You know what’s amazing: We can create things just by caring. That’s all you need to do. Just care. Two people care about each other: Pow! Now there’s a relationship. Before, nothing. But now anything might happen. They might move in together, quit jobs, travel, get in a fight.
It doesn’t just work on people. It can be anything. Look at all those sports teams who kick a ball or whatever and it’s televised and people flock to watch in giant stadiums. Just because we care! The kicking of the ball itself is pointless. That has no intrinsic value. It is clearly worthless. But we care about it! So actually it’s worth a lot! It’s driving economies and generating debate and making people wear scarves of particular colors.
TV shows. Religions. Novels. Everything! Everything in the world has value if someone cares about it! And only then!
This is a major background theme in Providence, by the way, which I have never seen anyone notice. I actually really want to talk about it sometime but can’t because I have to spoil the whole novel. Anyway, whenever I get to thinking that we’re all powerless motes in a maelstrom of external forces, and have no free will, I remember I can make something important by caring about it. And no-one can stop me! That’s the thing! I can care about whatever I like! Grass! Kids’ netball! Background themes in novels! You might think these things are stupid and worthless, but too late! I already cared about them! You know what that home-stitched doll of Marlene from Apathy and Other Small Victories is worth on eBay? Something! Because I like it!
Caring is amazing. As far as I can figure out, it’s the sole reason our existence is more than a bunch of physics: You can care about anything, at any time, for any reason. And when you do, you change the universe.
Nobody knows how this happens! We have no idea what makes someone care! We have only been able to persuade people to act like they care, which, okay, is pretty good, but not the same thing. (I once wrote 90% of a novel that I didn’t really care about. It was not the same.) Making people act like they care about things they actually don’t is a fundamental part of our world economy; just imagine if we couldn’t do that. I mean, you think there’s a staffing shortage now. Caring is so important, we pour unthinkable amounts of time and money into faking it.
Then there’s the other part. If you stop caring, you can kill things. Everything has a threshold, and when it receives less care than that, it dies. It just dies. And, again, you can do this in your head. You don’t need to make a plan. You don’t need to perform any particular deed. You can just stop caring. See how long that thing lasts.
You can find people doing anything on the internet if you want, but you probably don’t. We all find our boundaries, I think, beyond which we’re fine with not knowing the details. But we know it’s out there—there’s nothing we’d be surprised to hear you can find on the internet, because of course you can.
Still, I’d like to present an online service in which Amazon.com pays women to lick plastic ears.
Some earlickers gentle and sweet, as if the plastic ears might be ticklish. Others you’d think are trying to extract the last bit of jam from a deep jar. Each earlicker has her own style. Most break up the earlicking with light conversation, but a few advertise NO TALK, if you prefer your earlickers just to focus on the ears, please.
It’s important to note that Amazon.com doesn’t want earlickers. Amazon did not, I’m pretty sure, set out to create an earlicking market, and it would probably like them to go away. Nor do the earlickers themselves particularly want to be earlicking—these aren’t earlickers from way back, who finally found a commercial platform to do what they love. Oh no. This is one of those situations that came about despite everyone’s best intentions.
At its core—right down in the canal, if you like—this is a language problem. The earlickers exist because it’s hard to say what you mean.
Amazon.com owns Twitch, which you might have heard of: It’s a streaming platform for watching other people play video games rather than playing them yourself… although that’s an old-school way of describing it, laced with the same condescension with which my parents viewed us 80s & 90s kids who’d do anything if it was on a screen.
Amazon wants Twitch to keep doing what it’s doing: attract a mainstream audience where mainstream companies can advertise their mainstream products. But since anyone can become a Twitch streamer with a phone and some spare time, the site needs content rules. There’s no end of streamers to choose from, you see, and the audience skews young and male. It’s a viewers’ market, and the viewers quite like boobs.
So Twitch bans sexually suggestive content. See? It says it right here. No sexually suggestive content.
But that’s a bit vague, if you’re a streamer. If your income depends on staying on the right side of the rules, you want to know exactly where the lines are—whether you risk being deplatformed for doing a dance, for example, or going for a swim. Or licking plastic ears.
And Twitch—wanting to be transparent and helpful and not get pitchforked by a social media mob every time a popular streamer is or is not banned for crossing or not crossing the line—has obliged by writing policy docs to cover as many specific situations as possible. “Gestures directed towards breasts” are prohibited, for example, while “cleavage is unrestricted as long as coverage requirements are met.” (This is why streams are hosted by women with grand decolletage who don’t talk about it.)
