The Death of the Deliberate

The other night, I got an ad on Facebook for a therapist.

Credit: The New York Times

It wasn’t the first time, and it probably won’t be the last. The background of the ad was a painted female figure whose distress was demarcated by the tear sliding down her cheek. This makes sense; markets — and companies, like Facebook — frame depression as this thing people suffer from visibly because it’s easier to sell a solution to something when you can see its symptoms, like tears on a face, or scars on a wrist. And while those things happen, more often, I think people suffering from depression suffer in silence, but of course, that doesn’t sell; they suffer at work, out with friends, home with family, suppressing their emotions to a point where finally they’re just gone, like the friends of the person who was fun in college but only because going out was inexpensive and proximally convenient, and it’s neither of those things anymore. So they stopped responding to texts, and eventually, you stopped sending them. When you do, and you rarely do — only when a friend from out of town visits and brings up their name and you don’t feel like explaining what happened — they respond either immediately or days later with questions about who is going and where the party is and what the vibe will be like; questions a different friend might ask were they curious how they could make it work, but that this one is asking only as means to best frame why it just doesn’t tonight. Another night, for sure, though.

The truth is this: they are not curious about the party, or an opportunity to see you — fuck, they’re depressed, they’re not curious about anything, except how to avoid sounding like they have no acceptable reason not to show up, which matters because depending on how effectively they do it and how long they do it for, you’ll keep inviting them, reminding them that they matter, even as they promise themselves over and over that they don’t. Eventually, though, they’ll have asked so many of those curiously uncurious questions that you stop forcing them to, insecure about your own role in exacerbating an issue that you weren’t instrumental in creating but that you aren’t ready to be instrumental in fixing, either. Their questions are exhausting because the agenda behind them has nothing to do with the answer; they’re not looking for answers, after all. Not yet. And yet here’s an ad for a therapist.

It’s a microcosm of Facebook that someone in that mental state would be served an ad for a therapist; we come to Facebook, after all, often without intent, like tourists touring to tour, disengaged passerby on a blue bus emblazoned with blocky white letters, riding with others who are on it because everyone else already is, even if it’s headed off a cliff. That everyone else is already there is an affirmation to newcomers that they made the right decision; that this is what they’re supposed to be doing, their external nods suppressing internal doubts as their audio-visual tours present them with what Facebook’s algorithm has determined will optimize their engagement. And all of this is decidedly undeliberate; confident enough in the power of the algorithm, those on the bus opt for the forfeiture of their own agency over the alternative of — *gasp* — self-reliance, or the idea that we — humans — know what’s best for us.

The days of deliberate engagement, then, are floating away with the warm wind that blows through the bus as the driver rolls down the windows and mentions over the intercom that he’s done some research and that he’s tweaking the algorithm to make it more amenable to your mental health. And you sort of hear him, but the words are muffled, like you’re underwater. Some are listening — the pundits and the peasants alike — but most, like you, don’t have the time to care, either about the announcement itself or everyone else’s thoughts on the announcement, thoughts which, unsurprisingly, aren’t appearing on the tour. Unless, of course, you’re a pundit.

As the landscape shifts, the windows roll up, and you hear the faint echoes of shareholders’ cries as billions in market cap disappear. But the bus simply rolls on, over bumps and ruts, the familiar din of those you rode on as a kid, gone, replaced with the disappointing derivatives that people become on this one; cacophonies of curation, deterministically repackaged and redelivered by the algorithm out of a misplaced idea of what matters to people. The intercom crackles again, and the windows begin to roll down, wind rushing through everyone’s hair but the driver’s, but it’s stronger this time, and people’s belongings — the things they brought with them, the things they carry — get picked up and tossed around, and there’s chaos, and some yell but most don’t, but the driver doesn’t look back, he doesn’t even stop, he just keeps driving onward, faster, and for the first time you see the barrier between him and everyone else, including you, clear, but sprinkled with dust, otherwise invisible.

In the chaos, you look out, and faintly in the distance can make out the lines of a girl’s face, on which sits a tear, sliding down her cheek. And as you look back at the bus, you realize everyone else is seeing her, too.

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