Last month there was a line to reach the peak of Mount Everest. 11 people died due to the overcrowding. Who is to blame? The usual insight-adjacent suspects, Reddit cynics and The Atlantic editorial board, have found the culprit: Instagram. Close! I think they’re on the right track, but there’s a problem: it’s not Insta-millennials who died on the mountain, it’s aging boomers who should hardly be climbing the stairs of a five-story walkup.
Even so, I think there is something to be learned from Instagram culture via one of its more grotesque material consequences, the Museums of “Experiences” that appear every so often in the hellish recesses of SoHo and the other yuppie haunts of New York and San Francisco. The Times ran a solid piece on these in September, illustrating to the part-time cynic, full-time cosmopolitan-culture-mag-reader that the innocent adage “spend your money on experiences and not on things” has been commodified artfully into variations on Transient Disneyland For Coastal Adults. Speaking of Disneyland, I don’t want to stray too far off-topic scrutinizing the proto-dystopic infantilization a lot of these “experiences” entail, but thankfully, in that regard, they speak for themselves. “The first rule of Candytopia is to be happy and always smile! Frowns make other people sad!”
Anyway, the most important thing about them is the reason they’ve earned the moniker “Instagram Museums.” Per NYT:
There is one way these experiences are better than real life. Standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon, taking in the Mona Lisa at the Louvre or witnessing a seal pup shimmy onto a rock, we might pull out our phones to take a picture, only to find that what we experienced as grand feels dinky through the lens. But these experiences often look cheap and grimy in person. They’re made to pop on camera.
This gets at the crux of why the surge of Everest climbers cannot be exactly, or at least only, chalked up to Instagram. These “experiences” tap clinically into the specific brand of performative narcissism that Instagram cultivates, one that encourages users to grab attention in lieu of pursuing intrinsic value. This is not (necessarily) due to any fault of their own, but due to the nature of Instagram as a platform; it moves the locus of an experience’s value from its doer to its viewers, whereupon it’s degraded into only what can be gleaned from single image amongst hundreds (read: absolutely nothing). This principle isn’t exactly anything new—it’s the same as that of the Benjamin essay cited in the Times piece, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and was earlier explored as it pertains to the value of experience in surrealist French author Raymond Roussel’s 1914 novel Locus Solus—a suspiciously prescient metaphor for how the whole thing works.
The story goes like this: a group of people are invited to visit the Wonka-esque estate of mysterious scientist and inventor Martial Canterel. Begin a wild tour of outlandish inventions whose intricacies are described by Canterel in minute detail: there’s a machine that builds mosaic artwork out of teeth, an electric cat in a massive fish tank, you get the gist. Fast-forward to the last and most important contraption: a glass cage in which eight people in separate rooms repeat particular actions over and over, e.g. a young boy in a provincial bedroom sitting in a chair constantly repeating the lines to one poem. Fast-forward again to the big reveal: these people are all dead. Canterel has invented the drug “ressecturine,” which reanimates bodies only to continually reenact the most meaningful experiences of their past lives. The boy died of typhus at age seven and was reciting his mother’s favorite poem to her. Ouch. It’s, like, about the industrial revolution, man.
More accurately, it’s about what I was getting at above, the alienation that technological reproduction imposes on meaningful experiences. Stories like “young boy who loves his mother dies of typhus” are gut-wrenching, whereas eight corpses mechanically reproducing their highlight reels is more voyeuristically fascinating than emotionally moving. This is why the main character of Locus Solus is not typhus-boy, or even the guy responsible for his pseudo-resurrection; it’s the tourist who gets to peek into his life completely free of consequence. Point being, when people start looking into the cage, what’s happening to the people inside loses its meaning (especially when there are eight of them), because the value is in the act of watching itself. Locus Solus’s last line says enough about how hard the viewing experience hit: “Then Canterel, declaring that all the secrets of his park were now known to us, took the path back to the villa where all of us were soon united at a cheerful dinner.”
Scrolling through your feed is standing outside of the glass cage, watching 500 of your friends do 500 ostensibly meaningful things at once. They may not be the most meaningful things in all of their lives, but the posts mean a lot more to posters than they do to us; to you that new pic of ur #dog reflects how much you love the cute little guy whereas at most we’ll scoff at you for still using hashtags. The genius of the Instagram Museum is in how acknowledges the platform’s performative nature: it provides the ultimately meaningless room and activity while you provide the much more important corpse and audience. This is what surgically tapping into narcissistic extrinsic motivation looks like.
And so we return to Everest, which I think even for the most depraved dopamine fiends is by no means worth risking your life for just to grab a few extra likes. While pop-up “experiences” could not exist without Instagram, the reason people make the climb pretty much speaks for itself; nature has been Cool since humans got a grip on symbolism. NYT again:
The central disappointment of these (pop-ups) is not that they are so narcissistic, but rather that they seem to have such a low view of the people who visit them. Observing a work of art or climbing a mountain actually invites us to create meaning in our lives. But in these spaces, the idea of “interacting” with the world is made so slickly transactional that our role is hugely diminished.
