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Are you content? How the internet rewired our brains

The birth of the internet kickstarted a new human history, a total collective reworking of our behaviours, our self-image, the way we work, have fun, fuck, and interact

In 1998, Swiss watch company Swatch, working in collaboration with MIT Media Lab, pitched an unorthodox idea: to abolish real-world time and replace it with an internet-friendly system without the need for multiple time zones. This Swatch Internet Time would not be measured by the sun and moon, but rather 1000 ‘beats’, each lasting one minute and 26.4 seconds, per day. Rather than being located at the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London, Swatch based their newly created global meridian in their headquarters in Biel, Switzerland. “Cyberspace has no seasons and no night and day," Nicholas Negroponte, the MIT Media Lab founder, stated during a 1998 announcement, according to Wired. "Internet Time is absolute time for everybody. Internet Time is not geopolitical. It is global. In the future, for many people, real time will be Internet Time.”

Emerging from the first internet-driven tech boom era, Swatch’s corporate ploy to engage its audience was clearly a flop – but was the idea really that wild? Whacky as it sounded, the internet operates the same 24 hours for everyone, so creating a universal Internet Time wouldn’t be all that far-fetched. The internet was, after all, still in its infancy. Entering the digital age felt like a boundaryless terrain, not limited by real-world rules.

Two decades on, our bodies are synced to the Cloud like mobile devices, or machines. With all of history available to us simultaneously via the internet, the vast archive of the internet has flattened the past. Information is simultaneously ephemeral and eternal, appearing one moment and disappearing the next. Social media feeds refresh per second. Algorithms choose what we see under the guise of optimisation. Meme accounts post backup pages in case their main gets blocked – or Zuckked – by the internet Powers That Be. This state of constant obfuscation has seen the internet shift from a utopian pursuit of interconnectedness into, to borrow from British philosopher Timothy Morton, a hyperobject, AKA things that are too large to comprehend, but also intentionally obscured through deceptively innocent language such as clouds and cookies and Firewalls. 

We are at what cultural theorists and philosophers like to call the end of history. “We are in the cyberpunk future, but it doesn’t feel like the future,” says Nate Sloan, cultural theorist and meme admin behind the Instagram account @umbertoecco2k. “Culture is not moving forward but technology is.” Like Nietzsche’s last man, or the embodiment of depressed Wojak (AKA Feels Man), we consume culture but do not produce it. Lips parted in an uneasy grimace, we doom scroll social media and stroke our chins to Adam Curtis. We watch Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon flex their silly little Boring Apes on national TV. When influencer Molly Mae announces that “we all have the same 24 hours in a day”, we tweet fiercely worded opinion pieces, while secretly hoping we become influencers ourselves. “We re-interpret the past through the lens of the present. The culture is the same, but different when rehashed this time because of a new awareness that comes from our forward progress in time,” Sloan adds.

Long gone are memories of the faint blue CRT light on the Dell family PC, or the magical sound of the dial-up modem signalling the voyage into brave new internet realms. The internet has moved beyond the halcyon era of Microsoft 95, where moments could be distilled into fond memories of catz haz-ing cheezburgerz, Club Penguin, and “it’s a double rainbow!” video clips. Social media has opened up the drawbridge on the number of people we can conceive in a single digital space. A far cry from Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 utopian notions of a “global village”, social media has transformed the formerly isolated spaces of early-internet instant messengers and forums into limitless spaces where opposing opinions clash like battle axes in open arenas. We’ve long exceeded the Dunbar number limit of so-called friends anyone can viably make in a lifetime. “Maybe in the past, every village had one idiot. But now, every idiot can come together and promote their very bad ideas,” says internet researcher and trend forecaster Sean Monahan. “It’s not all people having bad ideas coming together, but I think there’s something kind of funny there. There’s a real desire for community because the internet has made it harder for traditional community networks to thrive like they once did.”

