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What Happens After You’re Cancelled

This is a highly personal account of what happens after a social media crowd destroys a life. It includes talk of mental illness, severe pain, trauma, and suicide. Stop now if that’s not for you. Also, it’s long. 


I was folding laundry with my partner one day when I looked up at him and said, “Do you think they’d be happy if I did kill myself?”

He looked at me, and took a long breath, and said, “No.”

“You’re right,” I said, “I know it. Nothing makes them happy.”

Taylor Lorenz, a staff writer at the New York Times told The Stranger: “In internet culture, being canceled is only good for your career. It usually results in going viral, which is default good in today’s broken world.”

I suppose it seems this way because you only see the people who survived it, who stayed in the public mind or their jobs. The rest of us, we cease, unpersoned and exiled. We are not in the observational data set, we are never spoken of when people talk about this mode of human life. To this day, as many articles as the New York Times has published about the phenomenon, never once has anyone mentioned my name.

The second time it happened, the bad time everyone remembers, I got a call in a movie theater. That was where I was when the internet wrecked my career, watching Black Panther, and my body still goes cold when I remember it. Katie Kingsbury called me, just before Killmonger died, just before he said “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage” – I missed that part. As I was walking out, she asked me if I’d tweeted something, and I was confused by it. I said, “That doesn’t sound like me.” It turned out it wasn’t my tweet, it was a nine-year-old retweet of John Perry Barlow, an angry clap back at racists shortly after the first Obama election, and it contained the N word.

In the next hours, people would dig up tweets and display them out of context to paint me as an unrepentant racist and homophobe. I never had a chance, before I got home from the theater I was fired from my new job. The Times never asked me to explain the tweets. By the time the King of Wakanda was landing in Oakland, my life as I had know it was gone.

The only tweet anyone at the Times asked me about (after that initial call) was one where I was angry tweeting criticism of the Times’ coverage of the Michael Brown shooting. It was a tweet saying that I’d make a lot more money as a racist at the New York Time than I was making then, right after they’d published their “Michael Brown was no angel” article. I didn’t stop with the tweet. I wrote a satirical piece making fun of how the Times and other outlets covered Brown’s death and other police shootings, about how no one could be good enough to make the conventional media question the police, called Man Killed by Local Police in the Province of Judea.

I’ve spent a lot of my career weaving in elements of satirical bait-and-switch into my commentary and articles, and plenty of the bait without the switch was on display that day. I realized I couldn’t counter it, not all of it, and really not even a bit of it. No one was listening.

Online crowd stomping someone is like a sealioning of mythic proportions, where the crowd tempts you to think if you could just explain it would be OK, but it’s not true, it’s a lie that fucks with your head, a crowd screaming why are you hitting yourself while also telling you to kill yourself.

It’s not that the crowd used my weaknesses against me, it’s that they used my strengths. My pacifism, my work with weird and marginalized communities, my love of flawed people, my humor, my long thoughts and hopes about complicated moral topics, these were all used to reduce me to nazi sympathizer, a homophobe, a white supremacist.

So many of the things people brought up and threw at me weren’t my mistakes at all, but things I’m proud of, like trying to argue an anon out of making rape jokes at a feminist on Twitter.

And then my colleagues in American journalism did me dirty. They ran with the crowd, releasing fast articles without any more context than Twitter and Facebook, without talking to me or trying to understand what was happening. Not all, but most. Enough that I knew I wouldn’t get work again, that anyone who googled me would not speak to me again. And yes, they’ll complain I didn’t get back to them. But I was nine hours ahead of the west coast and overwhelmed. I had just been fired, I was preparing for spinal surgery, and I needed to sleep.Or at least, I needed to try to sleep.

The New York Times apologized for hiring me, but it would be years before anyone would apologize to me. It would be even more time before I found my anger. But it helped when I did.

You don’t know me, you assholes. You don’t even think that matters. All that matters is the last thing you saw, and feeling like you’re better than other people. You’re like the amnesiac goldfish of self-righteous hatred.  

