Discover more from Kyla’s Newsletter
Fragmentation, Polarization, and the Marshmallow Test
on gifted kids, community, Fake Karens, and outrage
on moving, community, nihilism, and Fake Karens
I am moving today, for roughly the 12th time in the past four years. There is a weird sense of melancholy that accompanies moving - all the Things, in boxes, stacked on each other. Life, compartmentalized! A sock I haven’t seen in years, a trinket from a Me that no longer exists, a compression of time and space.
For a long time, I was really lost within life, and I think most people are, to an extent. I was wandering around, trying to find Home. A place beyond the physical, right? A place where I felt warm and safe and welcomed - I was seeking community.
And that’s hard.
One thing that is very stark with younger generations is how they make their friends. A lot of my friends come from the online world, and even more so for those younger than me. And I love my online friends.
But - there’s a gap.
There have been many efforts to make the Internet into a third place, and it is, in a way. But you still log off eventually. You put down the phone or close out the tab on the computer, and it’s still you, rattling around, somatically (soulfully?) alone.
We have a massive bias towards individualism. It’s something I harp on all the time, but only because I am so viscerally driven towards being ‘independent’ (turns out, we do write for ourselves a bit). Towards being strong and not asking for help and being able to do it alone. Something-something weakness, something-something ego.
But asking for help is foundational to existence, something I’ve had to (forcefully) realize over the past few months. We try to replace the pieces of our life that require community with ourselves or some numbing mechanism and take on all this stuff and do all these things, and get frustrated when we can’t do the stuff and things that require the support of others. There is a need for communities that give a sense of belonging and purpose and ritual.
And when we are alone, it’s painful.
Gen Z and Millennials are the first generations to truly be nihilistic. The loss of religion, the extreme polarization, constant news flow blah, blah- we are all familiar. It creates a sense of “lmao okay, what is going on” that translates widely to massive disillusionment with a system and the suffering that takes place within that system.
But there also has to be an acceptance of suffering, which religion provides to many, but a void exists within secularism. Mary Gaitskill wrote -
Whatever the suffering is, it's not to be endured, for God's sake, not felt and never, ever accepted. It's to be triumphed over. And because some things cannot be triumphed over unless they are first accepted and endured, because, indeed, some things cannot be triumphed over at all, the "story" must be told again and again in endless pursuit of a happy ending. To be human is finally to be a loser, for we are all fated to lose our carefully constructed sense of self, our physical strength, our health, our precious dignity, and finally our lives. A refusal to tolerate this reality is a refusal to tolerate life, and art based on the empowering message and positive image is just such a refusal.”
The author coins a term - The Desire to Pass Tests - which is reflective of the permeation of Being Really Good for Tests so You Can Be Really Good in College and Get a Good Job and Be Happy.
But something broke there. The path is no longer linear.
The piece walks through how the world has changed over the past twenty years - “work sucks and you don’t get paid enough” and “societal education has had almost no effect on income: it has been absorbed into the system and has become a requirement. This is capitalism's2 take on the Red Queen Hypothesis: Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
Something snapped. And people are freaking out. The marshmallow test and the standardization that things like the marshmallow test encourage completely stamp out creativity. People get stuck. The author writes:
There's a type of joke that I think of as the "white people" joke, although it's rarely funny and it doesn't have to be about someone who's white. The joke is about a mid-40's housewife who is way too well-educated and bored to be a housewife, and so she tries to find the Grail of healthy food (organic, GMO-free, low acidity, one diet after another) and she plants a garden, and she adopts pets, and she joins nonprofits, and she joins the school board, and she reads every novel on NPR's end of the year list, and she gets weekly therapy and monthly massages (to about the same effect), and she meditates on the present, and she achieves peace with the past, and she contemplates the future, and everything is feng shui, and yet, despite all this, she feels restless, anxious, unhappy, and she dreams of some sort of vacation.
Sometimes the joke is about an elderly businessman on his second hair transplant and third cardiac stent and twenty-billionth dollar, and his kids all have grandkids and his wife is deceased, and when he goes out he he orders scotch more expensive than houses, but that isn't too often—he's seen enough parties, he's seen enough people, he has no strong affections, and he works round the clock fighting tooth-and-nail for his billions, because he's not sure what else, exactly, he's supposed to be doing… And the joke, which you hear on forums or sitcoms or in crowded sports bars, goes: "Haha, even though these people are successful, they're still dissatisfied."
And I'm here to tell you that this joke is totally backwards. It's because these people have always been dissatisfied that they achieved success.
And this is a fine line, right? Like I’m 100% a marshmallow kid. And dissatisfaction curating success is not at all a bad thing. But when the dissatisfaction permeates everything you do and becomes inescapable, that’s when it gets scary.
The author writes:
Dystopia doesn't require anything as dramatic as "a boot stamping on a human face, forever." It doesn't require soma or the samizdat. It doesn't require robot overlords or the Singularity. All it requires is for you to accept the way the system works and play along.
