« 3rd Annual Law vs. Antisemitism Conference, Feb. 25-26 at FIU College of Law | Main | The Supreme Court Never Was What It Was »

Sunday, February 25, 2024

"...Growing Interest in..."

The Atlantic, which, with Slate rendered more or less irrelevant, retains its almost 170-year title as the Mecca of American Midcult, has this interesting story titled, "I Went to a Rave With the 46-Year-Old Millionaire Who Claims to Have the Body of a Teenager." (For the sake of clarity: He claims that his body is the equivalent of a teenager's, not that he has failed to dispose of a teenager's body.) "Interesting" is a strong claim, and words in the headline like "millionaire" and "rave" suggest that a better word would be "quaint," in an 80s-in-"Madchester" kind of way. The subject--yet another person who a) comes from Silicon Valley, b) would prefer not to die, and c) would very much like to sell you something--is not at all interesting. But the story is interesting.    

Specifically, the obligatory passage in which the piece attempts to rise above the noise of the crowd, and to justify its own existence and significance, runs:

Johnson told me wants to create a Don’t Die nation of 20 million people. This may sound unhinged, but people are listening. Johnson’s societal ambition echoes that of growing numbers of tech executives and venture capitalists trying to build alternative cities and states. His quest for immortality has been the subject of features and interviews in Time, Bloomberg, Vice, The New York Times, Trevor Noah’s new podcast, and more over the past year or so. The Blueprint Discord channel has more than 14,000 members, whom he calls the “Don’t Die Army.” In addition to the meetups Johnson hosted in New York on Saturday, there have been more than 200 Blueprint gatherings in 75 countries this year. Some 5,000 people recently enrolled in a self-experimentation study to see how well the Blueprint protocol works on a broader population.

Note the actual level of correspondence between the phrase "people are listening" and the evidence given. The largest number given is 14,000--the number of people on Johnson's Discord server. Of course, 14,000 ain't nothing. As Discord servers go, it's smaller than US Furries (19,000 members) and much smaller than virtually any Discord server related to sex or gaming, but larger than the membership roster of the Smooth Jazz Chill Out Lounge server. In any event, ultimately the evidence for "people are listening," which is a long way from people actually being convinced, or serious, or even particularly interested, consists of a) a small number of Discord server members, which already places them in a specialized population; b) a smaller number of people willing to "self-experiment," which probably overlaps with the number of Discord members; and--and surely most importantly--c) some number of reporters or editors for a small number of similar chattering-class-servicing publications, all of whom are pursuing the same standard-issue feature subjects, and all of whom would prefer that those be roughly the same subjects. (Being first to the subject is good if others soon follow; being alone in finding a subject interesting or newsworthy weakens the cash value of your work and opens you up to claims of unreliable eccentricity.)

References to "growing numbers" and "people" notwithstanding, then, the justification paragraph here does not really support the claim that the subject of the story is significant or that it will be of interest to many people. Indeed, it may well be of no interest to the vast majority of people. Rather, it suggests that the right sorts of people, people occupying roughly the same cultural milieu either directly (Silicon Valley) or indirectly (people willing to read features about rich tech culture in the Atlantic), are willing to treat it as interesting. The story could have said that to justify itself, of course. But apparently that sort of justification would be considered...what, exactly? Insufficient? Inappropriate? Déclassé? Too on-the-nose, too self-revealing? Nor, apparently, is it sufficient to offer no justification whatsoever, other than that one person found it interesting enough to write about. So one must have the usual recourse to flimsy numbers, vague claims of growth, and invocations of consensus on the part of similarly situated culture-and-status markers that the subject is important and the interest justified.

Nothing unusual here, of course. This sort of thing is the vast majority of what "we" read. Perhaps this serves as a reminder to be skeptical of the importance of such stories, even or especially if they engage in the usual exertions to demonstrate their own importance. It certainly serves as a reminder that how these stories justify their importance is usually fairly telling of their narrow class and cultural perspective, and of the narrow nature of the group whose interest counts to certify the story as important. And it leaves open the possibility that the vast majority of people out there would find the same story entirely unimportant, might find whatever is on offer there appalling if they did take any notice of it, and just might be able to identify other issues of vastly greater urgency and importance to them and their lives.

I offer this as a passing observation. It is wholly--well, perhaps not wholly--unrelated to the fact that it is law review submission season; that a great many papers offer almost exactly the same justifications for their own existence and for the importance of some particular subject; that these authors too would like to be first but definitely not alone; and that these authors rely on the knowledge or hope that the people doing the selecting will, in turn, fall within the same narrow class and cultural spectrum, and thus either agree with or gloss lightly over those justifications. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on February 25, 2024 at 04:46 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


The comments to this entry are closed.