They say the children are our future. But if 4chan is any indication of what they have in store for us, we are in for a very rough time indeed.
For the blissfully innocent, 4chan is an image board — a format copied from popular Japanese sites, it allows users to post text and images anonymously. The anonymous nature of the board, of course, allows users the courage to post everything from the most extreme pornography to death threats to the coordination of raids on public institutions. The site was started in 2003 by a kid named “moot” (then fifteen) who set up the site with his mom’s credit card, and who has managed to keep it going with sporadic ad revenue from only the dodgiest, least scrupulous advertisers. (Improbably, moot was a top 100 finalist for Time magazine’s “most influential person of the year” award for 2009.)
4chan and its sister sites, the other “Chans”—7chan, 420chan, 711chan, etc. al.—are the black hole of the Internet. They collect the worst that the Internet has to offer, a morass compounded from the ids of the world’s adolescent shut-ins. All extremities, all filth, all illegal activities — such complete chaos that even Lovecraft’s monsters would be forced to make a sanity check, and all updated at a speed far beyond what even an NSA data miner could process. Yet somehow, out of this singularity of abject wrongness, the Chans spew out the Internet humor that preoccupies middle America — LOLCats and the “Chocolate Rain” video, for instance. The Chans are like a particularly huge toxin processor for human consciousness. They are also, I suspect, our best preview of where human consciousness is going.
Mainstream media coverage of 4chan and its sister sites has been extensive, especially after the much-noted raids on the Church of Scientology, coordinated on the Chans and conducted on the web and in real life by Anonymous users wearing V for Vendetta masks to conceal their identities from the infamously vindictive organization. The general attitude of the mainstream media towards the Chans has been one of rubbernecking disgust. (In typical overstated form, Fox News called it an “’Internet hate machine’ filled with calls for domestic terrorists to bomb stadiums.”)
Yet what the media has failed to grasp is what 4chan can tell us about where we’re headed. The Chans aren’t the freak sideshow of the Internet. They are the heart and soul of the Internet. And they are the ones furthest ahead of the pack, leading us. At this point there should be little doubt that the Internet is mutating the human species into something completely different. Therefore it’s instructive to look at the most extreme, freebased forms of the Internet to see where we’re going — and 4chan is that freebased version of mankind’s new drug of choice.
Permanently glued to their computers, the Anonymous users of 4chan exist in a kind of suspended animation, where no attention span is too short. The Chans show us the chaos at the edge of human perception, where the mind has consumed so much information through artificially enhanced sensory inputs that it begins to break down and cannibalize itself. The brave pioneers of 4chan are the Magellans of media desensitization, who abandon the grim reality of their parents’ basements to wallow in infinite, recursively self-referential filth.
In the last decade, we’ve seen the increasing acceleration of information (a la Terence McKenna and Moore’s law) heralded as the key to new business development, though it has, in fact, so ruined our attention spans that it is almost impossible for modern man to get any kind of productive work done. We’re too lost in the datastream, too focused on taking in new information to complete a task that takes more than a few minutes, at best. I think a direct correlation can be made, for instance, between the rise of social media and the fall of the economy. The kaleidoscope of the Internet is more endless, more distracting and more mutating than even the most potent psychedelic drugs could have ever prepared us for. And 4chan is the ultimate, final trip.
It is the car crash that cannot be looked away from. Ever.
If the mainstream Internet-using world has driven itself to distraction and insanity with social networking, the denizens of the Chans have upped the ante past all conceivable boundaries, like switching from a light alcohol problem to crushing and injecting Oxycontin. This is the place where all senses are deadened, where the mind cannot function because it is trapped in its own overstimulation. This, I am sure, is where media theorists from Marshall McLuhan to Neil Postman to Douglas Rushkoff assured us that the inherently liberating force of information technology was leading us. And though I am sure they knew that the filth and fury would follow, I’m not sure they ever expected it to look quite like… this.
My own 4chan addiction crept up slowly. Once a casual user of gateway drugs like icanhascheezburger.com, ytmnd.com and Encyclopedia Dramatica, I followed a link to the black hole itself one day and — sucked past its event horizon — have since been unable to escape. Stuck there now, I am clicking back and forth from this article to peruse the halls of 4chan’s /x/ forum, afraid that I might have missed the latest spew from the Internet’s collective maw. It is the car crash that cannot be looked away from. Ever.
What is happening here? The escape from the constraints of the flesh? The escape from the constraints of being human? The inevitable purge following the collective unconscious’ information binge? With the Internet we can now erase space and time, erase the restraints placed on the mind by matter. But what for? Once mankind set sail to explore the limits of the human world and to discover the frontiers of the planet. And once mankind plunged into himself to discover the limits, or lack thereof, of his own nature, through inner experience. But this is a new world, one bereft of the luxury of such meaningful activities. And in this new climate, the collective entity known as Anonymous has found a new frontier, and set out to discover the limits of boredom itself, mining the darkness for glittering jewels to bring back to the rest of us.
4chan is, I contend, the most interesting angle we have on the evolution of human consciousness. It is a shamanic experience, a bardo of becoming, where the soul is detached from the body, set free to wander in the wilderness of banality until it encounters the epic lulz of meeting itself… and finding that it, itself, is the most disturbing thing on 4chan.
Jason Louv is the author and editor of the books Generation Hex, Ultraculture and Thee Psychick Bible, and a blogger at the popular culture journal Dangerous Minds (www.dangerousminds.net). www.jasonlouv.com