How MrBeast Broke the Economy
Plato's Cave, Society of the Spectacle and the Silent Walk Movement
It’s no secret that we live in the attention economy - you get to pay attention to everything, all of the time. Everything is a livestream, blurring the lines between actual life and the online (is there a difference?) in our consumption driven culture, shaped by algorithms and AI.
Plato’s Cave is (funnily enough) a great example of this.
The allegory walks us through the lives of prisoners who are trapped in a cave, and believe that the shadows dancing on the wall are ‘real’. One prisoner ends up escaping the cave and sees that there's a world beyond - there's a sun! The shadows weren’t ‘real’. Everything that they thought existed was not true. So he goes back down into the cave and he's says, “Guys, those shadows are not real, dude. You have to go outside!”
But when he gets into the cave, he stumbles around because his eyesight's messed up from the darkness. The other prisoners say “Why would we listen to you? You're being weird. These shadows are real. What we see in front of us is real. This illusion of reality is real.”
Illusion of Truth
There are two main takeaways, right?
What we ‘see’ isn't always the truth
You can't convince other people that their truth is wrong.
Guy Debord in ‘Society of the Spectacle’ is similar. DeBord explored this new weird world of 1960s and wrote about the shift to a world that consumes constant commodified images, with authentic human interactions often coming secondary.
Everyone is selling a narrative, not a product.
He was like “I think that we're becoming obsessed with appearances, the appearances of appearances, the illusion of truth, right? Everybody is now watching these shadows on the wall, shadows on the TV, and thinking that is 100% a reality that they are attuned to.”
There’s a quote from Ludwig Feuerbach -
But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence…illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.
And this gets into this idea of illusion as the only truth.
The old meta question of “what really is true” - a great thing to talk about on first dates, because neighboring tables will get to watch your date slowly melt into their chair as you rant excessively on the presupposed. But in a consumer driven society, the illusion of truth is often the only truth.
For Guy DeBord, it wasn't about what these things actually were, it's about what they represented.
If you buy a bunch of shoes and you buy a bunch of purses the only reason that those commodities matter are because of how they appear socially.
It matters far more in terms of its perceived value than the actual materials that it's made up of.
This is the whole premise of luxury brands- “this watch is made mostly out of other watch parts and it's very similar to other watches, but because of the name, because of the branding, it's worth a lot more because of how it's perceived at a societal level, it becomes much more valuable.”
It's a symbolic representation of a social agreement. You can see this with brands like Skims, Kim Kardashian’s lingerie brand. Very expensive branding, but it’s just lingerie So Guy Debord argues that it's not just us buying these things that matter, it's this economic status quo of how these things are perceived.
The goal of the spectacle, so this appearance of appearances, the illusion of the truth, is in this form of alienation, to keep people distracted. If this works, you're going to be separated from reality, you're going to be separated from society, you're going to be separated from each other, and then finally you're going to be separated from yourself (cue the conspiracy theory theme music)
And part of the issue with this is we're being alienated by this drive of consumerism, the drive of individualism, which I've talked about in other newsletters, but it's also alienating in we get our information. So the illusion ends up mattering more than the truth because you don't look around you anymore.
We perceive reality through the lens of other people. So the only way that we really get information is through a screen - through watching videos on Twitter, checking TV, reading the newspaper - the appearances begin to matter more to us than the true reality of what's ever going on. Guy DeBord said
"The spectacle is not merely the apparatus of media, but the relations between individuals themselves, as mediated by the stream of images that represent their daily lived experience of this pseudo-reality.”
And so now it's the appearances of appearances. I'm consuming a certain amount of information, sure, but I'm also consuming how this information should be consumed.
So you're listening to other people give their opinion and you're paying attention to how they're perceiving things, which is good, but at an extreme, it becomes rather hard. You're paying attention to the spectacle, paying attention to the appearance of appearances. As Jean Luc Nancy said
There is no society without the spectacle because society is the spectacle of itself
So we've gotten to this point where everything is perception, where everything is constantly some sort of spectacle, something to pay attention to, which becomes almost impossible to exist in. As written in the ‘Spell of Capital’ -
Debord insists that the spectacle must not be understood as a product of the mass image technologies, but that it is rather identical with the justification of the system it represents. It thereby constitutes a totality and emerges as the purpose of modern consumer society.
So now the purpose of capital S-Society is this illusion of truth - to engage with the spectacle.
AI is Plato’s Cave
This gets into social media. You scroll. You read things. Has anyone told you that you aren’t good enough?
Social media impacts are well known, but part of the issue with the extension of technology, the growth of technology past social media is artificial intelligence. Ilya Sutskever, the co-founder of OpenAI said in an interview with Jensen Huang -
When we train a large neural network to accurately predict the next word in lots of different texts from the internet, what are we doing is learning a world model. On the surface, it may look like learning correlations in text, but it turns out that to 'just learn' statistical correlations in text, to compress information really well, what the neural network learns is some representation of the process that produced the text. This text is a projection of the world...what the neural network is learning is aspects of the world, of people, of the human conditions, their hopes, dreams, motivations, their interactions...the situations we are in. The neural network learns a compressed, abstract, usable representation.
