In the years following World War II, a curious practice arose amongst the island-dwelling people of Melanesia: After cladding themselves in salvaged military fatigues and donning hand-carved replicas of headphones, they would mimic the day-to-day activities of American air-traffic-controllers who had previously been stationed at makeshift bases nearby. At times, these productions would include remarkably effort-intensive elements (like life-size recreations of vehicles and wooden models of rifles), and rigid scripts would be followed at all times. The performances weren’t intended to amuse or inform anyone, though; they were quasi-religious rituals that were enacted in the hopes of mystically summoning airplanes laden with food, clothing, and supplies.
The troupes were called “cargo cults.” They believed that correctly emulating the appropriate dances and prayers – the gestures and instructions that they’d witnessed being employed by then-departed soldiers – would actually cause supply-drops to appear. Urged onward by charismatic (and possibly predatory) leaders, worshippers would cry out for the attention of a deity called “Tom Navy,” asking that he bestow them with the same gifts that had been given to his white-skinned supplicants.
Needless to say, Tom Navy ignored them.
In this day and age, the story sounds remarkably like an attempt at depicting less-developed cultures as being stupid or ignorant. The tale is completely true, though, despite how uncomfortable the implications for ourselves might be. Perhaps that’s why we’re so keen to reject it: If a tiny amount of misunderstanding or naïveté could so easily cause someone to get swept up in an ultimately fruitless endeavor, then there’s little reason to think that we would be immune to something similar.
The fact of the matter is that we aren’t immune: Right now, today, each and every one of us is caught up in a cargo cult of some variety, going through pointless motions that we’ve been told (or that we’ve told ourselves) will lead to desirable outcomes. This occurs in business, in finance, in romance, and even in science... but one of its most insidious and impactful manifestations lies in entertainment and how we consume it.
Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the World Wide Web exploded into the planet’s spotlight. The appropriately named “dot-com bubble” caught most people’s attention in one way or another, but the real focus was on the incredible increase in interconnectivity: Suddenly, every retailer was encouraging people to visit their website, promising both printable coupons and storefronts that could be accessed from home. Physical letters – even the junk – gave way to electronic mail, which was immediately supplemented by publicly accessible chat rooms and instant messengers. Single-player video games started to take cues from their massively multiplayer cousins, and the first media-streaming services weren’t far behind. Would-be consumers and audiences had more choices than ever before, with a plethora of distractions, connections, and information (and yes, pornography) available at the touch of a button.
Something odd happened at the same time, though: While millions of people found compelling reasons to repeatedly visit cyberspace (as it used to be called back then), many of them started to experience a frustrating variety of boredom. They still had their VHS cassettes and DVDs, they still owned plenty of books, and many hobbies were becoming more accessible by the minute, but the prospect of actually sitting down to enjoy those options had come to seem almost daunting. Yes, a novel or a movie might have proved to be more engaging and satisfying than the short films and Flash games that were growing in prominence, but the time and the attention required to appreciate long-form content had begun to feel strangely prohibitive.
“I’ve already been through the things that I have,” the internal argument became, “and starting anything new would take both money and effort. Besides, there’s no guarantee that either of those investments would pay off, so it makes more sense to consume something free and easy that’s available online.”
The release of the first iPhone in 2007 only furthered this trend, ensuring that the Internet was literally at one’s fingertips at all times. Simple but addictive games drew ever-increasing populations of players, and then-new platforms like YouTube and Twitter erupted onto the scene. Other social media sites (which had previously catered almost exclusively to young people) grew into globe-spanning giants, and before very long at all, virtually everything was interlinked via some avenue or another. In much the same way that companies had once boasted about their websites, they took to advertising their Facebook profiles. Corporations registered usernames, advertising agencies focused solely on the Web, and producers devoted their efforts to attracting online audiences.
At the same time, the era of the independent creator began.
