Pausing to consider smallness

· 418 words · 2 minute read
Bread and Roses Market at night, Portland, OR

I appreciate and for making space for small things. The early web was like that. We can talk down GeoCities sites if we wish, but in GeoCities it was okay to be small and human. We lost that sense of the web as a place that was made up of humans … a perpetual boom shot sweeping across an infinite small town with lights in all the windows. You can fly. You can stop to look at what you will, or move on. If you experience envy over anything you see, it is at least envy over the creativity, or skill, or passion bound up in someone’s little house.

Web 2.0 and then social media razed the small town and replaced it with a warehouse district. You pass through a metal door and there’s a stomach-flip of vertigo as you stop being the person flying overhead, or stepping in off the sidewalk, and become a quantum of attentional value to be extracted, no longer anonymous and yet completely anonymized.

Twitter’s Lovecraftian scale reduces us to that quantum, flickering in and out as the algorithm exhausts our attention then rekindles it to be extracted anew. It trains us to think that our egos are privileges we should aspire to, instead of animal legacies to shrug off. We’re perpetually in the warehouse, and yet somehow remain on the sidewalk outside, looking through the window.

Facebook treats your impulse to cringe away from its algorithmic dissolution of your personhood by simulating connection. You get a stunted palette of responses: I acknowledge that, I love that, that angers me, and “here’s one unit of empathy as measured by the energy released with a click or a tap.”

LinkedIn nags you until you’ve “completed your profile,” by which it means “have exhaustively described yourself as a labor unit so it can move on to presenting you to some anonymous recruiter who will judge your fitness for purpose.”

One thing it would be nice to take away from this current moment is a sense that there are ways to have the thing we were promised – more connection with more people, more sharing of ourselves, more awareness of our world – that don’t involve treating us like an attentional vein of coal someone else can strip-mine. Where we create small, warm spaces where we simply can be, loved around our hearth, esteemed in our village, welcomed in new places over the hill, tiny threads of lantern light lacing all our homes together.