So LLMs learn from texts, which is a shadow of the world (sort of like Plato's cave, right?) - seeking reality within a digital confine, just like we are. But the issue with AI learning from text is that that is a perception of reality, it's an illusion of the truth to a certain extent.
Of course, this precedes AI, because we have algorithms, and YouTube's algorithm is notorious for favoring certain thumbnails and favoring clickability. MrBeast is a really good example of this. He has this massive big smile on, as he's talking about a million dollar home and whatnot.
He's living this illusion of reality that only he exists in, but millions and millions of people end up consuming. It can feel really disorienting to see like this giant smile, but he knows that he has to do that because of how the algorithm rewards it. The videos themselves are about relishing in opulence, not necessarily enjoying it, but just… showing it.
This algorithm has impacted Elon Musk's Twitter too, which has spread so much disinformation and misinformation because of monetization.
So people know that they can make money from spreading fake news or whatever, from saying, “okay, well this video isn't necessarily real, but if I post it. I'll get paid.”
Now we have people fabricating the truth, fabricating an illusion that is not, in any certain sense of the word, real. But people go and click on it and that begins, ends up being their interpretation of the world around them.
I want a little bit of attention. Or I want to start a fight. Yeah. Back to our mental illnesses. That's part of it. I love my mental illness. Me too. It makes me me. My mental illness literally makes me me. I don't care. I don't care. I know. How boring if we didn't have that.
Mental illness as a way of forming an identity. They're like, “I have ADHD or I have OCD, like, that's who I am, a person that has something wrong with them, but it's not something wrong with me, it's just how I am.” The co-opting of mental health by TikTok.
And this is really just people seeking community, people seeking some element of attention, people just seeking truth trying to answer ‘why do I feel bad?’ So they end up creating an element of alienation from reality through their mental illness.
I don't identify with the reality that I exist in because X and Y is wrong with me. I don't identify with the people around me because C and D is wrong with me. I don't identify with myself because A and B is wrong with me.
Then there is the silent walk movement, which is awesome - get outside, walk around. A TikTok shows a woman taking out her AirPods and she's like, “just come on, go for a walk and not have music in your ears! Be in silence!”
This is important! We are constantly able to live in a world that we want to live in.
We're constantly able to warp our surroundings in the illusion of truth by just having music in, by just having a podcast in.
You're able to tune out from the world through integrating with technology.
You're able to have AI enhance whatever you're doing.
You're able to live on social media, a world that maybe you don't live in now, but you’re able to fabricate a certain appearance or a certain lifestyle – maybe through FaceTune or whatever.
Twitter is an example of warped realities as well as a sign of the degradation of media - because of clickability and because of monetizing. The silent walk movement, romanticizing mental illness, it’s people responding to monetizing every single thing that we do, responding to the alienation that they may feel when every single thing that you do can be a dollar sign.
That's what the Society of the Spectacle is kind of about, when everything becomes entirely predicated on the appearance of appearances. And we're seeing the response to that now, just based on how often we have to interact with social media, how often we have to interact with each other online, which the pandemic exacerbated.
With Plato's Cave, going back to the beginning - most people are not just comfortable in their ignorance, but hostile to anybody who points it out.
So that was another thing with the escaped prisoner going back down and saying “yo guys get out of here” is that the other prisoners were like, “Dude, we freaking can't man.” You can't convince people that their illusion isn't real - because to them, the illusion is real. The illusion matters more than the truth. And then it’s no longer an illusion. It’s reality.
That's how Plato's Cave and Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle all tie together, is it's this idea of, “okay, well, I know that what I'm living in isn't real, but there isn't anything I can do about it.” The appearance of the appearances matters more than whatever is actually going on, because I don't know what's actually going on.
Media headlines driven by monetizing and Twitter driven by monetizing false information, everything driven by making people feel insecure on social media, all selling you some image of what it is based on what it isn’t.
When we talk about the Society of the Spectacle and talk about the information that we're consuming, especially in a time of intense geopolitical conflict like we're in now, it's really important to check who we are getting information from.
It's really important to pay attention and to say, “okay well, is this an appearance of an appearances? Is this an illusion that somebody's trying to sell to me as the truth? Am I stuck in my cave right now? Is somebody saying, Hey, look, sun's outside and you're like, ‘but the shadows are on the wall?’”
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, financial, or other advice.
When I was editing this transcript, I came face to face with irony and hypocrisy and we all had a nice cup of coffee together
When I'm talking about mental illness, I'm not meant to be reducing the severity of mental illness, because obviously, it's very severe for some people and I don't know anyone's personal situation outside of my own. I'm just more so calling out how it has been co-opted by elements of social media. We live in a world where it's almost impossible not to have some sort of brain dysfunction