This is the second part of The Petri Dish trilogy. The first part was on the inexplicable anger of complete strangers.

cat stare

Imagine you are the editor of a television newsroom. Your viewers don’t have time to digest every news story because the world is a big place. It’s your job to prioritise and package this information, just give them the important facts. Your desk is cluttered with stories, some of which are still developing and the truth is unclear. Your gaze skims across them.

Boko Haram continuing to wreak mayhem in Nigeria. Death toll from fighting in Libya continues to rise. Fears that Russian troops are operating within Ukraine. IS continues to make gains in Iraq, forcing Obama to send the troops in, again. Unrest in Ferguson over the police shooting of Michael Brown. Bill Cosby is in the news, but not for good reasons. Greek government workers take down most of the country’s infrastructure in a protest against austerity. Women are dying in India after a mass-sterilization exercise goes badly wrong. European space probe lands on a comet – but will it stay there? Bird flu virus has been discovered in the Netherlands. The World Chess Championship is taking place. 18 people are killed by a fire in carrot packaging plant in Shandong.

I lied. You’re not an editor of a newsroom but a social media addict.

Every day you live the flood, your smartphone saturated with raw news, often lacking context, often buried in strong personal bias. No one is going to pay you to figure out the truth or decide what events are more important than others.

How do you deal with this?

Education is important. All sorts of bad things happen if we stop learning. We can get exploited. We may stop trying to change the world. But we live in the information age and there is no longer an excuse for ignorance. Ignorance is no virtue. It is your job to stay on top of the flood.

It’s good to feel ahead of the news curve. If someone tells you that the researchers have suggested the appendix might have a purpose, you can tell them you already read about that. But sometimes you make a mistake. You believe something you saw in the flood and did not question it. You tell everyone about Lars Andersen in that mad video about how old, forgotten archery techniques are superior – and then someone tells you to take a reality check.

The truth is there is no truth. Every fact is a trapdoor, which falls open to reveal a bottomless pit of caveats and inconsistencies.

cat stare

Eventually, you realise scepticism is the only position that is entirely safe. Just keep pointing out the trapdoor. For example, try out “it sounds too good to be true”. Or maybe “I doubt that’s a first”. My personal favourite is “I don’t see any statistics to back that up”.

No one likes to feel like an idiot but it’s not just about trying to look good in front of others. It’s also about trust. When someone lets you down repeatedly, trust is worn away. The same thing happens to businesses and corporations – if they let you down, they lose your loyalty, your custom.

Maybe you liked the crowdfunding model in the beginning, but then you noticed half of the projects you backed died in the womb or failed to deliver their promised rewards… and the shine came off. Kudos to every gaming website for getting you hyped for CLANG and then letting you know it failed. And let’s keep on throwing donations to help out hand-to-mouth media corporations like Warner Bros. Entertainment; they thank you, the fans, for covering the risk of making Veronica Mars.

cat stare

Everyone is like “oh trailers are such lies” but then there’s a bout of irrational madness when a trailer for No Man’s Sky or Hyper Light Drifter is posted. LOL. Rollseyes. It’d be nice if the wisdom of crowds really could determine whether a Kickstarter project would succeed or fail, but it’s more like the wisdom of trailer cool determines whether the project gets funded. Don’t think just feel. You know it’s better not to talk about any project at all, for fear of encouraging more people to throw money at the Screen of Doomed Projects. Let other people do it. Stupid people.

Like, the worst thing about F2P is that we can read about it. All that stuff about Zynga’s intensive A/B testing on Farmville to ensure peak addiction. Man, they love their skinner boxes. You can be sure when someone titles a talk “Monetizing Teens in a Safe and Legal Manner” it’s going to be all over Twitter and for about three days all you can see are scoffs in 140 characters or less.


Hey, you heard of the marshmallow experiment? It’s a depressing piece of research that seemed to show that if you’re not very good at waiting for a marshmallow as a child, the rest of your life is likely to be abject failure. Well, the F2P industry came up with the energy mechanic – wait for a recharge to play again or pay for it right now – to monetize the shit out of the marshmallow principle and it became a staple.