But then, I also know why they did it, I spent years studying and trying to understand exactly the forces that wrecked me that day. I had written about them, had spoken to the situations in which they arise, had suggested ways of making the internet better. Education, mostly, and creating the cultures you want to see on the net through active moderation, among other things. Maybe someday I’ll be able to write about it again.

That February 2018,  I was in a level of pain hard to fit into words. I was struggling to type, I’d all but lost the use of my left hand and my right was starting to fail too. I had written about the pain the five months before,  but it hadn’t improved since then. That’s what the spinal surgery I was preparing for was supposed to fix. This was the final cut on top many years of agony, physical and emotional. I explained everything as best I could in those days following my firing. I wrote about my philosophy, I wrote about what the Times and the crowd had done to me, the how and the why. Often I wrote by dictating notes into my phone, because typing was so painful and difficult. I hoped someone in journalism would retract their claims about me, but no one did. Regular people did, they still do. Sometimes out of nowhere someone on Twitter will say, I was in the mob, and I’m sorry. Not every article was a hit piece, but mostly they were, and none, not a single one that I could find, ever criticized my writing as racist or homophobic. Just me, on social media, in snippets no one wanted to understand.

Publications I was talking to replied that obviously they couldn’t work with me now. People who knew me apologized quietly, but with a few exceptions, they just felt like if they stood up for me they’d be destroyed by the mob too.

Friends, horrified by what happened to me, retreated from the internet. I found myself comforting them. I’d say the internet was not all bad, it was mostly wonderful, and that I would be OK. The first was true, the second, I still don’t know.

When the chips were down I found out I was mostly alone. It wasn’t the first time I felt that. It wasn’t the first time a crowd came for me, nearly drove me to the point of self-harm.

I’d felt it five years earlier, when the media and public went looking for a bad guy to blame for Aaron’s suicide. There were bad guys, MIT and the prosecution, US Attorneys  Stephen Heymann and Carmin Ortiz, but they were safe behind the walls of institutional power. The crowd came for me for the same  reason Heymann did: because I was powerless and easy to exploit and they wanted blood.

I was at my girlfriend’s flat in London the morning Aaron died. I woke up and opened my laptop to see mails and messages from everyone saying to call them, and that it was about Aaron. I said something like “No, no, what did you do, you didn’t do it no no no” and, of all things, pulled up Wikipedia. There, on the page, was Aaron’s end date. As I recall it, I just rocked and cried and said “no no no you didn’t do it” until I had to explain it to my girlfriend. She fed me and looked after me while I booked my way back to New York and then Chicago for the funeral. I went to a conference and did a presentation on Anonymous. Everyone told me I didn’t have to, including the organizers, but I wanted the distraction. I wanted to go through the motions of a normal life I already knew was never going to be normal again.

I met a filmmaker friend of mine at the conference. He hadn’t known Aaron, but now he was surrounded by people who had, and he wanted to understand more. He did a few interviews with me and other people, and said he thought this might be a short film. I looked him in the eye and said, “this is a feature length film.” He was thoughtful and silent. Later, with the camera rolling, he asked me why so many people cared so much about Aaron, and I said, “He was the internet’s own boy, and the old world killed him.”

That film, Internet’s Own Boy, would be shortlisted for the Oscars.

What I didn’t tell Brian that day was the complicated role I played in Aaron’s prosecution, or the complicated roles we played in each other’s lives. That would come out later, in the movie, and in articles, including my own. I would bring most of it out, but already under attacks from people who wanted someone to suffer for what had happened to Aaron. I’d been on and off in a romantic relationship with Aaron for years, and we had both struggled with depression in that time, even before he was arrested while riding my bike in Cambridge.

We’d gone through his arrest and investigation together. I was so angry at him, though you must understand, not for downloading journal articles. I was angry he hadn’t told me what he was doing. When I was being questioned by the Secret Service they couldn’t believe that I didn’t know, because we were so close. I wanted to pound on the table and explain that if I’d known they would never have. There wouldn’t be a laptop in Evidence, purchased with my credit card, there’d be a smoking crater where the JSTOR server used to be and not a shred of evidence that lead anywhere. Aaron wasn’t that kind of hacker. I, on the other hand, had done plenty of things no one ever caught me for.

