by Derek Neal
There are certain words that seem to take on a life of their own, words that spread imperceptibly, like a virus, replicating below the level of consciousness, latent in our environment and culture, until suddenly the word is everywhere, and we are afflicted with it. We may even use these words ourselves: we struggle to find the right phrase, the true word to capture our intention, and these words come to us unbidden, floating into our minds from somewhere out there, and we speak the word without understanding what we really mean, but we see understanding and acknowledgement in the face of our interlocutor, and we know we have hit upon the correct utterance that will mark us as one who belongs.
Here are some uses of the word “journey” that I’ve heard or read recently: faith journey, personal development journey, teeth journey, skincare journey, healing journey, leadership journey, finance journey, mental health journey, breast cancer journey, fertility journey, musical journey, immigration journey, medical journey, weight loss journey, pregnancy journey. The first thing we notice about these “journeys” is their combination with another word, increasingly a noun. It seems to me that the use of journey used to be exclusively about physical travel from one place to another (journey to the stars, journey to the center of the earth), or that an adjective would be used to describe a journey (harrowing journey, difficult journey), but now nouns are often used to describe a type of journey, which enables us to turn any sort of experience into a narrative story. Just now, when attempting to pay my credit card bill, I was told that my bank could help me on my “credit journey.” The word “journey” acts like a spell—once it is cast, it performs a sort of magic, turning something without order or structure into something that we can trust will turn out well, because it’s about the journey, not the destination.
This is another aspect of journey, that while it implies a destination and an end goal, it does not do so in a linear fashion in the way that “path” or “roadmap” might. In fact, on a journey we expect to “go off the beaten path” or “off road”; we expect to get stuck, or to have to double back. This lends journey a therapeutic, quasi spiritual air, as it allows people to make peace with not always progressing or advancing, while still believing that they will make it in the end. The end is often the beginning, as well. Journeys come “full circle” so that even if nothing changes with our material circumstances, we are able to “make peace” and have a “deeper understanding” in relation to ourselves and our place in the world.
It is, perhaps, the sign of a healthy, well-adjusted individual to be able to view various parts of their life as a journey, as opposed to seeing their life as a meaningless jumble of unconnected events. However, I would argue that the latter is closer to the truth. There is also an element of deception here, as to take reality and to impose order upon it by casting it as a journey is a sort of narrative fallacy.
The contemporary urge to view aspects of life as journeys likely owes a debt to Joseph Campbell and his idea of “The Hero’s Journey,” which analyzes religious and folkloric stories through this lens by showing how many of them follow a central character who must leave home, endure trials and tribulations in order to gain knowledge, and then return home a new person. There is certainly some validity to viewing stories and narratives in this way, but somewhere along the line this theory left literary analysis and entered the realm of self-help as people were encouraged to view their own lives as journeys with, of course, themselves as the hero at the center. The first time I encountered the hero’s journey wasn’t at university, where I studied Classics in my first semester, but in an English as a Second Language textbook, wherein a lesson revolved around teaching the students the concept of the hero’s journey before having them write and reflect on their own lives as a hero’s journey. Once something enters a foreign language textbook, you can be sure that it has thoroughly permeated the culture.
More recently, I was talking with a group of friends from that first semester Classics program; when one said that she wanted to write a novel, another mentioned that she should familiarize herself with Campbell’s work in order to follow his mythical plot ideas. Maybe, I thought, but only if you want to write something like Star Wars (George Lucas was influenced by Campbell) or a comic book movie; on the other hand, I prefer books like the kind a used bookseller in my town recently identified: “long plotless novels and short expansive poems.”
The trouble with journeys, then, is that they are lies, and they simplify and flatten reality. Star Wars, much like the media and political landscape (among other things), is a battle between good and evil, which is simply not how things are in the real world. Worse still, viewing things as journeys does not only give us an inaccurate picture of reality, it actively deceives us. When my bank refers to my “credit journey,” what they’re really referring to is my “debt journey,” and they’re trying to make me comfortable with the fact that they would like me to be in debt for my entire life, so that they can suck as much money out of me as possible. But hey, when I’m penniless and destitute I can remind myself: it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.