You want details? Twitch has details. Twitch has precise rules for every scenario you can think of:
For streams dedicated to body art, full chest coverage is not required, but those who present as women must completely cover their nipples & areola with a layer of non-transparent clothing or a paint & latex combination (artist-grade pasties, tape, latex or similar alternatives are acceptable).
Or rather, almost every scenario. Because you can’t think of everything. Even if you cover everything that’s happening now, you can’t anticipate what people will come up with next.
The plastic ears with which the earlickers ply their trade are special microphones. They’re not cheap. You need to make a capital invesment to become an earlicker—which implies the existence of earlickers who sunk their savings into a 3Dio Free Space but never managed to made a living from it, and now the ears sit in a corner of their room, the lobes gathering dust, a symbol of regret.
But these microphones are the best (I assume) at capturing wet, intimate earlicking sounds, which, in the viewer’s headphones, create the auditory illusion that they are having their own ears licked. This experience can range from erotic to irritating, but it’s clearly, clearly sexually suggestive.
However, earlicking is not specifically mentioned in Twitch’s ruleset. And there’s a thin, artist-grade pasties veneer of credibility because earlicking is similar to ASMR, i.e. meditation via crinkly sounds. It’s difficult to find the words to express objectively how one is different from the other.
As someone who runs their own site of user-generated content, I’ve hit this paradox myself, where the more specific I make the site rules, the weirder behavior it seems to encourage. While the ruleset relies on broad, sweeping language—we may not be able to define it, but we know it when we see it—it’s relatively easy for site moderators to maintain consistent, common-sense standards. But the more specific and objective the wording becomes—which users want; they crave detail—the more bizarre corner cases pop up, which aren’t quite covered by the language, and which explode in popularity because now they’re the most boundary-pushing-yet-allowable examples of the type.
That’s how you get earlickers.
You can find the earlickers of Twitch here. (Warning: sexually suggestive.)
You know, I think we’ve gone too far on this messaging thing. Not messaging as in sending each other messages. That’s fine. The more messages, the better. Messaging as in, How do I make an idea palatable to idiots.
Obviously messaging works. If you have an idea you need to get into people’s heads, you should think about messaging. People are busy. They pay no attention. When people hear an idea, they take one piece of it way out of context and form an opinion based on that, then refuse to change it until the end of time. You have more success if you tailor your message to be charming and digestible.
That’s fine. But I feel like we’ve begun to demand good messaging for everything, even when we’re not idiots. Now we think: If your messaging isn’t great, I’m out already. I’m not even going to entertain your idea, because your messaging sucks. It might be a good idea, but you couldn’t even get your messaging right, so forget it.
Maybe it’s a natural reaction to being bombarded by marketing all the time. Every day, sounds and and colors and movements try to catch our attention, most of which we manage to fend off. It’s wearying, so maybe it’s a relief to encounter some messy, confusing messaging that allows you to dismiss it right away, with no further brain-power required.
But this means abdicating responsibility to the messengers. It allows messaging, rather than the thing being messaged, to determine what we think about it. I don’t love the situation where we’re all so busy and distracted that there could be a, oh, I don’t know, a global pandemic and a free vaccine, and a valid argument against taking it would be, But the messaging was terrible.
I’m an ideas man. Person. I’m a person of ideas. Not good ideas. I’m just willing to shake bad ideas for long enough that sometimes interesting things fall out. But the internet is tough for ideas people. I had an idea for a TV show where CEOs try to open their own packaging, but then I Googled “tv show where ceos open their own packaging,” and screw me, there’s a stupid Reddit post with the exact same idea.
Pre-internet, I would have happily regaled you with my entertaining CEO humiliation TV idea, never knowing that someone else had had the same thought. A bunch of people, probably. I would have suspected. But I wouldn’t have known.
Now I know, and it’s not just ruining great ideas for panel shows with a surprise redemption arc: You can’t think of anything without a quick search revealing that someone else thought of it first. By now every half-baked thought anyone ever had has been fingered into a phone, and the search algorithms are good enough to find it.
I have therefore decided never to research anything again. The internet is too consumptive anyway. Consumptive. I’m not sure that’s a word. But I’m won’t check. I’m just going to assume I created something brilliant and on point there. So here is my next idea, which I also will not research: We should fine companies for litter. I know what you’re thinking: Why do all Max’s ideas start with, “Fine companies?” Because inequality, that’s why. That’s beside the point. We should fine them for litter. Not littering. Fines for littering is already a thing. We need to fine them for having their logo wind up in a gutter, no matter how it got there. For example, if I wander through the city with a meal, discarding Coke cans and McDonald’s wrappers, we should fine Coke and McDonald’s.