All it needs is a kid waiting for a marshmallow.
I’ll circle back to this.
There is an idea (posted by ThePocketReport) on how younger generations consume news - memes, TikTok shorts, that don’t have a lot of context on what is actually happening, so it becomes completely unserious. It ends up normalizing harmful ideas as a part of normal media consumption.
But then it reaches a small percentage of the population that is sympathetic to these extremist ideas. But the ideas seem less extremist because if you see a bunch of people wearing a Trump mugshot shirt, it can be that bad to support him, right?
So you have this numbing effect, from the idea that it-can’t-be-that-bad-isms that circularly, create bad-ism.
This is also seen in the Epidemic of Fake Karens - these fake videos that capitalize on this idea of Karen, better known as a ridiculously enraged woman. The videos are wildly popular even though they are fake.
People are more than happy to be furious at something that isn’t real.
In so doing, they capitalize on the current cultural appetite both for righteous outrage and, in some cases, for retribution… But for the most part, the communal thirst for outrage appears to trump any potential skepticism. Perhaps more to the point, commenters rarely request more context for the behavior depicted in the video, or any explanation as to why a person’s behavior could escalate from zero to 100 in such a short amount of time; something that would, in almost any other circumstance, be perceived as a sign of mental illness. Nor does anyone ask why we, as a culture, seem to feel such a profound need to capture total strangers at a moment when they seem to have lost all self-control.
We drink in outrage because we are outraged, and we don’t know what to do about it.
Renée Diresta wrote this incredible piece for Noema about the rise of independent creators, titled The New Media Goliaths. Media has shifted from an ad-based revenue model to a patronage model - you have to be supported by an audience (and as someone who does this, thank you to those that support me).
But this can create misaligned incentives, where you end up telling the audience what they want to hear.
Niche media must convert that attention into patronage. A passionate and loyal fandom is critical to success because the audience facilitates virality, which delivers further attention, which can be parlayed into clout and money.
When Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” in 1988, they were more worried about hegemony. They were worried about Big Media driving a singular narrative about Things, and creating a selective framing and censorship issue.
But rather, it’s been the opposite.
The way that we consume media now is “fragmented, polarized, and distrustful”. We are watching the world splinter before us. The manufacture of consent is still there - but rather than mass communication, it’s niche communication as "an effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function, by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion"
And this circles back to the Marshmallow Test.
Because there is a void of community, because we are trying to calibrate to suffering, because we are waiting for a marshmallow, but waiting is the actual dystopia. We have misplaced outrage that we turn into consumption of videos about Fake Karens. We get behind people selling a newsletter subscription about how the world is going to end.
And a lot of anger is on people who want to be rewarded for waiting for their marshmallow. So they laugh at the Karen. Buy the subscription. As ryxcommar wrote on how this anger is materializing:
College educated people who are experiencing wage contraction, disproportionately post on Twitter, and who see themselves as lower class, posting about the economy in a year when actual low wage work is seeing increasing pay. Now that is an endless source of discourse. Social media convinces you that you are really smart and knowledgeable because you follow sardonic shitposters who are kinda clever and who are capturing the vibe you are feeling. But it really is worth considering you live in a bubble and you should look at actual data… It does suck for the people experiencing labor market contraction! It is fair to be dissatisfied. But people who want to make broad declarations about the economy should also be aware that the lowest end of the labor market is doing better than pre-covid.
When your reality is shattered from a world that didn't fulfill its ‘social obligation’ to you, you're going to seek out niche parts of the internet, where you feel like other people are aligned with you.
We see this with the incel community, we see this with the Andrew Tate bros, etc - basically, we see these people who feel like they have been led astray trying to find some semblance of stability in this fractured, fragmented world. And I get it. I really do.
But these new media goliaths that are promising that they're pushing back against the system are just another octopus tentacle of the system in place. And they're potentially even more damaging than the system that was already in place, because they're encouraging this continued fragmentation and distrust.
But we have all these people that, who are still waiting on their metaphorical marshmallow, and they're not able to find it.
So they're going to seek out all this.
In terms of solutions, it’s probably not about waiting for a marshmallow, but rather maybe thinking about how we can have more marshmallows for people. I’ve talked about this before, but we really are in a midst of a passion crisis going on where people feel totally disconnected from what they're able to do. It’s about being mindful around media consumption, around the incentives in place from those telling you stories that you want to hear, and building community where you are.3
Quickly, just for fun, Borges on time -
And yet, and yet…Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. Our destiny … is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and iron-clad. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.
Thanks for reading.
Disclaimer: This is not financial advice or recommendation for any investment. The Content is for informational purposes only, you should not construe any such information or other material as legal, tax, investment, or financial advice
The marshmallow test is a study on delayed gratification. Basically, you sit a marshmallow in front of a kid, and if they wait to eat it, they apparently will have better life outcomes.
This isn’t saying capitalism is a capital-b-bad thing. If you can’t critique a system, you can never improve it.
I don’t really know how to conclude this piece