border wall, the acquittal of his first impeachment and Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. And despite quarantine, in May 2020, George Floyd’s killing by the police started a movement across the U.S. and around the world. A culture emerged out of these protests, too, as if they reminded us that we could help one another, using technologies new and old. There were millions of dollars raised to support activism via GoFundMe and other crowdfunding sites, but also mutual-aid societies organized by neighborhood, restaurants cooking meals for essential workers and community fridges stocked with free food — improvised, haphazard and decentralized experiments.

This communal, direct action seemed like a glimpse of the culture of negation’s hard-to-find opposite: invigorating and sometimes uncomfortable, but not a distraction or a suppressant. And yet these moments of tumult also inspire retreat. Climate change, technological upheaval, racism, inequality — the churn of history, which shows no signs of stopping — these all make it easy to instead slip into the welcoming void of the content stream. Numbness beckons when life is difficult, when problems seem insurmountable, when there is so much to mourn.

Many opt to simply stay home, pursuing as uncomplicated and swaddled a life as possible, surrounded by things that feel if not good then at least neutral. “It’s not pure subtraction of public sensations; it’s the addition of private sensation,” Rao told me over the phone, long before the pandemic. “Hot cocoa, gravity blankets, sensory deprivation.” We create an acceptable layer between our internal and external environments, a barrier that’s still under our control even as the outside world grows increasingly chaotic. “It’s an essentially defensive posture,” he said, “an instinctive adaptive response.”

It’s no surprise we yearn for comforting private sensation. The social atomization that Robert D. Putnam outlined in 2000 in “Bowling Alone,” which he blamed in part on television and the internet, has been both amplified and smoothed over by the rise of social media. These communication technologies work like a placebo, providing a hollow version of the connection we’re missing. All of a sudden, at the outset of the pandemic, the virtual was all we had — not quite the disappearance that was wished for. Zoom and FaceTime provided proxies for any previous social routines: We talked, endured sad happy hours, played games and hosted birthdays over video chat like so many astronauts marooned in separate space stations. Nintendo’s life-simulation video game “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” in which players build and share twee island towns populated by animal villagers, became the year’s surprise hit. Peloton and Mirror, two companies offering livestreamed gym classes via expensive equipment, saw booms in sales as physical yoga studios went out of business. The fetish for the artisanal, the small and local, so culturally dominant after the last recession, gave way to scalable, anonymous, frictionless solutions that only increased the fortunes of billionaires like Jeff Bezos, intensifying our vast inequality.

The very businesses and services that sustain coziness further entrench us in a bifurcated economy fueled by data surveillance and cheap, precarious labor. Software was already eating the world, as the investor Marc Andreessen’s 2011 prediction ran, and we let it keep gorging. Months of semi-quarantine offered few other options. All of life’s randomness and surprise were replaced by smooth, predesigned corporate systems and commodified, automated feeds through which we received the next thing to consume, inducing one of the most disturbing psychic features of 2020: that a substantial portion of the population could float on in a state of lulled passivity, even in the middle of a global disaster, thanks to those who could not.

Perhaps we don’t truly want the culture of negation. There’s plenty of evidence that not everyone acquiesces to its numbness, from the intentional agitation of the band 100 gecs to the incisive investigations of the sensual by novelists like Garth Greenwell and Bryan Washington. But it does serve a purpose, acting as an effective salve for the very problems that these atomizing platforms create, the overflow of targeted information and stimulation. We turn unremarkable albums into think-piece fodder and recommend terrible reality-television shows to our friends because they recognize and soothe our anxiety; they act as anesthetics more than art. And now, in a very anxious time, it’s even harder to find what doesn’t conform. As theaters, art galleries, opera houses, symphonies, cinemas, poetry readings, comedy clubs and bookstores all evaporated in the pandemic, the last thing left seemed to be streaming video, broadcast through the largely unregulated, for-profit digital platforms that now have a monopoly on our housebound attention and connection.

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