Rediscovering desire in a panopticon of virtual pleasures
In the years since these products flooded the market, old pleasures such as sexual connection and social interaction have been replaced by an unceasing Pavlovian flow of pings and notifications that hijack the gratification-seeking part of our brains.
They encourage us to abandon biological pleasures in favor of new, virtual pleasures; to nod gently off into what Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) — the meaningless, nihilistic decadence of the Last Men:
“‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’—so asks the Last Man, and blinks. …
“‘We have discovered happiness’—say the Last Men, and they blink.”
What’s left is the new aesthetic of lifelessness and void, a consumer culture of throwaway experiences that wash right over you like an Ambien.
It’s made to be experienced without friction: seamless post-death entertainment from an empire ruled over by a sleepy, old man.
“Avoiding friction,” the critic Rob Horning has noted, “becomes a kind of content in itself—‘readable books’; ‘listenable music’; ‘vibes’; ‘ambience,’ etc.”
And this is in keeping with a generational preference for light demi-pleasures: bumps not lines; microdosing, not getting high; sugary milks made of oats; podcasts, not conversation; the simulated intimacy of ASMR. Each of life’s pleasures in small amounts.