You might be thinking this sounds a little unfair. Like, what did Coke and McDonald’s do wrong here, exactly. I’ll tell you: They failed to take accountability for the total footprint of their business. They made an external detrimentality. External detrimentalities are when a business finds a way to make someone else pick up the tab for some of their product’s cost, e.g. by dumping factory waste in a river, or pretending nicotine is good for you, or passing down catastrophic climate change to the next generation. They’re also how to tell the difference between economist rationalists and corporate shills, because economists want to eliminate external detrimentalities, while people who have been subsumed into the corporate overmind think they’re a smart way to make money.
There you go. An app to send snaps of discarded golden arches to a central authority, which issues fines, which incentivizes McDonald’s to stop people strewing trash all over my street. That’s a solid idea, which no-one has ever thought of. Or they have, and it was trialed in some city somewhere, and it went terribly, possibly because people were deliberately dropping litter to get companies fined. But those are just details. I’m not going to figure out every last little thing. I’m an ideas man. Person.
Vaxman is a billionaire philanthropist whose parents died from Covid-related complications after a family gathering. Vaxman’s half-sister, Antivila, attended the gathering while ill and didn’t tell anyone.
Frustrated at the government’s inability to end the pandemic, Vaxman decided to take matters into his own hands. Converting his underground garage into a laboratory, he developed an armored suit and a range of weaponry, including “the Vaccinator,” a semi-automatic rifle capable of delivering bursts of 0.3mL of Pfizer-BioNTech with high accuracy over two hundred yards. He also built grenades capable of dispersing Pfizer via aerosolized mist, suitable for deploying indoors and at concerts and rallies.
Roaming city streets in his customized Vaxmobile, Vaxman was intercepted by the Freedom Fighters, a shadowy paramilitary force with unknown but extensive financing. Badly beaten and facing jail time for his unregistered weaponry, Vaxman was set free by his family’s brilliant attorney, Jane Collective, who successfully argued that Vaxman was legally entitled to shoot Pfizer people who endangered his personal safety by approaching him while unvaccinated, particularly in stand-your-ground states.
The case rocketed Vaxman to national prominence, forcing him into hiding to escape retribution. In the mountains, he developed a plan to feed vaccines into the water supplies of a major city. Piloting a heavy bomber over the catchment area of a key water reservation, he was intercepted by the Freedom Fighters, now revealed to be financed and led by Antivila. In the ensuing duel, Vaxman was shot down before he could open the bomb bay doors, but this was merely a diversion, as Jane Collective had secretly negotiated to add Pfizer to the city’s fluoridation program.
To some, Vaxman is a hero. To others, a villain. He saves lives, but is hated by many of those he saves. He is regularly invited onto mainstream television, but has never accepted. He is in love with Jane Collective, but it’s too risky for them to be together. He sometimes visits schools, and is startled by sneezes.
There’s a Brian Aldiss series of novels about a planet that has 500-year-long seasons, and ahead of each great winter, people get attacked by a virus called the Fat Death, which makes them gain a ton of weight, or else die, or else first one then the other. It’s actually symbiotic, because the virus allows the survivors to make it through the coming cold years, but the people don’t know that, so try their best to avoid it. Each cycle, a few pockets of smart-alecs manage to stave off the virus to remain slim and healthy and smug, but if they’re successful, they realize they’re skinny weirdos who can’t hang out with anyone.
Australia is that pocket of skinny weirdos.
It turns out that when you’re very successful at keeping COVID out of your country, you don’t feel a real urgency to get vaccinated. Only 4% of Australia is fully vaccinated so far, and a sizable chunk of the rest seem reluctant to be injected with something to protect them from a virus that isn’t really present around here.
This is an interesting situation to me because it involves people doing good things that lead to bad outcomes. (I also like the reverse situation, when bad things will lead to good outcomes.) Plus it comes with a big dollop of human inability to assess risk, which is a fascinating topic that I’ve written and spoken about before (essay, video). People are terrible at risk. We’re the evolutionary result of a biological system that prioritized fast decisions over correct ones, which was fine when the risk was saber-toothed tigers, but less fine when it’s blood clots.
We’re instinctively happier with risks that are the result of our own actions, such as swimming in a dangerous current or driving a car, than risks imposed on us by outside forces. And we especially hate risks that are new. We like to classify things into simple categories, with the result that a lot of people now believe driving to a medical center would be perfectly safe, but getting a vaccine there would be dangerous.
I’m not sure how Australia plans ever to open its borders. So long as they remain shut tight, there’s a low enough risk of catching COVID that for many people, it will be treated as zero. And a vaccine that presents any risk at all, however small, will be seen as dangerous.