October 8, 2022 Comments Off on Why we travel
Escape, novelty and its mirror image boredom, human restlessness, narcissism, social status, genetic curiosity, family, isolation, discovery, conquest, social media, insecurity, money, sex, material for your blog, to inspire and be inspired, fomo, yolo, adventure, duty, knowledge, and of course no reason at all.
I read an interesting critique of modern travel on Medium by (of course) a travel writer, Henry Wismayer, in which he identified the obvious fact that travel has rapidly distilled itself into posed images for social media, a vapid exercise within a vapid exercise that neither inspires, ennobles, elucidates nor enriches.
Wismayer exempts himself from the definition of tourist of course, having made a career of trying to write meaningfully about his own voyeurism and therefore seeking deeper meaning than the average schmo, educating us about the human condition while obliquely suggesting that we amateurs should stick to Disneyland, or better yet, to home. He has a good point, even though he thinks he’s exempt: Travel is dumb.
The idea that you should visit strangers in order to better experience life is dumb. The idea that you can better understand the human condition by going outside your own neighborhood is dumb. And the idea that you can mitigate the economic, environmental, cultural, and social harms of tourism by touring is really, really dumb.
In essence, travel writing sells to gloss over the harsh meaninglessness of travel and imbue it with qualities it no longer has. In chronological order, travel began as discovery, turned into conquest, degenerated into experiential enrichment, and died as a post-modern extension of our online existence, which for most of us is the only real existence we will ever have. Your journey is what fits online for others to read about and see, nothing more and nothing less.
Originally people moved from place to place seeking food. By the end of the last Ice Age the world had been fully explored and populated. There were no wildernesses in fact, only in perspective. When Europeans reached the great uninhabited forests of North America filled with people, they immediately began pushing the local inhabitants out of this uninhabited region. Uninhabited by Europeans, that is. The 30-100 million Amerindians who lived in the Americas had fully discovered and inhabited it. As with the rest of the world, however unknown it was to the white men who “discovered” it, every inch of these new continents was without exception someone else’s backyard.
The Age of Discovery concluded in prehistory and gave rise to the Age of Conquest. Once people had expanded to fill their environment they began fighting over it. Whether Mayans driving out smaller tribes, Aztecs driving out Toltecs, Spaniards driving out Aztecs, or Russians trying to drive out Ukrainians, conquest was for millennia the dominant purpose of travel. Rape, murder, booty, and land were all the incentive that tribes, races, and nations needed to engage in tourism.
With the relative peace created by the relative stability of borders, early Christianity led the transformation of conquest travel into a new form of travel, the personal experience. Chaucer’s pilgrims exemplify this form of tourism, where well-to-do, rather bored people take a trip in order to eat, drink, fuck, tell stories, and escape the monotony of material well-being by going to visit someone’s backyard and bring home a souvenir of the trip.
For centuries the personal experience and the travel trinket expanded until it encompassed virtually everyone who had access to a donkey, bicycle, car, bus, train, or plane. Freud’s upper-class, intellectual excursions to Italy, memorialized by souvenir Etruscan vases, eventually trickled down to Moron Joe’s family bedecked with mouse ears and each member carrying a stuffed rat made in China and sold for $50 at a glorified parking lot that costs $235 simply to enter. Carcinogens and junk food are extra. Way extra.
In between Disneyland and guided hikes to the top of Everest there are as many variations of travel as there are people because this form of travel is tailored to you. Bike across the Gobi? Rape children in Thailand? Watch the Stones in Amsterdam? See the ruins of Chernobyl? Learn Malay on Kalimantan? Whatever your hobby there is a trip for it. You can’t discover anything because it’s already been discovered. You can’t conquer anything because you’ll be thrown into prison. All you can do is experience something and hope that the something turns out to be something. That’s the essence of experiential travel. Go, see, do, hope, talk about, repeat.
About the time that experiential travel lost fashion favor, which was around the time that “The Ugly American” was published in 1958 as a literary footnote to failed US diplomatic policies in Latin America and Southeast Asia and became synonymous with American, then Japanese, then Chinese tourists. “A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They are loud and ostentatious.”
In sum, it was no longer cool to be an experiential traveler, and it became necessary to convince people like Henry Wismayer that he could still travel without being a tourist. The trajectory of travel continually refined itself so that other people were tourists. You, however, were a traveler.
Around the time that “The Ugly American” was finding its way into travel mirrors across the USA, computer scientists began thinking about, then working on, the idea of transmitting information in packets that could be read by other computers. One revolution led to another and by 1989 the World Wide Web had debuted, beginning the nearly completed process of trapping everyone in its sticky strands.
Like the invention of the CD, the highest and best use of the Internet was to watch other people engaging in sex, but ancillary uses soon developed. Not as enjoyable as viewing sex but infinitely more graphic was the invention of the phonecamera tracking device, which brought tourism into the post-modern age of travel, also known as the Selfiecene, an epoch partially concurrent with the Anthropocene. The Selfiecene began as a way to ostensibly share, but in fact to impose, one’s own ugly image on the eyes of others through social media.
Initially the selfie was an extrapolation of the travel snapshot, and after it became its own art form the selfie turned outwards and inwards simultaneously, capturing one’s own inner beauty and capturing the external beauty of the place being visited. This duality, enhanced and made ubiquitous through hashtags, turned the act of moving from place to place into an experience for other people to view and ponder and compare, by the millions, simultaneously. Think you took a great shot of the sunset? Check #sunset on Instagram and get back with me.
Discovery, conquest, and experience have now been compressed into an electronic exchange of information packets that wholly obviate the need for any movement at all. As Wismayer threatens in his critique, are you really going to take a new photo of Stonehenge or the Taj Mahal? And by extension, is your own image next to such an icon anything less than a grotesque profanity?
The answer of course is no and no. Travel and tourism have merged into the shared consciousness that early researchers posited would occur as the Internet became a functioning world brain, the repository of all that is known, opined, believed, and experienced. What this means is that the awe and wonder of travel are as mundane as the awe people once felt at seeing a written word and hearing it read aloud, so that after a few centuries reading and writing aren’t the sign of god’s messengers on Earth but required subjects for small children. It’s not simply that there is nothing new under the sun, it’s that the sun no longer shines on anything. All objects and experiences exist in a microprocessor. No sunshine need apply.
Does this mean that travel and its cachet, along with sunscreen and diarrhea, are obsolete? Yes, emphatically. The problem is that although moving through time and space to stimulate our senses and sort through danger, security, food, shelter, clothing, and companionship is an anachronism, our brains and bodies are stuck in drive, and it’s a manual transmission that no one knows how to operate, much less repair.
Walkabout resides at the genetic level and at the level of a stroll in the park or down the Champs Elysees, but it no longer connects to our minds, which are ever turned towards a tighter integration with the Internet.
Iridium service makes it possible to call from the South Pole, or the North. And why wouldn’t you? Your smiling face at the ends of the earth … it may not be novel, it may not even be travel, and it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it can’t be. It’s just you somewhere else stuffed into a phone for everyone else to see.
September 29, 2022 Comments Off on Turn left for Antarctica
The other day I was wondering if there were any convenience stores in Antarctica. Because if there are, it would sure make a bike ride to the South Pole easier. I also wondered if maybe they had built a bridge from Argentina or New Zealand, which would also greatly increase accessibility.
Turns out there is neither, which put a temporary damper on my plans.
And there are lots more hurdles to overcome, such as -136 degree weather, and of course the $80,000 price tag of getting squired all the way to the South Pole on skis while pulling a 160-lb. sled. Even a simple cruise for a few days to set foot on the ice continent will set you back $10k or more.
As tough as all that sounds, there’s an even bigger obstacle, which is getting to Bakersfield.
Bakersfield is the first place I’ll have to stop on my trip out of Kern County. I’ve tried all the different ways to the coast and there are no easy ones from here. They say the hardest step on any trip is the first one, and it’s true. To get to Bakersfield I have to take a winding canyon road that follows the Kern River, then take the main canyon road a final thirteen miles, two narrow lanes that absolutely do not have room for a bicycle.
So you have to pull onto the tiny 1-foot strip to the right of the fog line to let trucks and cars pass, then hop back into the lane before crashing, while making sure that you’re not also hopping in front of a car that’s barreling down behind you. If only there was an invention that could be attached to a helmet or handlebar that would let you see what’s happening behind you.
And before even getting to Bakersfield you have to consider the Bad Idea Fairy Theorem, i.e., is this simply another mad idea that struck me late at night, a manifestation of crazy that under the bright light of midday will be revealed as a super terrible idea that should be disposed of immediately? Seems so, but it’s pretty bright outside and the idea hasn’t dissipated. I mean, lots of people have been to Antarctica before. It’s actually a trendy destination. So what if I get most of the way there on a bike instead of on a plane?
I know, I know. Bakersfield.
September 9, 2022 Comments Off on Redneck ‘Rithmetic
Some things, make that most things, you only get to see if you leave the couch, walk out the door, and amble down the road.
I was never good at math, but this bit of addition was pretty far out there, even for me. And it got me to thinking that really the best thing you can do with numbers is just add ’em up. They’re abstractions anyway.
I was told you can’t add apples and oranges, but of course you can. Haven’t you ever seen a blender?
April 12, 2022 Comments Off on Built for the couch
This past January I was walking down a trail and crossed a makeshift shooting range that the local idiots have long used on BLM land. It’s filthy, littered with Second Amendment garbage of every sort, and as I crossed, a man in his mid-60’s, obese and hobbling, turned in surprise.
“What the hell you doing walking around here barefoot?” he asked. It was in the low 50’s and hardly cold.
“What the hell you doing walking around here in shoes?” I retorted.
He laughed. “Aw, my feet are all shot to shit. I had so many operations on ’em I can barely walk nowadays. But it’s too cold for you to be out here barefoot.”
“No, it’s not.”
“How come you’re walking that way?”
“It’s good for my health and it feels good. It’s natural.”
“So’s being naked. Why don’t you walk around without any clothes, then?”
“I think there’s a law against that.”
“Nobody gonna see you out here.”
I shrugged and continued on, leaving the sad fellow to his task of picking up spent shells, but the man’s reaction bothered me. He took it as a personal affront that I was barefoot. Why? Well, most obviously because I was doing something simple and ordinary that he couldn’t do. It was like he had turned my own innocuous behavior back onto me, as if I’d said to someone whose teeth were all rotting out that I’d decided to start flossing after dinner and they responded, “Well, why don’t you floss five times a day, then?”
There was no recognition that his own immobility, swollen ankles, and essentially unusable feet might be a function of his behavior or lifestyle, no, they were the result of “operations,” and anyone out enjoying one’s feet was only a step removed from people walking around outdoors naked. This is how completely capitalism and its attack on the outdoors has removed people from the outdoors, even when they are at least, in theory, not inside.
The things we need in order to thrive outdoors we were mostly born with. What civilization seeks to do is minimize those things through nonuse to the point of dysfunctionality, then destroy those natural affects. This is why people for the most part cannot walk barefoot unless it’s for short distances on the beach, it’s why they have great difficulty thermoregulating in response to heat and cold, it’s why they can’t find their way around or remember routes, and it’s why so many fundamental bodily systems function so poorly, from the endocrine interplay between bones and muscle, to the creation and resorption of bone, to the tactile functioning of skin, to squatting flat-footed and taking a dump.
None of this has happened by accident or by random concatenation of independent events. All of it is a result of economic and political control systems that, through coercion and culture, require us to discard what we are born with and what works in exchange for artificial junk that we don’t use, don’t need, and that fails to deliver the substitute functionality promised in the marketing campaign.
Silly stuff for silly people
I’ve explained how the recreational vehicle is one small part of an ethos that creates a product which delivers obesity, immobility, cost, and control and falsely associates it with outdoors memes of mobility, freedom, and adventure. But the recreational vehicle primarily focuses on the retiree or the soon-to-be-retired. It is one of endless products that has marginal outdoors utility at best, yet that markets itself as a merit badge of the rugged, outdoorsy individualist. Such products can only succeed when there are subjects who perceive themselves as that kind of person, a Boy Scout unchained. When such products spill over into the mainstream, which by definition is comprised of flabby, indoorsy herd-followers, it provides a perfect lesson for the way in which the outdoors is turned in upon itself to become a marker, an imaginary destination, a symbol of what humans used to be and therefore a promise of the eventual emergence of the “wild inner me” just bustin’ to get out and stir shit up. Beneath this broken-down, medicated surface lies a Paleo Man, so the fantasy goes, ready to do battle with saber-toothed tigers. The indoorsy herd-follower adopts the outdoorsy merit badge dangled by the marketer, and with it the self-perception that they somehow embody the qualities promised by the product and therefore have no need of employing or developing the actual qualities inherent in being human to go out and be “outdoorsy.” The outdoors can be experienced indoors through marketing, where it is subject to the algorithm’s permanent controls of surveil, discipline, and punish.
One of the best examples of this type of product, an indoors item sold on the backbone of its outdoors marketing campaign, is Yeti. What began as a fisherman’s search for a better way to keep his beer cold, itself a thing antithetical to experiencing the outdoors, has become a trademark consumer product for lazy indoors people with jowls. Keep in mind that the better the marketing the more total the lie, and Yeti achieves this by adopting the name of a mythical Himalayan ape-like creature, “Yeti,” and tying its brand to an extreme outdoor environment synonymous with danger, legend, and the highest mountain peaks in the world. Yeti’s tag line, “Built for the Wild” is of course absurd. Its products are built for the sofa, for the car en route to work, for the office or the golf course, and for weekend excursions to the tamest of destinations, that is kiddie soccer games or perhaps a canned “hunt” where tame animals behind high fences are led between the sights of drunken urbanites with rapid-fire weapons.
I like Yeti because it exemplifies an entire genre of things, wholly unnecessary and virtually all superfluous or useless as a thing that will increase your time spent outside, the possession of which brands the subject as one who does in fact spend a lot of time outdoors and more importantly who experiences the outdoors with premium, expensive products and general badassery. This in turn enhances the subject’s appearance to others and on social media and ultimately to oneself. Yeti benefits from this fake appearance loop by enticing subjects to make further unnecessary purchases, by describing them as members of “Yeti Nation” and by ginning out sippy cups, for example, in ever-changing color arrays that stimulate even more brand loyalty and something so bizarre that it’s hard to grasp, that is, the collecting of mass-manufactured ice coolers and wine tumblers.
Yeti is pedestrian in its offerings and copycat in its marketing, taking paths already clearcut by L.L. Bean, Land’s End, Jeep, Filson, and countless other products and services that use the outdoors as purchase bait. But unlike makers of pants and shoes, arguably necessary items outdoors if only to avoid jail time, Yeti’s entire existence is built on a concept that completely negates the outdoor adventurism it projects. In other words, perfect marketing is a perfect lie.
This especial lie is the lie that experiencing the outdoors requires thermoregulation of food, drinks, and especially booze. Yeti originally belonged to the category of crap called a “cooler,” whose purpose was almost exclusively to chill your beer while sitting in the backyard. Because someone found utility in coolers for other things, rarely for example, fish caught in a river or stream, and much more often meat caught in a supermarket waiting for its glory moment on the grill, subjects eventually accepted as a matter of course that keeping cold things cold and hot things hot was a must for the outdoors.
That outdoors consisted of backyard picnics, boats, campgrounds, and any other place where you could drive a car. Why a car? Because a medium sized, 30-qt. cooler filled with ice and beer weighs at least 50 lbs. No, you’re not hiking that up a steep trail on a multi-day backpacking excursion, wheels or not. But before we leap off the deep end of whether or not coolers have utility, let’s return to my main argument, which is this: in order to experience the outdoors you need less, not more. This means that crucial activities like eating and drinking need thermoregulation no longer than it takes to prepare the item, and the thermoregulation is almost invariably heating. After that, hot things get cool and cold things get warm.
For all of human existence no one seemed to mind. People traveled outdoors, worked outdoors, lived outdoors, never thinking that the momentary pleasure of a hot coffee was something that needed to be extended for six hours. No one ever considered that beer or whiskey, historically consumed warm, had to be cooled–and kept that way–in order to drink them outdoors. To bring the whole thing up to 2022, no one through-hiking the PCT expects ice cubes in their cup. People who have to hike, bike, or walk long distances find incredible satisfaction being outside without the guarantee that everything will be refrigerated until the moment of preparation or consumption.
To the contrary. The more time that people spend outdoors in virtually any context, the more they dispense with these superfluities. Fighting ambient air temperature is a pain in the ass, and the longer you’re outside, guess what? Your body becomes amazingly skilled at staying warm when it’s cold, and cool when it’s hot. All it takes is time. People who spend lots of time outdoors tend to eschew all the little comforts because they are more trouble than they’re worth, but, and this is the death-knell for capitalism, they also start to take pride in NOT needing things. In order to frame it as a kind of wackiness, capitalism calls it minimalism, but in fact neither our minds nor out bodies do well with a surfeit of things. We evolved to adapt to famine but not to obesity. Minimalism isn’t a fringe approach to organizing your mini-storage or your closets. Having fewer things is a requirement for experiencing life in general and the outdoors in particular. Being outdoors accustoms you to dispense with things you don’t need, and worse for capitalism, to think critically about the things you acquire, especially when you’re the one who has to lug it up a trail, pack it on your bicycle, stow it in your canoe. Beginning bikepackers are easily spotted by how much stuff they have. Hikers carry less with experience, never more.
The point here is that coolers may be cool, and they may keep your beer cold, but they have never been part of the outdoors landscape. They were made essential by people selling you beer and the idea that you can only drink it cold. The product category of cooler, which is as fiercely competitive as it is ridiculous, insists that without some means of protecting your precious “fluids” from getting lukewarm, your adventure will fail.
Coolers are also the enemy of the outdoors portrayed by Yeti because of the inordinate carbon footprint of making ice. Any company that claims to be environmentally friendly–and Yeti endorses/partners with a whole host of conservation nonprofits–while simultaneously building its business on something as damaging and frivolous as icing down beer, is going to be very predictable in its other marketing distortions.