My lawyers, who were terrible and sold me down the river, had advised me not to say that to the prosecution. They were probably right about that at least.

Aaron was so angry at me for meeting with them on my lawyers’ advice. He was right, but I didn’t know that. He was angry at me for betraying him, but not the way everyone thinks. I was the only one he told when he was suicidal, which was often during the investigation. One day I blurted it out to his lawyer on a speakerphone call. “Aaron is suicidal,” I told him, but he didn’t respond and Aaron hung up and yelled me that his lawyer wouldn’t care and it didn’t matter. I wouldn’t know that his lawyer had tried to act on that information until after Aaron died.

My life with Aaron started at the same time that my spinal problems started, and started with the loss of control of my hands and daily migraines. Just as my marriage collapsed, my body also started to collpase. In 2008 when the first MRI came back, the specialists explained that I could maybe control symptoms with physical therapy, Botox injections, and cortisone injected into my spinal neck, but that very little could be done for me, and when I had surgery, I’d lose mobility. That I would suffer a decline and my body would fail and that it would be terribly painful. “Maybe,” I was told. “Someone will invent a prosthetic.”

Ten years later, thousands of miles away in a country with more mercy for the ill, I was fired from my job, and waiting for that prosthetic to be inserted into three sections of my cervical spine, all while the crowd was trying to move into my mind.

Recovery was not easy. I had to cross Paris on the metro and take a train home, and it was a shockingly painful experience, even for someone as familiar with pain as I was. For the next weeks, I would patiently get up and reach up on the walls to feel them and push myself along. I’d shuffle my way along the edges of my room, trying to balance, trying to move. I didn’t have adequate pain medication, complained, and then I had too much. I became physically dependent on Fentanyl, and then wrote about the withdrawal.

I handed my Twitter account over to a group of friends for my recovery period, and they tweeted the details of my post-operative condition. “Every time I lose a follower, an angel gets its wings,” I joked with them. I was already retreating from the world, as I had when strangers had spent their time telling me I’d killed my beloved.

The weeks passed. I talked to a few publications, but no one  wanted to be seen with me. I felt like an unperson. My throat would tighten until it felt like I would choke, just sitting there. I was fighting to get my body back, and fighting the memories of being a pariah for all of my childhood. It had all welled up and poured over my psyche after the Times, along with the inadequacy I felt at not being able to save Aaron. I was barely keeping my grip on reality. I still had support on Patreon, which was both shocking and intimidating. I felt like I couldn’t produce, I felt broken down completely, and unsure how to rebuild myself, physically, mentally, or emotionally.

And then, a ray of hope. Out of the blue, a publication I dearly love offered me a column. It sounded like it would be coming home, and I said yes. They told me whom I would talk to next in the process to brought on board, and then there were no more mails. They ghosted me. I wrote and wrote asking for the next steps, and they simply never wrote back. I never learned why.

Some little thing in me snapped after that. It was too much. I fought back thoughts of suicide on a daily basis. I talked them through with friends and my partner, and defanged them, but always temporarily.

I was fighting my worst depression in years, and I was using everything I knew to fight it. I was exercising and doing mental work and trying to manage my sleep, but my PTSD was also out of control. I was dreaming every night of fights with Aaron, Occupy camp evictions, seeing my dead father’s body, being visited by all the people who had died, and sometimes just straight up monsters chasing and killing my people, both alive and dead. It had progressed to hallucinations that lasted up to a few minutes after I’d wake up. I’d bat at the air, fighting demons my mind dreamt of, until I realized what was happening, and stopped. I apologized when I woke up my partner.

When I’d dealt with every self-harming thought as well as I could cognitively, they retreated into urges, a feeling like my body would just act on its own, however I might fight it. I became scared to walk across bridges. I tried to not be alone too much. I hated feeling like a burden, I hated feeling like I couldn’t do or be anything helpful or productive for the world, but I had hung on, until the day came when I couldn’t.

I didn’t trust myself anymore. I walked over to the bus stop, and caught the last bus of the night that would take me to the Emergency Room. When they asked me why I had come, I said I was afraid I was going to hurt myself.

