Welcome to Galaxy Brain — a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology and culture. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. You can also click the button below to subscribe. And if you’ve been reading, consider going to the paid version.
One of my goals with this newsletter is to try to talk about weird, complex subjects iteratively. What follows is something I’m not sure is 100 percent baked. The ideas are tangled, and logic is certainly not bulletproof, but I wanted to walk through these ideas and hopefully spark some discussion in the comments, on Sidechannel and in my inbox. Welcome, in other words, to my weird Galaxy Brain.
Here’s a confession: I’ve been thinking a lot about cryptocurrency lately. Sort of. Try as I may, I haven’t been able to think much about the particulars of decentralized finance or the utility of blockchains or whether Bitcoin is a viable currency or merely a store of value or something else. There hasn’t been a lot of space to do that because of, well, shit like this:
Yano @JasonYanowitzRumor has it @TomBrady is loading up on Bitcoin. Retweet if you think the GOAT should turn on laser eyes. Let’s make it happen. https://t.co/opPjtBGwAD
I don’t really have a lot to say about Tom Brady’s laser eyes other than the fact that precious brain space was vaporized this week logging on and being force fed tweets from crypto dudes with laser eye Twitter avatars getting very excited about Tom Brady’s laser eyes.
Similarly, I’ve tried to spend some time understanding NFTs (I wrote about them here for the NYT) but I usually get derailed by storylines like this featuring people buying digital horses for hundreds of thousands of dollars:
Then, of course, there’s Dogecoin, the cryptocurrency created as a parody and critique of Bitcoin that has been winkingly championed by billionaire and recent SNL host Elon Musk and is now worth a lot of actual money (so much so that apparently Goldman Sachs managing directors are making enough off it to quit their jobs). Last weekend, a few hours before Musk hosted SNL, I was killing time on Twitter and came across this:
‘What am I looking at?’ you ask, now that you’ve rinsed the bleach from your eyes. What you are looking at is an NFT from the popular artist Beeple of a well-endowed Musk walking a version of the Doge meme (a Shiba Inu). It is selling for a very specific six-figure sum that is a combination of the numbers 69 (hehe sex!) and 420 (blaze it!). Similarly, it seems that Dogecoiners tried their damnedest to drive Dogecoin to 69 cents a coin by the start of Musk’s SNL monologue. I realize this is extremely technical stuff, but this, my friends, is finance.
So when I say I’m thinking a lot about cryptocurrency, what I really mean is that I’m thinking a lot about absurdity. I’m thinking about the way that groups of people who are good at harnessing attention are giddily, proudly using that power to drag absurdist memes/currencies/fortunes into mainstream discourse and force the rest of us to care about/debate/or at least know about it all. Personally, it scrambles my brain.
Merely engaging with an NFT of a well-hung cartoon Elon Musk or writing about a meme coin feels like falling for a not-so-elaborate troll by a bunch of bored message board teens. The non-lizard portion of my brain tells me to dismiss it or sneer at it. But I’m not sure I can do that because the crypto stuff is also ostensibly something that is, in some way, real. There’s money behind it, which means there are real stakes to all this, including, as Delia Cai pointed out today, who is left out. I don’t have to like it or think it’s the future of anything, but I’ve spent enough time covering the internet to be reflexively anxious about wholly dismissing things just because they’re stupid. And so here I am.
I don’t think anyone has captured this palms-to-the sky shrugging feeling better than Bloomberg’s Matt Levine did in his Thursday newsletter (I bolded the bit that’s been stuck in my brain):
Just imagine traveling 10 years back in time and trying to explain this to someone; just imagine what an idiot you’d feel like. “There’s going to be this online currency that people think is a form of digital gold, and then there’s going to be a different online currency that is a parody of the first one based on a meme about a talking Shiba Inu, and that one will have a market capitalization bigger than 80% of the companies in the S&P 500, and its value will fluctuate based on things like who is hosting ‘Saturday Night Live’ and whether people tweet a hashtag about it on the pot-joke holiday, and Bloomberg will write articles and banks will write research notes about those sorts of catalysts, and it will remain a perfectly ridiculous content-free parody even as people properly take it completely seriously because there are billions of dollars at stake.”
For that matter, imagine being me, now, and trying to say something interesting about this; just imagine what an idiot I feel like. I hope Elon Musk is funny on SNL! That will make the value of Dogecoin go up! Me, I want to write about dynamic hedging of inverse exchange-traded notes on volatility indexes, but that’s not how finance works anymore. “Don't forget to pencil in the SNL opening as a key market event risk for next week,” tweeted Bloomberg’s Tracy Alloway.
What is happening is ridiculous! It is also actually happening and so we are forced to engage with it. By doing so, we, too, feel ridiculous.
Levine’s great skill is viewing current events with equal measures of detachment and omniscience — like an alien with a background in finance bemusedly studying Earthling behavior. And one of his primary insights is that the specific collision of forces (a volatile, algorithmically powered attention economy, internet culture, a volatile, algorithmically powered financial system, deepening inequality and resentment, trolling billionaires) injects true absurdity into industries that traditionally take themselves quite seriously.
Take this bit on what it must have been like to be GameStop’s CEO during the January r/WallStreetBets stock run:
You know who has a weird job right now? George Sherman. GameStop’s executives and board of directors don’t seem to have said much recently. What could they say? “Huh, nice that the stock’s up.” One important thing to remember is that while you and I and Reddit and Elon Musk can all treat GameStop’s stock as an absurd gambling token, a toy adrift on market sentiment far from any economic reality, it is still the stock of a company. The company’s executives still come to work each day and have to figure out what this all means.