This is why Yeti is such a great example of how the disingenuous marketing of junk is swallowed whole by gullible people who can’t imagine going outside and having to drink warm beer. Suggest that it’s better to drink the beer warm or dispense with it entirely until you can get somewhere that serves it cold (Home? Bar?), or that coffee can be drunk lukewarm, and people will look at you like you’re crazy. “Why would I do that?”
Short answer: you wouldn’t.
If they market it right, they will come
Here is Yeti’s ideology as explained by Yeti:
Of course this mission statement is chock-full of silliness and non-sequiturs. A hard cooler you’d use every day? Even in the office? The hospital? Church? Yoga class? Bikepacking? At a funeral? Their mission is to improve your time in the wild because simply being in the wild isn’t enough. It must be improved with new categories of outdoor things, such as the Yeti wall-mounted beer opener. What, nail it to a tree?
This Declaration of The Wild continues with yet(i) more dishonesty.
Note the reasons to sign up–of the four given, three have zero to do with anything outdoors at all, and that’s because Yeti knows that “colors” are what drive many in the “Yeti Nation” to additional needless purchases. Subjects actually collect this crap the same way they collected Cabbage Patch dolls and Beanie Babies. “Let’s see, which of my fifteen beer coolers should I take to Antarctica? I kind of like the Bimini Pink.”
The idea is that in order to be outdoors, or in the wild, you need amazingly rugged and, by extension, expensive gear. Yeti insinuates that if you buy anything less than the toughest and most rugged, you’ll have to “cut your adventure short.” One immediately thinks of carabiners that fail, plunging you to your death, of kayak oars that shatter and drown you in the boiling rapids, of clothing and shelter failures that freeze you to death, and of catastrophic equipment failures that leave you stranded, lost, hungry, thirsty, unable to continue.
What then is this rugged, indestructible, indispensable and expensive gear that Yeti outfits you with? Beer coolers. Wine tumblers. Duffels, totes, gimme caps and T-shirts. And my favorite, the rugged, badassy, backcountry sippy cup lid for your wine tumbler. I’m not joking, and at $10/each, neither is Yeti.
This notion of durability and its juxtaposition with the outdoors lies at the heart of Yeti’s marketing, but the problem is that they aren’t selling carabiners, rope, ice axes, down sleeping bags, or propane stoves. They’re selling beer insulators, whiskey cups, wine tumblers, wall-mounted beer openers and wheeled beer coolers, along with totes & tees, dog blankets and dog bowls. How to square the circle? With carefully vague imagery that opaquely suggests the wild in tag line, as in this photo, without ever explicitly saying what “wild” is. Could be the Eiger, could be Costco.
Here we have a fellow in a life vest, sitting in some kind of boat on some kind of body of water or likelier, tied to the dock, eyes intently fixed on the deadly adventure in front as he confidently thips from his thippy cup. Where is he going? What activity is he engaging in that requires use of neither hand? Why does it necessitate so much coffee or whiskey? We don’t know, but we know that the cup is built to last, unlike all those cheap cups that fail and cause you to cut your adventure short, and we also know that this cup-I-mean-drinking-vessel is “still performing.” Ah! A performance cup! Is that like a jockstrap? Most critically for all you collectors and rugged adventurers out there, the ad insists you, “Pick a Color” because subjects never know when a mismatched drinking vessel-and-clothing-ensemble will force them to cut short yet ANOTHER adventure down to the liquor store.
There is no end in sight to the open, unabashed absurdity of Yeti’s gear that is built for the wild. And since no one will really grasp your wildness, parked as you are in the long Starbucks drive-thru line because you are too darned wild to waddle into the shop and get your 750-kcal drinksnack, Yeti has an amazing decal for your wildmobile to let folks know that any second now you are gonna go climb Annapurna without oxygen or shoes. But should you go with the pink sticker or the taupe one?
Once you have swallowed this nonsense, Yeti can say whatever they want, and they do. Somehow we started off talking about rugged and durable stuff for the wild, and now, all of a sudden, we’re talking about folding chairs. Why? Because no matter what your adventure, it ends sitting. Most probably, that’s how it begins, too.
Someone lost a lot of hair or gained a giant ulcer when the boss walked in and said, “Freddie, write me some copy for an adventure chair.”
Why? Because the idea is so dumb it beggars belief. Let’s start with the name, the “Trailhead Camp Chair.” Does no one at Yeti know that a trailhead is where the trail begins? Unpack the car, put on the boots, shoulder the pack, stride up to the trailhead and … unfold your chair to rest your ass? Even accomplishing that bit of adventure is harder than it seems because this particular folding chair has instructions for “How to fold and unfold your Trailhead Camp Chair.” Let me guess! Do you … unfold it? And then when you’re done … fold it?
The ad copy is gibberish. Conquer a killer trail and then sit in a folding chair? Folks, no one carries a folding chair up a killer trail, and Yeti knows it. The folding chair demographic is the RV demographic, the soccer parents demographic, the ever-widening-ass demographic, but not the killer trail conqueror demographic. How can you tell? Because the photos to go with the chair show exactly what’s up: people meandering down a flat path, a chubby fellow on the beach, and two lumbersexuals in a classic car who have driven not hiked to convenient parking just off the road.
Adding to the silliness, the chair’s stuff bag looks like it’s filled with the family ski collection. Groaning in at 13.3 pounds, it weighs almost as much as the entire recommended daypack weight (15 lbs.) for a 150 lb. hiker, and more than a third of the total weight for that same hiker on a multiday excursion. No wonder this chair never makes it past the trailhead. If it did, the average Yeti user’s next photo wouldn’t be atop a scenic bluff, it would be atop an operating table with the back surgeon.
Yet even the trailhead will never be attained by the average Yeti subject, and the ad copy lets you know that although the brand is all about badassery, the product is all about bigassery. It provides something called “hardcore comfort,” which, unless it’s an excerpt from a genre of home video, I have no idea what it means. And of course “best in class for legendary durability” is code for “even your butt won’t crater this unwieldy ass-sack.” Totally flummoxed by their own jibber-jabber, the copywriting team concludes that “you and your chair are going places.” And there you have it: adventure and hardcore ruggedness distilled into sitting on your ass.
What more is there to say about Yeti and its utterly contrived outdoors imagery? Well, there’s this:
Outdoor adventure in the form of dog bowls and dog beds, totes & bags, and of course what Paul Bunyan, Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett lived for: accessories. The last sentence says it all, though. “We know you’ll never camp in Alaska, and we know you couldn’t tell a tarpon from a tampon, but we will keep your beer, wine, and whiskey cold while sitting in the backyard with friends, I mean getting drunk watching TV.”
Slave labor for Yeti
While Yeti manufactures its superfluous junk in China, a country that has politically enslaved the people of Tibet and that has turned most of the populated province of Xinjiang into a re-education gulag for ethnic Uighurs, it doesn’t stop there. In fact, it’s safe to say that Yeti’s success in the ruthlessly competitive outdoor crap market is largely due to its sophisticated and unmatched “brand loyalty” program, a/k/a Yeti Nation, a/k/a subjects working for the Yeti algorithm for free.
One of the first things you notice on Yeti’s web site is the astounding number of people who have reviewed their products. I’d never seen anything like it, and chalked it up to my general ignorance. Then I decided to do a comparison, and indeed, Yeti’s online reviews are nothing short of mind-blowing. For a standard 20 to 30-quart cooler, here is how Yeti stacks up in terms of product reviews.
- Yeti 24-qt: About 3,300 reviews and counting
- Rtic 20-qt: 428 reviews
- Coleman 28-qt: 28 reviews
- Titan 20-qt: 35 reviews
- Igloo 25-qt: 294 reviews
- Tourit 30-qt: 11 reviews
- Magellan 20-qt: 66 reviews
- Xspec 60-qt: 0 reviews
Yeti is more than a category crusher in terms of subject engagement. No competitor is even close. Yeti’s 14-oz mug has over 6,000 reviews, its beer coozy has over 2,000, and even its dog bowl has over 700 reviews. Who knew dogs were so picky about their outdoor adventure eating vessels?
You might wonder what on earth drives a subject to give their opinion about a cooler? Well, there’s a very good answer for that, and it is of course the algorithm. But first, take a quick look at this random sample of comments subjects made about their lunch bag cooler. Keep in mind that they felt so strongly about a little plastic folding bag that they went online, logged in, and shared their thoughts with the world. I say that not to denigrate the comments, whose vapidness and pride at owning a status symbol speak for itself, but to indicate how engaged these subjects are with the algorithm. They have a choice about which site to waste their time on, and it’s the Yeti algorithm that, for a few seconds or minutes, wins out.
Co-opting outside for beer and profit
The cascade of subjects who fervently opine on all things Yeti doesn’t happen by accident, it happens by savvy marketing that is several steps ahead of old-school cooler companies like Igloo and Coleman. Yeti has deliberately followed the Apple model. Create a “premium” product through branding and never, ever, ever sell it at a discount. Better to thrive at the top of the market with giant margins than fight to the death over almost invisible ones.
That premium product, which itself is silly because cold beer is still cold beer, is created by an interplay between two algorithms that feed on each other, and ultimately on you. The first algorithm is called “Yeti Nation Insider,” where subjects get “insider access and perks when you join our faction of Yeti diehards.” Back in the day, we called that a “discount.”
But this algorithm is so much more because it functions to transform the mundane act of buying a cup into a tribal community working together to accomplish a mission. What mission? The mission of acquiring more things and the mission of telling the world that they are members of an exclusive club. Nothing is more powerful, and insider clubs have been around for ages because of that. Yeti’s algorithm goes a step further, though. In the old days, when you joined the Eagles Official Fan Club, you got “inside” info about the band and the option to buy their stuff first in line. The thing offered was the thing you bought.
But with Yeti Nation, whether a registered insider or simply a subject who identifies with the awesomeness of the company and its gear, the thing offered–an outdoors experience–is absolutely never the thing bought. Yeti doesn’t sell the outdoors, it sells giant, unwieldy plastic things that make it harder to get outdoors. And in order to pull off this sleight-of-algorithm, Yeti has a sophisticated set of offerings that keep the “insider” coming back for more. More what? More imagery and puff about the wild times they’re going to have, drunk, sitting atop a beer cooler.
Those offerings, which include professional endorsements, film, prose, photography, and events are expensive to make and account for a healthy part of Yeti’s marketing budget. It’s hard to say what’s foremost, but the list of paid and unpaid hacks is long, white, and male. These endorsers, whether they are bozos like Steve Rinella (“I’m an environmentalist with a gun”), or Austin hometown guitar heroes like “Little” Charley Sexton, reinforce the Yeti drumbeat that is primitive, meaty, red-blooded, and redolent of sweaty men grunting behind taut deep sea fishing rods. These endorsements are the part of the algorithm that makes subjects want to be part of the Yeti mystique and brings them into the second algorithm, which is Yeti owners’ product reviews and Yeti’s presence on social media platforms.
It’s easy to understand why Yeti is fixated with cowboys, bull riders, hunters, and fishermen, just as it’s easy to understand why Yeti doesn’t (yet) give one twisted fuck about gravel cycling, mountaineering, or the Barklee Marathons. Raised in the ultra-white, ultra-right wing, ultra-racist enclave of Dripping Springs outside Austin, Yeti’s founders quite naturally took the ideologies they grew up with and exported them to their nascent cooler-drinkware empire as they cast about for the right outdoors marketing message. In other words, huntin’ and fishin’ and rodeo. Broader demographics and political correctness have diversified their endorsers somewhat because Yeti has become a generalized status symbol and fashion statement. The hypocrisy was gamely copped to by CEO Matt Reintjes when he said, “We talk about being ‘built for the wild’ but we don’t want to define what that means.”
They don’t have to. It’s white, it’s male, and it’s true to the core guy experience of getting drunk in a boat or a blind while pretending that he’s stalking deadly prey.
The ambassador algorithm initially created product chatter among the hunter-fisher demographic, i.e. core credibility among the most credible, but it wasn’t until 2014 that Yeti, on the basis of a tracking survey done the year before, began to methodically branch out from the core outdoorsman-who-couldn’t-be-outdoors-without-cold-beer to the wannabe outdoorsman, in this case the rural denizen who hunted and fished but who spent most of their time working. This strategy proved so successful that it allowed Yeti, always pushing the social media chatter between casual and dedicated enthusiasts, to connect with the mother lode: the true urban wannabes who will never get closer to a gator than the orange or purple one in a plastic bottle.
In a way, the wannabe in Poughkeepsie is directly in line with Yeti’s founders, the Seiders brothers, people who trumpet an outdoors that in Texas does not exist. No state has fewer public lands as a percentage of total acreage. No state has such a paltry offering of national parks (two if you don’t count the historical national parks). California has nine. Texas, more than twice the size of California, has a measly 76 state parks whereas California has 278. Texas has virtually no open public lands for hunting as compared with states in the west, all of whom, save Alaska, are far smaller than Texas.
The outdoors for Texas hunters and fishers is private and it’s expensive and it’s white. So it makes perfect marketing sense that the Seiders brothers would pimp the image of the great American outdoors outside their home state, where the public has zero access to the very places that Texas privatized long, long ago. This mean-spirited hypocrisy defines Yeti, a good ol’ boy company with a good ol’ boy network built on the privatization of the outdoors and magically repackaged as the free, wild, unbounded West. West of Texas, that is.
At the same time, Yeti has stayed ramrod true to its white guy beer chugging roots. The endorsers, even in 2022, are still in the main white guys throwing ropes at barnyard cows, shooting arrows and bullets at tame park animals, and catching fish raised in a nursery for the thrill of letting them go again. And people who get queasy at the thought of beheading a trout get to be part of the tribe by purchasing a cup, joining a spam list, and writing a dumb review, no blood ‘n guts required.
This second algorithm of real product reviews (?) and social media participation has catapulted Yeti so far ahead of the competition that they’ve now become a cultural icon, a symbol not simply of badassery, but of that pinnacle known as potential badassery. If they ever figure out that this formula works just as well with all of the other outdoor activities that Americans don’t do but wish they did, they are truly going to make it big. In the meantime, the social media/product review algorithm reinforces the Yeti sales platform with more unpaid labor, and this page, torn right out of the Face book, shows no sign of abating because subjects now vie on platforms like Instagram for Yeti’s acknowledgement of their #yeti hashtags. It’s not enough to work for free and buy overpriced superfluous landfill. Now subjects have to go on the dopamine hunt by soliciting Yeti’s approval and recognition in the form of a re-post/re-tweet.
“We just got re-posted by Yeti, honey! WE’VE MADE IT.” #vanlife
“Great. Does that mean we have money for milk this week?”
How “outdoor gear” ruins your outdoor experience
Yeti’s cash cow is its line of hard coolers. Its cheapest one costs $250 and will hold a few cans of beer and some ice. Virtually identical products, sourced in the same place Yeti coolers are made, China, cost about $50 purchased wholesale. Since Yeti manufactures its coolers, the actual cost is much lower, likely as little as $20 for a cooler they sell for $250. Even with another $50 per cooler for marketing and distribution, the smallest cooler in Yeti’s lineup is extraordinarily profitable, which profitability goes through the roof as the sizes, and therefore prices, balloon. Their 330-qt. monster retails for $1,500 and likely costs less than $200 to make and bring to market.
Make no mistake about it. With roughly a dozen different models of hard cooler, this category is by far the most significant. Even though Yeti’s drinkware has about 20 different products, and even though the profit margins are even more extreme (likely less than $3 to make, market, and sell a $30 cup), it’s the hard cooler category that rakes in the revenue, and it’s their original product that Yeti pushes hardest. A Texas company, they follow the cowboy maxim, “Dance with what brung ya.”
But this is not an economic analysis of Yeti’s profitability. If you are silly enough to spend hundreds for something you can buy equally as good for tens, good on Yeti, bad on you. The point is that the cooler, Yeti’s flagship product, is by definition designed to keep you tethered as close to the indoors as possible. Think about it. Once you’ve spent $500 on a cooler that weighs well over 100 pounds when filled with 82 lbs. of ice or 67 cans of beer (Yeti’s helpful yardstick), where in the world are you possibly going to take it? And how?
The answers are a) nowhere wild, rugged, or remote and b) with a car or a boat. Despite the absurd image of some crusty mountain man hauling 150 pounds of beer up a craggy trail, despite the fact that these things are made to tether you homeside, carside, poolside, or bleacherside, Yeti develops an individual outdoor sales tag with utterly unbelievable imagery for each of these silly booze boxes. Yeti knows that subjects can’t go anywhere without instant access to booze, i.e. you’re an alcoholic. You know that you can’t go anywhere without instant access to booze, i.e. you have the never-before-witnessed “glass of wine a day.” So instead of shaking hands, parting company, and you going off to rehab, Yeti tells subjects it’s got the perfect travel companion, one that doesn’t talk back, doesn’t snore, doesn’t complain, doesn’t buy the most expensive item on the menu, and never gets bored. Oh, and it looks an awful lot like a booze carrier I mean thing to keep your freshly caught tarpon cool.
I’m going to spend some time deconstructing the misdirections of Yeti’s anti-outdoors marketing claptrap, so grab your favorite cup of ice water and get ready. All photos are copyright Yeti and used without permission under the fair use doctrine for purposes of journalism, analysis, criticism, satire, and parody.
The photo below, Yeti’s intro to its line of hard coolers, hits hard. “Our stuff is for white guys who do manly outdoor stuff that requires lots of badass gear. Our coolers are another weapon in your arsenal of badassery.” Yeti’s “hard” coolers are “built to perform,” so unlike the penises of most of its subjects. Sizes will make sure subjects are generously equipped no matter where they go or what kind of woman they meet. Of course the photo shows a cooler with wheels. This is performance? Something clunky that slowly rolls down a pier? It’s true that for the use subjects are going to put the booze box to, it’s way over-engineered and also way overpriced.
The Roadie 24 Hard Cooler. Chief sales point: “built tall to accommodate critical bottles of wine and slim enough to squeeze behind the driver’s or passenger’s seat of a car.” This badass product is for women, as the fact that it’s for wine and that the words “slim” and “tall” get full billing. It also tells girls that WE GET IT. THE WINE IS FUCKING CRITICAL. IT’S THE ONLY WAY YOU GIRLS CAN STAND THE MISOGYNY, BOREDOM, AND DEPRESSION OF BEING HOOKED UP WITH YOUR MAN. Let’s gloss over the blatant suggestion that drinking and driving is okay and focus instead on the fact that this is a wine cooler. Okay, fine. Is this the same company that advertises its products as “built for the wild” and whose mission is to prevent you from “cutting your adventure short due to weak gear”? I can see it now, an entire cross-country adventure cut short because the cooler couldn’t hold a bottle of Two Buck Chuck.
