It came whispering across Twitter in fragments: “tennis”…“English breakfast tea”…“we walk down the tree-lined University Avenue, reflecting upon our key wins.” The bulk of the feed was the now-usual daily strife and awfulness—the Secretary of State playing dumb about the Saudi consulate murder, the previous Secretary of State having taken military jets for private trips at $10,075 an hour, the assassination of the people who were supposed to be holding Afghanistan together—and it took nearly the whole day to figure out that all these other references were to a single piece, and to see what the piece was.
It was perfect. It was on Business Insider—when was the last time anyone read a Business Insider piece—and it was a deadpan or assertively undermediated writeup, with abundant photographs, of how some person, a bank executive in the Bay Area, supposedly spent a typical day in her life. People used to read things like it all the time online, and spend an hour or an afternoon getting mad about them online, saying scathing things online about how fatuous and annoying they were.
Remember that? Two different people on Twitter called the story subject a “replicant,” and the label didn’t not fit. Everything the banker said about herself was delivered in the same flat, unconvincingly upbeat terms—received opinion processed through circuits unfamiliar with the meaning of “received” or “opinion”:
“I find that the best way to set the tone for the day ahead is a short meditation where I focus on deep breathing and determine my priorities for the day,” she said.
“It’s exciting to learn about new technologies changing the way live and work,” she said. “Living in the Bay Area exposes me to a plethora of new companies pushing the boundaries.”
“San Francisco has a lot of culture, and it’s exciting to be in the city,” she said. “However, in Palo Alto there are a lot of exciting tech companies. I’m grateful to live in two innovative and thriving environments, surrounded by inspiring people.”
Can this be real? Can any of this be “real”? Three years ago, back in the days when Business Insider got sold to Axel Springer for $343 million, this piece—not even a piece, really, but a nearly non-literate rhythmic construct of subheadline-photo-text-quote-subheadline-photo-text-quote—would have been infuriating. Now it was soothing. Scrolling through each dreadful little text unit was like raking a Zen garden full of smooth pebbles someone had placed there for contemplation.
The mind floated along with the bank executive, through the oddly empty and desolate photographs of her daily life—photographs that had to have been taken by someone else, though the photo credits were the subject’s own name. Who was the photographer? How long had the photographer stood, with the camera, as the banker stood gazing over the Bay in her robe, or as she swung a tennis racket on an otherwise vacant court with no tennis ball in sight, or as she stepped from shade into sun on a crosswalk while holding a hot beverage?
Whose gaze was the reader supposed to be following? Each picture was as performative as Instagram (the banker, in semi-deshabille and with a bowl of white roses in the foreground, holding a laptop on her lap as she “works with an organization in Papua New Guinea to promote women’s economic empowerment in the country”; the banker stirring something in a pot, or at least holding a utensil in a pot, while she and her boyfriend stare into one another’s eyes) but the performance was more distant than social media. The banker was not a replicant, after all. She was utterly familiar, and utterly alien, because she was a living inhabitant of the world of stock photography, a representation of a representation of an idea, and that idea was utopia—the slick unaccountable utopia of the people who use the word “fintech” and who can still afford views of the Bay—and the heartening message of the long scroll-through of that lifeless ideal world was this: They don’t even know how to try to convince anyone else to want it anymore.