And then another Levine confession (emphasis mine):
I don’t know, I feel like a moron typing all of this. But I just have to type it! Think of how GameStop’s board must feel! The market is telling them something, but it is hard to hear what it’s saying through its maniacal laughter.
As somebody who has written about the internet professionally for over a decade, I feel that bolded sentence in the marrow of my bones. I felt something similar the first time I wrote a serious news story that had occasion to site a Reddit user with a name like AnimeDiaperBaby69. I felt it when I had to explain the Pepe meme for the first time on an NPR appearance and when I was alerted to the honor that I was the first person to use the word ‘memesmith’ in the pages of the New York Times.
It’s a peculiar feeling — you want to apologize a little but also, you’re really hoping people will not dismiss you outright. You regret to inform your readers that you’ve wrestled the pig and you’re covered in shit and you’ve done it so many times that you’re starting to wonder if maybe you’re just a professional pig wrestler now (but hey, somebody has to catch the pigs, right?).
In other words, you feel absurd. But, to borrow a phrase, the absurdity is the point. I’ve written about how absurdity and irony in both MAGA internet and even darker, white nationalist circles has a certain utility: Giving cover/plausible deniability to its creators and fellow sharers. “To engage at all is, in some way, to lose; no matter how righteous and warranted your outrage is, you’re pulled down to their level,” I wrote back in 2019 when an incredibly stupid and violent pro-Trump meme was shown at a GOP conference in a ‘hall of memes’ exhibit.
I still mostly believe that. But the plausible deniability element or even the fact that the video would ‘trigger’ the mainstream media seems less relevant than the pure absurdity. Take that 2019 hall of memes example: The clip was an edited version hyperviolent scene from the film Kingsman: The Secret Service, in which President Trump’s face is superimposed on the film’s protagonist while he murders people in a church; his victims’ faces have been replaced with the faces of politicians, journalists, entertainers and the logos of media organizations. Then, the fake president shoots a person whose face has been replaced by the Black Lives Matter logo.
It’s profoundly fucked up, but it’s also the exact sort of thing that a bunch of over-caffeinated teens might make. It’s not a particularly well-made meme — it’s proudly lo-fi and shitty. And yet its mere existence was front page news! The story was broken by two of the New York Times’ most senior political reporters! I don’t mean this as media criticism — I’m just stating this as a fact. Some bigoted jabronis made something very dumb and shitposted their way into the paper of record (and then I wrote about it in that same paper!)
For about twelve hours, the video was the biggest story in political media, with every commentator and reporter forced to acknowledge its absurdity — but likewise forced to talk about it with grave, somber language. That most of the media felt both exasperated and outraged by the video’s existence, with no choice other than to talk about it — that was the desired outcome. The gatekeepers had been directed by their assignment editors, the shitposters. The absurdity is where the real power lies. Specifically, I mean the ability to force that absurdity onto others — to drag everyone into your inside jokes/insults/culture and force them to care.
Maybe this is just blindingly obvious and has always been — but it feels like a dominant dynamic in our culture right now. It’s present in the crypto stuff and in the GameStop saga and in our politics: the most visible Republican politicians these days aren’t, in truth, actual legislators as much as professional shitposters. Smart people like my former colleague Kevin Roose have argued that this is part of a larger authority crisis. Citing the writer Martin Gurri, Roose described the GameStop dynamic as “a kind of vengeful nihilism, an urge to burn down the establishment without a clear sense of what’s supposed to replace it.”
I agree with this argument to a degree. But there might be even less to it. While I’m sure plenty want to burn down the establishment, I’d argue that the absurdity is a good old fashioned act of protest. In the finance examples, it seems a clear cut example of a bunch of frustrated people trying to get across a simple message: The hyper-financialized world you’ve all created is absurd and tragic and dystopian. The only people insulated from it are those that create and benefit from it. But now we’re going to force you to reckon with some absurdity, too.
And so the CEO of GameStop, who is mostly just collateral damage, has to show up and try to figure out what the fuck “dumbledoreRothIRA’s” last Reddit post might do to the stock price. Long insulated from having to care about the hordes or the meme-ified dynamics of their lives, hedge fund managers are now forced to live in the shitposters’ world. Oh, you think meme stocks are absurd and dystopian? Try working 4 app-based gig-economy jobs to pay the bills!
I’m not sure this networked and weaponized absurdity is the product of “vengeful nihilism” because I’m not sure the message is that ‘lol nothing matters.’ To me, the message is similar to that of any protest: We matter. And you’re going to listen to us. And the way they show that is by leveraging absurdity programming the conversation. And, if, as Gurri suggests, there’s no clear sense of what should replace the status quo, it’s because that might not be the point. Making the status quo confused and uncomfortable is the point. The absurdity is the point.
I’m not sure any of this is de facto good or bad (Though I am not heartened that the people who seem to do this well and whose antics are largely tolerated are a familiar type of internet-obsessed and frequently white dudes). Hell, I’m not sure if any of this is even new — the only thing that is definitely new is the speed and ease with which large groups can harness attention and, ultimately power. Like I said earlier, it all scrambles my brain and exhausts me. That might very well be the point! The only thing I feel confident in saying is that our politics and our culture and our discourse will continue to get more absurd until morale improves.
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