“Harold! Let’s steer the RV back to Des Moines. This weak generic cooler gear has ruined our wine adventure!”
“But we’re already in Coral Gables!”
“I don’t care! This weak gear won’t hold our strong wine bottles!”
“Can’t we get one of those $5 styrofoam coolers at the Kwik-N-Pik?”
The sales text explicitly tells the subject that she can still get hammered while driving to the soccer game, at the soccer game, and coming home from the soccer game, but the imagery tells a different story entirely:
The Tundra 35 Hard Cooler: Next up is a slightly larger, slightly more expensive product that, surprise! Will keep your beer cool. And it’s a product that follows another favorite Yeti tack, which is to play on the status and body insecurities of purchasing subjects. The “hard” cooler, like all of Yeti’s “rugged” and “indestructible” products, communicates key messaging to men that they have hard penises and hard abdomens rather than the norm, which is penises flaccid from bad health and/or non-use, and huge guts that droop crazily over pants fasteners and that can only be hidden with the baggiest of t-shirts. The Tundra 35 “fits in nicely on a 4-Wheeler or an inner tube,” and is the “right pick for transporting provisions for a small crew.” I don’t know about you, but provisions makes me think of bacon, hardtack, jerky, and maybe some field-dressed game birds rather than what the thing is really made for: Keystone beer, ice, and more beer. Oh, and don’t forget that it’s “rotomolded for optimum adventure performance.” The performance cooler, it’s kind of like a male performance enhancer, or perhaps a performance race car, only more square and doesn’t go quite as fast. The imagery for this cooler is the imagery of the sea and (surprise!) booze.
The Tundra 45/65/75/105/110/125/160/210/250/350: You might think that with a big marketing budget, professional videos, great photography, and the input of thousands, Yeti would have an amazing tale of outdoors bait for each and every one of its astonishingly unique coolers. You’d be wrong. Because no matter how much money they have and no matter how many creative minds they employ, no one can seem to come up with anything deeper than “it keeps beer cold.”
And virtually every member of the Yeti Nation would presumably say, “EXACTLY!”
For our purposes it simplifies things greatly, because rather than having to analyze each cooler in the lineup according to its innovative marketing pitch, Yeti uses mostly the same photos, jiggles the description a bit, and then gives us a comparison chart that is the same for every one of the above-listed coolers, as it compares them using the only two metrics that anyone cares about and that everyone understands: how many cans of beer and how much ice. Yeti always brings subjects back to the key corporate mission, which is alcohols, and lots of them, gussied up in every manner of silly outdoor costume.
This, then, is the Tundra line. Tough enough to stymie a grizzly bear, cold and capacious enough to keep you drunk from Astoria to Williamsburg, equally at home in the blind or at the backyard soiree, spacious enough for a quartered moose or a brace of dead people, a perfect fit for an inner tube, Class V rapid, or field sobriety test, able to save mom from madness with critical wine bottles and to save dad with up to 162 cans of beer. This total lack of versatility, which is nothing more than keeping beer cold, is deceptively framed by showing diverse outdoor settings in which the beer is drunk, as if changing location somehow changes the activity. Yeti’s message is not that subjects will better experience the outdoors, but that subjects will better experience being shitfaced because no matter where subjects are–and we all know they are remarkably close to a familiar place known as “home”–the beer will be cold.
One of the things about capitalism and its insatiable requirement for more consumption of more stuff is that eventually the sales pitch becomes incomprehensible. Words and images lose all meaning, because the subject and the capitalist have agreed that the only thing that matters is BUY MORE NOW. Yeti’s marketing reaches the prostituted apogee of stupid with a cooler that I saved for last, the Tundra Haul. At $400, it perfectly captures the abandon with which a corporation will say nonsensical things to sell subjects junk that they don’t need. In this case, Yeti has come up with the amazing idea of putting its cooler … on wheels. Yes, no longer locked in Stone Age technology, the engineers concluded that wheels would make the beer trunk easier to move. Presumably someone will next start rubbing sticks together and make another momentous discovery.
What makes the Yeti Haul such a perfect piece of marketing flimflam is the juxtaposition of an active, rugged, wild outdoors experience with a product designed specifically for lazy, weak subjects whose arms can’t even lift a cooler of beer. No one questions the outdoor necessity of beer-on-wheels any more than they question the imagery of being actively lazy. This active laziness, epitomized by Yeti’s wheeled cooler, is spoken throughout their product line-up and messaging with thippy cups, blankies for the pup, chairs, and the “wink-wink” language invoking catered parties, critical wine bottles, and the shared knowledge that the moose, tarpon, amberjack, and elk are safe for another season.
This photo of the Tundra Haul is excellent. A white, slim guy in sandals has hauled the beer up the trail, the faithful mule, while his friends have set up base camp. We know it’s rugged because the blurred out tent insignia says “Big Agnes,” the legendary tent for badasses who actually camp, or who want people to think they do. This is the outdoors, then: not reaching a destination and doing something, or reaching a destination and being so fucking tired that all you can do is eat and collapse, but reaching a destination that we all know is 200 feet from the pavement, pitching a tent, and getting hammered. And whether it’s an editing mistake or the rare example of truth in advertising, we can see in the upper right corner the edge of the open hatchback. Oops! Not even 200 feet away from the car, and the outdoorsmen are so weak and lazy that they need wheels to get from the edge of the van to the circle jerk of waiting drunks.
In other words, none of the outdoors imagery matters at all. It’s eye candy, it’s a way to cruise around on the Internet, it’s a status badge that says subjects can afford $350 for something they could get for $70, but in the beginning, middle, and end, it’s about how much beer will subjects need and how much ice can they carry to keep it cold. The outdoors experience becomes sitting (there’s a Yeti for that) and staring dimly through a beer fog. The complex of senses you have, the sophisticated neural network you have to decode the stimuli, and the quantum processing of your memories to create thought are all reduced to a can of beer x 67.
Maybe you can get farther away from experiencing the outdoors than that.
But I’m sure I don’t know how.
*Many of the ideas in this blog are my brilliant girlfriend’s, who is smart af.
March 19, 2022 Comments Off on The not-so-great indoors
Outdoors is where the mind and body want to be, whereas indoors is where capitalism wants them to be. Indoors, with regard to control, all is possible. Outdoors, subjects are susceptible to being free, or at least to feeling free. In order to counteract the threats to control posed by the outdoors, technology has broken through the “third wall” of reality such that, by continually fixing our attention on the screen, we remain emotionally and ideologically indoors even when we are physically outside. This little device on sale at REI describes perfectly the current state of things, and why it’s imperative that the protective cocoon, a/k/a the prison cell, be carried with us at all times, in all states.
The catalogue of ways that the indoors and its perpetual surveillance, discipline, and punishment have replaced the outdoors is almost endless. Everything that is invented fits within some framework of removing the human from the outdoors in which they evolved. Nor is the process new. Books in their time, requiring protection from the elements and requiring indoor lighting, were simply another step in the blockchain of removing subjects from the outdoors. So today it’s a matter of course that we are born indoors, live indoors, die indoors, and the only time we spend outside is during those brief moments of pause known as recreation, an exception to the general rule, and so wrapped up in countless layers of devices, gear, behavior, and ideologies that further restrict us from actually experiencing the rocks, the sand, the leaves, the sun, the water, the grit and grain of clumped, sodden, crumbling, earthworm-riddled earth, and of course Earth.
Since I am now greatly although far from perfectly unhitched from the blockchain of work, and spend most of my time each day out under the sky, often bicycling, often walking, often sitting with back propped against a stone, I have occasion to notice the myriad methods of severing humans from outside. My favorite is the recreational vehicle.
The recreational vehicle in its essence is neither, and is instead a rather perfect form of dominance and control. Inside it one almost never recreates, and it is only occasionally a vehicle. Let me explain.
The inside of the recreational vehicle is cramped even for short, thin, flexible people. For the normal denizen who is old, fat, often tall, never bendy, it is a prison cell. One exists in small spaces, hemmed in with hard plastic edges, tables that hold exactly not enough, stoves that cook exactly not enough, showers that wet exactly not enough, beds that accommodate exactly not enough, toilets that provide relaxation and privacy not at all, and a common living space in which you can neither jump, yell, sing, fuck gloriously, roll around, sit cross-legged, lie spread-eagled, or do anything else except sit.
Sitting, folks, isn’t recreation. It is the slow coagulation of life and life’s energy into your fat, swollen ankles as it speed rots every other functional metabolic system you own. The recreation inside the recreational vehicle, then, fits one of the key requirements of marketing, that is, the name is an utter, outrageous lie. But there’s more. Sure, it rolls down the road as it’s hauled by a car or truck, and sure, some models can actually be driven, but movement and transportation do not underlie or define the recreational vehicle.
The recreational vehicle exists primarily to sit, parked, just like the ever-widening-asses inside them. This vehicular sitting is the recreational vehicle’s more or less permanent state. It sits parked in the yard, most often for years, utterly unmoving, it sits in storage lots, it sits on city streets, and it only acts as a vehicle for those few short hours over a period of years when it is being towed to a new location—a campground, another roadside, a pull-out, a Wal-Mart parking lot, a new back yard. No wonder that the recreational vehicle is a non-recreational parked trailer, because the cost of moving it from place to place is wildly exorbitant, and was so long before gas cost eight dollars a gallon.
The recreational vehicle was never intended to be moved, much, for the simple reason that highway speeds literally tear it apart. Seams, seals, screws, epoxies, all of the things that hold together the functional interior of a recreational vehicle, especially its watertight roof and plumbing, are not engineered to handle the constant battering, rattling, wind, weather, and reverberations of 70 mph over America’s lousy roads. That’s why every “Should I buy an RV?” article insists that you carefully consider whether or not you want to be a constant handyman, a jack of all RV repair trades. Drive your house down the freeway for a day or two. Would you expect it to hold up?
Because that’s what the recreational vehicle is: it’s a highly modified mobile home made to trap you inside all of the physical controls of indoors and most crucially, to trap you inside all of the emotional, mental, and ideological controls of capitalism. It allows the subject to move, at least nominally, and to coordinate that motion with what are ostensibly indicia of the outdoors such as, say, trees, mountains, rivers, oceans, but it firmly locks the subject into the control modalities of the indoors, the modalities of surveillance, discipline, and punishment.
Even if you knew nothing about the recreational vehicle, you could intuit its function by looking at the way it is marketed and then reverse-cloaking the marketing semantics to derive its true essence. Essentially, it is marketed with three categories of bold-faced lie: the money lie, the freedom lie, and the adventure lie. In order to understand why these three themes of lie are so effective in selling something that is so evidently not what it’s purported to be, you have to first understand the psyche of the buyer and his decision-making chain, the logic that underpins it, and more fundamentally, the terror that underpins the logic.
For the man who buys a recreational vehicle, and it is overwhelmingly a man, is of a certain age, a certain income, and possessed of a certain understanding about the way that life works. This average man is very white, between 48 and 65, has an income of about $62,000 and spends twenty days a year “camping,” i.e. “parking somewhere other than his driveway” in a recreational vehicle. By far and away the biggest psychosocial motivator for the man who buys a recreational vehicle is freedom. Here is how the recreational vehicle industry describes the freedoms afforded by its product:
- Freedom from stress: “Travel can be a real hassle. Driving with a car full of luggage and your family can be cramped and tedious. Flying can be costly, aggravating … with an RV you’ll save long term on plane tickets [and] get to see the country … [and] relax. Never worry about booking a hotel room or traveling to a constrained itinerary. Take control of your vacations.”
- Freedom to explore: “Most people have the dream to see the country and all the things they couldn’t while they were busy with their working lives … we represent the opportunity to explore the country, see everything: art, all the heritage and historical sites, all the natural wonders of the United States.” “You have more mobility.” “RV campgrounds are everywhere.” “…the most attractive part … is being able to travel where you want, when you want.” “Naturally, an RV makes the nomadic life easier.”
- Freedom from financial constraints: “No need to spend money on hotels and restaurants on top of those expensive plane tickets … typical RV trips remain the least expensive type of vacation … 27% to 61% cheaper than other types of vacations.” “By claiming your RV as your second home, you can get a significant tax break.”
- Freedom from physical discomfort: “Traveling by RV gives you plenty of space to move around and stretch your legs.”
- Freedom from other people’s hygiene: “You also get to use your own bathroom instead of that cramped bathroom on an airplane.”
- Freedom from isolation: “Owning an RV means your [sic] part of a larger community … you’re bound to run into people with a variety of interests.” “Everyone’s friendly.”
The broad contours of these freedoms are embodied by promises of comfort, economy, and adventure, and it’s worth noting at the outset that these are incompatible, and the industry knows it. Comfort is at one end of the spectrum, adventure is at the other; you cannot have both. If you are comfortable it is not an adventure. Perhaps it’s a day trip to the park, perhaps it’s a hike on a well-trodden trail, perhaps it’s a sail around a pond in a park. But the essence of adventure is risk, discomfort, and fear, and without it you are doing something other than adventure. Conversely, comfort’s partner is safety. When you are cozy and secure, you are not adventuring. And of course economy runs afoul of both comfort and adventure, because true comfort is blindingly expensive, and true adventure is costly, often in terms of travel and gear, but always in terms of time and risk. The difference between an adventure and tragedy is simply the outcome.
What’s important to note is that by the time the average 62-year-old white guy making $62k/year retires, he is not a risk taker, he is not an adventurer, he is not a discoverer, a seeker, a rock climber with callused hands and craggy, sun-lined face. He is almost always fat, beset by chronic health conditions that require medication, timid, physically weak, and unable to withstand the outdoors without significant equipment and without seeking out places where the “outdoors” is as mild as possible. The psyche of this weak, flabby, older man considering the purchase of a recreational vehicle has not caught up with his physical condition, and this is what the marketing relies upon to trigger the decision-making chain resulting in the sale.
The buyer remembers his youth and the time he spent outdoors. He may have hunted or fished, he may have hiked, biked, backpacked, and he most certainly camped, but not the indoor-camping-that-is-not-camping of a recreational vehicle, rather he camped in a tent or sometimes even under the open night sky. These memories of youth, strength, adventure, and discovery still remain and they are the lens through which the buyer views his current old, flabby, medicated, alcohol-dependent self. The seller sees a delusional sucker, the buyer sees Paul Bunyan just bustin’ to get out of this sagging, aging body, and to get out of it in the form not of a loaded pack, a pair of boots, a compass, and a walking stick, but through a 40-foot trailer that will forever make it impossible to know whether a bear really does shit in the woods.
In other words, the outdoors has its draw, still, and by cloaking the reality of a cheaply built, instantaneously depreciating home on wheels that one drags to paved, industrialized “camping-parking-lots” with the false images of the freedom, youth, and adventure of the outdoors, the ridiculous purchase begins to make sense. But only begins, because its completion requires a lot more gymnastics of the mental and emotional kind.
Lest you think I’m kidding, check out the names plastered to these clunky, ugly, plastic carriages: Cougar, Freedom, Hideaway, Four Winds, ForestRiver, Chateau, Rambler, Admiral, Adrenaline, Breeze, Aspen Trail, Attitude, Warrior, Bighorn, Basecamp … see?
One angle of reality that acts to deflate the prospective purchase is the wife. She has no delusions of her husband’s health, age, or fitness. She knows that however much he sees this as an avenue to outdoor freedom, it is in fact a severe constraint on her, and his, normal lifestyle. Less space, less comfort, uncertainty regarding where to park, the dangers of dragging a massive trailer, the nasty surprises of breakdowns and unexpected costs, the grim ugliness of paying $250 every few hundred miles to fill up with gas, and most of all decision fatigue are all angles of reality that the significant other sees, often long before the guy.
Sometimes gentle, sometimes direct, sometimes in the spirit of compromise and sometimes in the spirit of outright conflict, the man comes to acknowledge that even if they agree to the purchase, he’s not the man he once was, ergo the man he wishes he was. This acknowledgement is key because it achieves the ultimate goal of the recreational vehicle and the industry that sells it, which is to confine us, again, to the indoors.
So instead of Paul Bunyan in the outdoors, the sales pitch must pivot from the cramped, expensive, chintzy, unreliable trailer to what actually is adventurous and daring about recreational vehicles: the idea that older people with bad reflexes and marginal health can safely drag massive trailers down the freeway, along twisting back roads, through dense city traffic, and also park them into cramped, elbows-to-assholes parking slots. Driving these things is nasty, hard, stressful, and dangerous work, not to mention the labor involved in hitching, unhitching, stabilizing, and of course connecting water lines and handling raw sewage. One feature of people is that they will handle their turds in a nasty, leaky sewer line but think that wiping their butts in the backcountry with a bare hand is gross.
But back to the RV. There is adventure here, true adventure, because a bad outcome literally results in death or serious injury. It takes a huge measure of confidence and skill to negotiate these blundering piles of plastic and metal, so much that owners of recreational vehicles say, over and over again, that however skilled they are or how comfortable they are with their rig, driving it is stressful and parking moreso. Remember when U-Haul’s tag line was “Adventure in Moving”? Ever wonder what that meant? Ever wonder why they got rid of it? Because the last thing that anyone wants is adventure while driving down a highway, that’s why.
Why does any of this matter? Because the point behind the automobile is social control of the driver, and once the recreational vehicle buyer has dispensed with the fantasy that he’s ever going to hike off into the back country, he accepts that all of the skill, daring, bravery, and adventure he will ever face involve squeezing forty-feet of garbage into a narrow little parking slot.
Even so, the sale of an RV would never happen if the buyer hadn’t already accepted an extremely harsh and bizarre worldview, which is that our lot in life is to work hard when we are young, save as much money as we can, and then, when we are too weak and medicated and timid and overweight to do anything, then and only then will we embark on the freedom that is known as retirement. No one bothers to ask why in the world after being tired, you’d want to be re-tired. Wouldn’t you want to never get tired in the first place?
