One Friday night in lockdown, I found myself on YouTube watching an animated carousel of all the popes of the Catholic Church. To a stirring orchestral soundtrack, their portraits marched across my laptop screen in sequence, from St Peter to Francis. I’m not Catholic, and I have little-to-no interest in ecclesiastical history. I have not recycled insights about the Vatican’s head honchos at a house party, dinner party or in any professional setting. Without rewatching the video, I wouldn’t have been able to recall a single detail from it.
But it was, in its own weird way, relaxing. The steady chug of the little images, from Byzantine-style icons to oil paintings to photographs, had a soothing quality. I absorbed it on a sensory rather than intellectual level. The same has been true for similar genres of online video, like animated bar charts that show the top countries by GDP or military spending over time, or moving maps that illustrate the evolving frontiers of a war or boundaries of empires.
Most of the internet’s filler content – media, particularly videos, that we mindlessly consume to pass the time – are all about sounds, colours, textures and movements: weird TikTok recipes, ASMR tracks, unboxings, cats doing silly things. But we tend to treat knowledge-rich content in much the same way. Absent-mindedly browsing Google Maps does not indicate a genuine interest in Vancouver Island’s road network; falling down Wikipedia rabbit holes does not betray a passion for the many things named after Barack Obama. It’s all just ambient information, into which we submerge when we’re bored or anxious.
This tension, between the richness of the information and how little of it we actually digest, is particularly obvious in the thriving industry of explainer videos on YouTube. A collection of channels – History Matters, Epimetheus, Knowledgia and General Knowledge among others – offer short, graphic-heavy treatises on everything from why America doesn’t use the metric system to why some eastern European countries use similar colours on their flags (it’s all down to the Prague Slavic Congress of 1848, apparently).
These guys take what they do seriously. You have to, I guess, to research and produce a 21-minute video on the history of Bulgaria. There was even an outbreak of scholarly beef earlier this year, when the YouTuber EmperorTigerstar took RealLifeLore to task about a video from the latter which claimed Scottish independence would drastically undermine Nato’s ability to restrict Russian submarines in the event of war.
In the spirit of “countering misinformation”, His Imperial Majesty Tigerstar explained that an independent Scotland would still be part of Nato, and that even if it wasn’t, Nato navies could still operate in the North Sea out of Norway and the Faroe Islands – and that ultimately, the whole thing was a Cold War-era strategic hangover that didn’t really matter anyway.
Did any of their viewers care? Some people in the comments section, for sure. These explainer channels often have millions of subscribers each; History Matters is raking in almost $3,000 a month on Patreon. But given the videos’ grabby titles, and the tendency for them to crowd into your feed if you watch even a couple, their dominant function is ambient information: cat videos for nerds.
Other nerds – the computer ones rather than the history ones – used to be very excited about what the internet would do to the spread of information. “Cyberspace and the American Dream”, a 1994 essay co-written by four libertarian-leaning US tech evangelists, contends that “the central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of matter”. The coming digital economy would be built on “actionable knowledge” rather than physical labour or factories, and would entail a “traumatic” loss of power for governments. “Cyberspace is the latest American frontier,” they declare, in the tone of a 19th-century California sheriff ordering a cavalry charge on the encampment of an indigenous tribe.
Ronald Reagan was advised by one of the piece’s authors, the physicist George Keyworth, and influenced by the supply-side economics of another, George Gilder. But as the Cambridge historian Gary Gerstle observes in The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order (2022), techno-libertarian fever dreams were a bipartisan affair. Bill Clinton’s Democrats passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which dismantled anti-competition laws in an array of media and communication sectors, and “did more than any other piece of legislation in the 1990s to… dramatically accelerate the building of a new economy based on neoliberal principles”. To celebrate signing the bill, Clinton flew to California and, dressed in fetching khaki trousers, helped install internet cables in a San Francisco school.
But the overthrow of matter has been trickier in practice than theory. China has sunk endless resources into making digital information an extension of state power rather than a subversion of it. The capabilities of AI trained on the internet’s fathomless pool of information has spooked many tech types into signing an open letter calling for a six-month research pause. Eliezer Yudkowsky, one of the field’s founders, has called for an indefinite shutdown, and for cooperating countries to “be willing to destroy a rogue datacentre by airstrike”.
“Cyberspace and the American Dream” predicted the “demassification” of knowledge – people would get what they needed, when they wanted it, rather than gulp down what everyone else was having. It was correct, in that practically all the intellectual fruits of human endeavour are now a Google search away. But as Joseph Stalin – the star of more than a few explainer videos – once put it, quantity has a quality all of its own. The abundance of information online produces a different kind of demassification: dense content is sublimated into pure form.
This isn’t a purely online phenomenon. Imagine dragging your thumb across the pages of a book and flicking through all of them in one go, the words a bitty black blur. Or bouncing between TV channels on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Or drifting in and out of sleep with a radio playing in the background. In these instances, no one pretends to be paying much attention. The view count on a YouTube or TikTok video, though, aspires to something more. Algorithms are trained, and trillion-dollar businesses built, on what we click on and the time it takes us to click on the next thing.
As the internet’s ambient fug shows, the gap between the online record and the psychological reality of our information consumption is a tricky thing to breach. Tracking our eye movements and facial expressions is the tech companies’ latest approach, and maybe, like the salmon that jumps up the waterfall, it’ll succeed. In the meantime, “engagement” will remain a sought-after, slippery prize. And don’t try to talk to me about old popes. I’ll struggle to say very much at all.
[See also: Britain has never faced decline like this before]