I was recently fed an article from a couple bragging about the thousands of dollars in extra cash they earn every month from side hustles. Money which would see them to early retirement in their thirties.
They’d created passive income streams guaranteed to help support their blissful future. They sold courses and books. Their most lucrative activity? Blogging. All of it related to the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) movement.
Yes, you too can retire early.
All you have to do is write about retiring early…
As the digital revolution hurtles further across an event horizon of absurdity, we’ve all fallen prey to the real hustle — that this magical, unbound realm can deliver infinite wealth and riches.
FOMO can be a powerful tool. Humans don’t want to be left behind. As solitary as we’ve made our sheltered, air-conditioned lives, we have a strong desire to take part in collective action. And when that collective action can be monetized? We’re suddenly stumbling over each other to get to the feeding trough.
We’ll gladly put aside our skepticism for a shot at greatness. Wealth. Celebrity. These are intoxicating tools. But a simple need to belong can also fuel more sinister drives. The kind that leads to pyramid schemes and cults and into the arms of charlatans and grifters.
That article I mentioned, I was fed. It appeared in a news feed. A carefully designed algorithmic regurgitation presumably attuned to my every desire. Since I sell books and write articles for a living, surely I’d want to know all about how to turn this “side hustle” into a cash cow. How to retire tomorrow.
Having literally published millions of words, both online and in “passive income streams”, I can tell you exactly how ludicrous this claim is.
What you write today will be irrelevant in short order. Buried under an avalanche of new content seconds after you hit publish. The treadmill of content creation you step onto, relentless. The books you write, a full-time job keeping them above the constant deluge of new releases.
When you do self publish your book, you’ll also quickly learn you’re not the free spirit you think you are.
Eighty percent of your sales will come through Amazon. They’ll pay royalties, taking their cut. Charge delivery fees. You’ll also learn how feeding your profits to their internal ad system is necessary to not be buried on their digital shelves.
Yet, daily, I see the same miracle claims of “passive income” and wealth repeated over and over. Why?
The incessant churn of internet content presents unreasonable demands of content creators. Nobody has use of thousands of new articles on blogging or side hustles or writing printed every second of every day. Magically though, they surface to the top. Everybody wants then to ride that wave.
Higher and high, the content falls apart. Echoes itself. Becomes vapid. Meaningless.
Yet, we all want to believe they’re true. Be inspired by their repetitive assurances. We keep demanding more.
At the heart of this problem lies desperation. Subconsciously, we know there’s something wrong with the whole system and we feel powerless. Out in the ether, mindless algorithms stealthily prey on this vulnerability. Serving us what we want to hear.
This isn’t entirely a sinister plot by search engines and social media. Nor is it a Skynet take over. The underlying cause is uncertainty and instability in our broader economic futures and dwindling individual power in a workforce increasingly under the control of a handful of megacorporations. Of a growing economic gulf between the haves and the have nots.
Our government largely stands aside, declaring companies “too big to fail.” They mire social progress in intractable debates while laws benefitting corporate largess sail through committees. They ignore the trampling of competition and the plight of workers caught in the gears of the profit-at-all-costs mechanisms.
As more people turn pleadingly to the internet for a magic bullet, the algorithms offered by the very corporations we seek our freedom from blindly oblige.
Increased searches for “side hustle”, “retire early”, or “remote work” from desperate citizens drive results to serve more of the same. Meanwhile, enterprising humans focused on mastering those algorithms use techniques like Search Engine Optimization to hold the top spots of those search pages.
Answer relevancy is reduced to strategically placed keywords. Effectiveness, truth, those never enter into the equation. You can serve up any product, no questions asked. Even a product that promises to cynically answer those queries by spitting back the same answer.
In fact, such behavior is encouraged.
In a binary world, a simple mention of the very thing being searched elevates the relevancy. If “retire early” then “retire early”. As long as the phrases match the desire, they’re deemed worthy.
That’s one inherent flaw in the technology. But humans tend to fall into their own recursive traps pretty easily too.
We’ve long understood the psychology. Confirmation bias isn’t a new term but has come to dominate this new age of personalized, on-demand media. Once we believe something, we search for confirmation of those beliefs. Less often do we question them.