But wait it’s not new at all as vested interests and preying on psychology has been part and parcel of every business from time immemorial what do you think capitalism is celebrities endorse products they never use coin-operated arcade videogames were tweaked to let you play just long enough before the difficulty ratcheted up everything is exploitation to an extent look even this video about “juicing” up your games is about making users achieve dopamine highs from even the most dull mechanics so it’s just the same it’s all the same all the same it’s all just a machine reaching for your wallet and distracting you with the feel good but you don’t feel good any more do you

you don’t feel good any more

god what is happening to you

The internet is a Petri dish which harbours the perfect conditions for a culture of cynicism. The only antidote is to embrace the simple things. Maybe, for you, it’s PewDiePie with his brofist. Maybe you like those React videos. Maybe you like videos of cats. There’s nothing threatening here.

You start to wonder whether ignorance is the price of bliss, but you realise the cats don’t care about that.

This is no time for thinking. Cats are great.


But David Foster Wallace predicted a hopeful turn. He could see a new wave of artistic rebels who “might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels… who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles… Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.” Yet Wallace was tentative and self-conscious in describing these rebels of sincerity. He suspected they would be called out as “backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic.” He didn’t know if their mission would succeed, but he knew real rebels risked disapproval. As far as he could tell, the next wave of great artists would dare to cut against the prevailing tone of cynicism and irony, risking “sentimentality,” “overcredulity” and “softness.”

  • Dogs are also great.
Kickstarter backers think they're getting the maple kind of bacon.
Kickstarter backers have to believe they’re getting the maple kind of bacon

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11 thoughts on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cat Videos

  1. I’ve got another invisible twitter link, but I can see it in the source.

    [ style=”display: none !important;” ]

    Would seem to be the culprit, but my memory on this particular CSS property is fuzzy.

    Interesting post. I’m still digesting it. My immediate gut response is… yeah, I’ve grappled with similar stuff. I try to react to it not by retreating into inane bullshit but by learning, understanding, working out the context, fitting pieces of the puzzle together… but just as importantly, accepting that I do not and will never understand everything and that is fine. Not knowing everything is the most normal thing a human being can experience.

    My problem with cynicism is less that it makes people retreat from the world and more that it often leads to the opposite: people engage ferociously with things but on the basis of extremely limited and often narrow understandings.

    Have you watched Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake?

  2. Shaun! I use Adblock Edge so maybe I should enable ABP for a little while to see what’s going on.

    This post is a roughly accurate self portrait. Although I’m not too cynical in public because I don’t want to people to remember me as a misanthropic curmudgeon, my brain works overtime on cynical responses I don’t use. It’s just on all the time. It’s tiring, really. Sometimes the tweet is ready to go and I just delete it.

    I feel like retreating from a Twitter because even though I am actively trying to reject cynicism as a default mode, my feed is so full of scoffing and negativity. I just can’t bear it sometimes. Even if Twitter allowed longer discourse I doubt it would make much difference.

    I think we are all aware that “we can’t know everything” but the nature of feeling left out is insidious. Didn’t you say just last week that you were keeping your hand in because it was useful for keeping up to date? (paraphrasing) Where is the line of acceptable ignorance?

    It is the easy misanthropy of Twitter that makes me want to leave rather than my own deepening cynicism. I had so many examples for this piece and several from yesterday but diplomatically I chose a personal example in the notes).

    But I have found myself disengaging now and more from the latest drama – and that word choice is charged of course. Boko Haram has been terrorising Nigeria for years but it was only one they kidnapped a large group of schoolgirls that “anyone” took notice. Everyone wanted something to happen – but what? We can’t go stomping around the world like global police, especially at Nigeria has its own government. So what happened? Twitter eventually bored of it. Because I *knew* that was going to happen I was cynical about the Boko Haram excitement on Twitter as soon as it started. Caring about stuff is not a crime, so I don’t like this toxic thinking I’ve developed.