They asked me to sit down and before long had a staff psychiatrist talk to me. He spoke some English, but not well. He asked what had happened, and why I was feeling so bad, and I started to tell him about Twitter and the New York Times. I stopped, realizing that he didn’t understand much about this crazy story and I was going to get the wrong diagnosis if I wasn’t careful. I called my partner, and put him on the phone to explain in French.

I watched the psychiatrist. He was an older man with a trace of corrected cleft palate. This comforted me in ways hard to explain. He’d known pain, and flaws, and problems with society. He couldn’t really understand me or my world, but I knew he could understand the pain of being different, of people being thoughtless. He nodded with the phone to his ear and ask questions, and eventually handed my phone back to me. He suggested I take a bed in the hospital for the night.

My trust was not misplaced. Over the next few days we never had much of a real conversation, but he listened and tried to help.

I was admitted to the psych ward that night. It was not a great experience for me, but it was safe. And more than anything I felt like I’d pulled the emergency cord on my life. I’d stopped the whole train, just to say, I need help, I need something to change. I’m not going to survive this without help. I spent two days there, stabilizing and trying to figure out a long terms plan for care. It didn’t work out. Luxembourg, which had so wonderfully cared for me when it came to my spine, has next to nothing in terms of mental health care options. The only care they would pay for outside of the country was inpatient. A former NHS psychologist who had recently moved to Luxembourg was found to talked to me a few hours while I was in the ward, but there was no option to see her later.

Still, the few hours did help.

I went home two days later, in the strange and liminal mood that comes after you’ve done something that changes everything. Everything was a different color. I wasn’t better, but I had nothing on my to do list but survive.

I went back to America, where I knew I could see providers, but for a lot of money. I passed the hat — and old school gofundme — to pay for a couple months of therapy and a visit with a creative, young, and damn expensive psychiatrist. I walked into his office with a twenty-year history of drugs which either had unlivable side effects or hadn’t worked on my depression and PTSD. He took it, read through it, and said “You’ve taken all the drugs.”

I talked about the night terrors, which I never had before. He prescribed me a hypertension drug, which somehow someone realized controls PTSD related night terrors in overly high doses. I had to ramp up over six weeks, but I did. The night terrors aren’t completely gone, but they’re much reduced, and the hallucinations have almost disappeared. It was the second time a drug had actually helped me mentally, the first being taking Trazodone to help me with lifelong insomnia.

But controlling the wider PTSD and depression symptoms wasn’t working. I sought out more group therapy as well as one-on-one, and started a short term treatment with ketamine in hopes that it would control my depression. I tried everything I could at the beginning of 2019.

It didn’t work. It wasn’t a total failure, my sleeping was better, but I was still struggling to live. I felt like I gave it all I could.

When I came back home everything was quiet, around me, and in my head. I felt allowed to do anything I wanted to get better, what was left? Who could say anything to me? I figured if I wanted to run off to a forest and drop acid to get better, so be it, I was going to do whatever I wanted. I had tried everything. I read the studies, saw so many clinicians, read books, tried apps, even taught myself a fair bit of neurology. I was allowed whatever I wanted at this point. I was allowed to call myself treatment resistant.

I didn’t run off to the forest and drop acid, that was mostly theoretical, I don’t even know how to buy acid. But I felt better thinking I could if I wanted to.

I started a new drug prescribed to me by a pschiatrist, new enough that it had to be brought in from France and wasn’t cover by my national insurance. Maybe it helped, I don’t know. It gave me migraines again, which we tried to control through more Botox and other drugs including heavy duty NSAIDs and triptans.

I let the days go by, mostly. I cooked and helped people where I could, I wrote when I was able. I felt time slipping away with panic again, just as I had when my hands stopped worked and every day was full of physical pain. There were ups and downs, but for a while, it seemed to be getting better. My doctor thought it was the new drug, I was not so sure. Trying to understand this stuff makes the three body problem look like child’s play. Controlling one variable is a fun game researchers play, while clinicians laugh at their theories. In the real world, you still have to throw things at the wall, and hope.

