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Will I ever understand the world again?

Kevin Roose
Kevin Roose
I don't get it either
I don't get it either
The rest of my week was mostly a blur. There was a torrent of media requests, congratulations from long-lost friends, conversations with lawyers and accountants about how to handle the auction proceeds without completely screwing up my taxes, and jokes from colleagues about sneaking off to the Cayman Islands with my crypto-riches.
The response to the token sale was mostly positive. A few people were angry with me about the environmental damage caused by all the computing power needed to run blockchain-based token sales. Others were amped that I was promoting NFTs at all. (I have not always been so bullish on the blockchain.) Whatever their reservations, most people seemed genuinely happy that the proceeds were going to a good cause, even if they didn’t quite understand what a NFT was, or why anyone would pay half a million dollars for one.
But the response I remember most was a text from a friend, who sent a link to my NFT auction and asked me, simply: “Will I ever understand the world again?”
It was a joke, sort of – this friend is actually fairly tech-savvy, and I’m sure could grok the basic concepts behind a NFT sale with a few minutes of reading.
But it spoke to a real anxiety I think a lot of people my age feel right now. It’s the feeling that the pace of change in the world is speeding up, and that so much of what is capturing the world’s attention – NFTs! SPACs! TikTok! Clubhouse! Stonks! – seems, for the first time, to require real effort to understand.
I’m not a boomer. I’m 33, and pride myself on staying fairly up to date on tech and cultural trends. But I’ve felt this sensation, too – the instinct to recoil from things that are new and unfamiliar, to burrow into nostalgia and self-deprecating jokes (“ok, I’ll bite, what’s a Bitcoin”), to wait for SNL or Jimmy Fallon or Reply All to explain new cultural phenomena to me.
Part of this is just age, I guess. Tech products are now being designed for people younger than me, and Gen Z is growing up and getting disposable income and steering the culture. It’s not unusual to feel, in your mid-thirties, like you’re no longer the target audience for the newest and coolest things.
Part of it is probably also related to the specific challenges of understanding things like NFTs, which – like a lot of blockchain-based technologies – are conceptually complicated almost by design.
But this feeling – the fight-or-flight instinct some of us have when we’re confronted with things that feel new and unfamiliar – seems to be growing, at least among my immediate circle. I got similar “stop the world I want to get off”-style texts from friends when the GameStop fiasco happened, and when TikTok began taking over cultural production. A lot of us seem to be simultaneously feeling like the knowledge that once entered our brains effortlessly, by osmosis, now requires real effort to acquire.
In my book, I told the story of two 19th-century responses to the Industrial Revolution, by two people who had a front-row seat to the technological changes of that era.
One of them was the well-known story of Henry David Thoreau, a pencil magnate’s kid who got sick of trying to keep up with new technology, became a disillusioned Transcendentalist, and decided to give up on modernity and move to Walden Pond to think and write.
The other was the less-well-known story of Sarah Bagley, a Massachusetts labor activist who grew up working in textile factories, then led a worker’s movement for better working conditions. After a successful stint as a union organizer, she accepted a job as America’s first female telegraph operator, and became a quiet technological pioneer.
I used these stories to represent the diametrically opposed reactions we can have, when confronted with novelty. We can reject it and refuse to go along, like Thoreau did. Or we can embrace it, like Bagley did, and try our best to use new tools to shape the world into the fairest, most equitable version of itself.
I’ve been feeling the Thoreau/Bagley tension this week, while staring at my (temporarily) flush cryptocurrency wallet and thinking about my NFT sale. Part of me wants to chalk all of this up to asinine bubble behavior – in no rational universe is a PNG of a newspaper column worth $560,000! – and the other part of me wants to dive deeper into it, explore the underlying technology, and try to figure out how NFTs can become more than a plaything for rich people.
I don’t blame my friend for feeling like the world is passing him by. I feel it, too. But I’ve decided to channel my discomfort into action, rather than being overwhelmed and paralyzed by it. If NFTs are going to be part of our lives 10 years from now, I want to understand how they work, who they work for, and what ancillary effects they have. I want to experiment, to try weird stuff, and to figure out who is using them to exploit whom.
If NFTs turn out to be important, I’ll have a head start, and a well-formed sense of how I want to interact with them. And if they turn out to be a passing fad, all I’ll have lost is time.
Odds and ends
– I had a fun conversation on Decoder with Nilay Patel about robotic process automation (RPA), the most boring-sounding but actually critically important technological phenomenon in the world.
– I interviewed some of the bidders on my NFT, including the winner, a music production company in Dubai that said they had “proudly decided to dedicate sufficient funds and resources to invest in NFT as pioneers of this industry.”
– And speaking of things that made me feel old, I loved this week’s New York Times Magazine cover story by Vanessa Grigoriadis about Addison Rae and the TikTok beauty industrial complex.
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Kevin Roose
Kevin Roose @kevinroose

On life among the machines.

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