The algorithms are more than happy to oblige this weakness. In fact, they actively steer us away from divergent views. This is where the sinister aspects of engineering come into play and not the potentially incidental flaws. The corporations have wrapped their ego stroking answers up in a Skinner box with a bow — the endless, ego-stroking feed — ensuring you can’t escape. Capturing attention. Personal data. Held for a consumer ransom.
We’ve all witnessed what happens when search algorithms and social media platforms weaponize this psychological vulnerability on a mass scale. Deeper polarization. Proliferation of hate groups. Propaganda and fake science peddled as truth.
But this goes much deeper than simple false promises to the end-user. The rot extends from the core of these megacorporations into our formerly free-market system.
The trouble with digital content has always been monetization. As networks strengthen and spread, as the cost of storage continues to plummet, data supply far outstrips demand. Without physical limitations, there is little control over the theoretical supply chain. Once digitized, a product seems eternal, available to any and every user.
Where scarcity and shelf life are irrelevant, there is little money to be made.
This conundrum has absolutely transformed the music industry. It has wreaked havoc on newspapers and magazines. Traditional book publishers have tried and failed, to prop up their paper-based distribution chains, forcing themselves into greater consolidation. The cable television industry has gone the way of the Walking Dead.
Streaming fees and subscription services appear to be the next logical step. But before this, several industry giants set their sights on advertising as the go-to monetization scheme. Billions upon billions of investment dollars are tied up in this strategy still. All of it in danger of evaporating.
Within the scheme, giants like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and even Amazon created their own recursive loop of false promises to advertisers. They obscure actual ad results by claiming proprietary information and inflated sales data. Because of this, the whole of the internet as we know it could be sitting on a financial bubble ready to burst.
Scientific studies meanwhile have begun to reveal the ineffectiveness of internet advertising. The piracy of private data fueling the craze, unwarranted. Fortunes will be lost on the back of a lie upon a lie. Entire economies may collapse. All thanks to the stagnant grip of a corporate plutocracy on what should be a public resource, the Internet.
Instead of a font of digital wisdom, we’ve created the perfect vehicle for fad diets, get rich quick schemes, miracle cures, and pseudoscience. We’ve sunk into political calamity on the back of conspiracy theories. Abandoned rational thought for mindless mob rule.
Yes, all of those flaws have been in our nature from the start, but the Internet has been morphed into a tool to amplify that instinctive chaos, not temper it.
What should be an indispensable tool uses us more than we use it. It doesn’t wait patiently in our pockets ready to assist us in our daily lives. It demands we pick it up. It spies on us, informs on us, monopolizes our attention, and directs our efforts to the bidding of those few behind the curtain where the real money is to be made.
When asked how we participate in this wealth, we’re granted inane answers. Gig. Hustle. Be a no benefits contributor to the world of work. An “independent contractor.” Or buy into your content, pseudo-celebrity lottery ticket and keep the system churning so others can reap the rewards.
Fifteen seconds of viral fame has become our aspiration. When we aren’t satisfied, we let the algorithms steer us to the incredibly few who have “made it” atop their “top ten” lists where actual wealth drops off on a steep curve. We believe, somehow, there’s room for us up there as well because that’s the lie we’re sold. If only we just use the platform more. Create more content…
For all its flaws, the internet isn’t evil. It can be a powerful tool for social change. One we need to control as a society, not cede to a privileged few.
Somewhere down the line, we agreed to let the technology use us, instead of the other way around. We became slaves to mindless algorithms intent on blind adherence to never-ending profitability.
It will take an act of collective will to step off this ride. A personal realization of the underlying absurdity of blogging about blogging and retiring off selling the idea of how to retire. A disavowal of the manipulative, circular forces currently paralyzing our society into inaction.
We must disempower the lifestyle vaporware and focus on the real world.
Reversing this trend won’t be easy. The first hurdle will be how to reach people and pull them to the surface. To convince people of the dangers requires somehow reaching them inside the alternate reality they’ve immersed themselves in.
A final, looping act of revenge.
Originally published at http://russlinton.com on December 12, 2020.