This is one of those places you go for Instagram. The Manhattan Bridge looms, immediate and substantial, over a cobblestone street, framed on either side by a pair of old brick buildings; if you’re standing in the right spot, you can see the Empire State Building through one of the bridge’s uprights. Imagine a woman, young and ambivalent, staring into the middle distance, white sneakers aglow in the dawn, bridge overhead. This area of Brooklyn, once home to abandoned factories and warehouses, now hosts an annual festival for $3,000 German cameras.
All of this could be depressing, conceptually: Thousands and thousands of us cycling through a location for the same photo, then posting it to Instagram, a platform on which you’ve probably seen this photo and will see it again, an endless loop of likes. Restaurant owners think now about how a certain floor tile might look on Instagram, and light the room for the phone’s camera instead of the table; businesses paint ridiculous murals on walls, with human-size white space, so you’ll pop by and pose, ironic or earnest, between technicolor angel wings; Instagram stories of places and people extend out into the jittery forever.
And yet, on nice evenings in early September, on a half block of staggering wealth, the photo line can seem less like a grim tribute to our alienated reality and more like a fun carnival.
You know those little cartoons of a city, where a guy in a beret with a poodle is walking past a baguette-carrying chef in front of a pencil drawing of the Eiffel Tower? Here in Brooklyn, the tall, thin women in silver Birkenstocks pass by groups of two German tourists and three Chinese tourists. “Car coming!” a man shouted every few minutes one night; a Carvel ice cream truck would inch by, followed by a silver Mercedes G-Class, all while the Q train blared overhead as the metal subway cars crossed the steel bridge. Here a couple would pose in black tie; there some teens would be texting on the curb. Here a black Range Rover; there a guy in shorts with an ice cream cone. A shirtless rollerblader would weave through the groups of women in dresses, crowded around a phone.
“That’s a fine shot!” one bridesmaid lovingly called to a bride — who stood without the bridge in the background. “That’s a fine shot!”
None of this — the intersection of a hundred lives in one place, your own Instagram feed crashing into someone else’s — could have happened 10 years ago.
This long and wearying decade is coming to a close, though, even if there’s no sense of an ending. People are always saying stuff like: Time has melted; my brain has melted; Donald Trump has melted my brain; I can’t remember if that was two weeks ago or two months ago or two years ago; what a year this week has been. Donald Trump tells the story of 2016 again. Your Facebook feed won’t stop showing you a post from four days ago, about someone you haven’t seen in three years. The Office, six years after it ended, might be the most popular show in the United States. Donald Trump tells the story of 2016 again. One high schooler dances to a Mariah Carey song from 2009 (“Why you so obsessed with me?”) in a video that loops in 15-second increments on TikTok; then other teens do it; then a high school dance team dances that dance to this Mariah Carey song as a gym full of teens sings along, in a video that loops in 15-second increments on TikTok. Donald Trump tells the story of 2016 again. What was here yesterday no longer is.
The touch and taste of the 2010s was nonlinear acceleration: always moving, always faster, but torn this way and that way, pushed forward, and pulled back under. As the decade closes with an impeachment inquiry, Trump drags and twists the entire country through six turns each day.
If it feels like so much has happened, it’s because so much did happen. And when you go back and tally it all up — when this product got announced and when that platform launched this feature — so much of the way our phones and lives work today congealed during the 2016 election.
In the 20 months between Hillary Clinton’s campaign announcement and Trump’s inauguration, everything from Apple Music to HBO Now to Apple News launched or relaunched; the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple Watch hit the full market; publishers established the current form and tone of the news push alerts that you receive; Facebook launched a livestreaming function and then deprioritized the function when people aired violence; Instagram launched the ephemeral, inexhaustive stories, so you can share — as they put it — “everything in between” the moments you care about; Twitter introduced the quote-tweet option, which formalized and democratized a function from the earlier days of Twitter, and transformed every Trump tweet into an opportunity for commentary.
And, within a few months in 2016, both the primary catalog for millions of lives (Instagram) and the primary channel for news and culture (Twitter) switched from chronological to algorithmic timelines. All this happened while the country realized Trump could become president, and then he did — an experience somehow both mystifying and like watching a wet paper bag break.
How did everything get so jumbled? Stories about our phones, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest often concern Nazis, grifters, scammers, plagiarists, the aesthetes who reject that online life, the famous, the infamous, people who are making a buck, and anyone else who pushes the logic and limits already in place. But what about the rest of us?
