It went poorly, didn’t it? 2016 was a rotten egg of a year, a scrawly gang-tag on a wet underpass on the poor side of town. It wanted to be a badass year, but it was just bad. People talk about it the way they talk about the kid everyone hated in class, the one who farted all the time and threw up during sex-ed. “Way to go.” “Keep sucking. It’s what you do best.”
Bowie. Prince. Glenn Frey. Leon. Lemmy. (I bet you don’t know one song by Lemmy. But you sadly re-tweeted the news, didn’t you?) Bye, bye, Abe Vigoda; it was always just business. Billy Paul will no longer be meeting Mrs. Jones every day at the same cafe, 6:30, particularly if her first name is Sharon. Merle Haggard died on his birthday. Muhammed Ali, the great poet of boxing, flipped the light switch and was at rest before it got dark. Leonard Cohen, simply a great poet, said his last hallelujah. Guy Clarke gave up the ghost: there ain’t no money in poetry, and that’s what sets the poet free.
There were more, heading for the exits, like they didn’t want to see the actors forget their lines. I have found myself wondering if measuring the historic quality of a year by its celebrity death count is a shallow reflection—on me. Why did I have more energy for arguing whether Prince—a guy who knocked on doors as a Jehovah’s Witness—had OD’d, than for helping Hillary? I read Prince got hooked on fentanyl from because his back was shot from years of wearing high heels on stage. Is that fake news? Who knows? I do know half the country was sufficiently medicated to appoint electors who will put a real OD in the White House, as in Original Demagogue (or Official Dick, if you prefer).
A great many black people got shot. Some were running away with loaded guns, others were just sitting there being, you know, black. Fifty people died in a mass shooting in a gay dance club in Orlando, thirty-three in an Oakland warehouse fire. People trying to exit flaming cities in the the Middle East drowned on mercenary rafts in the Mediterranean; Britain exited Europe as a big fuck you to the ones who made it across, looking for hope.
As I’ve thought about the year, I’ve wanted an out, a contrivance, a way of saying it wasn’t all bad. I wanted to call for post-pessimism, to say something better than “Sixteen sucked.” Lean in, go high. But it’s cold dog soup and rainbow pie.
The political disappointment: what else could explain it, except outsized expectations? Hillary was supposed to win. Nyet. Thinkpiece wisdom now says the lost ability of disillusioned middle classes to earn high blue collar wages got Trump elected. I dunno. I know many midwesterners have fallen on hard times, but I’ll also bet if you took out all the Trump voters with 60-inch flat-screens and oversized SUV’s he wouldn’t have carried three states. That’s not loss; that’s privilege. Half the world lives on less than $15 a week.
Retrofitting the Donald’s ascension into a clever sociological thesis misses the point anyway. Just in from the Not-Fake-News, No-Really Dept: there are more dumb people than smart people in America, and they are smarter than you thought. They got a crazy narcissist elected President without the popular vote in a system invented by white guys with fake hair to stop populists from winning. We got Trumprolled. And if, like me, you are horrified, stop pretending it’s not intellectual and class snobbery that makes you uncomfortable with What Just Happened. Own your blue spot on the big red Microsoft Surface map of the USA. Say it with me now. I don’t like stupid bigot people. Shout!
Wait. A new tweet is on my teleprompter. “2016 will stop sucking right on schedule, midnight 12/31.” Doris in Flint responds: “Um, 2017 will pick it right back up.” Here’s another: “The soul of humanity is eroding like the Florida coastline.” Of course, every generation says something like this when it arrives at The Uncertain Age, the age you become uncertain if the world is a place you still recognize. But let’s not blame His Orangeness. He’s a symptom, small potatoes, a tiny pee-pee and a mail order bride. It’s Internet. Internet is ruining us. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.