“In 2012, I was at a reading group with Boris Groys and he said, ‘both Madonna (pop star) and Christ (god) are alive in the Google,‘” recounts Joshua Citarella, an artist and internet researcher based in New York. In this distorted view of history and culture, where 80s icons rub shoulders with prophets, folklore and oral traditions still shape how we understand heritage – though not in the linear way that we’ve grown accustomed to. “Today there is less of a cultural mainstream or a distinct sense of the particular decade. Instead, every genre and trend seems to be happening simultaneously but spread out over a long tail of internet culture. Cultural periods now feel more tied to political events rather than a style of art or music.”

“We are in the cyberpunk future, but it doesn‘t feel the future” – Nate Sloan

With the environment collapsing, rent prices rising, and wages stagnating, a generation of zoomer doomers have turned to memes to process their well-founded anxieties about the future. As capitalism swallows itself and any chance of a future beyond it, popular culture is chewed, digested, and recontextualised – and memes are a byproduct of this. Memes offer us a lifeline amidst the pervading feeling of uncertainty, as well a way to catalogue our collective and ever-changing moods. The more absurd life is, the stranger and more absurd the content. “Sorry I didn’t return your text, I reside in a persistent void state,” reads a meme on popular account @anth0shit juxtaposed with an image of Charli XCX in chaps. “I have departed from my corporal form. Hell is empty,” reads another, against a glitching photo of Joe Biden. Whether we’re pondering the orb, living in a void state, or needing our ouroborussy (ouroboros pussy) ate, memes are an expression of the (nonsensical) word around us. “I think techno-capitalism has offered this ‘archive’ as an exchange: you can have on-demand access to all of the past but no chance for a real future,” agrees Citarella.

A byproduct is the influx of various digital tribes, scenes, and bespoke cyber-identities – distilled succinctly into what Monahan has described as “dominant cores and the emergent pills”. No longer simply an allegory for the trans experience in the Matrix, or right wing radicalisation on shady corners of the internet, the ‘pilled’ suffix has moved beyond internet-speak and has become a part of our everyday vernacular. Have you discovered the benefits of fish oil? You’re fish oil-pilled. Are you fangirling over Rihanna? You’re Riri-pilled. Are you obsessed with the salacious dynamic between Euphoria’s Maddy and Cassie? You’re bitchpilled.

Of course, the term still has political inklings: indigo-pilled refers to Joker-style anarchists, while black-pilled is used to describe doomers who have given up on everything. But, on the whole, it can suggest a multitude of ways in which you’ve been indoctrinated into a certain way of thinking. “To be pilled is to buy into a story, large or small, that is in some way oppositional to the mainstream. Whether that is heart-healthy cheddar or QAnon remains up to you,” writes Monahan on his 8ball Substack.

Similarly, the number of subcultures available online multiply at internet speed, and grow increasingly hyperspecific, signalling an alternative internet timeline. A quick scroll through Aesthetics Wiki, the community-run online encyclopaedia documenting online and offline aesthetics, will generate an overwhelming amount of styles and genres: cottagecore, weirdcore, traumacore, fairycore, goblincore, angelcore, kidcore, lovecore, bardcore, brocore, bunnycore, detergentcore – the list goes on. “This aesthetic makes me feel at home,” comments one user on the result for weirdcore, a surrealist aesthetic featuring lo-res imagery meant to conjure feelings of alienation and nostalgia. “I think I found my aesthetic,” asserts another.

“Maybe in the past, every village had one idiot. But now, every idiot can come together and promote their very bad ideas” – Sean Monahan

Where there’s a permanence to offline subcultures (as goes the phrase, ’it’s not a phase, it’s a lifestyle’) online identities appear less rigid and to change more frequently. For us terminally online, subcultures are like avatar skins to be tried on and taken off – meaning you can dress cottagecore one day and e-girl the next without any major thought. This LARPing of genre identities, whether putting lib-left in your Instagram bio or hashtagging #emo on TikTok, is a way to signpost ourselves to other users, as a way of signalling our likes and dislikes amid the vast metascape. Monahan elaborates, “It’s not about who you are – it's about what you believe. Adrift in our bedrooms, tapping into our tiny little screens, we find our community, our scene, our whatever via the stories that motivate us.”