The 2000s were a bad decade, full of terrorism, financial ruin, and war. The 2010s were different, somehow more disorienting, full of molten anxiety, racism, and moral horror shows. Maybe this is a reason for the disorientation: Life had run on a certain rhythm of time and logic, and then at a hundred different entry points, that rhythm and that logic shifted a little, sped up, slowed down, or disappeared, until you could barely remember what time it was.
There’s more than one kind of time. You have your minutes and seconds ticking away, grounded in the Earth’s rotation and orbit. Paradoxically, given the lament of melting time, we’ve never had such easy access to this kind of precision on the subject. Knowing the time is relatively new to the human experience; the first cheap, reliable watch wasn’t made until the late 1860s, nor were there international time zones until 1884. But if you leave London and land in Los Angeles today, your phone will adjust and display in perpetuity the correct time in big sans serif numerals, no matter what you seek on the screen.
Then there’s the other kind of time: the expected rhythms of our lives (punching in, punching out, news and weather on the eights), constantly in flux.
Take, for instance, television. We’re living through an incredible boom of great shows. Often described, with a weary irony, as the era of Peak TV, this wealth of programming followed tech and traditional premium broadcasters finally figuring out how to commercialize streaming platforms in the 2010s. As a result, you the viewer can move in any sort of direction, watching in bulk something that aired last year, or on Sunday, or one scene again and again, freed from the now-or-never quality that TV once had. For decades, TV either made or ran parallel to the rhythms of American life: morning shows, daytime soaps, the 6 o’clock news, the playoffs, Johnny Carson. In between, the broadcast networks aired 22 half-hour episodes, weekly from September to May, at a fixed time, winding away in sequential order at a mass scale.
“Television took place over time,” critic Emily Nussbaum writes in her recent essay collection, I Like to Watch. “It took time to make, it took time to watch, it happened over time. A director films a movie, then later, people watch it; a novelist writes, then readers read. But television takes weeks, seasons, years, even decades. A fan had to keep inviting her favorite show back in.” This relationship created an intense feedback loop between that fan and the show’s creators — “a sadomasochistic intimacy that both sides craved and resented,” as Nussbaum describes it — that only intensified with the immediacy of the internet.
But the models have changed in multiple directions, she argues, from the style of production and the format of delivery, to the introduction of the pause button, which “helped turn television from a flow into text, to be frozen and meditated upon.”
Now, Nussbaum writes, “time itself has been bent.”
At the beginning of 2013, Netflix released the entire season of House of Cards on one day, a choice received then as a novelty, meant to match the service’s reputation for users bingeing older shows. One night, at the end of that year, Beyoncé released a surprise album. By the mid-2010s, the convenience of paid streaming meant that you could pay Spotify or Apple $10 a month for, loosely, the entire history of recorded music. Hulu, HBO, Showtime, Amazon, Apple, and others have launched or relaunched streaming properties and brought online massive back catalogs of old shows. In September 2015, Apple relaunched its News app, and by early 2017, the service vastly expanded the number of people receiving news push alerts on their lock screens. News no longer arrives at any set time (in the morning, in the evening), or even on demand, but instead all the time, delivered by people and algorithms.
This kind of disruption happened often over the last century. In the 1930s, radio nationalized news, Westerns, and the Yankees, giving simultaneous access to FDR’s addresses and Edward R. Murrow’s reports from the Blitz. The rise of television killed the day game and the afternoon newspaper, and transformed entire industries and the presidency into staggering centers of power and wealth. “Television had changed the nature of the audience too,” David Halberstam writes of the 1970s NBA, “from a tiny handful of passionate fans who went to live games and paid real money, and insisted on real performances, to millions and millions of watchers, loosely connected to the game.”
But if you revisit the stories of 20th-century media and technology, they weigh toward centralization and consolidation — slotting the news, entertainment, and politics into the morning news, the late-night show, the weekly magazine on air or in print. As a result, when you pull numbers on the not-so-distant past, the commonplace becomes exotic: On May 16, 1996, 34.3 million people watched the season finale of ER — at the same time. To put that paradigm shift in context: For a brief period in 2017, the quiz game show HQ — a live trivia game with a real-life host on a phone app — became popular probably because it required users to tune in at the same set times, something now foreign. Now, the ER season finale in 1996 lives on the same plane as Lana Del Rey’s 2012 album and three different alerts of the same piece of impeachment news, a condition both freeing and overwhelming.
Joss Whedon, whose Buffy the Vampire Slayer played a major role in advancing TV beyond plot-of-the-week serialization in the late ’90s and into monthslong story arcs, has lamented the cultural shift away from weekly consumption and toward bingeing, saying in 2017 that without the time between, "We lose our understanding of narrative.”