Nowadays, we take it for granted that YouTubers, Twitch-streamers, Instagram-based influencers, and TikTok stars can achieve jaw-dropping financial success, but as recently as 2010, that seemed absurd. There was a collective, tacit understanding that things which happened on the Internet “didn’t count” or “weren’t real,” and the term “Internet-famous” was always offered with a mocking tone. As a direct result of these perceptions, standards (for everything) were much lower online: It didn’t matter if a person wrote well, had good production-quality, or even bothered to research the things that they confidently declared were true. After all, it wasn’t as though they were publishing a book, making a feature film, or submitting an academic paper; they were just throwing something out into the æther, usually hopeful that it would result in fame, but suspecting that it would be simply forgotten.
That same attitude contributed to the development of an appallingly toxic and hostile culture online: As more people – many with silently held prejudices – flocked to a place where allegedly nothing mattered, they let themselves loose, flinging typo-ridden bigotry at any target that they could find. While the sentiments were occasionally decried and the writing errors were sometimes corrected, the retort of “It’s the Internet! Nobody cares!” was wielded with nearly constant frequency. There were certainly oases of reasonable and well-composed discourse... but as their populations grew, so did the volume of posts and comments that were offered from positions of apathy and ignorance.
Content-creators took note of this trend, and while many of them resisted it, many more adjusted accordingly. After all, why should they expend a lot of effort on something when lazy offerings were seeing more success? What motivation was there to write well when most readers were unbothered by authors who didn’t understand the difference between “every day” and “everyday” (or “it’s” and “its”)? Why would an aspiring filmmaker learn how to effectively light and frame a compelling shot when frenetic Vine videos – many of which could be made in as little time as they took to watch – received hundreds of thousands of views?
Before long, accuracy, quality, and correctness became optional requirements, and online audiences learned to expect mostly low-effort content instead of refined assemblages. Media that had taken time and care to create did occasionally manage to claw its way toward visibility, but it was always quickly eclipsed by things that were easier and faster to both make and consume. The assumption that nothing on the Internet matters was soon tempered by the expectation of instant gratification, and a cycle that had already been feeding into itself took on a gluttonous life of its own.
This is the Ennui Engine.
We scroll through Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, and Reddit, vaguely hoping to find something with which to amuse or inform ourselves before getting up in the morning or going to bed at night. We favor videos that either are very short or don’t require dedicated focus, confident in the knowledge that we can move on to something else whenever we want to. We ignore thoughtfully composed “walls of text,” but we electronically applaud memetic image macros and single-sentence references that aren’t inherently entertaining or insightful (yet are somehow still poorly written). When we amplify these things – using our likes, upvotes, retweets, and shares – we encourage the creation of more low-effort content, and in so doing, we send the message that higher-quality offerings are unwelcome and unwanted.
That above-mentioned message isn’t necessarily what we intend, but it’s nonetheless what we say: Positive responses of any variety communicate more than just “I like this;” they also serve to mean “other people should see this” and “more of this, please.” The other implication, then, is that things which receive less attention – if only because they would have taken more effort to consume – aren’t as deserving of it. We may even state as much directly, downvoting or dismissing submissions that irritate us by either asking for too much of our time or challenging our expectations. In the end, the unified statement which arises from all of our indirectly expressed preferences is that only low-effort content will be accepted.
Regardless of how or why we provide them, our reactions shape what everyone sees, and they also reaffirm that content-creators should avoid considering such things as production-quality or appropriate placement of punctuation marks. This leaves us with an endless (and expanding) array of low-quality offerings to scroll through for hours on end, even as we tell ourselves that consuming something longer or more substantial would require too much time. We gamble with handfuls of seconds – sometimes hundreds of times in a row – but are wary of investing ourselves in anything which might take five minutes to appreciate. Even when “difficult” pieces of content do get seen, they still share the stage with everything else, marking them as being no better than equal to things that require minimal care and effort to create and consume.
None of this comes across as being particularly concerning on its own. After all, if we enjoy the low-effort content, why shouldn’t we ask for more of it? Why shouldn’t we encourage it?
Therein lies the real problem, however: We don’t enjoy the low-effort content... at least not as much as we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking that we do.