The logical arc of natural life has nothing in common with this worldview that is forced upon us by capitalism and its apologists. Life was supposed to go from childhood, which was wonderful and awe-inspiring, to young adulthood, which was filled with adventure, finding a mate, building a family, and was supposed to conclude with sedentary old age and death. In other words, youth was for the young, age was for the aged. But only by believing the false promise that at 65 you can enjoy life just as much as you could when you were 25 can people be made to work all their lives and then “live it up” in retirement, dragging a giant trailer behind them. “I’ve earned this,” “It’s time to have fun,” “I’m finally free” and like sentiments all underlie the passion for buying a recreational vehicle.
Once the buyer has his sense of freedom and adventure properly appealed to, and once he has accepted the swap of youth-for-money, he’s almost ready to sign on the dotted line. But there’s one more piece of chicanery that has to happen, and it’s the terror I alluded to earlier, the one that drives reasonable people to buy such obviously ridiculous things. If capitalism teaches us that we must work when young and play when it old, it also teaches us that once we’re old we must act quickly to avoid dying before we’ve “done all the things we want to do.” It’s the horrible bucket list, those things we really wanted to do but weren’t brave enough to.
Fear of dying before the list has been completed or significantly dented is real. And since the fear can’t be dispelled with the backpack, hiking boots, compass, and trail, it has to be dispelled with a purchase, which is all that capitalism really wants anyway. It wants to drain your labor when you have the most to give at the cheapest price, and it wants to take back what it paid in the form of purchases like the $150,000 recreational vehicle that you’ll use twenty days a year. The reformulated desire for adventure, the belief that retirement is a fair trade for wasting youth as a wage slave, and the fear of missing out are what complete the sale. Oh, and the thing loses 20% of its value the minute you drive it off the lot.
I hope you don’t think I’m bagging on people who own recreational vehicles. I’m simply selecting them because I know them so well. But what they represent, which is alienation from the outdoors, is even more extreme among urban and rural dwellers who never leave the cocoon of home, car, and office. This number is far greater than those who at least have to walk from the RV to the raw sewage dump and back again.
And however miserable it is to live inside a recreational vehicle, it’s just as miserable in a home, in a car, in an office, a hospital, a school, or staring at your screen. There may be degrees of misery but the markers on the ruler are fine indeed.
Cautionary Tales of the Great Outdoors
People evolved in the outdoors, not indoors. In order to make them stay inside, great measures were required, above all fear. It is extraordinary how many people fear what lies beyond their doorstep, as if the human race had neither skill nor biology to cope with it. For modern folk, there are a series of well-known methods used to keep them inside. In no particular order I’ll list a few of them and let you ponder who came up with that? And why?
The outdoors will estrange you from civilization and is dangerous. No better cautionary tale exists than Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild.” The moral is simple: the wilderness and civilization can never coexist. The sub-moral is equally vivid: outdoors is violent and filled with danger and death. This basic premise, that wild spaces are incompatible with civilization, has its parallel in modern take-offs of the London theme, for example Jon Krakauer’s book “Into the Wild.” Like London’s book, it traces the fate of a civilized being—a human rather than a dog—who goes to Alaska’s wilderness and finds death. Like London’s book, Krakauer’s message is that the outdoors has no redemptive value, nor does it exist as a space with which civilization can coexist. Krakauer’s popularity is explained by the way he exploits this theme, as he did subsequently in “Into Thin Air,” a cautionary tale about what awaits people who are foolish enough to climb Mt. Everest. This genre of cautionary tale finds its way into every news story about fatal encounters between people and bears, people and mountain lions, people who drown in rivers, people who fall from heights, people who get lost and freeze to death, cyclists killed by cars, and of course people who go outdoors and simply disappear.
There is rarely any counterpoint to these cautionary tales, such as Alaska’s safety (Krakauer’s protagonist was camping fifteen miles from a town), the health benefits to riding a bike or to hiking, and certainly no counterpoint in terms of statistics that show the frequency of cyclists killed by bears (two in a hundred years) versus people killed by cars and sitting (hundreds of millions and counting). Fear is an excellent control mechanism, and it is employed at all levels by capitalism to keep people inside and safe from cyclist-killing bears, but not so safe from diabetes, cancer, smoking, drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, heart disease, depression, obesity, and premature death.
If there are rarely any counterpoints to the cautionary tales, there are a raft of publications designed exactly to encourage you to go outdoors but only if you understand the grave risks. This bleeds into another technique for keeping people inside, the technique of “outdoors is for experts,” but it also fits with the cautionary tale simply because these publications regularly spice up their work with tales of danger, risk, and misadventure. Consider “Me, My Sled Dogs, and a Nightmare Run-in with a Bull Moose” from Outside Magazine, or what Field & Stream tells you about itself: How to Hunt, Fish, Camp, and Survive … because when you leave your front door, it’s a fight for survival down there at the county duck pond with the kiddie playscape and those ferocious swans.
The outdoors take practice. Okay, so you’re going to insist on buying a gravel bike and going outdoors to ride it, but don’t think that makes you a gravel cyclist. In order to properly gravel you need to do a gravel fun ride, and in order to do the ride you need to practice, and in order to practice you need to do a training camp. Yes, that’s right. A training camp for a fun ride. If it sounds silly, rest assured that it has a profound logic, and that’s the logic of discipline. There was a time when people didn’t practice or exercise; they did something called “live.” Native Americans didn’t target practice, they hunted, daily, and became very good at it.
Practice is a form of control and it’s no accident that we are told today that whatever the outdoor activity is, before we do it in earnest we must practice it. Why must we practice? So we will be good. Why must we be good? Because if we suck we’ll look foolish, “Freds” in the bicycle parlance. And what’s wrong with looking like a Fred? It’s that you won’t appear properly on social media. As you might have suspected, all roads really do lead back to the algorithm.
But back to practice. Once people feel sufficiently intimidated by their inartful outdoors behavior they will focus their extremely limited outdoor time on practicing rather than on experiencing. What’s the difference? Well, imagine Chris Froome staring at his stem, or for that matter, virtually anyone nowadays who considers themselves a serious cyclist. Then imagine someone riding much more slowly, taking careful note of the scenery, and stopping from time to time to literally smell the flowers, take a picture, eat a sandwich, drink a cold draught of water.
When you return from the practice, if you’ve done it properly, you’ll be better at the activity but you certainly will not have any greater understanding or appreciation of the outdoors, and you will find eventually that being outdoors isn’t even necessary for the practice. Hence Zwift in cycling, treadmills in running, climbing walls, gyms, swimming pools … an ersatz for the outdoors seems fine when you’re chasing a number or a particular improvement in your crawl or a longer drive. Capitalism understands that since some people will insist on going outdoors, the only way to capture them is to turn their time there into exercise, practice, discipline, goals, and with those things a host of equipment that costs money and further reinforces the subject’s role as consumer and, upon completion of the practice and upload to Strava, a slave laborer for the owner of the social media app who harvests yet more data, literally from the sweat of the athlete’s brow.
Few things embody the marketing and the lies it is based on better than the training camp for the public bike ride on public roads. The promoter sets a date for his event, which is open to anyone who can pay the entry fee, and then in order to squeeze more money out of the subjects he hypes up the difficulty of the ride, intimating that the subjects can’t finish, won’t finish, or won’t be part of the “in” crowd unless they pay hundreds of more dollars to attend the training camp. The training camp is where the gurus will sell the inside tips, elucidate the particularly tricky “sectors,” and help nervous subjects select exactly the right equipment for the Direful Day with Destiny.
The training camp will conclude with a “recon” ride and invariably will become a contest to “win” the training camp. Bank accounts and beer steins will be drained, kudos awarded, and, hundreds if not a couple thousand dollars poorer, the subjects will now be prepared to go do a public bicycle ride for which every subject, win, lose, draw, or give up, will receive a participation t-shirt.
They may have spent hours outdoors, but no one will remember that aspect.
Discipline, when espoused by coaches and serious athletes, is spoken of as if it’s not the opposite of freedom, which it is. Yet how many of the people on Zwift or Strava have any need at all of discipline when it comes to riding their bikes? What they need is discipline to put down the fork and lay off the booze, and especially they need the discipline to get out of bed and go ride their bike, but practice in the sense that they are going to someday attain some level of athleticism that comports with some abstract achievement (new PR on the climb, new max watts, longest day ever, etc.) is only useful in conjunction with rationales and justifications for the purchase of new equipment. A bike from 1970, well-maintained with good tires, will suit 99.99% of all people who will ever ride a bicycle in terms of “performance.” But a bike from 1970 puts you off the back in terms of consumption and digital appearance.
In short, practice kills the outdoors even when you’re out in it. If the time outside is goal-oriented, it’s wasted time for purposes of what nature has to offer, although it’s perfect for the sales department at REI. No one wants to talk about the tools we evolved to live outdoors, about the innate senses and skills that we have adapted, after eons, to be outdoors with no other practice than the art of living.
The outdoors is for experts. This is the corollary to “the outdoors require practice,” and like all of the other methodologies for restricting the outdoors it imposes controls, surveillance, and cost. No matter what the outdoor activity is, it is populated with experts, people who’ve devoted their lives to this especial niche, and people without whose guidance you’re fundamentally lost. A particular favorite of mine in this regard is birdwatching. You’d think that with eyes, ears, and a memory, you’d be ready to go outdoors and, well, watch birds. You’d be wrong because simply watching birds isn’t, emphatically, birdwatching. In order to properly utilize the outdoors and the birds that populate it, you need to know how to identify the bird. Sounds reasonable, except for this nagging problem of “How do you ID the bird?”
Naturally, you turn to the experts, who have, in the case of North America, put together a book that includes over a thousand species, many of which are rarely if ever seen in North America, and many more of which have such thorny identification problems that even the experts are often confounded. Subspecies, “races,” hybrids, accidentals, and my favorite, the “introduced species” which somehow doesn’t count as a bird, are all specialties within a niche within a microfissure that, trust me, you can spend a lifetime studying and never learn. How removed is birdwatching from the outdoors? There is an entire class of birds, the gulls, whose identification is so fraught that many expert birders simply “don’t do gulls.” Not to worry, there’s an in-depth guide for that … This is the point: study, with a book, the Internet, and a birdcall app, indoors. You can go outside and watch the birds once you’re proficient, should only take a decade or five.
And if you do manage to go outside and actually watch a bird and identify it, just like cyclists use Strava, birders use eBird to record every speck of minutiae about what you saw and where you saw it. Better yet, there are leaderboards populated with experts who are so far ahead of you that you might as well stay home. The algorithm twists looking at wildlife into a competition which reflects back upon itself as how you appear, your social media image. All you saw was a few ravens, a robin, and some little brown thing you can’t identify? FRED.
Where is it written that you can’t self-identify? I call that bird a Spotted Backyarder, just like I call that plant a spider fern. You don’t know what I mean? So what? I do, and more importantly, I’m not hunched over a screen trying to identify the subspecies, I’m outside enjoying the antics, the appearance, the beauty of the actual bird. In fact, it’s written in the social norms that are imposed on any who would be naturalists—learn to follow the Latin rules laid down by Linnaeus, and follow the learned experts who have followed in his wake. Don’t name things yourself and make shit up, it’s not allowed.
Experts exist in all realms of the outdoors. Fishing guides, hunting guides, people who can show you the proper way to drive a dog sled, and in cycling, golf, and tennis the ubiquitous coach. These clerks of nostalgia, some of whom are knowledgeable, most of whom are not, serve a function much more important than teaching you how to ride a bike, the thing you thought you’d learned when you were five. They keep you in your place and they keep you focused on the activity, distracted from experiencing the outdoor world except through the lens of their pedagogy. One clown I knew advised all his clients to “learn to pedal with one leg” because it would “strengthen the weaker leg.”
No science existed for this, but there was a period of years when you’d see people randomly pedaling around the Palos Verdes Peninsula one-legged, looking foolish, improving not at all, but crucially, paying for something that should have been free and not paying attention to the cliffs, the ocean, the sky. This type of silly fad goes hand in glove with an entirely other type of expert, the appearance expert, also known as the diet. The diet, developed by experts, makes it clear that whatever you do, don’t show up outdoors with the wrong body. Surveil, practice, punish, repeat, until all the fat goes away and you have a Beach Body. Then, somehow, you will be able to accept what the outdoors has to offer, which is apparently nothing deeper than some stranger’s evaluation that you are “hot.”
The coach, the diet, the fitness trainer, all exist to keep you hooked up to the dopamine machine, which is fee-based. As soon as you have the perfect pedal stroke, the perfect six-pack, the Linda Hamilton arms, then and only then will you be allowed outdoors, i.e., never.
Outdoor time is active time. Getting outside is well-nigh impossible for most given the hurdles that capitalism places in the way. Not least of the hurdles is the idea that if you’re outside you should be doing something, that something always being an approved activity. “I walked around the park spitting in the grass and farting, then after a while I laid down, looked at the sky, and fell asleep,” is not an outdoor-approved activity. If you are outdoors you’d better be hiking at a minimum if it’s a “wilderness” area, and if it’s not you’d better be doing something that is a sport, mimics a sport, or implies some kind of strenuous activity that will improve your health.
The whole sports thing is perhaps the dumbest of all because sport originally meant fox hunting, dueling, drinking, gambling, and whoring. A “sport” was a man about town, and it was a term that applied to the upper class, exactly not what you think of when you see two tatted up, illiterate men trying to kill each other in a cage fight.
In any event, sports are now more than honorable, they are a holy grail for all, either as something to watch on t.v. or to do on the rare occasions that people go outdoors. The cult of sport is so perverse that old, chubby, sloth-like white guys on $5,000 bicycles are called “athletes.” And what’s harder to understand, these “athletes” actually compete as “masters” for cycling, tennis, golf, swimming, and a host of other events. I say it’s hard to understand, but it’s not, because the point is to make sure that when you are outdoors you are doing something other than experiencing the outdoors. Since few people actually play a sport, the assumption that if you’re outside you’d better be doing something productive acts to keep you indoors, where you can watch other people engage in sports. On the t.v., while sitting on the couch.
The outdoors are dirty. The crowning terror that drives what I call FOTO, Fear Of The Outdoors, is the fear of getting dirty. One of the standard pieces of equipment that most recreational vehicle owners have is a carpet or swatch of fake lawn to roll out in front. This is done at campgrounds and parks where the main ground covering is dirt. If there’s something weirder than a dirt-free natural area, I don’t know what it is.
Dirt and hygiene are in many ways the driving force behind civilization; all cities are built on their sewage systems, literally and figuratively. It’s only by restricting where, when, and how you defecate that people can live together in large numbers, and the extreme commitment to cleanliness, made even more of a neurosis by covid, is an unbeatable way to keep people indoors. Forget for a moment that for all of history people wiped their asses with their hands, and that in India and many other places, millions of people still do. Shake with the left hand at your peril …
Hatred of dirt, fear of sweat, and paranoia about what’s been on the toilet seat, in my opinion, are the single biggest practical drivers behind RV purchases, that is, the guarantee that the syphilis you get from the toilet seat will be your own. Add to that the fact that many people cannot urinate or defecate near others or in public toilets, and the outdoors literally becomes limited by how far away you are from your own private pooper.
You’d think that “How to Shit in the Woods” by Kathleen Meyer, now in its 4th edition, might serve to encourage people to get farther away from their camper or from the park potty, but you’d be wrong. In order to properly shit you need several things that the vast majority of people, unless there’s a nuclear apocalypse, are never going to have. First is flexibility. It’s news to all recreational vehicle owners, but humans didn’t evolve sitting on toilets, they evolved squatting. This position, feet flat on the ground, asshole squarely lined up between your ankles, is a physical impossibility for all but advanced yoga practitioners, no matter that it’s the natural position in which small children can squat and play all day long.
Vitiated by sitting and rendered useless by the sit-toilet, modern man in rich countries cannot squat to shit, and if you can’t do that, your outdoor experience is going to be messy. Even people who can manage to squat, or who can manage some of the other techniques such as holding onto a tree or sitting on a log (works great in the desert), are still flummoxed because after they’ve shit they need toilet paper of some kind. Environmentalism requires that you can leave your turds in a hole but you have to bring back the wipes, unless of course you use what people have been using since time began, the hand. Social control, by limiting where and how you can shit, and how you can clean your asshole, keeps people chained to the toilet. How many toilets are you really going to find in the back country, or even a couple of miles up a trail? The issue of hygiene for women is even more of a barrier. Menstruation and all that stuff? Out in the woods? Lugging around used kotex? Nah, but thanks. We’ll just hang in the Sprinter van.
All roads lead indoors. You want to go outside without a sport, without the right gear, without a coach, without having practiced, without an app, without a toilet, without an RV, just go outside to see what’s there?
You are crazy.
*Many of the ideas in this blog are my brilliant girlfriend’s, who is smart af.
March 13, 2022 Comments Off on The great outdoors
If there is an alternative to living digitally, it is experience outdoors. We come into the world equipped for such experience and indeed we evolved in order to succeed without the confines of numbing digital fakery and control.
The attractive power of outside is so great that it is used as the wrapper for countless digital experiences and for an endless array of products and services, each of which sells the opposite of outdoor experience and therefore must cloak what is bad with the appearance of that which is good, what is controlling with what is freeing.
Few digital campaigns express this dishonesty more openly than a hashtag I once saw regularly, #outsideisfree. The marketer in question was a purveyor of bicycles and sought to cloak his purpose, selling outdoor gear, with the supposed freedom from cost and control that is the price of staying indoors or in a car. Well, the outdoors is many things. But free? No. Never.
Bicycle clothing, accessories, repair, and maintenance are costly and becoming more so every year, as designs, electrification, and product variety promise to eventually eliminate the bike as a DIY conveyance, capable of repair and upkeep in your garage or on your living room floor. A smaller and smaller number of bike owners will ever have the tools or the skills to replace worn brake discs or bleed a brake line, so they must turn to specialists who charge. Acquiring products and maintaining them is just one of numerous cost factors of being outdoors on a bike.