He added, “I would want people to come back every week and have the experience of watching something at the same time.”
A couple weeks ago in New Mexico, a few thousand people in suburban Albuquerque were waiting for the president, the one show we’re always watching.
The time between when you enter a Trump rally and when he finally concludes can be long. You might come in from a bright desert evening, as the crowd did that night, and exit into a pitch-black thunderstorm. In between, you wait for Trump, indoors, without windows, listening to the same 20 songs selected by Trump, from Tina Turner to Andrew Lloyd Webber — that are, like anything else selected by Trump, booming into your brain.
Eventually, to kill time, people at the Santa Ana Star Center did the wave. Seven thousand people rose and fell in red hats and T-shirts — to Luciano Pavarotti’s performance of “Nessun dorma” from a Puccini opera. People raised “Latinos for Trump” signs. A group of teens let out long Woooooooos. Pavarotti wailed in Italian. The wave continued right into the playlist’s next track, “Hey Jude.”
“Is there any place more fun and exciting,” the president asked later that night, “than a Trump rally?”
Trump inspires weird scenes like this from the lovers and haters alike. Pull up YouTube now and you can watch him perform a poem in different cities and in different years, sometimes in reading glasses and sometimes without, sometimes dedicated with cruelty and spite to Syrian refugees and sometimes to the US–Mexico border. Despite the provenance of “The Snake” (an R&B song from 1968), the lyrics have that Classic Tragedy vibe that matches Trump’s acid edge id. “‘Oh, shut up, silly woman,’ said the reptile with a grin,” goes the poem. “You knew damn well I was a snake before you let me in.”
He’s the man for a moment of algorithmic timelines.
But the algorithm didn’t used to rule all. Most of the basic experiences on our phones didn’t even exist 10 years ago. In 2010, Instagram launched and the messaging app WhatsApp came to both Android and iOS; in 2011, Snapchat opened for business and Spotify came to the US; in 2013, the workplace chat system Slack launched. When Pew first began collecting data on the subject in 2011, 35% of US adults owned smartphones; in 2019, 81% do. Here at the decade’s end, there are 1 billion global Instagram users.
The early part of the decade was about building the systems. And though Twitter preceded this decade, the platform came to political and cultural prominence in the 2010s. Initially, information flowed in chronological order, unfiltered, strictly concise, and mostly from strangers, which distinguished the platform from the more insular and curated Facebook. During the 2012 election, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign formalized a kind of faux-intimate voice — personal messages, initialed by the candidate — that retained a corporate distance. But that kind of fakery couldn’t hold; as the decade progressed and platforms like Twitter shifted from novel experiences into assumed foundations for business, media, and culture, the nature of what we put into the platforms also changed.
This isn’t contained to Twitter: The internet has finally and firmly moved from being an obscure gathering for nerds to the foundation for most communication. Linguist Gretchen McCulloch traces that history in Because Internet, her recent book that is particularly interested in the different waves of users — people who started using email at work in the ’90s, for instance, or millennials who grew up chatting on instant messaging apps — and how those platforms or users have affected language. These generational differences can manifest in small but familiar ways; McCulloch explores why people who are long accustomed to chat and text use line breaks for timing and emphasis, and intuit information left unsaid in an ellipsis. (Hey are you around…) She contends that a younger generation of users over the last decade, who’ve never known an internet without Facebook or YouTube, have turned to a phone experience that emphasizes control over context: disappearing messages, live video, using second and third accounts for specialization and privacy.
As the 2010s went on, the platforms adopted the live and the disappearing and attempted to reach you with what you care about most — to make the experience less disorienting by focusing on what garners the most attention. During the 2016 election, Instagram added the ephemeral stories and shifted to an algorithmic timeline. “If your favorite musician shares a video from last night’s concert, it will be waiting for you when you wake up, no matter how many accounts you follow or what time zone you live in,” reads the corporate unveiling, a cheerful promise of permanent detachment from the clock in favor of what you (are thought to) care about.
Twitter had built its business on the ordered timeline, but it too introduced algorithmic weighting that same spring. “Someday soon, the tweets you see will be a little more interesting, and the tweets you miss won't be as important,” a former Twitter employee wrote at the time. “And guess what: You won't even notice. You won't! You think you will, but you won't.”
The new Twitter feed transformed how a user perceived something going viral; while a viral tweet used to get a few thousand retweets, it would now get tens of thousands — or even hundreds of thousands — of retweets. Powered by the new algorithmic weighting, the platform’s new quote-tweet function further turned Twitter into an ever-escalating, ever-nesting series of warring comments, dunks, and owns. Memes take hold, then disappear. One link of breaking news might hang suspended in your feed, hurtling through time like when astronauts do zero-gravity somersaults. You might see this as it happens — or 6, 9, 15, 22 hours later.
