The Crankification Engine

On the internet, we are all encouraged to become the sort of person who writes letters to the editor

Pop Art man talking
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Ben Jenkins
Dear Sir Or Madam

When I was a kid, a friend and I spent around a month prank calling a late night talk-back show. We’d call up, try to disguise our 12-year-old voices as pensioners, tell the producer we wanted to talk about the topic of the day, and then when we were finally let on air, we’d blurt out something devastating like “poo” and be immediately disconnected. While we were waiting to go on we’d have to listen to the other callers — the callers who’d not phoned in to say “poo,” but to discuss the news — and as the weeks went on, I very distinctly remember thinking this to myself: Why the fuck are any of you people doing this?

Now, they may have had the same question of us, but I think our reasons for doing what we did were fairly clear and watertight: it’s fun, whether you’re a 12-year-old boy or the King of England, to hear your own voice say “poo” on the radio. That’s a solid fact that’s been true for as long as we as a species have had the technology to say “poo” to a great many people at once. Less clear to me then was why anyone, anywhere, would want to just call up the radio to shout their opinions on any topic into the void. And not just want to — it was clear that these people felt compelled or obliged to. Nearly all the callers to the show were regulars.

These people were, simply, cranks. I am at this point going to assume we all have some familiarity with cranks. The obsessive writers of letters to the editor, the meticulous hoarders of correspondence, the avid collectors of fine and rare grudges. These people have been a mainstay in the culture from the characters of Dickens to Grandpa Simpson, but recently it seems that the figure of the crank has dropped away from the public imagination. Now, this could be that the art of penning demented letters to metropolitan newspapers on a semi-regular basis may be dying out with the last generation of people to use lead toothpaste, but I don’t think that’s it. I think we’ve lost sight of them not because they went away, but because they became unremarkable. We are all cranks now.

Last year, I wrote a piece about what professional punditry does to a person’s mind; on how constant, regular churn of opinion requires the human brain to configure itself into an alien shape and how this way of seeing the world leaves the pundit a kind of desiccated take-husk. Opinion writing, I argued, was an easy job with a terrible cost to the soul and the mind. I have since come to realize that I’d overlooked something fairly obvious — the problem is far bigger than that. Say what you like about the state of punditry, but at least these people are being financially compensated for having their brains turn to pure goo. Online, we’re undergoing the same procedure, every day, for no money.

Or maybe “we” is too strong here. Maybe you’re not doing any of this. I always find writing about the internet difficult because I have no way of gauging just how common my particular level of mental deterioration may be. Perhaps you are a resident of a part of the internet I’m unfamiliar with and where none of this applies. But I’ll tell you something: I doubt it. I have not, since my father brought home a Compaq Presario in 1995 and plugged it into our phone line, encountered one pocket of space in all of the World Wide Web that does not, to some degree or another, crankify all who inhabit it.

Part of this is just logistics. Online has drastically lowered the barriers of entry into the Order of Crankhood. Time it was when if you really wanted to get publicly steamed about something you’d read, you’d first have to buy a newspaper, read that newspaper, get steamed, go to your writing desk, jot down your letter, put that letter in an envelope, find a stamp, and then walk to the post office. And even after doing all that, there was no guarantee that it would be published. Being a crank even 30 years ago took a kind of monastic dedication to the high art of being a weirdo, but nowadays, saying something deeply unwell about an article you don’t like to thousands of people is as trivial as ordering a coffee.

Online has drastically lowered the barriers of entry into the Order of Crankhood.

And if the internet in general has lowered these barriers, social media has gone a step further. People who never set out to be cranks in the first place are actively incentivized to do so. This isn’t just because whenever you post you get a thrilling little tally of all the people who agree with you, it’s because of how these platforms are designed to maximize engagement. The ideal poster for social media companies is one who posts often, who posts stridently, and who responds to as much stuff as possible.

So, to be on Twitter or Facebook is to sit in a room while someone holds up random pieces of stimulus and demands your appraisal of each. What do we reckon of this? Okay, how about this? And this? What’s your view here? Were you to design a machine to turn otherwise normal, healthy people into cranks — a kind of crankification engine, if you like — you would probably arrive at something like these platforms.

Of course, Twitter and Facebook don’t crankify their users out of malice, they do it to turn a profit, which may actually be worse. When the cranks of yore would write a tirade spanning several faxes to their local member of parliament about a hedge that was bothering them, they did this for no-one but themselves. This is not the case for the Neo-crank. When we use our finite capacity for wonder to publicly opine about fictional teens using drugs on a television show, or people reading in bars, or one American girl leaving her fake-sounding college to attend a different fake-sounding college, a company is making bank off it. To put it another way, the Silicon Valley robber-barons are getting rich off the uncompensated labor of yeoman cranks, who till the posting fields in the sweltering heat of the discourse until their brains give out.

Because there is a cost here, vis-a-vis going nutso.

Like those pundits I wrote about a while back, this kind of relentless churn of opinion, this unceasing urge to prosecute our case on things we hadn’t even heard about an hour before, this gamification of being right — which is all the life of a crank really boils down to — is a deeply unhealthy way of interacting with the world around us. For one thing, it robs us of our genuine curiosity. The paradox of the crank is that while they hold opinions on everything, they aren’t particularly curious about anything.

I don’t advocate a complete retreat from social media, largely because that is impossible. Nor do I think that having strong opinions is a bad thing at all. On the contrary, I think that it’s a very good thing, but it’s an impossible thing to do in any meaningful way when you start seeing everything as grist for the take mill. There’s an unavoidable flattening effect.

But if we can at least be aware that this is happening, that the path of least resistance for even the semi-regular poster leads to the gates of Crankborough, leads to the kind of mind that will call up a late night talk back show moments after some boys yell “poo” and earnestly pontificate on something that, if this mind is really honest with itself, it doesn’t even care about — if we can recognise that, then there’s probably some hope we can emerge more or less unscathed from this singular moment in the history of the human brain.

Ben Jenkins is a writer from Sydney, Australia.