I started declining again. I stopped writing, and hated myself for it. I began reaching for anything — exercising, meditation, but everything just got worse. I went back on sleep medication, and upped my antidepressant, figuring I’ll just live with the migraines. I went looking for more ideas, more research, more anecdotes. The familiar gift of desperation was back, accompanied by the fireworks that heralded 2020.

I am out here on the peculiar edge of human experience: the hate of the crowd, in a peculiar era where the crowd can kill you and you still find yourself untouched, alive, and ill-equipped for this life.

Looking for ideas in one thing after another, I found research about holocaust survivors who, having told their story, started doing better. Their physical and mental health improved after they stopped holding in the stories of what happened and how awful it was. I looked at my blown deadlines, and my loving partner, my hesitant career, and all these secrets I was keeping about how much it hurt to get hated and driven out of my career, and I thought, well, what the hell do I have to lose? So here I am, saying what it’s like to try to rebuild a life after a cancelling, and so far, largely failing.

I’ve been harassed on the internet most of my life, but it has tried to kill me twice, a kind of civic death absent stockades or end dates. It nearly succeeded both times. Some days I’m still shocked by the absurdity of still being alive.

The first piece I was going to write for the Times was about how human proclivities and network math work together to sort us into strange crowds, and how hard they can be to escape from. It’s still here, on this hard drive, almost finished for years. I look at it occasionally, but I can’t find the strength in my fingers and mind to tie up its loose ends. I am one of those loose ends now. Every day is hard.


Thanks to my Patrons on Patreon, who amazingly keep trying with me,

even though I struggle and complain so much.

Remaking the World

Trying to exercise my way though my inevitable decline

“94…,” he thinks for a moment. “94.7% chance of remission.”
I chuckle. “I’m going to need two more significant figures, at least.”
He laughs as well, but continues “The figure is real…”
“But you can’t apply a statistic to any individual case…,” I interrupt.
“Of course…”
We both have the body language of people who are explaining something to each other that both understand, looking for an exit to the next conversation point.
“I’m also happy to accept ‘high,’ the odds of remission are high,” I say. We both smile.

I am sure this man understands my body well enough that I am willing to place it in his hands. I am going to let him cut my throat, and still, I also know that he can’t understand what he’s proposed doing to my life.

A few minutes after this moment my partner and I walked along the slick streets of Paris, making our way to the train station from south of the Seine. It was dark, but Paris is never dark. It is a riot of lights and colors and people and cars coexisting, but barely.

“I am scared of everything” I loud-whispered to him repeatedly. He got a little in front of me, where he gets when he thinks I might absentmindedly walk into traffic. He listened, and I explained that it wasn’t just that I couldn’t see my future, I couldn’t even imagine it. Whatever sense I had yesterday for who I would be in six months, for who I would be for the rest of my life, it had slipped away as we had walked out of that office. All that was left was a warm, indecipherable fog.

“I am scared of everything.”

I have what they call invisible disability. I’m not in a wheelchair, I have no obvious physical flaws. I turn my head to the right a lot, but it took a neurologist to notice this is not a voluntary motion, not even I had noticed. Everything else about me looks like the average small middle-aged woman.

Inside my skin is a different story. Inside, I am broken in many and fascinating ways. Not very well understood genetic problems, a lifetime of mental and physical scars, pain and blood, sometimes far too much blood, sometimes coming out of the wrong bits of me. All of this is my experience of being me. I promise, I won’t get graphic. I will say this: my digestive system doesn’t work right. My joints are meh. I get a lot of infections. My lungs are iffy, at best. My cycles are unusual. My mind and brain, whatever they are together, can be a slippery customer. But none of these things have made me seek out this man and his scalpel.

The bits where the vertebrae touch — that’s not supposed to be like that.

What has brought me to this office happened eleven years ago. My normal life function had declined, and then, I stopped functioning at all. Not all at once, and I fought it as hard as I could with exercise and good living, which as it turned out was not very hard at all. In the end I couldn’t move much. I had daily migraines. I was bearing unbearable pain and I didn’t know why. There were doctors, and more doctors, and tests, and big humming MRI machines. What had happened was that the vertebrae in my neck and the discs between had started pressing on my spinal cord and the nerves as they left my spine. No one knew why.