Trump’s racism, excess, nihilism, humor, and all the rest make him the ideal host for such a system — destroying forever that antiseptic corporate voice. But what Trump does best is reveal the nature of people and institutions. Even when Trump is gone, we’ll still have the algorithms; whether it’s that track from 2009 crossing from TikTok to Spotify, or a politician going live on Instagram, or whatever is happening on your phone right now — we’ve already adapted, and the next thing will be built on that shifting foundation.
Change like this can be overwhelming. The first run of Black Mirror, the dystopian British show that rose and fell inside Netflix, featured an episode about the relentless fragments that people now accumulate. Filmed in 2011, “The Entire History of You” takes an existing technology (the archival breadth of our phones), applies the logical conclusion (in the episode, people receive implants to track their every interaction for later playback), and sets both against a simple Greek tragedy–style story (a husband suspects his wife has betrayed him, and is driven mad by jealousy). The wife, hair over her eyes like a veil, reaches up to replay her memories for her husband.
Even in 2011, the episode presaged the now ever-present dialogue about cutting back, dropping out, and disconnecting: At a dinner, the table marvels at a woman who, without regret, has risked her memory and her eyesight to remove her implant.
The dynamic of overload and disorientation, and the final cathartic break from them, isn’t isolated to Black Mirror — it’s a dominant theme of the last five years of culture.
In real life, in the wake of the election, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Instagram have talked about screentime limits, mute functions, preventing harassment and abuse — clawing back control. How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell’s case for reasserting yourself in the tangible world, has become the centerpiece for essays and takes about cutting back and seeing, again, reality free from the algorithmic commodification of the personal. There are the essays about quitting Twitter, or the inherent avarice of Instagram, or reclaiming the life beyond the external presentation of self.
But people always seem to come back.
“This watch tells time,” begins a recent ad for the Apple Watch that then lists off all the other non-time-telling functions the item can do, from taking phone calls to playing music to performing an eletrocardiogram, before looping back around one last time at the end to say “This watch tells time.”
The introduction of this watch (that tells time) in 2015 deepened a kind of existential dilemma for the other kind of watches, which merely tell time. What purpose does a machine serve when the commodity that machine produced is all around us? “Why Men Are Wearing Watches That Don’t Tell Time,” read a Wall Street Journal headline a few years ago, like a riddle, above an old black-and-white photo of Andy Warhol wearing a Swatch.
Some men, the Journal reported, buy vintage mechanical watches but never get them serviced or repaired, or even wind them — they simply leave the watches dead. Stories like this can’t apply to that many people, but even if it’s just one man, somewhere right now, he walks this earth with a beautiful, broken watch.
Over the last decade, there have been little niche resurgences for items like this: record players, for instance, which promise tangible craftsmanship, and an audio experience that can’t be replicated in the digital. For $41.98, you can buy a lime green vinyl copy of Lana Del Rey’s new album and listen to her describe the end of the world and promise that she’s signing off before whispering at the very last moment “I hope the livestream’s almost on…” in perfect offline clarity. It’s hard to shake, however, the idea that these machines are simply counting off something that no longer needs counting, and trying to reassert the physicality of something no longer physical, detached and distinct from where all things meet.
We all know what’s changed — what’s really happened in the 2010s. It’s beneath that bridge in Brooklyn and it’s at the Trump rally in New Mexico, where exiting fans stopped to take selfies with the president speaking behind them in the distance. The man with the broken watch knows, the people who can’t quit know, and so does Lana Del Rey: The internet is no longer a place you go. Who we are on the phone and in the walking world have merged.
This is why algorithmic time is so disorienting and why it bends your mind. Everything good, bad, and complicated flows through our phones, and for those not living some hippie Walden trip, we operate inside a technological experience that moves forward and back, and pulls you with it. Using a phone is tied up with the relentless, perpendicular feeling of living through the Trump presidency: the algorithms that are never quite with you in the moment, the imperishable supply of new Instagram stories, the scrolling through what you said six hours ago, the four new texts, the absence of texts, that text from three days ago that has warmed up your entire life, the four versions of the same news alert. You can find yourself wondering why you’re seeing this now — or knowing too well why it is so. You can feel amazing and awful — exult in and be repelled by life — in the space of seconds. The thing you must say, the thing you’ve been waiting for — it’s always there, pulling you back under again and again and again. Who can remember anything anymore? ●