We're all mad down here

On The NYT's "Rabbit Hole"

History of the Idiom “Down the Rabbit Hole” - Useless Knowledge ...

I’ve been listening to the NYT podcast “Rabbit Hole”, which is the latest liberal media project to try and understand the thorny problem of the internet — specifically, in the case of the first five eps, as it pertains to YouTube.

Without getting too lost in the reeds, the central thesis of Rabbit Hole is as follows. YouTube, in its endless lust for outsized watch hours, has engineered a system which incentivises edgy and radical content, while feeding users down a pipeline of related videos until they’re totally ensnared by ideologies and beliefs they may never have been exposed to otherwise.

The point of focus here is largely the broad alt-right/NRx/manosphere/Gamergate axis, because it’s the one people usually talk about, and the one people assume to have “real world” political and social consequences. No one is out here is getting worked up about an otherwise normal guy becoming obsessed with DIY carpentry because of the YouTube algorithm.

It’s a common story — both because it has dominated the discourse on technology over the past few years, and because… well, it’s credible. We can see the feedback loop at the heart of most platforms rewards certain kinds of content; it is obvious that algorithmic bubbles can reinforce beliefs, from the mundane to the insane. This stuff absolutely invites deep scrutiny, not in the least because it basically constitutes a vast, unprecedented psychological and social experiment conducted for profit.

But, as deeply compelled as I am by the notion of Facebook Brain as a motivating force in the universe right now, I can’t help but feel projects like “Rabbit Hole” are strongly over-indexing on the technological aspect, at the expense of a broader material reality which merely instantiates itself in the tech world.

The main character of the first three episodes of “Rabbit Hole” is Caleb. He is in many ways the perfect mark for this mode of analysis. He’s a white guy in his twenties living outside of a major American city who is pretty switched on, naturally pretty liberal without investing too much thought into it, and spends a ton of time on his computer. By his account — and his search history — he begins watching YouTube at the beginning of the decade for gaming, music and memes, and he is quickly ensnared in a recommendations pipeline which takes him through a dizzying array of edgier online comedy, to self-help content, then through the catalogs of right-wing luminaries like Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern, then towards the blurry fringe of openly neo-Nazi content. Eventually, he is spat out other end as a dude obsessed with immigration and white birthrates. We have an archetypal victim of right-wing radicalisation on YouTube.

But then Caleb is redeemed, in some sense: thanks to a few other timely recommendations from the algorithm, he finds himself sucked back into the titular rabbit hole, but now fixated on left-wing YouTubers instead, and finds his political beliefs swinging to the other side. We leave Caleb at the end of his tale presumably as a leftist (the exact contours of his new belief system aren’t explored in any great detail) and the host, NYT tech columnist Kevin Roose, raises the question: has he simply been brainwashed by the algorithm again, just in another direction? Are any of these beliefs real?

I have no doubt this story is to some extent representative, and there are almost certainly many Calebs out there who followed a similar path. But something stuck out to me in the telling.

Throughout, we’re given little snippets of Caleb’s life, largely as narrative conceits to explain how he found himself terminally obsessed with YouTube. He grows up in West Virginia in a broken family. He was socially awkward growing up. He went to college despite not really knowing why, and eventually dropped out after spending most of his time in his dorm gaming. He ping-ponged between a series of menial jobs; first at a Dairy Queen and then moving boxes at a warehouse, the latter of which served to give him more time to listen to YouTube while going through the motions. Through all this, connection to the platform and its personalities was really the only source of any real stability in his life, and he often fantasised about befriending the creators he followed.

What we get in these vignettes feels to me like the real elephant in the room: Caleb’s life sucked. He was living a totally atomised and rudderless existence within a system that assigned him very little value and provided him no meaningful path. If he didn’t turn to YouTube to find purpose, he would have found something else.

This is where rabbit hole analysis I think falls short. This is not to devalue the mode of thinking entirely. As I said earlier, there are clearly enormous, entrenched and historically unique problems inherent in the system of platform capitalism which now dominates our lives. But the development of these platforms has evolved in tandem with (and is in many ways deeply tied to) a general coarsening of human life. Individuals have been reduced to little more than economic units or clusters of data points.

The rabbit hole might go some way to telling us how Caleb came to be exposed to more radical points of view, but it falls short when explaining why he found them so compelling. This is something we can’t lose sight of when we’re interrogating the form and function of the online platforms which mediate our social existences. They’re symptoms of something larger.

What I’m reading…

  • The Club Dumas - Arturo Pérez-Reverte. This is the book they based The Ninth Gate on. I absolutely hate to say ‘Dan Brown for adults’ but the moniker is just too appropriate. It’s basically a paper trail thriller which serves as a vessel for Pérez-Reverte to demonstrate his incredibly rich knowledge of Spanish adventure novels, the rare book scene and Catholic demonology. One day I hope to flex on the same scale. Very good.

  • The Atlantic has a new series out about contemporary American conspiracy theories called Shadowland which I have found to be a mixed bag. But I liked the writeup about QAnon from Adrienne LaFrance because it bucks the technological, rabbit hole analysis — if I may refer to the essay above — and roots QAnon in a rich tradition of evangelical millenarianism in America. Good read.

  • I found this piece in Aeon about the economics of the China tea trade to be super interesting.

    Looking beyond the North Atlantic world, in the tea districts of 19th-century China in particular, modern capitalism continued to develop, flexible and globally oriented in character. Even in the Chinese hinterlands, we find the accumulation of capital dependent neither upon spectacular technological innovation nor particular class relations, but instead manifest in a new social logic of global competition.

  • I watched The Last Dance on Netflix which I found to be super compelling, while limited somewhat by the whims of its supernaturally talented, tyrannical subject. David Roth’s recaps at Vulture were a great accompaniment, and the final entry is — like the final episodes — tremendous:

    This is the deal that Jordan made, knowingly or unknowingly — that he would trade everything he had for everything he wanted. And then, when he won all those things, he found that he had nothing but that. The Last Dance does not and cannot answer the question of how that deal worked out for Jordan. He doesn’t exactly seem happy or even really satisfied, but it’s hard to imagine him making any other choice. He has the memories he sought and made; he still has the resentments he nurtured for so long to keep him occupied. That seems more or less to be what he wants.

  • If you’re interested in engagingly written and thoughtful finance stuff, I can heartily recommend another Substack, The Diff by Byrne Hobart. One particular recent dispatch I found super interesting basically articulated, from a thoroughly capitalist perspective, how Amazon essentially operates as a command economy , unbound by the standard assumptions of price theory. In other words, Amazon has basically solved the calculation problem:

    But now Google, Facebook, and especially Amazon do the same thing: they analyse reams of data to implicitly estimate supply and demand curves. Amazon has to explicitly estimate them, since it provides the logistical backend for actually getting products to customers, and treats reliably fast shipping as a key differentiator. When Amazon makes a pricing decision, it’s making a decision about warehouse space, packing efficiency, last-mile shipping capacity, and working capital. And since so many goods it sells are complements and substitutes, it’s making that decision, incrementally, for countless other products besides. This is the sort of complex tradeoff that, in theory, should be intractable for a single institution.