In 1938, a psychologist named B. F. Skinner reported that pigeons could be trained to push a button in exchange for an edible reward. Interestingly, however, those button-pushes would be offered more quickly and frequently if the reward-dispensation was completely randomized. It seemed that the knowledge that a piece of food could be acquired at any point was less compelling than the perceived chance of winning a prize. Moreover, even if the guaranteed morsels were larger or more appetizing, the ones that blind luck had prompted were the obvious favorites, and the birds would display increasing anxiousness as they sought to collect more.
The human brain is not so different from that of a pigeon.
In order to appreciate something, we have to invest a little bit of ourselves in it. The hope, of course, is that we’ll get out as much as (or more than) we put in. This is true of entertainment, of socialization, and of every money-making opportunity on the planet, including the rigged games of chance that fill casinos. Within the confines of the Ennui Engine, though, it’s impossible to make a profit: Unless every seconds-long investment results in a worthwhile amount of enjoyment – or unless we get outlandishly lucky enough to win the jackpot with our gambling – we’ll always come away at a loss... and the currency here is our emotional energy.
The concept of “emotional energy” is hardly a new one, but focus on it has been growing in prominence lately. At its essential core, the idea is that each one of us has a finite supply of mental resources. Literally everything that we do, whether it’s going to work or just listening to a podcast, draws from that internal store in some way. Some activities replenish it, but even those require an initial expense at the start. When we run out of emotional energy, we’re left feeling empty, despondent, or depressed, and it becomes much more difficult for us to pull ourselves out of any slumps.
Curiously, more and more people have been reporting those same slumps in recent years, and have described concerning increases in their frequency. Self-proclaimed experts point to workplace responsibilities, relationship difficulties, and personal problems as being sources of stress, stating that our collective sense of weariness is being brought on by living in a fast-paced age. In response, companies like Calm have managed to carve out profitable niches for themselves by purporting to offer soothing and recharging experiences via mobile applications, and articles about psyche-healing self-love or empowering introspection are being published by ever-greater numbers of media outlets. The popularity is hardly surprising, as many slump-sufferers sincerely believe that they’re benefitting from these various solutions, citing them as examples of replenishing activities.
It’s here that we begin to see the cargo-culting in our own lives, however: While there may be individuals who genuinely do find solace in robotically guided meditation or moments of dedicated mindfulness, the vast majority of us are going through motions that we don’t fully understand. The real benefit of an application like Calm is simply that it forces us to step away from sources of stress, temporarily reducing the amount that they affect us. We aren’t actually replenishing ourselves – not any more quickly than we would if we just went for a walk, at any rate – but we’ve been taught to see “less draining” as being identical to “recharging.”
Most of us don’t even stymie that outflow, though; we just alter its direction. Like the islanders of Melanesia, we put effort into something that we believe will have a positive outcome, but that only serves to siphon away our time and mental resources: Whenever we’re feeling stressed, overworked, or just understimulated, we return to the ritual of worshipping the Ennui Engine, praying for Tom Navy to deliver his blessings of entertainment and information.
Every second that we spend scrolling represents a tiny investment of emotional energy, the well of which is slowly drained as moments pass. To return to a previous metaphor, we start off hoping for a jackpot, then grow increasingly desperate to just break even. Unfortunately, since we’ve already demanded that we be served only low-effort content — and since that same jackpot is being buried — we’re doomed to lose every time. We point to tiny blips above a baseline of boredom as evidence that we’re still enjoying ourselves, and we deny that our banks are being depleted. Tom Navy ignores us, and we unwittingly turn to B. F. Skinner instead, frenziedly pushing a button that causes tiny rewards to be dispensed at random.
The idea that we can’t commit ourselves to longer-form or better-produced offerings is exacerbated by this, too: Think of how many times you’ve opened your Netflix queue, glanced at your bookshelf, or accessed your Steam library, decided that nothing seemed appealing, then gone back to staring at social media. In some manner or another, all of us have experienced this phenomenon, and we’ve all listlessly wished that we could stop feeling so emotionally languid.
