I write essay after essay, but it all stays the same. Am I expecting, on some level, that all these venomous tirades will make a difference? No, perhaps it’s BECAUSE it all stays the same that I keep writing them, these vain attempts to sway or convince or perturb a nonexistent reader base into some manner of change or realization or activity, to disentangle this thorny knot of emotions—resentment and resignation and pity and disdain and disgust—welling up like an inky black bile out of my eyes and nose and mouth, pouring down along my face and obscuring its features save for a cold, twitchy sneer. Try though I may to hope otherwise, I know full well that this essay is all but destined to produce no effect, so entrenched and systemic and comfortable as the problem is, but I find myself compelled to write nevertheless, unable to keep myself from it, incapable of tearing my thoughts away until such time that they’ve all been extracted thus. Take it for what you will.

Stagnation has settled upon us all like a thick layer of dust, everything having long since been brought to a slow, lurching halt, sunken hopelessly deep into a mire of our own design. It may sound as though I’m talking about the pandemic—the mouse that’s petrified the bloated elephant of our society—and our fumbling, halfhearted attempts to contain it, but that’s only an accelerant, a constellation of unhappy accidents magnifying the underlying neuroses. Were that all our problems so straightforward to explain and understand and address as this viral plague, not that we’ve been able to manage even that much.
A slimy film, the unavoidable outgrowth of our collective physical and mental and emotional languor, to which even dental plaque and mold blooms and pond scum compare favorably, gaining a foothold inch by inch as it was even before our current mess, has now spread opportunistically like wildfire over everything. I scarcely want to move, to touch anything or anyone, lest my hand come back befouled, dragging from its fingertips sticky tendrils of the emotional stunting and projected self-loathing and general negligence that now constitute our zeitgeist. I’d love to be able to convince myself that, at the very least, it was never supposed to end up this way, to take solace in knowing we’re mere victims of circumstance rather than the architects of our misery, but I can’t. Instead, it feels like this was inevitable, the inexorable destination that we slowly but surely blundered ourselves into, day by day and step by step.
What am I talking about? I’m talking about our culture and our society—or the pitiful, wretched remainders of them, rather. You’ll laugh, I’m sure: “What, you mean MASS culture? You’re getting this bent out of shape over stuff like music and politics and movies and games and social media? C’mon, it’s always been pretty much like this. Sure, there’s a little more bullshit these days, but you don’t have to get so upset about it! Just let people enjoy things!” You’d have me believe, you and everyone else like you, that there isn’t actually an issue, that I’m taking my entertainment and media consumption and online interactions far too seriously, as though those aren’t just the surface-level symptoms of a deeper pathology.
Yet, poetically enough, that in itself is a perfect emblem of the problem we’re facing. We never bother to conceptualize or contemplate or consider beyond what we immediately see, beyond what makes us feel good, beyond what we already believe to be true. We shrug off the warning signs, assuming that it’s not a big deal, that it’ll probably go away if we just ignore it, that we’ll have plenty of time to figure it out later. Then, when we realize things won’t simply resolve themselves, we scramble to take the first quick-fix over-the-counter one-size-fits-all solution we can find, willfully ignorant of the fact that it only hides the symptoms, bellowing in our doctors’ faces until they hand over the fucking antibiotics that we NEED to get better from our (viral) infection! Finally, by the time the floorboards rot through completely and collapse beneath us, plunging us into the depths below and forcing us to face the stark reality of things, the taproot of the problem’s underlying cause has grown so big and so wide and so deep that we throw our hands in the air and declare in unison that we can’t do anything about it, that it’s someone else’s fault so they should be the one to fix it, that it’s been a long day and I don’t want to think about it right now, OK?

Incidentally, many of those cultural fixtures that we now consider to be little more than avenues for mindless distraction were, at one point, envisioned and pioneered and hailed as new frontiers for human expression. They were groundbreaking innovations full of promise and potential and possibilities, opportunities for reinvention and change and plain old carefree fun. Had we the stomach for it, we could build from them even today any number of new pursuits or systems or media, new platforms that could challenge the assumptions and minds and creativity of those who partook in them, but we don’t.
No, far from being instruments of forward progress, these innovations now only serve to inflame the ongoing decay, their unrealized potential cast aside in favor of the regurgitation of an endless procession of sameness, wherein the same genres located in the same settings feature the same characters struggling against the same conflicts with the same outcomes, interrupted at the same intervals by the same advertisements from the same companies. Fleetingly, minor changes and variations will float up to the surface—whether feeble efforts by nameless creators to add their unique window dressing to these long-ossified templates, heavy-handed attempts to back-port the all-important political morals of today into dated scenarios that were never intended to address them, or otherwise—but the basic ideas serving as their foundation remain unchanged, no matter how they creak and warp and buckle from age and misuse.
It’s easy to blame Capitalism here, eternal scapegoat and boogeyman extraordinaire that it is. Certainly, even if it isn’t solely responsible for the present state of affairs, it’d be stupid of me to try and pretend that its bloody handprints aren’t all over this. After all, once corporations, greedy and myopic and risk-averse entities that they are, realized they could just keep cranking out the same shit over and over and over again with only slight variations but still make just as much money, what incentive would they possibly have not to? What’s more, they’re effectively the only ones with the resources to conduct the research and development needed to get a product or technology or concept to market, or to pay professional artists to write and compose and animate consumable media; and since they retain ownership of everything they sponsor, they became the custodians of all that intellectual property.
That is to say, once businesses had something that both sold reliably and belonged entirely to them, they eliminated as much of the risky and expensive creative experimentation side of things as they could. How exciting it must have been as well when they realized they could further boost their revenue by streamlining and sterilizing and simplifying their creative products, both broadening mainstream accessibility and reducing production costs in the process. Simple movies, simple television, and simple games with simple writing and simple plots make for simple profits, it would seem. It’s simple, really—or simplistic, perhaps.

