The idea of bullshit jobs, that most of the ‘work’ white collar office workers do is meaningless has already become something of a paradigm. It’s not hard to apply David Graeber’s core ideas to the internet. Poke around and you’ll notice that most of what you see online is cruft.
When I say cruft, I don’t mean content or art forms that I’m not personally drawn to. Most real art, music or writing will have some true human fans. Cruft is something that no human appreciates, pays attention to or values.
I’m talking about blog posts that are 75% filler, bland stock images, the millionth manipulative popup. The list goes on. If you look under the hood, it gets worse. Why do you need analytics on a personal blog or page loads of over 1MB for 500 words of text?
A minimal web
There’s the oft told tale of China’s 50-lane traffic jam. The moral of the story is that adding another lane isn’t going to solve the problem. We’re in the same situation with the internet. Faster internet, fiber-optic cables and 5G are pointless if we’re just going to fill them right up with cruft again.
I distinctly remember pages loading much faster a decade ago with slower internet and an ancient computer. The new gmail is takes 3–5 seconds to load. Mail clients from the early days of the internet had more or less the same features with nearly instant load times. Medium, monetized blogs, the new Reddit and every wannabe startup’s page are hopelessly bloated. Something’s wrong if it takes 3MB to display a few hundred lines of text.
What looks minimal can be deceptive. The Minimalists clocks in at 4.35MB and 51 http requests. On the other hand, Zen Habits is the real deal at 40kb and 4 http requests.
I get a sense, perhaps a bit too optimistically, that the scales are tipping. Death to Bullshit has spawned a movement. Susty WP delivers WordPress in 6kb. Then there’s the whole best mother fucking website thing. I’m all for faster load times, more readable sites and a nod to the environment.
My entire site is 715kb. That includes two years of blog posts that hash out dozens of ideas, my English lessons and CV. To put this in perspective, two years of work takes up less space than a single Instagram picture.
This is a glimpse into what we value and how future anthropologist are going to evaluate our society. We’re willing to put a ton of time, money and resources into cruft—21st century humans are drawn to low information density.
Most websites I see are like this bootstrap parody: at least 1MB to load, forgettable stock images and banal copy that I’m not going to read. In fact, much of the text is unreadable because of low contract against the stock images and weird center alignment, but I digress.
I noticed this discrepancy at a classical music concert. The data in the form of sheet music that produced the concert was easily no more than a few MBs. All of the pictures and videos taken, and promptly forgotten on social media, were orders of magnitude larger than the original music.
The morbidly obese don’t tend to be great athletes, despite having massive stores of energy. More energy doesn’t mean better metabolism. It’s the same principle that I’ve seen within myself, I read less news to be better informed. Look around, and you’ll start to see the same thing: the more data there is, the less real information you’ll get.
The beautiful is fleeting
The sensory experience of a classical music concert, a sunrise in the Carpathians, a nice dinner or great sex are best enjoyed in the moment. Sensory beauty quickly fades and isn’t easily saved or transferred.
Part of the data bloat comes from futile attempts to transfer flow and present experiences into an archivable form. This rarely results in anything other than cruft.
Tao called Tao is not Tao.
Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth.
Naming: the mother of ten thousand things.
Silence and the understated have been pushed out of modern discourse. We may claim to love Hemingway, but his understated prose would never pass muster today. Not everything can be quantifiable, especially subjective sensory experience. Fitzgerald and Hemingway captured this in prose. Nearly everyone else writes shit.
Base sensory experience is too subjective, too raw for modern scientifically minded people. Instead, we’re left with a perverse form of Goodhart’s Law: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.
In this case, our measure is the de jour proxy for direct experience—whether it be Instagram, PornHub or whatever. The more we focus on this proxy, the more we’re ripped from the present moment. We lose the direct experience itself whenever we try to capture it.
Like any addiction, we keep upping the dose to try and get that same initial high. It never works. You get a slew of bullshit instead.
Death has been swept under the rug, neatly hidden from plain view. We’ve lost meaningful funerals. Under the surface, there’s a deeper angst about impermanence and our own impending mortality.
The flow of reality is ephemeral. Our angst comes from trying to cling to and hold fleeting moments. You’ll never get that raw feeling of the perfect sunrise again. Let it go uncaptured, unspoken of.
The bullshit archives
As we capture more cruft, it gets harder to find the few great pictures, writing or sounds that evoke real feeling. Stop shitting on the world and just be.