Best. House. Ever.
That the view of personhood produced by the economy of influence is the same brass-tacks thinking that has infiltrated the university might be the single greatest repudiation of the pixelated world that we’re now asking them to inhabit. Whether they’re ordinary undergrads or social-media celebs, they all strike me as unbearably sad, and it’s a sadness that seems more than casually related to the ways in which we’ve defined what it means to be a person. In particular, I’m remembering one boy, who on a recent Zoom call explained to me that he spent the entirety of quarantine in bed, scrolling through TikTok and Instagram or binge-watching prestige television. What unnerved him most about this, he said, was that it wasn’t all that much different from how he behaved before the pandemic. I found myself rummaging through possible responses, trying to find something I didn’t essentially think was shit. “You’re looking for what the critic Kenneth Burke called ‘equipment for living,’ ” I said. I told him that I felt the same pressures he did, the same longing to escape, but there were books, good books that I trusted, that could maybe help with that.
When I look up from my phone, everyone around the table is on their feet toasting one another with a kind of deranged jubilation. The news has just broken that Oracle, an Austin-based company, was the final bidder for TikTok, ensuring that the app will continue to be available in the United States. Democracy is dying, the university is crumbling, and ash is raining from the sky. But for now, at least, the platform and the entire ecosystem it spawned has been saved. “To the best house ever!” the kids shout, and as their glasses begin clinking, my mind goes strangely quiet. The darkness of the Los Angeles night swallows up their voices, blurs their faces together, and for a moment I lose all distinction between fact and fiction, between image and substance, between self and other. For a moment, I cannot remember who I am or why I am sitting here amid this sea of beautiful young people, all of them desperate for recognition, their whole lives ahead of them, empty at the absolute center. TikTok is a sign of the future, which already feels like a thing of the past. It is the clock counting down our fifteen seconds of fame, the sound the world makes as time is running out.