It pains me each time I hear someone use the word “content” to refer to what should be called art. A book is not content; a movie is not content; this essay is not content. Except that, actually, it is. Content is art that has subjugated its truth-seeking purpose to the goal of engagement, quantified in clicks, views, likes, and retweets, which in turn generate advertising revenue or cultural cache. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of content, in the way I’m referring to it here, is “the principal substance (such as written matter, illustrations, or music) offered by a website. The fact that the definition specifies that content is offered by a website is key to understanding the digital origins of content.
Magazines produce essays and articles, for example, but profit seeking websites produce content. Why is this? Because content is a means to an end, whereas an essay may be an end in itself. Once the internet became a space of advertising and revenue, beginning with Google and spreading to infect the entire online ecosystem, anything created on the internet could be seen as content if it fostered engagement in the way of views, clicks, likes, tweets, etc., which would then lead to advertising revenue, all while being free for the consumer. The symbiotic relationship between engagement and advertising revenue, or engagement and social capital in terms of followers, leads to anything creative, such as an essay, morphing into content so that it will be picked up by social media algorithms which favor extremely positive, negative, or controversial viewpoints over subtle and nuanced ones. The algorithm demands an offering, and so we tailor our creations into the content that we think will repay us with fame and fortune.
“Content” used to be specific, in that we would talk about the content of a film, or a book, or how one of these things might contain sexual or violent content. To describe content on its own, as if it existed outside of any context and needed no modifying adjectives, would have been nonsensical. But that is exactly what has happened. We now talk of content creators, content moderation, and content marketing. Content is the focus, not simply an aspect of some larger creative endeavor.
A key shift occurs when the logic of content creation is internalized so that it becomes the default and unconscious mode of any creative act. Thus, an article will be written not as an attempt to discover and explain something true about the time in which we live, as I am trying to do here, but as a means of inducing engagement via such tactics as bad faith argumentation, willful ignorance, or the exposition of one’s intimate, personal life. Content that is created in the social media landscape, and almost all of it is, exists in a feedback loop that reinforces the necessity of generating divisive or personal content; a piece of writing that is on an obscure subject, for example, may be ignored by the algorithms governing what we are exposed to, and the writer quickly learns that they must change tack if they want to be relevant. In this case, perhaps without even realizing it, the writer may begin to take radical, extreme positions as a means of gaining social capital, or they may put on display the intimate details of their personal life. There is no deception here. The writer is not espousing an idea they don’t believe in, they are simply saying what the medium demands, and they’ve taken a side because they’ve been trained that to refuse to do so is to be a non-entity in the zero-sum game of the internet. In other words, everything is a performance, and if you insist on some sort of distinction between seeming and being, or the private and the public, well, you’re not going to make it very far.
As with “journey,” “content” is a pale imitation of something much greater and more meaningful. Content is a form of what has come to be known as “data exhaust”: time spent on a page, clicks, likes, comments, and so on. A key characteristic of data exhaust is that all exhaust is good exhaust; there is no quality control as platforms that collect the data are indifferent to it; they only care about being able to package it and sell it to advertisers. When content is viewed as a piece of exhaust, another piece of waste churned out by the machinery of the internet, its function becomes much clearer: quantity takes precedence over quality, as does its ability to be related to other content in order to be recognizable to algorithms and packaged as part of a narrative. A steady stream of content that is easily quantifiable explains why certain shows, movies, or articles feel algorithmically generated; in a way, they are, even if they’ve been created by humans. It also explains why a few of my favorite writers, who a few years ago would hold forth on a variety of topics in various essays, now seem to have been nudged by the algorithm and the demands of content to focus on a single, narrow topic. I miss their idiosyncratic voices, characterized by a roving intellectual curiosity and an unfolding of their mind on the page.