My neurologist was a straight talker. When I asked him what had caused this, he waved dismissively. “We usually ask if you’ve been in a car accident, and if you say yes, we say that did it.”
“You don’t know?”
“We don’t know,” he replied.

That was when I began to understand how clinicians see attribution and cause, and even began to agree with them. It doesn’t matter what caused something, unless knowing that helps you fix it. And it wasn’t going to help him fix me. Tell the patient it’s a car accident, and help us move on to the next step.

The thing is, I have that clinician’s instinct myself. I am a fixer. So for me, the next step was figuring out how to fix this problem so I could get my old life back.

That neurologist was a wise man, so he let me go see more doctors, and get more tests, and do more research so that I would be able to hear what he had to tell me next: that there was no fixing this. I would decline inevitably. No one knew how fast or how much, but there was no way to stop this, much less reverse it. Treatments like muscle relaxants and Botox could make my life more comfortable, but this was over. This part of my life was over. I would never sit down with a good book again. I would never do a pull-up. In time, I would not be able to carry groceries home anymore. I could not safely lift a child. I would never again go backpacking. One day, I might not be able to put on a backpack. One day, I might not be able to type anymore. No one could be entirely sure how bad it would get, but it would get bad. Maybe the pain would come and go, but I would not be able to fix this.

In moments like these, you don’t simply adjust a set of routines. Moments like these break who you are. They have to, and you have to let them if you’re going to have any future. I thought about suicide. But in a way, suicide was redundant. The person who would have rather died than have my body already had my body. The future that I had imagined all my life was already dead. What I had now was a stranger’s future, and the job of becoming that stranger. I discovered I had no malice towards this stranger, and proceeded to become her, which sounds so much simpler than it was.

I cried a lot. I spent a lot of time pretending it wasn’t true. I was scared of everything. But bit by bit, over the next two years, I learned to be who I am now. I learned how to let computers read to me. I learned to love the voices of Alex and Ava on my Mac. I pushed myself too far and ended up in bed, or not far enough, and ended up frustrated. I made an unsteady peace with this future. I learned to live again, I learned the grace within pain. I even learned to be happy, to love who I was now, even while I couldn’t love how I got here.

I taught the people around me what I could and couldn’t do. That is how my partner got to know me – different than the other girls he’d known. Free in some ways, but not so much in others. My daughter learned she had to help me if we were going to get certain things done, much sooner than I would have liked. I apologize a lot for this thing that I can’t change.

But things always change anyway. Over the last 18 months, the bad thing got worse. I didn’t understand that for a while, because I didn’t want to. Each unproductive day, every headache, every clenched shoulder, they stood alone. I didn’t put them together. I tried to work harder, pushing through. I spiraled into depression and pain. I went to bed, I got up and tried again. I didn’t want to see it: just try harder, and it will go away. I think now that I thought if I couldn’t see the future, maybe it wouldn’t be here. I messed up commitments, and apologized and hated myself for it. I went to the data to fix myself, like I always do. I started keeping a daily log of how I was doing.

That’s when I couldn’t not see it anymore. The decline they’d promised had come. I had gotten a pretty good decade, but the future was here. I wasn’t so much scared as I was angry and sad. My determination had carried me as far as it could, and it was time to shift again. I started using voice dictation. I started recalibrating everyone’s expectations, including my own, of what I could really get done. I got another neurologist. I admitted that I was sick, and that I wasn’t going to get better. I moved into my life again. There was more lying in big humming MRI machines, scanners, and X-rays.

Then, my new neurologist looked over the images, and referred me to a surgeon. One of the last things a specialist had said to me 11 years ago, as I was leaving his office was, “Well, maybe they’ll invent a prosthetic.” I went and looked it up at the time, and they were working on one, but it wasn’t finished or approved for medical use. I put the whole business out of my mind when I lost my insurance, and didn’t think about it again. I had to spend my energy on learning to be me in a body I hadn’t expected, and I knew counting on future medical research often leads people to disappointment and depression, waiting to live in a future that might never come.