Of course, like with anything else operating on this large a scale, it runs far wider and far deeper than that, with countless subtle effects and externalities that it both causes and is affected by in turn. For instance: It’s no secret that children aren’t being raised or given anything resembling a proper childhood by their parents anymore, not to any appreciable extent, now that their parents are eternally mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted for one reason or another. Thus, for want of an alternative, the tasks of education and socialization and guidance for said children have now fallen to or are at least mediated heavily by technology and social media. And technology, so very efficient as it is for monopolizing attention and delivering content and little else, is more than eager to dominate the thoughts of these children and saturate them with all of the content that they could ever possibly want and more. From an ever-earlier age onward, the entirety of their identities and relationship to the world is disproportionately shaped by and structured around consuming content, and content that nearly always falls into one of a handful of well-defined overly-simple easily-digestible templates, at that.
As a result, even if someone were to yearn to break free of the established ideas and cultural vectors, and to strive instead to construct something new, they’d quickly find all of their habits and thought processes and life experiences working against them. How can you expect to venture outside of the current cultural boundaries when you have no real concept of anything that could exist beyond them, when your sense of self is ruled by a nostalgia only for that which exists within them, when a lifetime of comfort food and coddling and convenience have left you without the dedication and perseverance and grit needed to step out into the unknown? Moreover, if you define yourself largely by the media you consume, and the bulk of your interactions and friendships and social circles are defined likewise, any serious attempt to move away from that baseline carries the risk of growing apart from your peers or even inviting their scorn, not to mention potentially raising any number of thorny existential questions. Your environment and identity alike would revolt against you.
What’s more, if professional artists have no recourse but to build brands and gather followings on social media in order to have any sort of foothold in the industry, and the only reliable way to construct such a brand and following is through pandering to the existing popular culture, rehashing once more that which is already established and marketable and safe, then how can you expect the artists who have genuinely new ideas to prosper in said industry? Hell, how would anyone of a nonstandard creative bent, anyone seeking to disrupt or challenge or question rather than to imitate or recreate or echo, not be suffocated by loneliness and frustration and despair long before an opportunity even had a chance to arise, purely from the sheer and total and systematic disinterest in their work? Even the very systems ostensibly helping them to distribute their work in fact push back against them, deprioritizing whatever they share as “low-engagement content” in favor of things guaranteed to generate clicks.
In short, the popular systems promote the popular content which boosts the popular demand for more content like it, further entrenching the already-nigh-immovable status quo and making it all the less likely that anything else will ever have the occasion to come forward.

Then again, this is what we want. We can complain endlessly about Silicon Valley and Congress and Hollywood and the RIAA and the gaming industry and any number of other easy targets, chalking the problem up to them running out of ideas or being greedy or not caring, but we’re the ones who buy into it time and time and time again. Granted, there aren’t very many true visionaries left at this point, individuals with both a sense of real purpose and the drive to pursue it regardless of whatever may come, people who have tangible dreams of something other than making money or becoming famous or pumping out yet another slight variation of the same old shit. Indeed, there are painfully few left, and fewer still with any significant sway or influence or clout, but there are nevertheless still a few. Were we serious about shaking things up, about clawing our way upward until we break through the surface of this long-stagnant swamp, we could seek them out, support them, encourage them, take the first steps toward breathing life back into our culture and society and likewise getting a much-needed breath of fresh air ourselves, but we don’t. We never do.
Besides, who wants to challenge or be challenged by anything when they were already run ragged years ago from an ongoing ungodly cocktail of overwork, poor self-care, profound isolation, hopelessness about the future, and untreated mental illness? Who has the energy to reflect critically on the dismal state of the country and their place in it when they can barely scrape together the motivation to drag themselves out of bed in the morning even on a good day, exsanguinated as they are by despondency and depression and despair? Who would care to have the hypocrisy and naivete and self-defeating nature of so many of their core ideals and beliefs and lifestyle choices laid out before them, to drop a brick of existential uncertainty into the wet paper bag that is their resolve and emotional resilience and strength of character, to have their fears and regrets and failures thrown into stark relief when the slightest reminder of it makes their anxiety spike as it is?
No, in reality, what we want more than anything else is to be forever distracted from the bleak wasteland of our lives. We want to escape into those familiar worlds of black and white, where a greater cause worth fighting for—that vaunted yet ever-elusive thing which we all so desperately want but never bother to seek out—falls gently into our lap, where everyone is always strong and beautiful and ultimately happy, where justice always prevails and good always triumphs in the end. We want to be coddled until the very end with the saccharine fantasies of our anemic childhoods and with nostalgic throwbacks to false images of the past when, allegedly, things were better. We’ve all but given up on moving forward, and instead want nothing more than to fall backward.
Back in time, back in age, back to sleep.

I don’t have any solutions to offer. Nearest I can tell, everyone is too sick, too miserable, too exhausted, too distracted, too afraid for us even to begin moving in the right direction at scale. Even if that were to improve, all of the systems we’ve built, all of the established powers and cultural fixtures, and the very manner in which we conceptualize our personal identities now will fight against us every step of the way. The sheer size and scope of the problem is many, many orders of magnitude larger than anything I could ever hope to address on my own, certainly—least of all with a single essay—and I’m doubtful that we’ll be able to scrape together the collective will and nerve and strength needed to set everything back on the right track anytime soon.
The most I can hope to do, through my words and through my example, is to encourage and embolden and inspire as many of those few remaining visionaries as I possibly can, to goad them into discarding their fear and putting their full potential to maximal use, to light the fire of someone who can prove to us all that it’s not too late to pierce through and tear away this putrid film of stagnation.