• • •
Declaration: from now on (or at least until the end of this piece) I will no longer allow Internet the dignity of a first name. No more “The.” We’re on a last name basis, same as you call a guy named Bill Jones just “Jones” when you want to disrespect him a little. Call it the Post-Truth Style Guide. I’m going all Louis CK on Internet, only not as funny. (If I was funny, I’d be in a car drinking coffee. Wait. Wrong comedian.)
I’m a little nervous. I’ve been programmed to be afraid of saying that Internet is ruining everything. People will think I’m old. If you don’t believe Internet is making the world better, you are a relic, and being old is right behind being non-white or a girl in America.
Fuck it. I’m in. The only thing that sucks worse than 2016 is the collective rectal opening we’ve stuck our heads into, called Internet. As sentient humans, we can now exist only by breathing a mix of oxygen and digital fart gas. We’re version 2.0 of the greatest experiment with humanity in history, administered by childless, bro-tivated white guys with checkbooks connected to investment funds.
God, that felt good.
Internet makes me feel more soulless all the time. I’ve said yes to one too many TOS. Everything is a reflection generated to boost an ad metric. “Browse” should be omitted from Internet lexicology: “browse” implies random discovery. Nothing on Internet is random. Every word and phrase is optimized for maximum consumption, both real and fake. That’s what makes it hard to tell the difference. When GF texted me that Prince was dead, I immediately replied, “Hoax.” When I read that Rage Against the Machine would be doing an anti-Trump album, I thought, well, sure.
No content I see happens against my will—I’m a smart guy, and I know how to search incognito or opt out of ad choices. But resistance has indeed become futile. If I want to be informed, I gotta Internet. I occasionally think about disconnecting, but why? If I get off Facebook, cancel my Twitter account, and continue to be clueless about Snapchat, that amounts to choosing to not be a part of modern humanity. Not evolving is not a choice, the same way not blowing your brains out isn’t one. I have friends who say their lives are rich enough without so much Internet, but their thinking seems suspect to me, like the grandfather I had who would not use indoor plumbing. One gentleman I know says, with calm sincerity, “I go off Facebook every year for Lent and it doesn’t affect me one bit.” For Lent? Me, I WANT TO BE AFFECTED. PLEASE TOUCH ME. Loneliness is deadlier than cancer and texting while driving put together. I am left to decide between between tracking, intrusive ads, trolls, zero privacy, and fake news on the one hand, or Lent? Shit. I don’t even believe in the Easter bunny.
I am coming to admit Internet is not what we said. I know I’m late. Ya gotta have faith. Remember when we all said truth will win out, information will be free, transparency will make it impossible for evil men to hide? The ramparts of the gatekeepers would crumble? We’d all be able to publish, start a movement, or build another food delivery app? Now look. We have self-driving cars and the ability to shout out loud to buy detergent, brought to you by another Big Three: Amazon, Google, Apple. The long tail is a vestigial nub on Alexa’s ass.
Internet is more Orwellian than Orwell. It is always watching, compiling what we like, read, buy, think, feel. It is easier than ever for us to be exposed to what we are predisposed to believe. That’s how fake news works.
“The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”
I have been waiting for the word “doublespeak” to make a comeback; “post-truth” became the Oxford word of the year instead. “Doublespeak” calls it what it is. “Post” means after. We knew the truth before? After the election, a Trumpy person, can’t remember which nutty Republican blonde, actually said on camera with a straight face, “There’s no such thing as facts.” Lack of subject-verb agreement aside, this may have been the nearest we got to truth all year. Truth is what autofills in a search box or your feed, superdesigned for hyperindulgence. Thanks, Internet.
Every tap brings a little more dopamine. The perfection of this dosage is called UX, the quest to make everything as effortless as possible under the guise of being friendly and intuitive. I think Internet was better when it was too hard for dumb people to use. The smartphone got Trump elected. Angry people have frictionless ways to say, “Well, yeah!” It used to be, before you posted something angry, you had to walk all the way across the room, log on to a computer, find the spreadsheet with your password, reboot after the Excel crash, log back in, by which time you’d see a cat picture and forget what you were so worked up about. Now trolls can trash your feed with one hand while they cut you off on I-40.