But my neurologist referred me to a surgeon because they had invented a prosthetic. I went to one surgeon. We chatted, little models of spines in hand, gestures at the tiny bones, explanations. I was hesitant. My partner and I talked about it a lot. He found another surgeon, one who had worked on probably a thousand people with my particular disability. We got on a train to Paris under a gray rainy sky. We sat with him, another little model of a spine between us, and we chatted. My eyes flicked between the little delicate bones between us, and the doctor. I glanced sideways to see my partner watching me. The prosthetic is called the Mobi-C, and the doctors are pretty damn sure they can fix me.

And so, on that Monday night, as I wandered across the Seine, thousands of miles and many years from where this story began, my future died again. My identity was breaking again. “I am scared of everything.” I whispered to my partner. “That man doesn’t know what he’s proposed to do to me,” despite the fact that this man was a world expert in what he was proposing to do to me. Who was this me that might read a physical book again? That might go backpacking, do a push-up, dance again? What if I can’t make myself into that person? What if I fail this new future? How could I not fail this future, when I don’t even understand its shape?

Even as I write this, a date is getting set. A hospital stay is being scheduled, paperwork is getting passed around. Sometime soon I will go to Paris again, and lie down on a table. A man will cut my throat carefully, to save me. And in doing so, he will kill me. And I will wake up, in a bed, thousands of miles and many years from where I was born, and I will not know my future, or how to live in it. They invented something, and everything will change for me, again.


I have a meeting today. As I write this, I’m still disabled. Coordinating my hands well enough to type is difficult. When I leave the house to go to my meeting, I will do so as a disabled person. I will carry things strapped to my hip rather than my back. I will cradle my arm so that it doesn’t swing when I walk. Politically, socially, physically, and in my own mind, that’s how I will move through the space between me and my meeting in a few hours.

Is this one of the last meetings I’ll ever go to, as this version of me? My identity is getting ready to change, to die, my mind is trying to prepare, but I don’t know who I’ll be when I have all these new abilities. To move though the world without constant pain, to carry things, to be expected to work and live without the sleepless nights, the instability in my hands, the scraping sounds in my neck. I don’t know how to do that, I’ll have to learn. It’s not what I’ve practiced for most of my adult life, and I’m scared I’ll be bad at it.

I am often amused by the fights over what is called “identity politics.” Identity is the unifying theme of my life’s work, and it’s what I think about every damn day. As someone who can reasonably claim some expertise in how human identity works, trust me when I say: it’s all identity politics. Maybe what people mean by “identity politics” is just being plain about what makes politics, because there are no politics separate from identity. Identity shapes how you move through the world, what you expect from it, and what you expect from yourself and others. The constituents of identity are the building blocks from which we create individualism, or collectivism. It’s where we get class and race, sure, and also taste, morality, custom, and justice. When you construct yourself, you construct the world. I don’t mean in a post modern we-can’t-know-anything kind of way, although that can be part of it. I mean that you pay attention to your world based on the way you see yourself, and that attention, in aggregate, makes the world.

Where your troubles began.

Understanding this can help make sense of the world right now. Our identities are running into our technologies and getting broken by all these new powers we have. If you have never considered yourself someone who might one day speak to millions, you might not craft what you say on social media to cater to an audience of millions. Then, one day, maybe you do find yourself in front of an audience of millions. And if that day comes, your future as you knew it dies, much like mine has and is doing again. In truth, our futures die many times in our lives. Tiny deaths accompanied by futures we don’t know how to live in. We pretend it didn’t happen and push on, or when that fails, we change. Eleven years ago, I changed, losing a future and gaining the identity of a disability. Now, I am facing the loss of that disability, the loss of who I am. I’ll be needing a new identity soon.

Looking around me, I see the flavor of my own anxiety everywhere. We all have access to the bulk of human knowledge now, we can find nearly anyone and speak to them. We can make things appear, and make ourselves disappear, all with an ease that we couldn’t explain to our own great-grandmothers. We can spend our days alone, locked in our houses, listening to the inner thoughts of hundreds of people thousands of miles away. Our thoughts and words make and change the physical world. No wonder we’re so obsessed with wizards and superheroes these days — they describe our lives to us more accurately than our literature does.