That’s the thing about Everest: there is absolutely nothing up there. I’m sure the view is nice, but it’s not about the view, it was never about the view; it’s about what the view represents. Accomplishment, conquering, Man standing on the shoulders of Mother Nature, etc etc. Our urge for symbolic achievement is intrinsic; it defines behavioral modernity (what sets H. Sapiens apart from every H. that came before us) and explains why art exists as well as why there is an American flag on the moon. There’s no pretense to climbing Everest; it’s safe to say that if we inject Edmund Hillary’s corpse with ressecturine he’ll be staring out over the Himalayas for the rest of eternity whether or not anyone’s on the other side of the glass.
Here’s the other thing about Everest, though: none of that is true anymore. The Atlantic article was right to declare that Everest is Over—as a cultural symbol, it’s a joke. NYT nine months ago: “by classifying (pop-ups) as experiences, their creators seem to imply that something happens there. But what? Most human experiences don’t have to announce themselves as such. They just do what they do.” Somehow non-parodic advertisement for Seven Summit Trek’s $130,000 VVIP Everest Expedition Package today:
If you want to experience what it feels like to be on the highest point on the planet and have strong economic background to compensate for your old age, weak physical condition or your fear of risks, you can sign up for the VVIP Mount Everest Expedition Service offered by Seven Summit Treks and Expeditions. This service facilitates you to experience the feeling of accomplishment that one gets while succeeding in an adventurous sport, all while providing the highest levels of safety and comfort that can be imagined in such a difficult landscape.
Try not to let that overwhelming sensation of doom distract from the two most important words there, “old” and “age.” Reddit isn’t wrong to assume that the Everest ExperienceTM is part of some broader cultural phenomena vaguely entangled with our hypercommercialized social media experiences. They just forgot that 55-year-old Gary from Manhattan, Kansas probably doesn’t go online unless it’s to tip camgirls or rally behind a brand name politician with adorably sincere schizoid affectation. The reason Instagram Museums appeared at the same time that the Everest VVIP Package did is not because they both sell cool photos. It’s because they both sell meaning. Marketing 101: don’t sell a product, sell an idea. No one cares if you have an iPhone but they do care that you’re not poor and/or a social outcast who can’t bluetext.
The two experiences are just tailored towards two different audiences. On one hand there’s the trendy millennials grasping for sincere moments in an increasingly vertically-integrated and hypermarketed society (regarding whom it’s not exactly a hot-take that Instagram is the New Calvinism); on the other hand there’s miserable boomers who’ve worked away their lives, gotten no sense of accomplishment from it, figured out by now that their wives and kids hate them, and want to reconnect with nature or do some other hippie shit that will ostensibly give them another shot at their bygone youth (see: Wine Moms & Spliff Dads). They don’t have an Instagram, or, on the off-chance they do, it’s not exactly for the clout.
Point being, the problem is not entirely found in Instagram. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing something cool and then sharing it with your friends. Yes, it’s narcissistic, but it’s not like Instagram invented narcissism. Advertisers did, by appealing to our drive for meaning/accomplishment whilst competing amongst themselves to offer the best “value”, which really means “least amount of effort” because you’ve been working all day/life and you’re tired, damnit.
There’s also nothing wrong with climbing Mt. Everest—it’s cool as hell. But we’re not doing anything cool. We’re spending $45 on the idea of doing something cool that is without the cameras a gaggle of 30-somethings with relatively-important-media-and-tech jobs crawling around pit of rainbow sprinkles being yelled at to smile by a miserable bunch of minimum-wage temp workers.
And our b.1958-d.2019 analogues aren’t climbing Mt. Everest—they’re spending $130,000 to unironically “experience the feeling of accomplishment that one gets while succeeding in an adventurous sport while (receiving the) highest levels of safety and comfort that can be imagined in such a difficult landscape” only to die of cardiac arrest on the way down.
If I was king, the OED entry for “neoliberalism” would read “the chance to experience a feeling of accomplishment while providing highest levels of safety and comfort that can be imagined.” The best (and somewhat Landian) part about it is how it adapts to its own criticisms. The simple act of buying things used to be a sufficient enough accomplishment. I have a family-sized sedan ergo I am happy. Then “consumerism” became a dirty word and a vaguely fascist Japanese woman showed up on Netflix telling us to throw away all of our shit. The solution was to buy “experiences” instead, and the most abject ones aren’t even the travelling plastic orgy-porgies; they’re the ones that charge six-figures for a cheat-code simulation of one of the most difficult, intrinsically rewarding endeavors on Earth, turning the view from the top into the same as that from Splash Mountain and killing you anyway along with the Sherpas forced to carry your shit up 29,000 feet for a living. My ad copy for a tour of the neon corpses at Everest’s Rainbow Valley via the sociopaths at SoHo’s Color Factory: “a participatory installation of colors that invite curiosity, discovery and play, engaging all of your senses in unexpected ways.”