The concept of UX has clearly gone astray. Ease of use has wired me for frustration whenever I have to think and act deliberately. I stand in my kitchen and shake a tiny fist. “This peanut butter jar has bad UX!” I go into Kroger and get my phone out, then feel a little tug of annoyance I can’t find the artichokes with it. I want better UX for everything: parking, the people in front of me at Whole Foods paying with cash, healthcare, tuning out my boss on Monday, anyone’s plaid shirt, empty toilet paper dispensers, airport security. I have a nagging feeling my expectations are out of proportion. Expectations are resentments in waiting. I want the world to open like a flower every time I need a prepackaged four-course-uncooked boxed meal. Surely this is at odds with the spiritual maxim of acceptance. The Pope recently compared Internet to excrement. I unfollowed him.
The biggest news of 2016 wasn’t even news at all, thanks to Internet. It was “fake news.” Senior journalists are now sitting in their home offices, smugly typing “See! See! I told you!” into their freelance pieces. (Disenfranchised journalists are scared and angry as Trumpsters.) They do have a legitimate beef. News has always been what enough people hear and repeat, and Internet makes it easier than ever for people to repeat without thinking. Mainstream media, still powerful enough to amplify, repeats tweets on the air instead of doing much in the way of investigating. One such repetition is that un-fact-checked, prefabricated, manipulative fake news in social media got President Dingbat elected. Zuckerberg said, “That’s unlikely.” I see conflict. The whole business of Facebook is predicated on advertising, which is the repetition of messages that affect people. Zuck is very smart, and he knows he can’t have it both ways. Grudgingly, Something Is Being Done. It looks suspiciously like What Has Already Been Done. Facebook will use a combination of crowdsourcing and fact-checking organizations to make it easier to “flag” stories. Not unpublish them, mind you, but “flag” ‘em. Anyone can flag a story as fake (anyone see a problem here?), and then fact-checking orgs will scramble to verify. They’ll show screen nags: Before you share this story, you might want to know that independent fact-checkers have disputed its accuracy. That oughta work. The old system of human editorialization was clunky, arbitrary, tainted, biased, and often drunk. Yet for all that, at least it defaulted toward veracity: editors kept way more stuff out of the paper than they allowed in. Now Facebook will just say, “Could be fake!” and, “Ka-ching!”
Forgive me, but an aside: did you know that Internet is now auto-generating some of its own news? It reads it, too: bots constantly scan content (both real and otherwise) to place ads, which is one of the ways Google makes so much money. But wait. Other bots click the ads and generate revenue as if people were reading it. People in my line of work, advertising and marketing, call this “ad fraud.” You know when marketing people call something fraudulent, we’re not Post-Truth. We’re Post Irony. The singularity has already happened, all to sell more headphone dongles.
Selling more of anything is going to be hard unless folks can make the cash to pay for it. There’s an engineering answer to that, too: some Silicon Valley minds are putting together an experiment to test Universal Income. Who decides who gets what? How much? Hasn’t this been tried? Russia did it during the Cold War. They wound up with long lines for potatoes and vodka. China saw their wicked hangovers and opted to make iPhones. On the bright side, it’s interesting to see digital engineers notice they’re disrupting what it means to be human (which is, in the end, caring for your fellow man enough to do more than share your Uber). Universal Income smells like another massive Silicon Valley conceit financed by rich people with an empathy deficit. If you want to change the world, bros, use your brains and cash to find ways to stop making people obsolete. Don’t tell us it’s inevitable while you optimize a stipend.
• • •
What about me in 2016? Glad you asked. It was decidedly mixed. I started the year unemployed, just three months after going in on a new house with GF. By late summer, we’d split up, there were squirrels in the dryer vents and a loose screw in my dental implant. I turned 60 and learned that I positively, absolutely do not have enough money to retire and keep buying footwear at my accustomed pace. My finance guy delivered his opinion with a vague air of resignation, and my shrink said, “It’s a good thing. You want to die in harness.” I said, “Maybe, but can the leather be Italian?”