It’s difficult to get a clear idea of how expensive the outdoors is if you are bicycling, but at 15,000 miles per year you are looking at about $1,000/year in parts, tires, tubes, and maintenance. Include the cost of a $2,000 bike that you replace after five years and you’re looking at a per-mile cost of about $0.15. That’s less than half what it costs to own the cheapest car but it’s still over $2,200/year. For the avid hobbyist, with multiple bikes and gear and costumes for multiple road surfaces and events, the annual costs are much greater, equaling or exceeding the cost of car ownership, especially since few people ride 15,000 or even 5,000 miles/year, and especially since owning a car is an indispensable part of cycling for most. The cost of cycling further increases with monthly GPS subscriptions and, strangest of all, subscriptions like Zwift that extract a payment to do indoors what was originally designed to do out.
Nor is the outside an arena where, on a bicycle, you experience freedom from social control. First of all, you’re subjected to highly controlling and discriminatory traffic laws that limit where, what, when, and how you can ride. If you run afoul of those laws you will find that they are unfairly enforced to the detriment of the cyclist. Least freeing of all for most people in a car-centric society, cycling exposes you to the fear of being hit; this fear is so great that most people would rather be indoors or in their car than outdoors on a bike, even though the danger of sitting in a car is greater and the danger of sitting on a couch is exponentially more so, a death/illness/immobility guarantee of the highest order.
Outdoors becomes even costlier if you want to park your bike safely, transport it on another conveyance to get farther away, or camp with it. No, Mr. Bike Shop, outdoors isn’t free and you know it.
But beneath the obvious costs and restrictions on freedom of movement that riding a bicycle entails, #outsideisfree perpetuates a falsehood that is the same for everyone, whether cyclist or motorist or couchsitter, a falsehood upon which the entire social system is founded, namely the falsehood that the system wants us outdoors at all.
Because however limited, costly, and dangerous the outdoors is, that wild and unpredictable place where “something” might happen, it is infinitely cheaper, more freeing, safer, and spiritually fulfilling than indoors, which is the scene of the prison, the workplace, the hospital, the school, the retirement facility, all places built on the same model of surveil, discipline, and punish in order to control.
Capitalism, the antithesis of free, stands in opposition to outside because outside suggests diffusion, indiscipline, originality, hiding, independence, individualism, self-reliance, rest, and most crucially, divorce from the x-y axes of consumption and work. So outdoors must always be saddled with a maximum of control and cost and be distorted with the appearance of maximum danger in order to discourage its availability, reduce its utility, and maintain it as either a fringe space for the many failed who live under freeway overpasses or a Patagonian playground for the few who have succeeded. In any case it must not be the domain of the poor, the young, the old, the rebellious, the sick, or the great multitude of people who are in or capable of being in what is euphemistically called “the workforce.”
Even the concept of outdoors must be carefully curated so that its true meaning escapes all but the closest observation. Outdoors must mean trees, nature, mountains, the ocean, spaces untouched or appearing to be untouched by man, rather than what outdoors simply means, which is unconfined by walls and roof. The street, the sidewalk, the yard, the park, the bench, the bus stop, the backyard, these things must not be called “the outdoors” because they are available to almost everyone and because in a small degree (at first) they impart the same disorder and independence generated by wilderness solitude. Like a true gateway drug, the person who experiences the spring buds of a scrawny sidewalk tree can eventually be drawn into the greater outdoors, spiraling beyond the control of merchandising, consumption, and work.
In the same way that outdoors is most often narrowly defined as some wide-open natural space on the order of an Australian outback, an Alaskan mountain range, a beach, a forest, a campground, in other words vacation destinations and therefore excluding the pedestrian outdoors of everyday life, indoors is similarly curated but in an exactly positive yet similarly misleading way. Whereas indoors is a great, generalized category of incarcerating spaces that includes virtually every place we are ever likely to go, and especially the closed “indoor” environment of the screen, we never speak of such spiritually claustrophobic spaces as such. The phone is never described as indoors, nor are the television, the car, the motorcycle, or the RV; even the hospital, the school, the office, and the prison are most often described by their names rather than by the word “indoors.” Instead of contradistinguishing everything that is not outside as indoors, “indoors” connotes a place of cover, protection, human warmth, and above all, comfort. Most typically, it refers to home.
Replacing human agency with algorithms
What is out there? How can we find out?
From the beginning we moved. On foot, through time and space, our senses encountered phenomena, gathered data, and used the brain as an integrating organ to form a subjective view of reality. No two realities have ever been, or ever will be, the same.
Each person is born with the drive to discover, encounter, and learn; that drive is called curiosity and it remains in varying degrees until death.
What is out there? How can we find out?
Physically moving through time and space was once the only way that we could effect the drive to know, the drive to experience, the drive to find out. We developed senses that were superior to some organisms and inferior to others so that we could encounter and form a reality of our environment that would allow us to live, procreate, and then die, making way for the next generation to repeat the cycle.
The key to finding out was always the assumption of agency. The knowledge that you are the cause is what compels you to act. This sense of agency combined with memory creates human consciousness. A person cannot be conscious in the sense that they view themselves as an independent organism without also having the sense of agency, the knowledge that they are able to act, to initiate a sequence of events. Likewise, a person cannot be fully conscious without a memory, which is nothing more than the stored recognition of your past effected through agency and the acts of others that affected you.
It is of course possible to lose one’s memory and to still be conscious in the sense that a person is aware of his or her surroundings. But true human consciousness, the awareness of self, nonetheless requires memory. Even someone suffering from total amnesia still has memory of the things that happened after the amnesia-inducing event.
A person’s character has always been the sum of their actions and the memory of those actions. Thus when a person through dementia loses virtually all of their memory, they lose their character as well. In this way character, or rather individual personhood, depends upon appearance, appearance of the person to himself, and appearance of the person to other people. This is another way of saying that who we are is a function of how we appear, and how we appear is a function of agency, that is, the things that we cause to happen or the chain of events that we initiate through our actions. It is not possible to conceive of oneself without having some kind of image of the appearance of oneself. Likewise, others cannot conceive of you without some type of appearance that is created when you are seen and that image is stored in their memory, or when you appear to another person in digital, photographic, or some analog form. The appearance can of course be created through writing or speaking as well.
The great leap forward in creating appearance and therefore character, sense of agency, and human consciousness, appearance that has nothing to do with analog reality, is the algorithm. With the algorithm, each person can create, or rather can become created for purposes of sales, marketing, and capitalistic enslavement, into whatever shape that they desire–even though those desires that seem to be created by us are planted into our minds by overt and covert capitalist marketing techniques. These desires are expressed by appearances that indicate the instantaneous acquisition of external markers of success such as wealth, health, intelligence, and most crucially, living a perfect and trouble-free life.
Where experience, or the combination of agency and memory, once formed our characters and therefore our appearance, the algorithm now forms it for us. It is the literal digitization of existence, and it is not an accident or a random occurrence. It was put in place by actual people with nothing in mind beyond control and the financial profit that comes therefrom. It is an ideology, one that extends quite naturally from the surveil, discipline, punish theory of knowledge and creation of the human soul put forth by Michel Foucault.
The algorithm is the new ideology, and therefore is the new tool of surveillance and discipline of the ruling class, and like all dominant ideas of the age created by and propagated for the benefit of the ruling class, it is built on a false promise of freedom through new modes of communication. As with all dominant ideologies of the last few centuries, the ideology of the algorithm allows capitalism to flourish and continue primitive accumulation while at the same time further reducing freedom of agency of the enslaved class. This underlies the newest wave of primitive accumulation, otherwise known as stealing the outdoors from the many for the profit of the few. It is a logical extension of the earliest form of primitive accumulation, which was the destruction of the commons.
Whether the new frontier is the algorithm, further theft of common spaces, or the revolution in industrial production, whatever it is called and in whatever age it occurs it will invariably pretend to expand the amount of agency that is afforded the enslaved class by virtue of adoption of the new ideology. This is simply because agency, or rather individual liberty as it is posited by capitalists, is the necessary emotional condition that the enslaved class must possess in order to voluntarily participate in their enslavement. In its basic form freedom under capitalism simply means freedom to work for someone else at a wage they set in order to receive food, clothing, shelter, and gewgaws in return.
It never means freedom not to work or freedom to work outside of the capitalist structure unless you are willing to experience starvation and homelessness, or unless you fall into one of the categories of people who are not work-ready: for the willful refuseniks there is prison; for those too young there is school; for those too sick there is the hospital; for those too old there is the retirement home, either brick-and-mortar or the RV.
As I wrote in a previous post, the things we do are driven by vanity. The desire to stand out and be noticed seems inherent and whether or not that is true, vanity is unquestionably the trigger for making the the vast majority of purchasing decisions. How will this affect the way I appear? Will it make me appear more successful? More beautiful? More healthy? More happy?
When the space for freedom outdoors closes, the digital frontier creates simulacra of freedom and agency in virtual reality, another form of indoors, because fewer and fewer opportunities to experience the outdoors and the contentment it brings remain.
In order to keep the false sense of autonomy and freedom needed for capitalism to function indoors, more sophistication is needed to fake the experience. And it’s an easy transition as long as people can be convinced to operate more and more on appearance rather than experience, because the task is simply to increase the number, quality, and variety of algorithms that augment appearance, making the experiential truths we encounter outdoors irrelevant to the images we encounter indoors via the algorithm and the appearances it engenders. However, the two competing states of outdoor experience and indoor algorithm create dissonance for those still operating on the human end of the spectrum, a dissonance that triggers unhappiness, discontent, anxiety, and has the tincture of nascent revolution. Since experience outdoors and digital appearance indoors cannot coexist, one must be eliminated, and the one on the chopping block is obvious as each new technological advance increases reliance on the algorithm and decreases opportunities to go outdoors in any capacity.
The whole point of the algorithm is to direct you by taking away your agency as it gives you the false sense that you have it and that you are therefore in control. The whole point of experience outdoors is to give you the ability to question the world with your senses and try to grasp what controls it through acts directed by your sense of agency. The two modes are incompatible, mortal enemies.
The diminishing utility of people and things
Capitalism so fears the outdoors that most subjects now access it while remaining indoors, of course while consuming outdoor “gear” and outdoor “services.” Moreover, capitalism used the algorithm to ensure that subjects are actively working/creating content while ostensibly recreating in the outdoors. But the overall goal is to remove the outdoors completely as an accessible venue for analog humans, and this overall goal is achieved by gradually reducing the utility of the outdoors goods/services being sold so that in effect they are useless, thereby discouraging subjects from trying to engage in outdoor experiences, and by gradually reducing the utility of the subjects themselves, such that they no longer have the capacity to engage in physical experience.
The diminishing utility of people and things is crucial for the ongoing effectiveness of capitalism through the algorithm if it is to make paramount the focus on appearance rather than the focus on actually doing, and thereby extract maximum productivity at minimum cost.
Although the reduction of human utility precedes the reduction of the utility of outdoor goods and services, the latter is more easily understood. No better example of the useless outdoor product exists than the off-road car or truck. Ostensibly these vehicles enhance one’s ability to explore places that are beyond the reach of standard passenger vehicles, leaving aside the ridiculous proposition that one explores inside a car. The labels 4×4, off-road, and four-wheel-drive were created to signify to subjects that with these speciaized vehicles they would have enhanced ability to experience remote places such as forests, deserts, mountains, rivers, and beaches. At the time of their invention, off-road vehicles drove much the same routes as 2-wheel drive vehicles. Their primary benefit was a “little extra” to traverse roads with poor traction. They were not mutually exclusive with 2WD vehicles, only somewhat better on bad roadways. And initially, in the form of the first Jeeps, they were cheaper than other cars and almost exotic. Later their greater cost was a reflection of the more complex transmission; indeed the only significant difference between 2WD and 4WD vehicles was the transmission.
In 2022, a Jeep Rubicon costs about $40,000, which is a drop in the bucket for a fully customized “outdoor” Jeep that runs just under $125k, and that’s before you’ve added on all the other extra gear to prove your outdoor bona fides: the high lift jack, the air compressor, recovery straps, snatch block, backup gas cans, fire extinguisher … all of which go to create a museum-piece vehicle that no one will ever drive in a challenging off-road environment. If they did, the thing might get dirty. The paint might get chipped. Something might break. And at $125k+, who in the world wants to damage their Jeep using it for the purpose it was intended?
This isn’t sarcasm. The finer and more expensive the gear, the less utility it has because of the cost resulting from use, and worse, damage. In cycling as well, riders are loathe to take nice bikes out on rough terrain, even when the bikes are marketed as “mountain” or “gravel.” You’re much more likely to see a $10k mountain bike on the back of a truck or on the bike path than you are to see it bombing down technical singletrack. Riders once did the Tour on unpaved roads for hundreds of miles on bikes that didn’t even have gears; nowadays few people will take an expensive road bike on unpaved terrain, much less race it on unpaved roads for a hundred miles. Part of that fear of damage is well-founded because a fragile, thin-tubed carbon road bike won’t withstand the off-road abuse of a 1960’s steel frame.
It bears asking what the point is of having such fancy, expensive outdoors equipment if you’re afraid to use it, or if it won’t withstand the actual outdoors? The answer is simple: you’re not supposed to use it outdoors, you’re supposed to use it as part of the digital appearance you are creating in lieu of having to go outdoors. Because equipment is fancier, more specialized, and more expensive, it has less utility, and this diminished utility discourages people from experiencing outside. One of my favorite examples is a very fancy Ford pickup with the clearance to roll over Mt. Everest. I see it every day, spotless, parked in a “reserved” parking spot … at the neighboring high school. This perfectly bears out the relationship between outdoors equipment and their actual utility outdoors, which for most subjects is zero. The outdoor product, service, or event enhances the appearance that you engage in experience outside, an appearance that is almost wholly fake.
Owning equipment that is too precious to use is one effective method of keeping people indoors, chained to the algorithm, but more effective and ongoing is the continual diminution of human utility itself. All of modern life is oriented around the chair and the couch. Offices, hospitals, libraries, parks–you name it, the posture we are forced to assume most of the time is sitting, and modern sitting, an unnatural posture that we have not adapted to, facilitates the rapid degradation of our ability to move and enhances our attraction to services and goods that, through sitting, additionally diminish our mobility.
Leaving aside the incompatibility of cars and RV’s with experiencing the outdoors, as they explicitly require you to remain contained, enclosed, indoors, they fundamentally oppose mobility by keeping the subject seated. Yet this is not being seated in the old way, where people sat on the ground and had to continually get up using an entire complex of leg, back, and abdominal muscles, and where the act of being seated required joint flexibility to sit for long periods cross-legged or on one’s knees, nor was it the true seated posture of people which is actually a squat. No, this form of sitting on a chair, couch, or bench is a form of reclining that wholesale demolishes the musculature, tendons, and ligaments required for mobility, and as research shows, degrades the entire body organism as well.
Sitting is the requirement for most outdoors experience and the shortcut to rendering the body useless. Hence its ubiquity. Hence the presence of sitting devices as requisite for camping, watching outdoor events, existing.
Sitting shortens the hamstrings so that the subject can’t straighten the body without pulling on the lower back muscles, creating chronic back pain. As little as thirty minutes of sitting can cause inflammation in the knee joint that will make bearing weight on your knees extremely painful and over time can cause chronic joint issues. It causes loss of function of hip flexors resulting in a total loss of ability to get from a low position to a standing one.
Studies show that sitting is worse than smoking. Habitual inactivity raises risks for obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, deep-vein thrombosis, and metabolic syndrome. There is significant evidence showing that certain cytokines/chemokines are involved in not only the initiation but also the persistence of pathologic pain by directly activating nociceptive sensory neurons. Certain inflammatory cytokines are also involved in nerve-injury/inflammation-induced central sensitization, and are related to the development of contralateral hyperalgesia/allodynia.
In contrast to inflammatory cytokines, the body also produces myokines; primarily, they are involved in exercise-associated metabolic changes, as well as in the metabolic changes following training adaptation. They also participate in tissue regeneration and repair, maintenance of healthy bodily functioning, immunomodulation, and cell signaling, expression and differentiation. Importantly, the receptors for myokines are primarily found in muscles, which we now know function as an endocrine system, part of whose function is to reduce inflammation. In other words, movement and muscular activity counteract the damage caused by sitting.
Sitting was instituted as the posture of capitalism long before scientists understood why sitting is so bad, because sitting demobilizes the body and therefore the mind and also because it allows for extreme control. When pulled over by the cops, they make you sit on the curb for a reason.
The diminished utility of the body is further effected by conditioning subjects to diets that complement the sitting lifestyle with obesity. Obesity, like sitting, is fundamentally incompatible with experiencing the outdoors, and like sitting it allows detailed control but over the mental sphere as well as the physical.
Obesity conditions subjects to remain in proximity to junk food and conditions them to require quantities and gustatory sensations unavailable outdoors. Obesity conditions subjects to have their meals prepared for them and conditions them to pay the highest possible price for cheap foodstuffs that can ordinarily be cooked at little expense. But most importantly, obesity degrades the body so that it cannot cope with the variety of movements and exertions that accompany outdoor experience, and even for those obese people who are able to experience the outdoors, most are conditioned to fear it and avoid it due to discomfort and risk of injury.
The diminished utility of the human body and the products that supposedly enhance outdoor experience result in a reduction of the difficulty of activities that are on offer to the public. No better example are the design standards for trails at national parks, which are geared to the specific and significant limitations of most people, resulting in viewing areas accessible only a few feet from the parking lot and that can be circumnavigated, like Disneyland, on flat, grippy surfaces safe for even the least mobile. It is control through deconditioning packaged as equal access.
Social media allows the subject to preserve the appearance of doing something hard even though the activity itself has been greatly eased. You see this easing of activity while the imagery and language of the activity falsely indicate more difficulty, not less, in many semantics as well as actual event offerings.
For example, it is rather common to take an event, signify it as difficult, then make the event easier while still retaining the semantics of the more difficult event. Recall “Everesting,” the act of climbing 35,000 feet on a single ride? This quickly gave way to doing a “half-Everest,” which suggests a difficulty not present in “I climbed 17,500 feet.”
