Last weekend I got myself in trouble for breaking my own rule: don’t get drawn in to pointless arguments with your relatives. Big bummer because I was doing so good the last few years. Throughout the Trump+COVID era in the U.S., I learned that the best way to honor the relationships in my life was to be more intentional around certain conversations and just… stay out of it.
Instead of entering every cultural/political discussion with the goal of “winning” or even trying to get the other person to see my point- I instead focused on just trying to understand their perspective as objectively as possible. I put aside any hopes other than listening and connecting. What else would I going to accomplish?
When that simply isn’t possible, my backup plan is to exit the conversation entirely. Let’s just say I’m not the best at staying cool when discussing certain topics, so it’s often the only way for me to stay civil. This weekend I reminded myself of why I have the rule.
The big topic in my house has been litter boxes. We adopted two kittens as a Christmas surprise for our kids and, not having been cat people before, we’re spending a lot of time (and money) learning all about their needs. For example, my wife has tried multiple brands of kitty litter and litter boxes in an attempt to find something she likes.
There’s a lot of advice on the internet. One example of a rule you might read online a lot is that you should buy one litter box for each cat, PLUS one extra litter box. So three litter boxes. Unless you have a two-story house, then you need even another litter box. Four litter boxes? At this point we were starting to feel skeptical.
I dug into where exactly we were getting this information. I’m fully aware that most of the stuff on the internet is straight up bogus or else “just like, your opinion, man“. I know it’s just people. With opinions. That they heard. From other people. There is no one right answer because there is no objective truth about how many litter boxes you actually need for your damn cats. The science will never be settled.
But there’s plenty of blogs about it. And articles. And guides. And reels. And stories. And TikToks. And forums. There are social media influencers who talk about nothing but owning cats (and are often sponsored by companies in the pet industry). Think of any topic in the world, and there’s an entire ecosystem of just random opinions on the internet- available in oppressive volume.
With the move towards even more AI-generated bullshit flooding the internet, something as simple as the correct number of litter boxes becomes the long-tail target in some economic incentive, mostly advertising and click-bait. My own skepticism of any online information aligns with this recent piece on the dark forest theory from Maggie Appleton:
We’re about to drown in a sea of pedestrian takes. An explosion of noise that will drown out any signal. Goodbye to finding original human insights or authentic connections under that pile of cruft.
Many people will say we already live in this reality. We’ve already become skilled at sifting through unhelpful piles of “optimised content” designed to gather clicks and advertising impressions.
4chan proposed dead internet theory years ago: that most of the internet is “empty and devoid of people” and has been taken over by artificial intelligence. A milder version of this theory is simply that we’re overrun with bots. Most of us take that for granted at this point.The Expanding Dark Forest and Generative AI
This is in the pursuit of a relatively meaningless piece of information, all things considered. But that’s not the only use-case.
While having a family event at our house this weekend, one of my relatives informed us that schools in the United States are now providing litter-box-bathrooms to support students who might be transitioning into becoming cats. Yes. That’s a real thing.
Oh wait- I’m sorry, no, not the part about the litter boxes or the kid-cats. That’s clearly made up. The “real thing” is that some intelligent human beings in the world choose to believe that our public school districts are investing money into building litter-box-style bathrooms on school campuses for cat kids. To repeat. People believe this is a real thing. New bathrooms. Litter boxes. For children. From school administrators. People think it’s real.
So I sort of broke. I got a little heated. I just felt like something that sounded so dumb just couldn’t be left alone. Yes, I was wrong to engage- I admit it. I lost my cool for a bit. I genuinely feel bad.
I think part of it is that I was raised in a pretty religious yet homophobic environment. The idea that anything on the LGBTQ+ spectrum would ultimately lead to bestiality was a widespread talking point in the American evangelicalism of my youth. So I understand that the point of the litter box meme is to play on those exact same feelings of bigotry that I was super familiar with: “Boys becoming girls? What’s next- people want to marry their dogs? Kids turning into cats?”
What is the point of all these stupid culture war issues like “no one is saying Merry Christmas” and “kids are pooping in litter boxes”? To divide. To get real people who are family and love each other to fight about something so stupid that it’s almost meaningless. To feed the outrage algorithms. And I fell for it.
At one point I blurted out a sarcastic comment about “not believing everything you see on the internet.” Which leads me back to litter boxes. My litter boxes.
As I think about the future of the internet, I’m genuinely concerned about our inability to create deeper meaning at scale or to even be able to share information in a reliable way. Because when I see the right-wing litter box meme- I see an intentional fiction written specifically to outrage one audience and appeal to their confirmation bias. And when I read a review of a generic litter box on Amazon, I see an intentional fiction written specifically to convince me to purchase a thing that I may or may not even need in my life.
To return to Maggie Appleton’s essay:
After the forest expands, we will become deeply sceptical of one another’s realness. Every time you find a new favourite blog or Twitter account or Tiktok personality online, you’ll have to ask: Is this really a whole human with a rich and complex life like mine? Is there a being on the other end of this web interface I can form a relationship with?The Expanding Dark Forest and Generative AI
The difference here is that it’s not just affecting our internet relationships, it’s starting to affect our real relationships, too. Overall I’m glad that the fever pitch and polarization of the last two years has seemed to die down somewhat, even if it’s still very much alive. We have a long way to go, because even in real life, it’s often hard for me to remember that the person I’m talking to is, in Maggie’s words, “a whole human with a rich and complex life like mine.”