    I have not yet watched Bitter Lake but definitely coming. I need to finish the third part of The Petri Dish… If you don’t mind I might send you a draft before posting for review?

  3. “…even though I am actively trying to reject cynicism as a default mode, my feed is so full of scoffing and negativity. I just can’t bear it sometimes. Even if Twitter allowed longer discourse I doubt it would make much difference.”

    Mine is much the same a lot of the time. I think if Twitter allowed long enough comments that serious discourse was plausible it might make a difference, but at that point it would no longer be Twitter.

    “Didn’t you say just last week that you were keeping your hand in because it was useful for keeping up to date?”

    Ha! It’s quite possible. I’m less a human being than a coalition of internal contradictions (hey, wait…).

    I don’t remember saying that or what the context was but that’s certainly something I’ve done a lot in the past. This year I’ve been working to try and get my hand out of a lot of stuff, so that I can apply more focus to fewer things. The one exception is Twitter, so I’d guess I was talking about that.

    “Caring about stuff is not a crime, so I don’t like this toxic thinking I’ve developed.”

    It’s pretty natural for a cause, issue or series of events to seize parts of the public imagination and be a much-discussed topic only to fade from the spotlight. There’s no other way of dealing with the world! You know this, of course. I state it just to go on to say that people who talk about this stuff and then let it fade doesn’t bother me much. Besides, the fact of something not being talked about doesn’t mean it isn’t being thought about.

    What does annoy me a little are people who write strident tweets about how “nobody” or “the media” or “twitter” isn’t paying attention to a certain issue and they should presumably feel ashamed of themselves. Because obviously no one has ever reported on Boko Haram before, and obviously lots of people demanding that something be done on Twitter is an engine of change when it comes to African militant groups. As you say, the concept of World Police has become rather tarnished, even among advocates of humanitarian intervention.

    It often appears to be the product of someone who feels urgent outrage about an issue they didn’t previously know much about themselves. I wonder if it’s a form of projection, you know? “I feel bad that I didn’t pay attention to this before, so now I must be strident in my insistence that others do the same.” I kinda get that among young people because it reminds me of my political awakening as a teenager, when I went from having very little awareness of the wider world to being suddenly introduced to widespread global injustice. Everything was very urgent; everything had to be changed right then. Great impulse, but can make you act like a knob if you start assuming that other people don’t care or don’t get it.

    I’m all for using Twitter to spread information and raise awareness of issues – it’s really good for that. But some santimonious prick loading up the blamethrower and castigating all and sundry for “not being aware”? Fuck right off.

    Anyway, this has just become me bitching about Twitter, which is rather reinforcing the wrong part of your point, so I’ll shut up now.

  4. Shaun, loading up the blamethrower is not a phrase I’ve heard before, but I pretty much like it.

    I have to be careful about the following the misanthropic old man “ah gad it was never like this before” line because, yes, it is true, a lot of these issues HAVE already existed. But they’re more insistent and persistent with Twitter.

    As well as the “I didn’t hear about this, so you can’t have either” there is the apathy-inducing “I know I told you about this yesterday, but it’s still important today”. You can’t be an activist and win these days. How can I possibly take your 140 characters more seriously than anyone else’s? WAIT DO YOU VINE

  5. I think I nicked it from the film Mystery Men. I pretty much like it too.

    The internet and social media has just accelerated everything. I’m sure you’d find familiar behaviour if you looked at the letters C18 poets wrote to one another, their friends and to journals and the like (can’t recall any specific examples but during my lit degree I do remember being quite surprised at how petulant some of the letters I read were – guess I was still under the impression that adults differed from children and teenagers by anything other than degrees).

    I guess when it comes to activism all you can do is push your signal as far as you can without, well, aggravating its potential audience and distracting from your cause, and hope that some of the people the message reaches take it to heart. What else can you do? Once it’s out there it’s largely outside of your control, after all.

  6. Amazing. I love it.

    And yeah, definitely, historical slapfights between critics and other critics, or critics and artists, can often prove very funny (or depressing, depending on how you look at it).

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