Ditto for the half-marathon, the half-Ironman, the half-century, the metric century, and cycling events that “offer” any number of watered-down rides that still operate under the semantics of the original, difficult event. The Belgian Waffle Ride began as a single long, difficult event. Ten years later the majority of participants select the shorter, easier courses, the “B” ride as it were, one less than 30 miles, including a course for motorized bicycles as if that were even cycling, yet all participate under the semantic of the “Belgian Waffle Ride” and its rubric of difficulty, wear costumes that incorporate the semantics without defining the actual easier category that was ridden, and celebrate together, regardless of course selected, the accomplishment of paying money to ride a bicycle on public roads. The celebration of choice? A specially made beer called “Badass Ale,” available to all, badasses, goodasses, cupcake asses, and of course assess of the ever-widening variety.
This reduction in difficulty while maintaining the semantics of difficulty is everywhere made possible by the algorithm, which provides venues to showcase things that never happened and that never will. Weaker, less mobile people can adopt postures of achievement that are impossible to replicate in actual outdoors experience, further weakening them, further discouraging them from difficult events, and incentivizing event organizers to offer more easier categories.
It is a death spiral of health and utility, and as utility decreases, more money is spent on more specialized equipment that will never be used for the purpose it was ostensibly made. The net effect is further restriction of access to the outdoors, delivered by people whose events supposedly promote … being outdoors.
Before and after marketing
This nonstop cycle of individual promotion in order to create appearances that don’t align with experience has a paradoxical effect on marketing and promotion, i.e. the systematic untruths told to sell the activity or event.
Before, promotion was almost wholly a kind of drum-beating that occurred before the purchase or the event. Marketing and its untruths were used to hype, exaggerate, excite, and to stimulate the purchase of superfluous things. Once the event or the purchase occurred, marketing became silent because there was nothing further it could do or that it wanted to do. The money had been pocketed and now the focus was on selling to those who hadn’t yet purchased or participated, or the focus was on spreading untruths about a new product or service. On to the next one.
The post-purchase or post-event promotion was left largely to the news and the journalists, industry hacks, and professional reviewers who stamped something as failure or success.
Now, the algorithm has transformed marketing into a continuous loop of untruths that are far more effective than the old concatenation of lies. Post-purchase or post-event marketing is actually as important or more important than the pre-marketing, and even better, much of it is done by the consumer/participant at no cost to the capitalist. This post-marketing occurs as “day-after” posts on social media, where each consumer details their personal experience with the purchase. This is the entire business model of Yelp and Tripadvisor, post-marketing in the form of reviews that seem to be authentic because there is no overt scripting of the review by the provider of the good/service.
Of course nothing could be further from the truth because even though an individual seller cannot control the review, Yelp/Amazon etc. do. They apply strict policies to reviews, rank the reviewers, employ all manner of editing policies that, for example, disallow profanity, in order to create a marketing sandbox that in the aggregate is happy, positive, and that encourages consumption. And most limiting and prejudicial of all, they and only they are arbiters of which goods, services, or events are allowed in the sandbox.
Post-purchase marketing is aggressively pushed by events that have drone video footage, extensive “How the race was won” write-ups by various participants, and professionally produced photo galleries that show everyone who wasn’t there what they missed, and that show everyone who was there how much more amazing they were than they even knew.
The constant selling and the intentional easing of difficulty while pretending that everyone did the “hard” thing has the effect of further increasing the fakery so that people can augment their appearance far beyond what they actually experienced. But it has the drawback of cognitive dissonance–the actual human knows they didn’t complete the event, couldn’t do the most difficult task, failed to utilize their body or their specialized equipment properly, while claiming/pretending/suggesting that they did. And the psyche does not well tolerate such deceptions when they are occurring all the time about everything the subject does.
Your amazing bike. Your amazing camping trip. Your amazing friends. Your amazing makeup. Your amazing everything. Yet in some kind of objective or absolute sense it doesn’t matter at all whether you did the hard ride or the easy one, whether you finished or quit, whether you took that badass Jeep up that badass trail or, like everyone else, sat it in a parking lot. What matters is that you, through the algorithm, made your actual experience appear more impressive, difficult, amazing than you know that it was, and it’s this, the element of fakery, that depresses, stresses, and induces anxiety in the psyche because the mind knows those things didn’t happen, and therefore doubles down as follows: it increases the fakery through the algorithm and it further avoids those outdoor, real world experiences that would result in exposing the fakery and the lie.
Increasing the fakery results in more stress and anxiety: how many people liked it? Who reposted it? And avoiding the real world experiences that would expose the fakery further locks the subject into an ever-smaller incarcerating space, the space of the screen, the house, the office, the madhouse.
The process of continual marketing locks everyone into the eternal prison of appearance and locks the subject out of the only place that could possibly free them: our birthright, the inheritance of our entire genome, our community, or very humanity, a/k/a the great outdoors.
*Many of the ideas in this blog are my brilliant girlfriend’s, who is smart af.
March 11, 2022 Comments Off on Cabin fever
I was holed up in the mountains waiting for the weather to break long enough so that I could reach the flatlands without freezing.
There was a split blanket of gray across the sky that promised freezing rain or snow or sunshine, in other words, no promise at all. The constant fire indoors slowly reduced the green almond logs to a bed of red coals, throwing its heat out steadily, inviting a bit more proximity with each passing hour.
What is out there? How can you find it?
The surest way is to start walking. The next best option is to start pedaling. The lamest option is a car or an RV. The death option is social media or the Internet.
What is out there? How can you find it?
I think you have to first choose your search mode. Will you search as a human, or as a human interacting with the algorithm, or as a trans-human, integrated with and fully programmed by the algorithm?
Human search is unattractive and results in ugly feet, ugly faces, worn bodies, bowed backs, wrinkled eyes, scarred and wounded skin. Most embarrassingly it ends in death. Human search is analog and depends on the frail, incomplete, often erroneous functioning of the five senses as integrated by the crazy, idiosyncratic brain. The curse of human searching is that it produces profound inner beauty at the cost of extraordinary external ugliness. And the longer the search the more hideous the visage, however underlain with inordinate strength, wisdom, and humanity the spirit may be.
Search as a human interacting with the algorithm results in no inner beauty but achieves external perfection. Infinite filters, minute manipulation of appearance, and following the path that the algorithm knows you like based on your lifetime digital trail of breadcrumbs (cleverly dropped by the algorithm) leads you to a nirvana of appearance where everything looks better and prettier and happier than it did with the old analog Trinity of trial-error-ugly.
Search with the algorithm has the sad defect though of neither finding contentment nor creating inner beauty. It trades external appearance for wisdom, contentment, and mercy in exchange for likes, kudos, and swipe rights.
Search as a trans-human, with a downloadable consciousness, immortal and immoral, wholly independent of a physical body, is actually no search at all. And although it’s not yet in stores, it’s coming soon to a Target near you. Along with it will come omniscience, the instantaneous transferability of consciousness, and the consignment to oblivion of the questions “What is out there? How do I find it?”
The pure trans-human algorithm, in short, will allow everyone to feel individually omnipotent, though the true omnipotence will be exercised by the algorithm, each person’s personal iGod. For a small fee, of course. Oh, and you’ll be happy, too, or rather you’ll be emotionally inert because discontent, along with its mirror image, contentment, will no longer exist.
Yay. Such a utopia, where everyone is a Thing, at least those who can afford the software. That doesn’t sound like a great option if like me you are still non-downloadable consciousness residing in a meatbag.
So however ugly it makes you, human search seems like the best option for those who are still more analog, that is human, than for those who are more digital. Perhaps the best indicator of where you lie on the scale is your participation in digital social networks. High participation? Lots of accounts? Lots of online gaming? Then maybe the human way isn’t for you. But it is for me. It’s how I grew up, and my dabbling in digital life over the last two decades has convinced me that digital delivers the worst of all worlds. Digital life lets my appearance be created independently of my experience, or rather, my digital experience is my appearance. I don’t need to actually do anything in the analog, human world in order to appear digitally perfect.
The sky stopped its dithering and unloaded a few inches of white stuff overnight, effectively ending any plans for an early departure, or any departure at all. The northern escape route up and over the high Sierra passes became nothing but snow and ice, conditions that ruled out bicycling.
This unwanted and unexpected weather proved a lovely starting point for the things I intend to write, if I continue writing at all. That’s the nicest thing about not having a daily publication schedule, or any schedule to speak of. I suppose the second nicest thing is not having to fit almost everything into a morsel that readers can ingest during the pre-ride potty perch.
What is out there? How do you find it?
The omnipresence and omniscience of the algorithm have caused it to become the default manner in which we experience. Indeed, it’s not possible to explore without heavy reliance upon it. The weather app and Google maps are obvious pillars of exploration and experience but they only touch the surface of how deeply we now live at the direction of algorithms, or when called by their true name, machine intelligence and control. Ideas about where to go, what to do, as well as how and when to do it are piped into our brains by non-human commands, prompts, and ideologies.
It would be nice to live without those crutches, but, I fear, impossible.
However, it is possible to experience and explore with a stripped-down algorithm, living as it were more towards the human end of the scale. In fact, mental health requires it because the digital reality of #socmed creates such extraordinary cognitive dissonance when you actually do go outside and try to explore beyond the edges of your phone or computer screen. That’s why they have filters, avatars, and soon enough fully functional trans-humans, because the actual practice of riding your bike without digital enhancement results in the unhappy conclusion that you are fat, ugly, slow, lost, and old, all things that are robustly suppressed from your curated digital life via the algorithms of Strava, IG, and their ilk.
But back to the inconvenience of the snowstorm, because it created a nasty little analog obstacle that could be painlessly handled by photographing and posting on #socmed, or unpleasantly handled by spending more time in the cabin with nothing to do, or by going outside and freezing en route to a better space.
A fork in the road, as it were, and as with all such forks the best thing to do, in the words of Yogi Berra, was to “take it.”
Off the mountain
It’s hard to take the first step but it’s so easy.
After a couple of hours I had left the bitter temperatures and snow, and except for dodging patches of black ice, the drop down the canyon into the valley was uneventful.
At the bottom, green and sunshine bathed the earth as if spring had already arrived, rendering superfluous and hot the wool clothing required by only a few thousand feet of altitude up the road. The first campground wanted $28 for the privilege of water and toilet paper and proximity to noisy RV generators, but water was plentiful elsewhere, ducks and river make sweeter lullabies than generators, and toilet paper is one of the first things any thoughtful sojourner jettisons.
After some investigative stomping down trails, a beautiful campground revealed itself, well, beautiful except for the trash left by picnickers of fall. Coots, mergansers, cormorants, geese, and a pair of cinnamon teal fed along the shallow rapids by the far bank, and an area that is normally filled with people and their music provided silence and solitude along with a night chill that quickly reminded you of winter’s presence, however much in decline.
The morning arrived coldly, and there was no reason to budge from the warmth of the down except that little thing, hunger. After breakfast and coffee I headed down what ended up being close to forty miles of bike path. The sensation of riding along, wholly unaccompanied by cars or for that matter other cyclists, was divine.
Can you experience being alone via social networks? Or rather solitude–because almost everyone online seems frightfully alone.
Out here in the fields
Most people want to be free without ever really inquiring as to the nature of freedom. Whatever it is, as the old saying goes, it isn’t free. The cost and the failure to inquire are problems if you want to see what is out in the world, to try and understand whether your life has meaning and if so what that meaning is, aside from the dominant characteristic of an existence that springs from nature, which itself springs from the universe, a place that in its most fundamental essence is random and wholly without caring for you as an individual any more than it cares for any other atom, photon, quark, or collection of them.
The modality of freedom, in whatever degree, requires some corresponding form of independence and the ability to self-direct. Scientists seek autonomy in their research so that they can follow the clues; explorers seek autonomy to choose the best path; artists seek autonomy to create that which seems most fitting. And though the degree of autonomy sought is never the degree actually attained, its presence is necessary.
Independence and self-direction are of course the enemies of capitalism and of capitalism’s necessary components of authoritarianism and the sciences it develops to maximize profit. You want to explore? The first set of blinders lying in your path is the algorithm.
For obvious reasons the algorithm usurps independence of thought, or better said, it emphasizes and focuses one type of thought to the exclusion of countless others. That thought type is the one that centers on consumption and its counterpart, the free extraction of labor (think content creation on social media) for the profit of a business like Facebook, or your unpaid work of photos and product reviews which earns money for Amazon or which wholly supports a company like Yelp.
But the algorithm is only the first snare. The second is an outdated and rather quaint notion that nonetheless exists in ever smaller quantities, stamped out as it is by the algorithm, and that is the notion of humanity, of a collectively shared set of needs and values that identify us as a species.
Humanity gets in the way, still. The moment we seek to act independently we run into the opposition of other humans. “Why are you doing that?” “You should do something else.” “What you are doing is bad thoughtless silly wasteful harmful selfish dangerous insensitive childish unoriginal offensive illegal immoral impossible impractical illogical doomed to fail.”
On the one hand we are led by the algorithm and its capitalist overlords, on the other we are hemmed in by judgment, and since the judgment can now be immediately augmented and intensified through digital networks driven by (surprise!) the algorithm, a perfect prison strips us of freedom to act.
Even if you turn off the phone and cancel the accounts, there is little relief in store for the freedom seeker. Why? Because you quickly find that being free of others means others being free of you. Friends, family, people in the larger community, once jettisoned stay jettisoned. Who has your back? That would be … you. More importantly, who is left to give you a kudo, a like? Who is left to validate that amazing bicycle ride that is the most unique cycling event in the country? The absence of your hand-picked digital cheerleading squad means that the only person who will know about your amazingness is you. That’s worse than boring, it’s isolating and lonely.
It’s no wonder that fear of isolation drives people to the false security of digital appearance. Every costume masks a fear and the digital costume cloaks your fears of unattractiveness, poverty, powerlessness, failure, age, and worst of all, ordinariness. Freedom, the autonomy to direct your own actions and burn in hell as a consequence, is the greatest fear of all, that’s why it is costumed with job titles, addresses, silly cycling outfits, boob jobs, and voluntary enslavement to the algorithm.
And what’s most distressing is that the terror of being found out as ordinary is infinitely compounded by the algorithm, the very thing that was supposed to allay, then banish it, and vault you into the Kardashian sphere of amazing, of “most unique.”
Three case studies in freedom
In July of 2020 I ran across a guy named Dave and wrote about him here. A few days ago while pedaling down the coast I had to pull over and remove my jacket.
“Taking a break?” a voice called out to me.
There by the roadside was Dave, same jacket, same hat, same smile, but different bike and about thirty miles north from where we had first met. He was still living outdoors in Big Sur on his monthly income of $197. He was surprised that I remembered him, and we had a lively but brief conversation. “How have you been?” I asked.
“So good!” he replied. “Life just keeps getting better!” I wondered how many people feel that way.
“What about you?” he asked.
“Oh, still trying to make sense out of life,” I said, lamely.
“That’s your problem! It doesn’t make any sense. None of it. I didn’t realize it until a year or so ago, it hit me, there isn’t any reason or answer. And you know what?”
“I quit fucking looking. Gave up. Accepted it. And I have been so happy since that moment. Take it from me, there is no answer to learn, no dream to catch, no future. You’ll feel better when you quit looking, I guarantee it.”
We talked a bit longer and then I continued on. He was largely although not completely disconnected from the Internet, and had undertaken his search in almost purely analog fashion. He lived outdoors, got by on the beneficence of others, and even had a pretty fancy bike. He answered to no one, obeyed no capitalist overlord, managed no retirement account, and passed every day beholden, as far as I could tell, to nothing but hunger, exhaustion, and the elements. He looked gaunt but healthy and strong, warmly clothed, and well rested to put it mildly.
This guy’s search had an ending that was too nihilistic for me, but you can’t deny that he came by it honestly, with all his chips in. He has spent seven years alone with himself and his freedom, and has reached an outcome that is rational and content.
The price of this freedom, this contentment, and the analog search for it, at least for him, appears to be poverty, old clothes, and deep, enduring weathering upon all his features. If he were an Instagram filter it would be called “gnarly.” Dave is search in the old modality, where suffering accompanies revelation, where struggle leads to strength, where conviction is born inside and hardened through life, where the seeker is the measure of himself rather than the tropes, conventions, prejudices, and terrors of culture and the economic enslavement that direct it.
The second case study in freedom is a very different person, someone who once appeared to me as sincere and interested in the search for more than the superficial. One day by chance I discovered that he was a thrall to his digital persona. He was sitting at his laptop and I glanced at the screen. On it were several open social media accounts and he was madly typing as he tried to keep up with the second-by-second evolution of his digital self.
That’s when I realized that my perceptions of him, though largely shaped by in-person interactions, were in fact a function of the amazing life he presented in four or five digi-simul dimensions to himself and then to the world. And since I knew the details of much of his analog life, I could easily see how false and contrived his digital life actually was, not false because he said things that were in and of themselves untrue but because he omitted key facts, actually everything, that he thought might detract from his digital appearance. Massive and ongoing lies of omission are hardly unusual in social media realms; everyone in the digital sandbox knows that everyone else is distorting through their teeth. But as long as the dopamine comes, who cares?
This guy, who I’ll call the Semi-tar, serves as a counterpoint to unhoused Dave, his ragged clothes, his poverty, and his rough teeth. Semi-tar, like Dave, started out a a seeker, too. He was caught in the capitalist trap of being made to believe that he was financially inadequate, and so, living in one of earth’s epicenters of social status-seeking and conspicuously “understated” consumption, he had to continually present every endeavor as a smashing success, every acquisition as the embodiment of cool, every trinket and gold star awarded one of his kids as the mark of genius, i.e., his.
Like many caught in the trap, he strove to escape it but unlike Dave his technique was reliance on an ever greater arsenal of digital fakery, which in turn intensified the pressure for everything to be better than the last thing, which was already the best thing, such that superlatives became not indicators of degree but rather monikers that had to accompany every activity no matter how mundane.
Always wearing the right shade of casual chic, face always framed in the latest hairdo and glasses that said “older but still young af,” the right car for the right impression, and of course only the finest in cycling apparel and equipment; these and countless other accoutrements had to be dragged with him wherever he went and whatever he did in the impossible attempt to make the analog him match the digital him.
At my age you should know that the only secret to travel is to travel light.