By the end of the summer, I joined a healthcare company. The CEO wants more non-healthcare people. He may have gotten more inexperience than he bargained for. I am learning. The first thing I learned is that people in healthcare are not boring. That was something I projected because my internist is so nerdy. Healthcare people are as nuts as marketing people or the hipsters at your nearby co-work space, only in sensible clothes.
The second thing I learned is that healthcare is broken because everyone needs a nap. I have gotten to know a few doctors. You’d have to be certifiable to go through the ordeal of becoming a real, no-shit physician. It’s years of what amounts to hazing. They endure endless marathon shifts and training and internships and residencies on less sleep than a meth addict with a cash advance. I asked a doctor if this is the right way of going about caring for people. Wouldn’t it be better to just have more doctors, slow the hell down, get some fresh eyes on my pancreas? I was told care would actually be compromised because more docs and nurses with shift changes would mean more handoffs, time spent writing stuff up, information garbled, assistants coming up to speed and screwing up. In other words, it’s EXACTLY like marketing, only people die. People in healthcare never say in conference rooms, “This isn’t brain surgery,” just as astronauts never say, “It ain’t rocket science.” Healthcare needs better UX.
So does turning 60. Will a hashtag help me keep up with my lost things? I am leaving a trail of my possessions everywhere I go. I lost three hats in 48 hours on a trip to Philadelphia. On my 60th birthday I woke up and said, “Fuck, 60,” made some coffee and forgot my phone when I left for work. It is a staple of writers to talk about what they’ve learned at decade mileposts. Everything I’ve learned can be summed up in one compound sentence: I can’t find my keys, and I don’t know anything. Just don’t tell me so. We’ll fight.
Which brings me to my favorite book of the year: “Hillbilly Elegy” by J. D. Vance. Some folks called it an apology for Trumpism, but it isn’t. It’s a book about outgrowing combativeness and defiance. It got me reflecting on my own roots, which, like Mr. Vance, are in Kentucky. Mine are in the western side, but I had relatives that worked in the mines. My previously mentioned grandfather was a member of the coal miner’s first union, and he never learned to read. My Pa-Paw would have never rooted, as did Trump, for coal to “make a comeback.” He saw many of his friends die of black lung. Mr. Vance’s family reminded me, uncomfortably, of my lesser side. My shrink calls it “that Kentucky shit,” and shit is right, because if I’ve learned anything by this age, it’s that I’m great at two things: flying and fighting. They both yield similar results, just as fear and anger are two sides of the same coin. I’d always dismissed the notion of racial memory, but now I’m not as sure. My mouth gets me into trouble all the time, and I have an intolerable lack of tolerance for things that “don’t go to suit me,” as Mom would have said.
• • •
Is it a wrap? It’s taken the last three weeks of this year to bang this into anything readable, so I’m grateful to any reader who’s made it this far. Happy New Year! More than 200 words is considered a “longread,” which means you didn’t vote for Trump. We can be friends. I’m still having trouble finding a way to finish, though. Apparently, so is 2016. In the last few days, two more celebs have joined the death roll: George Michael, 54, and Carrie Fisher, 60. That number again. I haven’t read any news on how George died, and I’m not sure whether it’d be fake anyway. Carrie had a heart attack on a plane coming back to LA. This was confirmed by tweets from various people saying they’d been on the plane, giving updates, which seemed improper. Even if you are famous and you collapse in public, deplaning via stretcher should merit some degree of privacy by your fellow passengers. Internet, you’re not helping. Carrie and George were bold fighters. They volunteered to confront their dark sides in public so others would feel they were not alone. Two more for the alliance are gone. 2017, we need a new hope. We gotta have faith.