As with other memetic forms of identity (see also: astrology, Myers-Briggs, The Political Compass), internet subcultures like wave, core and pill allow users to cobble together personal identities, while also to play a role in shaping the consensus understanding of the genre or subculture itself. “In this case, memes become a rough approximation for democratic inputs as the members of the community now help to produce the content that defines them as a collective,” Citarella explains. As content aggregators ourselves, whose every click, like, and share plays into our own personal online narratives, digital subcultures are the sum of its users. Their references are an amalgamation of references from across the web, whittled down into a cohesive aesthetic – or, narrative.

This patchwork approach to digital identity can be traced back to the 2010s Tumblr era. “Tumblr was the first place where you could repackage a bunch of cultural content that was divorced from the hipsterdom of the 2000s,” Monahan explains. The early 2000s, Monahan explains, saw platforms like eBay go mainstream, indicating the first time heritage could be traced online on a mass scale. “The idea of thrifting digitally predates Depop, though admittedly it wasn’t as glamorous.” Having access to vintage and archival clothes, as well as all the other weird shit that exists online – collectible toys, old books, records, and the like – meant that you could scroll between decades-old artefacts and newly manufactured objects in a single search. 

This, paired with the emergence of piracy services such as Limewire, meant that all cultural history was suddenly available all at once. “As a young person, you weren’t only looking at what was being marketed to you. You could literally download any music that you wanted that had ever been created – for free,” says Monahan. This not only made objects harder to periodise, it blurred the lines between time and our perception of it. This made it easier for cultural moments to become distorted and made it more difficult to discern when specific trends actually started. Monahan adds, “Oftentimes your references are actually just period pieces themselves, like nostalgia insertions.”

The experience of an event and its digital retelling become jumbled. “You have this weird dissonance between what actually happened historically and the way it’s later panelised in specific ways,” Monahan agrees. For example, the indie sleaze and Y2K trends are repurposed and recontextualised for the present. The term ‘indie sleaze’ was coined in 2021 by TikTok trend forecaster Mandy Lee, while ‘Y2K’ has only surfaced in the past few years. Online, these eras and style references blend into one another as people who were too young to remember them the first time around pick and choose their favourite relics from across history and mix them into a single, non-linear soup.

“There are far more opportunities now to build our own patches on the internet than there were a decade ago. I think the biggest hurdle is trying our best to not waste time” – Mat Dryhurst

Again, we see this in the way garbled internet logic bleeds out into the real world. Slinky Y2K dresses and diamante make-up is processed through a Cobrasnake-style lens; TikTok stars dress in pop-punk get-up while reminiscing about Cassie from Skins; the emo aesthetic is imbued with videogame futurism. The digital becomes a petri dish for all our favourite cultural references, which are then brought into the real world. Rinse and repeat. 

Whereas previously, trends were dictated by time, the internet has upended how we absorb culture – and reality itself. Instead of IRL influencing the URL, we have the opposite, as real-world trends are dictated by what’s trending on TikTok, or whatever the algorithm has decided to pull from the internet’s bottomless nostalgia pit. Inside, this World Wide Web pick n mix is an endless combination of cultural references that can be rehashed and repurposed ad infinitum. To break out of this cycle, we need new ways of engaging with one another beyond relentless social media streams and search-optimised results. 

“There are far more opportunities now to build our own patches on the internet than there were a decade ago. I think the biggest hurdle is trying our best to not waste time,” says digital artist and philosopher Mat Dryhurst. “The internet is a remarkable tool to find others and coordinate, but as an end to itself can become a cul de sac of frustrated desires and circular arguments.” Subscription models like Substack and Patreon are already pivoting audiences away from the Silicon corps like Google and Meta, not to mention platforms like Discord providing ways for smaller groups to communicate without the fear of getting Zuckked. With Web 3 posing new, decentralised modes of interacting online, there’s freedom to move beyond the recycling of old trends and modes of communication – how we move forward is our choice to choose.

This article was taken from the spring 2022 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here