Nonetheless he feebly searched for contentment, but since he had to carry all that shit with him, and since he had to appear perfect in all his digital dimensions, he never got anywhere with his search for meaning and worse, he became increasingly frantic about the enlightenment that eluded him. The failure to find freedom in digital appearances reflected itself everywhere. His unhappy home life, his stressed and unhappy children, his smashing successes that were purely ordinary, all these things resulted in a profoundly conflicted life that could only be endured with alcohol, and a lot of it. And of course when your freedom is simply the freedom to be drunk, your enslavement is complete.
If I know so much about Semi-tar it’s because I spent plenty of time in the same hell, and as they say, you can’t bullshit a bullshitter.
Whereas Dave, by exercising freedom in his pursuit of meaning, paid the price of external hardship for internal peace, Semi-tar is perpetually chained to the algorithms, still toiling at how to seem externally perfect, while inside he is empty, miserable, terrified, lost. He’s traded the possibility of and freedom for appearance and he represents almost everyone on earth who actively participates on social media networks. You cannot seek out meaning and find contentment while chained to the dictates of the algorithm because they are opposite outcomes.
The third case study involves trans-humanism. In a few years there will be a large class of people who do not simply interact with the algorithm but who are integrated with and directly instructed by it. The ultimate aim of computer science is to replace organic systems with digital ones and even though the ideal of that is represented by the cyborg or the more loveable C3PO from vintage Star Wars mythology, the actual form of the first complete trans-humans will be much more prosaic and is in fact already well on the way towards completion. These are the fully functioning avatars, digitally remastered versions of our ordinary analog selves.
The fully functional avatar will have all the advantages of the purely analog human in that is driven by and responsive to organic human needs and desires, and none of the disadvantages that leak out in the form of unpleasing appearance. No jowls, no saggy stomach, no bald spot, no weak chin, and more importantly, no imperfections in behavior. The fully functional avatar will be able to “succeed” at every task posed to it whether it be an exam, a singing contest, a bike race, or the answer to a complex problem. Underlain by an ordinary, stinking and sweating human body, the fully digitized conscience of the avatar will erase the cognitive dissonance experienced by current humanity exemplified by my acquaintance Semi-tar, that is, there will be no gap between the appearance of the avatar and the “things” that it experiences.
Whereas Semi-tar appears handsome and youthful and virile online, though at home he is spurned by his wife, the trans-human avatar will look handsome/beautiful and succeed at all of his/her romances. In much the same way that technology currently exists to trick the senses into believing that they have seen, heard, smelled, felt, or eaten something through manipulation of nerve receptors, the fully functional avatar will allow the sweating, stinking human underneath to actually experience sensual satiety without ever having to, for example, eat a cookie, drink a glass of water, or touch another body.
What does this have to do with the search for meaning? Everything, because it points out the end goal of the algorithm, which is to strip the organic human of its sense of agency and allow the sense of agency to be purely determined by the algorithm. In short, the predicate for the trans-human is a complete abdication of freedom, total enslavement. This forecloses any search for meaning and walls off any possibility of contentment. Mr. Semi-tar at least theoretically has the capacity to cancel the accounts and turn off the phone, but the trans-human is the phone, the social media account, the bank account, the clot of each and every digital agglomeration of data ever assembled about it. Because it truly is an “it.”
Sleight of mind
The key to understanding all marketing is the simple concept of opposition. The best marketing cloaks the product’s true purpose, which is always unnecessary at the price offered or is actually bad, with its inverse, which is always good.
Guns, for example, which are dangerous and made for control through killing and the threat of killing, are marketed for self-safety and freedom.
Phones, which are made to control behavior, are marketed for freedom (of work, play, communication, shopping, travel).
Cars, which are made to control movement of people, are expensive, dangerous, inconvenient, and dirty, and are therefore marketed for freedom of mobility, environmental cleanliness, convenience, economy, and safety.
Since the thing that all systems seek to exert is control, of course the most popular marketing deception is to emphasize a non-existent or significantly curtailed freedom. Wherever you see the words “free” or “freedom” in a marketing pitch, you can be certain that what is being sold is some form of quite odious control. Capitalism is a system of control that operates in the most minute spheres: control over location, time, the physical condition of each subject’s body, and the spiritual state of each subject’s mind must all be regulated in order to extract the most value from each subject for the longest period of time. When the subject is all used up, it is described as “retired,” a synonym for “free,” which is in turn code for “severely constrained by age, health, money, or all three.” Hence the fetishism of freedom that oozes out in some places and gushes out in others to counteract the cognitive dissonance that arises when capitalism tells you that, for example, you can achieve freedom simply by working harder, as if the invisible constraints of capital, age, inheritance, race, gender, geography, and class do not exist. Hence the fetishism of freedom surrounding retirement, telling subjects they are finally free to live the life they want even though they no longer have the body, mind, or money to do it, and are instead relegated to golf courses, senior apartment communities, and RVs.
Below are three of my favorite freedom tropes, each cloaking a terrible control, an enslavement, that people cheerfully regard as the apogee of freedom. If you really care about the search for meaning, about contentment, and about what avenues remain for you to explore the world, constrained as it is by digital controls, then you have to understand more than why freedom matters; you have to understand the imagery created by capitalism to prevent you from seeing how limited your freedom actually is and thereby preventing you from seizing it.
The freeway. I love the freeway as an almost perfect inversion of truth and falsehood in order to trick you into thinking that you are experiencing freedom rather than crushing control. The word itself is laughably false; there is nothing free about the freeway, either in terms of cost or liberty. The easiest part of the deception to analyze is the implication that freeways are economically without cost because they are “free” to enter and drive upon. All you need is a car, insurance, fuel, license(s), in many cases actual tolls (these are toll freeways, a beautiful exercise in dissimulation if ever there was one), taxes, and/or fee-based tickets to ride the conveyance such as a bus, that operates on the freeway. In this sense the freeway is a costway and it is described as free in order to cloak the extraordinary expense of building and maintaining what is in its basic essence a low-cost (for the capitalist) transit way for 18-wheelers delivering goods and services nationwide for corporate profit while paid for with public tax revenue.
The costway is an essential control feature of capitalism because it allows exact distribution of goods and services in such a way as to maximize profit earned by the capitalist and to minimize wages paid to the workers who drive the trucks. But in order to convince the paying public that the costway is a freeway, it is marketed as free access, and as a “way” that allows the free driver to escape, explore, and to exercise at-will mobility when traveling, especially to work. Of course anyone who has ever heard of rush hour knows that the costway is the least efficient way to get to work. Speaking to the slow speeds, the danger, stress, and wasted time, the costway delivers exactly the minimum freedom of mobility at the times of day when mobility is at its very highest value. How can the phrase, “I’m stuck in traffic on the freeway” make any sense unless you accept that “freeway” has nothing to with “free”?
Nor is the costway an arena that allows freedom even of the manner of driving. Speed limits, speed traps, road design, and the great bulk of a detailed state vehicle code strictly regulate the way that you can operate your vehicle on the costway, and indeed, which vehicles may even enter it. Rather than being a place where you can operate freely, the costway is a tightly controlled space that enforces its non-freedom with fines, arrest, and imprisonment. Exactly as in prison, you are free to do what they say you can do, that is, you have the freedom to obey.
The cultural marketing of the freeway is as an avenue of discovery and exploration. “Road trip,” “driving cross country” and the like are phrases that denote an open road free of barriers, allowing escape from urban or other confines in order to explore. Yet the freeway is precisely the arena that people seek to leave first when they want to see new sights. “Sightseeing on the freeway” is generally impossible due first to the high speed of travel and second due to the general ugliness of freeway corridors. This means that people remain on the costway not because it is an avenue of discovery, but because it is predictable, because there are plenty of motels and fast food, because you can’t get lost, because you can get help, because your RV rig doesn’t do well on twisting back roads, etc. etc. etc. They stay there because they are only comfortable when surrounded by the indicia of control. Control of food, fuel, direction, assistance, road quality, and speed are what keep people on the freeway, not freedom.
There is nothing real about the perceived and marketed freedom of the freeway. Yet we refuse to reject it in favor of cheaper, cleaner, safer travel ways because we have already accepted the untruth that it is free. The inability to recognize control makes the exercise of freedom impossible except by random chance or the dumbest of luck. This substitution of meanings, truth for falsehood, underlies the language of George Orwell’s book 1984, and is a core concept for participating in social media, where someone can, with a straight face, describe his bike event as the “most unique,” when any fool knows that uniqueness doesn’t admit of degree, and even if it did, that one silly afternoon riding here and there can’t possibly be any better or worse in a significant way from any other similarly silly adventure.
The free market. I love listening to people debate free markets because they always immediately agree that regulation is necessary. Libertarians and laissez-faire capitalists, those unicorns, even agree that somewhere, somehow, sometime, some type of regulation is necessary. Even those who think that there should be free trade of nuclear weapons, even among individuals, will agree that such weapons should not be sold to, for example, small children with severe mental illness.
Yet the phrase “free market” persists, though no one believes in it, no one advocates for it, and all such discussions are not about whether markets should be free but rather how much regulation is acceptable. From beginning to end, the only market that anyone can conceptualize is a regulated one, but the phrase “regulated markets” is used only in conjunction with non-capitalist despotic political systems, or with socialism. So why insist on describing any market as free? Obviously, to cloak the system’s real purpose, which is control of the very strictest kind, that is, control of capital and control of wages.
All economies by definition are control systems and they differ only in the degree and methodology of control. So why do we discuss the chimera of a free-market economy rather than the reality of our Control Economy Based on Regulation of Capital and Labor by Those Who Own the Capital? Again, obviously, because such a description reminds the subjects of the system that they are a) subjects and b) subject to someone else’s control, i.e. they are not free.
By calling it a free market economy there is a built-in explanation for why you are poor, or what is worse, why some are richer than you are, or worst of all, why you can’t afford the trinkets and symbols that connote success. The explanation is that you were free and are free to succeed, but you have failed due to your own deficiencies and bad choices, not because the system is regulated to assure the success of a few at the expense of the many.
A free market defends itself from criticism the same way that a coach rationalizes a player’s injury: you knowingly assumed the risks and you failed. A free market says that you were free to succeed and free to fail, it’s all on you. The rigged nature of the system is unassailed outside universities, themselves advocates for the rigged system.
Internet search. Although not described as free, Internet search is pushed as a no-cost method to obtain information, ignoring the cost of a device and the cost of accessing the Internet. Internet search is impliedly free, though in fact it isn’t, and its marketing inversion, switching bad for good, is one of the biggest swindles in history, used as it is to drive an entire system of control in the guise of providing information for free.
Internet search exists solely to take you to advertisers who have paid a fee to the company that owns the browser. It is extremely lucrative, so lucrative in fact that it is is very difficult to buy a Microsoft laptop, for example, and extricate yourself from the clutches of its built-in browser. But the marketing deception, the inversion of truth and falsity, occurs in the very word “search,” because Internet search is nothing of the sort. Search implies that you have autonomously chosen to look for something for some particular reason. There may be some type of starting point where an Internet searcher at one point did just that. But after only the briefest of uses, Internet search begins compiling a database about you that allows it to direct what you are looking for and what you are going to find. In the process it exposes you to hard core merchandising tailored to you, exactly you.
Contrast that with library search before computers. You would look up a term in a reference book and then look up all of the periodicals or other publications that dealt with the term in the library’s stacks. Of course this was its own form of controlled search, since you were limited to the entries in the reference and to the available books in the stacks. But those entries were never paid for and they never drew you back to a purchasing choice. More importantly, going through the stacks you did something that was called browsing. You randomly flipped through shit that caught your eye. But what caught your eye was truly random. No librarian arranged the books so that you would notice a cookbook by Julia Child and something about the food eaten by Mr. Pickwick in The Pickwick Papers. In this way, a natural sort of exploration has been stolen, and its meaning inverted by Internet search, where a browser is something that feeds you pre-selected items according to what it knows about you in a way to force your selection of something that is for sale.
Browsers do the opposite of letting you browse. They control what you read and constrain your freedom of thought. A whole body of research exists regarding the effects that this has on the organization and development of neural pathways. Suffice it to say that browsing and Internet searching decommission the ability of your brain to function independently. One example of this is the complete degradation of wayfinding by reliance on GPS. Another is the loss of memory that occurs when you read a factoid on the Internet rather than having to read through numerous articles to find an answer or, more dauntingly, reach conclusions of your own. The corollary to this degraded memory is that people who obtain their knowledge from the Internet have a massive proclivity to believe that the knowledge is something they came up with, discovered, or even invented. Internet search steals the neural function of search and analysis, strips memory, and replaces it with the appearance of knowledge. In fact, the more you use the Internet for search, the better you become at it even as your brain’s ability to recall what it has found precipitously degrades.
Free search, indeed.
Why should you accept the sales proposition that has been so skillfully engineered through the architecture of the Internet and its “free” functions of “search” and social media? That’s easy enough. You’re lazy. I’m lazy. Humans are lazy, as are dogs and cats and flies and bacteria because we are all subject to the physical laws that constrain the particles from which we are made, one of which, famously, is that an object at rest tends to remain so unless acted on by an outside force. We prefer to remain at rest due to our very nature, ergo sitting instead of walking, driving instead of cycling, t.v. instead of books, Google search instead of browsing the stacks.
Laziness used to be something called rest, and you did it because the physical demands of life were intense. Activity was the default and you snapped up the rest when you could get it. Now it’s the inverse. You needn’t expend any but the most minimal calories in order to live, and global obesity reflects it. That physical inactivity, thanks to the algorithm, has now infected the brain and actively robs each digital technology user of some degree of mental choice and self-direction, directly reducing the degree of actual agency we are capable of exercising. And as actual agency declines, more and more mental activities, to accompany the long-lost physical ones, are forfeited.
In case this sounds like sci-fi gloom and doom, rest assured that it is the actual chief sphere of computer research, that is, how do deliver stimuli to the human brain that are controlled by an algorithm yet that impart the “sense of agency” that is coextensive with human consciousness. Put another way, the completion of capitalism’s control over its subjects occurs when our mental and therefore physical behavior is directed by the capitalist at the same time that we believe we are directing it of our own volition. This is not a screed against capitalism. It’s an observation about how digital technology is used to control its subjects in a capitalist system. A socialist system or other economic/political system would have the same ultimate end, to make its subjects conform to the controls. Whether or not a socialist system would ever develop such technology is another question.
While the multitude plunge ever deeper into online appearance, forsaking it for physical contact with the real world, a/k/a experience, there are nonetheless those who recognize the deeply unsatisfying nature of the virtual, the digital, the fake. To describe it more explicitly, no one seeking contentment can ever find it through digital means. That’s because in order to find contentment you have to search for it, and in order to search for it you must, in some meaningful degree, have the freedom that comes not only with a sense of agency but with actual agency itself. Even full integration with the algorithm will not bring contentment because there will have been no search in the true sense of the word. Contentment will have been supplied, and it will only be satiety, nothing more.
As a manual for reclaiming first one’s sense of agency and finally, actual agency, the steps are simple but searingly hard. Abandon participation in social networks. Make purchasing decisions, including the comparisons that precede the purchase, in the flesh. However impossible it may be to completely abandon the Internet, reduce reliance upon it until you’ve reached the bare minimum, whatever that is. Frame your day in these terms: How much of it was spent looking at a screen?
But even this isn’t enough because all it leaves is a void, and the only way to fill that void in a truly human manner is physical experience with the non-virtual world. Simple as it sounds, this is even harder than reducing reliance on the Internet because we have generations of conditioning that greatly reduce our ability to use our bodies and minds, and worse, we live in such a controlled environment that each avenue of real world experience is thoroughly surveilled and controlled. Parks and roads, which are virtually all that remains of the public domain, are tightly restricted with curfews, fees, and use rules of every sort, while the remainder of the earth, the place that you would have had as your experiential domain a thousand years ago, is fully privatized.
One thing that bicycle touring teaches is the absence of free space and the tight limits placed on where you can be and when. Nonetheless, the few remaining public spaces are the only place left to exercise our historic need to move and seek, and with practice they can be adapted. Even more importantly, as more people live digitally, fewer people use the little public spaces available. In the short term this means opportunity if you want to enter those spaces, though in the long term the principle of “use it or lose it” will apply to those spaces as well.
If obtaining some measure of true agency isn’t motivation enough, there’s always this: the opportunity to sink into the living death of virtuality will always be there. The opportunity to search, to find, to live?
May 20, 2021 Comments Off on Manna from Santini
I’ve been blogging here about bicycles for over ten years. No one has ever emailed to see if I’d be interested in reviewing their product. I suppose that’s because every product I mention or review of my own accord gets tagged with the category “Bullshit Products.”
One time, early on, I did a review of Mad Alchemy Embrocation and sent them the link. It was a very positive review but they were angry, I suppose, at being labeled a “bullshit product.” Then, to spite me, their product seemed to stop working on my legs. Marketers have infinite places they can send products to get a well-written, good review.
I mean, look at this “review” posted on CompetitveCyclist.com of the Santini bib short. It’s high-quality ad copy, and I’m being charitable. More importantly, I’m sure it’s responsible for selling a whole bunch of shorts.
The last thing they need is to have their product used and written about by someone who truly does not give a fuck. But that’s what they are gonna get.
So I was blown away when Santini asked if I’d be interested in reviewing their 2021 gravel line-up. They’d send me free shit, and I’d write about it. Their only requirement was that I send them a link to what I’d written.
I read the email several times. It looked legit. It sounded legit. But why me? Surely they hadn’t ever read my blog. Surely they didn’t think I was going to say anything good. Surely they didn’t think I knew anything about gravel or even cycling. Right?
However, I actually had a love affair with Santini once. It started when Fields came back from his year in Ghent with a duffel full of Santini race wear. Sanson/Campagnolo wool jerseys made by Santini. Shorts made by Santini. So I bought some and became a believer. They were so much better than anything I had ever owned that I wore them out.
But the Santini item that I treasured more than any other was my wool Santini winter jacket with plastic coating on the front. That thing kept me warm through the harshest winters in Japan, through rainstorms in Texas, snow in Colorado … it was truly an amazing piece of cycling clothing. And it never even fell apart, it just fell victim to one of my periodic scorched-earth closet clean-outs. I was living in SoCal, winter there was simply a concept, etc.
Here’s a link to that immortal jacket, fyi.