Who are we to have these powers? We don’t know what to do with them, who they should belong to. We’re tourists playing at being minor deities, except we don’t get to stop playing; this is our future now. Who do we have to become, now that we have all these new powers? What if we can’t make ourselves into the people worthy and able to use the technologies we invented? What if we fail this future? How could we not fail this future, when we don’t understand what it is?

You are reading this far from where you were born, in an unexpected world, on a device that didn’t exist a decade ago, facing a future none of us know how to live in yet. You are not disabled in a way that you once were, a disability you didn’t know you had is being pried away from you, and you don’t know who you are becoming. We don’t know where we are now, except that it’s many miles from home, and we have to make the future now.

We are scared of everything.


Conversations are from notes or recalled to the best of my ability. They are mostly right, but may not be exact wording. 

My work for Emptywheel is supported by my wonderful patrons on Patreon. You can find out more, and support my work, at Patreon.

Weekend Open Thread: You’re Gonna’ Need a Bigger Boat

We’ve been rather busy around the emptywheel this weekend, but it looks like we need something for conversations about two big topics.

First, the Panama Papers — here’s a short and sweet explainer at The Guardian to get you started. It’s the biggest leak-based, multi-outlet, global journalistic investigation to date. The server where the papers are located is already ready flooded with traffic (or attempts at DDoSing).

You might be interested in watching the story’s impact on world media. Go to Newsmap (turn off technology, sports, entertainment, and health news in the very bottom toolbar if necessary). Then notice how often “Panama Papers” is mentioned. Australia and some of the earliest EU outlets have picked up this story. Watch for the story to roll westward.

Second, the Associated Press announced this weekend its style would henceforth use ‘internet’ (lowercase i) versus Internet (uppercase I) in all cases. Which is all groovy for journalists who write using AP style, but a misrepresentation of the existence of the Internet versus the internet, because the Internet is still very much a thing. In my opinion, this looks more like word guys not understanding the technology they rely on once again. Hello, future shock?

Have at it below. I’ll catch you tomorrow morning as usual.

The Internet Didn’t Kill the Middle Class; Laxity and Apathy Did

KodakBldgAtlanta_mcclanahoochie-Flickr_modIn tandem with the release of his book, Who Owns the Future?, Jaron Lanier’s interview with Salon generated a lot of hand-wringing across social media. It seems Lanier, one of our so-called intellectual visionaries, believes that the collapse of Kodak and its 140,000 jobs, and the rise of Instagram and its 13 jobs, exemplifies the killing field of the internet. Lanier theorizes good paying jobs that once supported a thriving middle class have disappeared as internet-enabled firms replaced them. As these jobs vaporized, so did necessary benefits. Here’s a key excerpt from the interview:

“Here’s a current example of the challenge we face,” he writes in the book’s prelude: “At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people. Where did all those jobs disappear? And what happened to the wealth that all those middle-class jobs created?”

What a crock of decade-late shit.

Where the hell was Lanier in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the U.S. manufacturing sector nose-dived due to government policies created by corporate-acquired elected officials and appointees?

It wasn’t the internet that killed the middle class. The apathy of intellectuals and the technology elite did; too few bothered to point out the potential repercussions of NAFTA and other domestic job-depleting policies. In the absence of thought leaders, corporatists sold the public and their electeds on job creation anticipated from globalizing policies; they just didn’t tell us the jobs created wouldn’t be ours.

It wasn’t the rise of digitization that killed the middle class. It was the insufficiency of protests among U.S. brain power, including publicly-funded academics, failing to advocate for labor and home-grown innovation; their ignorance about the nature of blue collar jobs and the creative output they help realize compounded the problem.

Manufacturing has increasingly reduced man hours in tandem with productivity-increasing technological improvements. It wasn’t the internet that killed these jobs, though technology reduced some of them. The inability to plan for the necessary shift of jobs to other fields revealed the lack of comprehensive, forward-thinking manufacturing and labor policies.

It all smells of Not-My-Problem, i.e., “I’m educated, technology-enabled, white collar; those stupid low-tech blue collar folks’ jobs aren’t my problem.”

Until suddenly it is. Read more