Our social lives are also impacted: Perhaps we pretend to feel a connection to a streamer, typing our in-the-moment thoughts to them instead of setting an hour aside to converse with a friend. Maybe we hang out in a Discord server, choosing easy yet transient and shallow interactions over complex ones that could foster sensations of being heard and embraced. We feel the compulsion to find communities, yet we shy away from opening ourselves in ways that would let us be truly seen and understood. Depression is fostered here, too, as is anxiety, and they both make us less able to seek more-robust fulfillment.
At times, many of us have reached breaking points, crying that we’re hungry for something more than the latest meme. The Ennui Engine makes a lot of noise, though, and our voices are drowned out. We eventually decide that there’s no point in being actively involved in anything: If we should happen to comment on something, we expend as little effort as possible, then delight in sporadic rushes of dopamine when we see likes or upvotes trickle in. We speak as though we know what’s going on in the world (and even let ourselves believe that we do), but very few of us read articles beyond the headlines or take the time to explore topics before forming opinions on them. Even when we do explore, we seek the readily available perspectives and explanations of pseudo-anonymous commenters who might very well be as ill-informed as we are.
Worst of all, we snarl at anyone who tries to help us out of the mire, and we decry attempts at pulling anyone else out. We make excuses for writing errors instead of correcting them, we overlook factual mistakes if addressing them would be inconvenient, and we sneer at the alleged pretension of so-called elitists who haven’t yet been ground into the dirt. The only thing that we ever really accomplish is a gradual yet consistent lowering of standards... because even a reasonable excuse is still an excuse, and it represents an opportunity for improvement that’s being cast aside.
The Ennui Engine keeps roaring, and we’re left with tiny, stale pellets that we tell ourselves are satisfying. Beneath the lie, though, we only feel depressed, disconnected, and frustrated.
There is a solution to all of this; a way that we can reclaim our lives, help both people and online entertainment improve, and escape the endless churn of the Ennui Engine. It doesn’t begin with turning to legislators or forum-administrators, though, and it doesn’t involve a retreat from the Web, but it does require that we stop encouraging the ritual. As unpleasant as it may be to admit, we are each individually to blame for this slump-inducing cycle’s persistence, and we are each responsible for halting it.
When we scroll through our various feeds, we need to remain consciously aware of what we’re doing and what messages we’re silently sending. Our upvotes, likes, shares, and retweets need to be reserved for only those things which truly deserve to be amplified, not just because we personally appreciate them, but because they’re of exceptional quality. If we’re ever unable or unwilling to define what “exceptional quality” actually means, we should refrain from reacting at all, and only influence those offerings on which we can make informed assessments.
It’s completely okay to consume low-effort or low-quality content that happens to cross our screens, but we should hold ourselves back from encouraging it to go any further. Whenever we feel ourselves getting listless, we should step away, then challenge ourselves to find (or create) something new, original, and requiring of a bit more effort than we might initially want to expend. We need to remember that five minutes invested in reading an article – even a mediocre one – will almost always offer a better payout of emotional energy than five minutes of gambling on a slot machine with only one reel.
We have to shun the cargo cult, elude the Skinner box, and stop believing in Tom Navy.
The Internet was created with the intention of connecting exceptional people and sharing noteworthy content, and it can still fulfill that purpose today. As such, the takeaway here is not that we should distance ourselves from social media, turn off our screens, or reject the trappings of the modern era. Instead, we should remain self-aware and discerning as we traverse the Web, encouraging, applauding, and insisting on effort and earnestness from anyone who intends to contribute (no matter how small or substantial their contributions might be). The Ennui Engine will continue running, of course, but we can each make the personal choice to keep from sacrificing ourselves to it... and we can warn others against getting ground up in its gears.
One day, if enough of us say that it needs to happen – and if we’re willing to follow through on that statement – the noise and the pollution might start to fade, and we’ll all start feeling better. Until then, reserve your likes and upvotes for offerings that truly deserve them.
Amplify emotional investments, not blips above the baseline.
Insist that standards be raised, not lowered.
Stop fueling the Ennui Engine.