Rightly figuring that this would be the only time in my life that I get free stuff to review, I immediately responded and told them I’d love to review their gear. They emailed me a catalog, I picked a couple of things, and then never heard from them again.
Until I did.
In the bag was a pair of gravel shorts that looked suspiciously like MTB shorts, and a pair of wool gravel socks.
“K, bitches,” I said. “Prepare for getting your narrow ass reviewed.”
First thing I did was take them out on a bike-a-hike, and I can tell you this: the Santini gravel electric blue short is a must-have for any serious outdoor adventurer, anywhere, whether scaling Annapurna in a bikini or crossing the Pacific by rowboat.
Because this particular short quite simply makes the best rescue flag you will ever find anywhere. It is so bright that by simply running it up a stick, hanging it from a branch, spreading it on a rock, poking it up through an avalanche, or tying it to the mainmast, any search and rescue team will see it for miles. The only down side is that if you are wearing it, your companion will be temporarily blinded each time they glance at the shorts.
If you’re bicycling near cars, it will replace the need for headlights/taillights, which is a big money saver, as the pants don’t need to be plugged in for recharging.
I took the pants out for a pedal on a very challenging dirt-and-rock road, down Old State Road over to Wagy Flat, up Sawmill, and then over Rancheria back to CA 155.
This is only the second pair of dickhiders I’ve ever worn; as a lifelong Lycra adept it was only when I started touring that I got my first pair of roomy, comfortable, MTB dickhiders to replace the nut-deforming and penis-flattening Lycra shorts beloved by Avid Recreational Cyclists everywhere.
The Santini gravel short is incredibly light, and perhaps because it’s Italian it fits a bit more snugly than my American-made dickhiders. This is nice when you don’t want a monsoon blowing up your thighs to chill your balls every time a leg goes up, which, while cycling, they tend to do occasionally.
As important as proper air conditioning for the nutsack is, the blue color of the shorts has the effect of making you look tanner than you really are. Now if there is anything more important in cycling than tan legs, I don’t know what it is, and the shorts will save you scads on tanning cream.
Functionally, they do something kind of unique with the zipper, too. Usually with pants you snap them first and then zip them. But with the Santini Gravel Rescue Ball Conditioning Tanning short, you zip first and then snap. Why? Because the zipper goes all the way up and under the top snap, which, when you snap the top snap, prevents absolutely the zipper from opening up in mid-climb and presenting a gnarly and generally unwanted public wrinkled testicle viewing.
If you’re not champing at the bit for a pair of these babies, there’s more. Namely, the pockets. Unlike my American-made dickhiders, which have pockets too shallow to put anything besides a couple of condoms (and what cyclist ever needs those?), the Santini gravel short has capacious pockets that are deep enough for my 6-inch folding Bowie knife.
Any gravel short that has room for a tool you might use for skinning a grizzly bear is a flat fucking winner.
For finicky gravel riders who can’t stand being dirty, which, I’ve observed, is virtually all of them, the shorts also wash up quickly with nothing more than cold water and a gob of spit.
So you are probably wondering about the socks. How are the socks?
Well, they are tall, which I like. And they are merino wool, which is extremely comfortable. And they are zero profile, which means there’s no slippage or bumping inside the shoe, even when you wear giant Saloman trail running clodhoppers like I do, and even when you have a big toenail that sticks up like a redwood and is more jagged than than a cat’s mouth. They seem sturdy but I can’t really testify to their longevity until I’ve got a couple hundred thousand more miles on them. Even if they fall apart the soft wool will make great mini-earswabs.
In sum, I still can’t believe that Santini sent me this swag. It performs beautifully and makes me look tan. Keeps my nuts the right temp and keeps them from flopping out mid-ride. Gives me the requisite high-sock tanline that says “cyclist wanker” when strolling on the beach.
Plus, free. Did I mention it was free?
March 30, 2021 § 2 Comments
Daniel Holloway is by any measure one of the best amateur bike racers in U.S. history. He was won national road titles, national crit titles, national track titles, and is a multiple winner of virtually every top-tier, marquee, one-day race in America. In 2020 he nearing at the end of a career in which he’d spent the previous three years training for the Tokyo Olympics.
Then bad things happened. Covid, the postponed Olympics, and after all that Holloway ended up on the long team. Even if everything worked perfectly, he still might not have gotten to contend. But it’s a year later and Tokyo is still threatening to hold an Olympics with no spectators, and Holloway is still on the long team.
The window is still open just a crack. Daniel was kind enough to talk with me about what it all means, what’s going with his life, and where he stands as, in any event, this time next year he will likely have closed the door on an illustrious and enviable career as a bike racer.
Seth Davidson: What is the status of your career?
Daniel Holloway: Still pursuing the Olympics on the official long team. That’s been the sole focus since covid started, that was the goal and objective. 2020 didn’t have any racing after March 1, no local crits or anything that was on, I just didn’t participate. Didn’t see any reason, there was no reward worth the risk associated with that. Didn’t want to be another person out in that ecosystem when I didn’t need to be and could be home and healthy. Lockdown sucks but I have a nice wife who is kind to me and I have a nice home so it was easy to be home and not race. It was a relief to not travel and race all summer. It was a kind of good mental rest.
Seth Davidson: Which Olympic events are you lined up for?
Daniel Holloway: I’m on the long team for the Madison and the omnium, on the track.
Seth Davidson: Do you have any sense for whether they’re going to happen?
Daniel Holloway: I was 40-60, 50-50 hearing that the public felt it was irresponsible to host an international event with a global pandemic but it’s a big moneymaker for the rest of the world, politicians, television, governing bodies, that everyone needs it to happen so they don’t completely lose their ass whereas if it doesn’t happen a lot of people lose jobs and bad things happen for individuals. That may dictate whether the games go on. The driver will be money more than anything.
Seth Davidson: If the summer games happen, how are you going to prepare?
Daniel Holloway: My mindset is one day at a time. Achieve the workouts that are listed and the thing I’ve struggled with the most getting back in the rhythm is not overthinking the things I can’t control and so now from until I’m selected, if and when, going all the way to Tokyo is just control what I can and don’t get caught up in and waste energy on things I can’t control. Be flexible about everything changing daily and weekly as the world changes and all those other things. You can make a plan based on current societal rules and understand and be willing to change as those rules change and don’t get stuck to any one thing at the moment.
Seth Davidson: Is it hard to maintain motivation?
Daniel Holloway: Some days more than others. The big unknowns are from the top down: Are the Olympics happening? And then going so long without a paycheck; you’re paid to do this job, this task, then being asked to make x, y, and z sacrifices. Why am I beating my head against the wall for a dream with no money in my current situation, a wife and a kid on the way and those real life responsibilities, instead just start doing something else to be a contributor to the household.
Seth Davidson: If the Olympics happen, what do you see your post-Olympic career being like?
Daniel Holloway: Happy! It’s hard to say. There’s a high likelihood I’ll retire from “professional” cycling. I may be involved in some way. Everything’s up for discussion. If Road House will still have me, the resources and responsibilities I’d have there versus getting a real job and starting the next chapter in life. I don’t see myself continuing to chase winning crits in America with a lot of success and don’t see myself continuing to do that. The Olympics are relatively selfish at the end of the day.
Seth Davidson: Who were your role models?
Daniel Holloway: That’s tricky to answer. As a teenager in high school I looked up to Michael Jordan and Michael Johnson, these prolific personalities, these style icons that were world beaters, the best athletes of their generation. The whole picture of what they put out in the world. This is what I looked up to. Then my personal bubble and group was such a melting pot of people and experiences that I had a group and a village of mentors, day in, day out, giving life advice and career advice, and all those things. I’m not comfortably putting one name out there since there were so many out there playing an equal and large part in me growing up and becoming a professional athlete.
Seth Davidson: What drives you?
Daniel Holloway: Looking back at the beginning, it was to see how far I could go in the sense of being a junior and having some talent and winning some races, if I keep doing this, how far can I go, how far can it take me? Once that plateau hit, and I was like, “Okay, this is where my whole skill set lies,” it was “How good can I be at this level?” Which was domestic racing. How much can I win here? I didn’t have the mindset to flog around Europe and go through that rigamarole to be a good racer. I’m mentally better suited to racing in America so go all in there and see how much and how often I can win. Then it became fear of losing and fear of not performing. Performance wasn’t like getting first or a podium, it was being a focal point and talking point at every race I was at; did I make an impact on every race? Strategy, putting on a show, or winning, or all of it. I was driven by that fear the last couple of years.
Seth Davidson: What would you like to say is your legacy?
Daniel Holloway: My results, my career performance is one of very few that stand in modern racing from a domestic standpoint. So I don’t need an essay written about it. From when I started racing professionally in 2008 until now is that I raced a lot of really good guys and beat a lot of really good guys which I’m stoked about. Looking at the depth of the peloton for 2021 and beyond, it’s not what it once was. Outside of results, the legacy is that anybody that was my teammate I was able to pass on as much knowledge as I could to anyone that wanted to have a conversation. Even from our relationship, passing on knowledge wasn’t limited to Cat 1 riders and professionals. I wanted everyone around me to be smarter, safer, and ideally stronger because that would only make me better.
Seth Davidson: Road racing in the US is in a tailspin. What do you see the prospects for the sport in the next five years, assuming covid restrictions are lifted?
Daniel Holloway: With the current trend of gravel and some of these epic races, they’re extreme events that people just want to achieve. Remembering as a bike racer I’m 1% of cycling in totality and there are a lot of people who don’t ever see themselves as wanting to race a criterium, but you’ve experienced this, that riding a century was a big deal then with the education of training as a whole and the massive upgrade in technology, riding 100 miles became “easy” and the challenge had to become bigger. More mileage and more trying conditions. That’s the big spawn of gravel racing. That community developed a culture that was inclusive, very laid back, and that in the beginning at a crit there was a lot of ego and testosterone and that wasn’t there with gravel. They continue to push that now even though higher profile riders and money are coming to that genre. But that’s only 1% of gravel races. Only 10 or 20 dudes who have that much emotionally invested in a result versus the 2,000 with fingers crossed that they will finish their 200-mile gravel ride. It will continue because it’s participatory, and people achieving what they perceive to be a very hard task. That will invite a lot of people to do it and hopefully the racing side doesn’t interfere with that growth. But there seems to be fewer who want to race and compete and have all that physical and emotional investment in a performance when they can just go on a gravel ride and share it on social media and post that it was epic versus getting 15th at a national level race. Everyone wants to be overly positive and cultivate that persona and gravel races keep that alive. Unless there’s a big change or push to hyper professionalism, America could lose that cachet of high quality racing. The teams that exist have to spend a lot of money to get to Europe or Asia or South America to race. But that professional quality won’t be around.
Seth Davidson: Do you see yourself ever racing gravel?
Daniel Holloway: Not particularly. I was never one to sign up for epic rides or gran fondos or eight hours in the saddle. That was never my interest. On the track everything was short and sweet and happened often; we raced 4-5 times a night. I grew up doing and enjoying that. Going to 6-days as a professional and coming back to America racing 1-2 hr. crits is what I enjoyed. That and high intensity is what I enjoy. Going out for an 8-hour bike ride, I can’t handle that mental rollercoaster of feeling good, then bad, then worse, then better, then worse again, then better again and still having six hours ago. I had to be tricked into going into long days of training. Part of not hashing Europe was those long transfer days riding 4-5 hours in a peloton doing relatively nothing all to be wound up and shot out of a cannon the last hour. I would do much thoughtless self sabotage by not eating, not drinking, being bored, wasting energy. It was more mental than physical, surviving those long days, day after day. It wasn’t interesting to me.
Seth Davidson: Was there a most exciting or most thrilling moment in your racing career?
Daniel Holloway: There are a lot, all equally important. I think my first criterium title when I was an amateur. I was in Belgium. I got a gnarly flu the week I was supposed to fly back to Chicago. Barely made it there, didn’t ride three days before, just rode the rollers to get by. My dad was there to watch me race, it was a big deal. It was raining, I locked the keys in the car before the race, my dad was dealing with a cop and locksmith to get the car open. I had no chain that day. I won in front of my dad my first elite jersey, that was crazy. To have my dad there was special. I think winning in Mexico in 2012 when the team didn’t believe in me, and I was in a dark place, no one believed in me, I was wondering what I was I doing, and I won a UCI race in Mexico against good riders. Just because this small group doesn’t put value in me, so what? I met my wife because of bike racing, I wouldn’t have gotten her attention if I had been pack fodder, so that’s a great result!
Seth Davidson: What advice would you give to a junior who wanted to be a pro?
Daniel Holloway: Get a job and find a different sport. That journey is so difficult with so few paths I think as an American you either have to be outstandingly good, kind of a Megan Jastrab, a Brandon McNulty, Quinn Simmons, so good at such a young age that you go straight to the big leagues and you have a couple of years to figure out the circus. If you’re the middle-of-the-road junior who needs the race days to figure it out it’s so difficult because there are so few race opportunities. You gotta find the resources to get yourself where there’s a lot of racing. Europe, the UK, wherever, throw yourself into the deep end. And understand it’s not going to be fun at all. You’ll have to grind it out for a few years before you start seeing some success, and that’s not winning or getting a result, it’s surviving or doing better than the last time. Adapting to your strengths and role and becoming a good teammate and being irreplaceable as a teammate. It’s why Jens Voigt was a pro til 45. Or Adam Hansen. They found a role and they did it incredibly well and made themselves irreplaceable for such a long time.
Seth Davidson: Greatest Tour rider ever?
Daniel Holloway: Lance.
Seth Davidson: Why?
Daniel Holloway: He never placed a foot wrong. Tactically he was better than everybody else, for whatever reason, the team infrastructure? How many mechanicals did they have? You can’t cheat your way through that. They did so many things better than everyone else to optimize the other shit. He never crashed. It’s hard for a lot of people to wrap their head around being that successful for that long. The first year, great, the 2nd year, lets’ root for the guy, the fourth year people want to see him lose. Same with any sport. People want to see you lose. It’s a pressure few realize. No one has experienced that more than Lance. In the modern generation, Cavendish.
Seth Davidson: Why Cavendish?
Daniel Holloway: 2nd to Merckx in all-time wins. Did it clean. Did it under trying circumstances with multiple teams. For what I enjoy about the sport, he employed technical expertise, technology, and aero almost before anyone of the new generation. One of the first to focus on, “What I’m physiologically capable of, I’m not the best on paper, what can I do to optimize it?” He did it and went around smashing people for years. One of the best, if not the best.
Seth Davidson: Who’s your favorite classics rider?
Daniel Holloway: I wasn’t a big classics guru. But probably Cancellara. He was never afraid to attack and put it all out there.
Seth Davidson: Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently?
Daniel Holloway: Probably nothing. It would have put me in a different spot and I don’t know if I’d be happy in that spot. If I’d been better in Europe, I might have been in Europe, but would I be happy? There are definitely poor decisions I’ve made. But they’ve curated the person I am now versus the person I’m not, and I’ve grown tremendously. I’m still an asshole, just less of one.
Seth Davidson: Are you more or less data driven?
Daniel Holloway: I’m 100% of both. You can’t replace feel. A lot of younger riders are so wrapped up in the metrics at too early an age. It’s a bad hole to go down. They train individually so they can hit the right zones. From a mental zone of “You’re not hitting the numbers your coach wants you to.” Can be a dark hole, hearing about other peoples’ numbers can be dangerous path. From lack of resources and not having power meters, my training was on feel and learning what to do when you feel good and what you do when you feel bad. Big race is a week out and you feel terrible. Don’t panic. If you’ve been going good, you don’t become garbage overnight. That’s a trend. Feeling bad is a short event you can overcome if you manage yourself well. On the other side, I’m 100% data driven because physically I can only do x watts for y time so what can I do to gain more speed and efficiency because I’m not getting more power. Understanding those tools and using them correctly at the right time gave me a large percentage of my results. If you looked at my VO2 max, my 20-minute power, I would be successful but knowing how to manage myself using technology to make things easier gave me doors I could walk through and take advantage of to be successful.
Seth Davidson: Thanks, Daniel!
Daniel Holloway: You’re welcome.
March 22, 2021 § 4 Comments
Year before last my friend Tobin gave me a coffee cup. It was big and white enameled and insulated steel. It said “Yeti” on the box, which I’d never heard of.
I almost tossed it because 1) I had a coffee cup and 2) more junk. But I didn’t because it was a gift from a very thoughtful person. Tobin isn’t random or impulsive like me. So I stuck it in the back of the cupboard as my life was fragmenting and forgot about it.
When my lease died last July and I became officially unhoused, I culled everything I owned. There were three categories: Dumpster, storage, or going with me on my bike. Storage items all fit into a few cardboard boxes. Dumpster items were even fewer.
Impulsively, I hooked the Yeti onto my rack. It was too heavy, too capacious, and really belonged in the trash. But I was going to give it a chance to prove itself to me before chucking it. I owed that much to Tobin.
Who knew that on a journey outdoors, or rather a bikeabout of indeterminate length you might need a cup?
The cup stepped up on Day 1. I had camped illegally and needed to drive in tent stakes. No pounding device and no rocks nearby. “Okay, Yeti, you’re at bat.”
I pounded the shit out of the stakes and terribly dented the unused cup. Then the next morning I made coffee and learned that these cups keep things boiling hot. It has something to do with insulation or magic and etcetera.
Over time, my cup and I became pals. Hot coffee, hot oatmeal, hot coffmeal, instant soup, and never again abused as a battering ram. Clipped to a carabiner and stowed in the mesh on my backpack, my Yeti has become grimy, scratched, and de-enameled from the bitter daily work of travel and camping by bike.
Of course now I know that Yeti is a BRAND and a STATUS SYMBOL and A SIGN OF THE RUGGED OUTDOORS. But the cups I see all look shiny and clean and new. The campers I meet who have the same cup … well, they simply don’t have the same cup.
The uglier mine gets, the more I like it. I take care of it but don’t worry about the grime and the scars. The more beat-up it gets, the more tightly I hold it close. The more I appreciate it. And here’s what’s funnier: every time I look at it, drink from it, or clip it to my pack, I think with gratitude about the person who thought enough of me to make it a gift.
What if all gifts were that special?