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Civilization magazine’s Richard Turley on why the internet is a big toilet

The New York broadsheet’s sixth issue perfectly conveys the feeling of being terminally online

There’s no easy way to describe the latest issue of Civilization. Headed by design anti-hero Richard Turley, the New York magazine is a glorious brain dump of images and information; an aggressively text-based assault on the senses in the shape of a Dadaist broadsheet. For those of us adept with the dizzying pace of the internet, flicking through Civilization evokes the same sensation as falling deep into a web wormhole. With most of the text completely computer-generated, there’s an algorithmic quality to the content, which spans hate lists, girl texts, break-up DMs, Butt2butt, emotional affairs and Fentanyl Strips. The cover image is similarly galaxy-brained: a cartoon man keels over, his zig-zag mouth fashioned into a frazzled frown. It’s hard to explain, let alone unpack into anything remotely discernable. So, we tasked Turley to help answer some of our questions – which he did, with the help of an AI bot. Here’s what we learned.

How would you describe the new issue? What are some of the main ideas underpinning it?

Richard Turley: Chaotic. Chaos. Friendship. Trying hard to be original. Making something that’s impossible to imitate. Blending all of the voices in the paper into one. Thinking about that voice in your head being a crowd. How that crowd behaves – the slipperiness of the signals the crowd chooses to send each other. The codes. It‘s about media, all media, at once, up close, at a distance, just for a second – about feeling something really powerfully, then just nothingness. The sensation of being pulled under and enjoying it. No fixed points. Nothing is safe. Everything in motion. Routine. Inertia. Nausea. Paralysis. Fear. White noise. Oscillations. Like a radio that‘s out of tune. The taste of stale milky coffee in your mouth. Of staring in the most beautiful sunset you‘ve ever seen, taking four or five pictures of it and forgetting it forever. A signal that can’t be traced back to any source.

The issue is inspired by Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music – how?

Richard Turley: The initial attraction was to make something horrible, based, repellent. Aggressive in an era of passive aggression. Why not make something to be hated. To make a collection of words that barely fit together, which refuse to go anywhere. A set of trapped signals that have been taken over by a loop.

The thing about music is you can listen to it, but it‘s not clear who ‘you‘ is, or what ‘listening‘ is. Listening is something you do all of the time. I think something similar has happened in how we now take in words and visual information: we absorb rather than read – the content having nothing to do with the experience of reading it. You read something but you don‘t know what you‘re reading or what you‘ve just read – you can‘t tell. It's just become experience. That‘s what I want Civilization to be.

How would you describe your relationship to the internet? How does this translate to the new issue?

Richard Turley: The internet is most like a very big toilet. It‘s a big corporate office full of cubicles, where people are forced to eat at the same time every day, and everyone gets sick of each other, and everyone wants to fuck everyone else. There are no windows. Everyone is trying their hardest to get something out their ass while they‘re back there. A big shit blockage that keeps everyone stuck, a big pool of shit around the cubicles.

How would you describe the feeling of being terminally online?

Richard Turley: Parochial. Stupefied by over-scrutiny. Being endlessly screamed at. The feeling that you‘re never more than a tiny part of a whole. The feeling of being somehow less, in a place that‘s infinitely more than you could ever fathom. Like you‘re under a drizzle that won't stop falling. Like you‘re getting your ass eaten out. Like you‘re sitting at a very fancy restaurant with a very rich and powerful but very boring person you‘re supposed to be listening to, but you’re not listening because you‘re too busy feeling their ass on the back of your neck. Like being a big office building with a really big waiting room. Everyone’s waiting in line to get in. They‘re waiting in line to get out. The internet is the only place where everyone gets to be somewhere else, but they don‘t know where that place is.

You said that the issue is meant to be almost unreadable. Can you explain the thinking behind that?

Richard Turley: Playing with the idea of words as images and trying to blend it together so you can start or finish at any point without taking any specific message from any of it. Forgetting all ideas that words have to mean something. Like playing a record at the wrong speed. Like that feeling of watching a video backwards. Just sensation. The sensation of being dragged into something and not knowing what it is. The feeling that something is coming towards you, but not knowing what it is. The sensation of having your head pulled down into someone‘s lap. Like looking at that beautiful sunset till the sun burns holes in your eyes. A big joke with the punchline missing. Or just lots of punchlines. It’s everyone‘s diary written on the walls of a toilet. It‘s all the same argument. It‘s all the same story. It‘s about a girl who is afraid of being alone, so she takes a dog, and the dog dies, and she gets another dog, and so on. The feeling of something really intense, then nothingness, of the nothingness being the most intense thing. A blank space where we used to have a map. We know all the details of the map, but the details don‘t add up to a big picture, they don‘t make a big picture. Nothing in the details is big. Nothing is big, except the details. What there is, is small. A chaos of small things, like a desk full of stuff. A bookcase. A drawer. A lot of codes, no fixed points. A lot of ways to be alone, but not being alone. It‘s an issue about feeling something, then nothing. It‘s about feeling something, then feeling it again, then nothing. Feeling something like a lot of people all at once. A crowd. A crowd with no clear identity, no clear message. It‘s about being unsure if the message that‘s being sent is the same one you‘re receiving.

“The internet is most like a very big toilet. It‘s a big corporate office full of cubicles, where people are forced to eat at the same time every day, and everyone gets sick of each other, and everyone wants to fuck everyone else” – Richard Turley

Tell me more about the hate list – what‘s the purpose? How did you compile the list?

Richard Turley: To be mean. Upset people. It was a different articulation of the same impulse of making an unreadable newspaper. Make something horrible and abject. Stop being nice. To take the kind of automated correspondence that we exchange with each other all the time, the messages we send without thinking, without considering the other person, the ones we send without any second thought, and take that kind of message and print it as empirical fact. Like just because it‘s printed makes it real. We called out one restaurant for having salty food and heard they‘ve changed their approach to seasoning. There you go, And they say print is dead.

Can you describe the idea behind the text generator? What do you think it adds to the issue?

Richard Turley: It’s more fun trying to make a computer feel sad. We all emote far too much, but it feels way deeper when it's a machine crying. Maybe there’s some deeper level stuff going on too. Ultimately it’s just fun knowing that you never know who’s making you feel something.. someone “real” or a “real machine“. It’s like a live-action version of spam – a machine that accidentally grasps how to feel.

How did you finish the issue?

Richard Turley: The computer broke.