A meme page incredulously asks if the Travis Scott x McDonald’s collab is real. True, the idea of McDonald’s selling a Travis Scott-branded McNugget body pillow seems absurd. But ultimately it’s not so much a glitch in the algorithm as a glitch in the simulation. There are so many scams and deepfakes floating in the feed. When you make a risque joke about period panties, Thinx replies. One subtweet and you’ve elicited the attention of a bored social media manager. They’re desperate to loop you into a post-relevant conversation about a forgotten brand from 2015.
These little micro-viral moments remind you that no one is in The Loop any more. There are simply too many loops going on at once. You get this feeling most intensely when you’re somewhere like Dimes Square in New York or Soma in San Francisco –hot little brand crucibles. “You don’t listen to X podcast?” “You don’t get ads from this brand?” The people that populate these little scenes are incredulous because you, a visitor, have, if only for a moment, popped their little reality distortion field.
On a road trip to see Cher in Vegas some years ago, I started complaining about Allbirds. I had been working at an ad agency in Playa Vista and the sustainable and washable wool sneakers were all but ubiquitous. Strategists loved them, because strategists love these succinct little brand stories. Sustainable wool farming in New Zealand. My friends, both fashion industry veterans, were unnerved by the ungainly orthopaedic forms. They were even more unnerved by the immediate introduction of Allbirds ads into their carefully curated feeds. Our little educational conversation had created a chink in their armour and exposed them to the unfathomable desires of others.
Back in Los Angeles, I pitch an idea for a new research study: Red, Weird, and Blue. In my mind, this is a rough schematic of America. It’s not one culture, but two duelling megaplexes. CNN and the New York Times tag-team Fox News and Breitbart. They’re locked in an existential battle to create a 21st-century monoculture. Meanwhile, a variety of subcultures percolate in between. This is what Joe Biden means when he says the election is about “changing the channel”. He’s asking America to cancel its cable subscription to Fox News.
Politics is probably where the effects of our democratised reality distortion fields can be most immediately identified. The popular idea that social media is to blame for all the craziness is somewhat true. It has broken down the barrier between our inner lives and outer selves, theoretically making us porous to nefarious influences. QAnon, Russiagate, and all manner of other conspiracy theories posit there is some evil nexus – someone, somewhere pulling the puppet strings – which exactly is, of course, what the conspiracy theorists most like to debate. Are things being controlled by the Kremlin? An anonymous conference room filled with Bilderberg attendees? That kitsch Egyptianate temple in the Virgin Islands?
The answers are probably a bit more banal than flat Earthers would like. It’s the Facebook campus in Menlo Park. Everyone is a bot on someone else’s timeline, a fly in someone else’s ointment. Our celebrity politicians are merely participating in the greatest reality show on Earth. The famed descent down the golden escalator was a publicity stunt for an NBC show, The Apprentice. He was following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, La Cicciolina, Beppe Grillo, Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Meghan Markle. A storied history that dates back to JFK trouncing Nixon in the 1960 presidential debates. Nixon refused to wear stage makeup and suffered dearly for it.
They say that in ancient Rome, prostitutes and actors were not allowed to vote and hold public office. Today, everyone knows that those who can’t entertain, can’t campaign. The media eyes Yeezy’s Larp presidential bid warily. “Vision 2020” walks the line between fake it ’til you make it and, well, just faking it. Social media made all the world a stage, making the conversion of everyday life into a reality TV complete. Thus, we’re all a bit fake right now. Playing our bit parts in the grand drama of life, dreaming of being upgraded to an understudy, and maybe, if we play our cards right, scoring a leading role.