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‘The Internet Remains Undefeated’ Must Be Defeated

‘The Internet Remains Undefeated’ Must Be Defeated

The big boat stuck in the Suez Canal, Oprah waving off Meghan and Harry with her “Stop it” hands, all the Teletubbies boinking one another blue as the sun baby watches approvingly, a photo bashing trans athletes shared by Donald Trump Jr. These memes are unified not only in encapsulating the lunacy of 2021, but in the four words that have consistently appeared beside them and countless others, in captions as well as comments: “The internet remains undefeated.”

Surely you’ve seen these words, but maybe you haven’t read them. (Congratulations on your sanity.) An apolitical, amoral stand-in equally for lol, fuck you, and thank you, used for both schadenfreude and firgun, “The internet remains undefeated” is the internet of phrases about the internet, existing everywhere and nowhere, meaning everything and nothing. A seemingly benign expression—until you say it back.

The internet remains undefeated. The internet remains undefeated. The internet remains undefeated.

The more I encounter these words, the more they pierce me with mortal dread. It’s not just the rotten onion of their ambiguity: When did the internet’s winning streak begin? What, or who, is it undefeated against? Ourselves, maybe. But then why are so many of us so jubilant about reminding ourselves that we’ve defeated ourselves? And what would, could, should defeating the internet look like? But my disdain for the saying is also because of its underlying sentiment. The true terror of “The internet remains undefeated” is that it’s most often used in lighthearted contexts, yet exposes the deepest darkness of our lives online, a darkness that we’ve become either blind to or numb to.

Searches on the term “undefeated internet” suggest that the oldest extant usage of the ghastly phrase might belong to Timothy Hall (@peoplescrtic), a film critic and meme lord from Seattle. On the morning of August 12, 2013, he posted on Instagram a meme of a scowling Russell Westbrook, the mercurial NBA dynamo, photoshopped into a character selection screen from the arcade classic Mortal Combat, with the caption “The internet remains undefeated.” It’s a textbook usage, the kind Hall says he’s been deploying on social media and in group chats in the years since. To him, the saying epitomizes the internet as the world’s great equalizer. “You can be POTUS,” he says, “or you can be a soccer mom yelling at a game, not knowing you’re being filmed. Everyone is fair game to become a meme. Maybe it’s POTUS who makes you into a meme, or maybe it’s my 14-year-old nephew. You may not know it’s your day, you just have to ride the wave and let the internet defeat you until it’s someone else’s turn.”

But Hall can’t take credit for coining the phrase; he says he must’ve picked it up from someone on the internet along the way. “If someone ever claimed to have invented it,” he adds, “the internet would defeat them. That’s the beauty of it.”

To a wide-ranging group of social media users like Hall, “The internet remains undefeated” is, on its face, a simple expression of joy, or nostalgia for a more joyous era of the internet. Ryan Milner, a professor of internet culture at the College of Charleston and author of The World Made Meme, says the phrase harkens back to a time, between roughly 2003 and 2013, when the internet was “still kind of this other place that didn’t operate by and could maybe transcend real-world rules.” This was the heyday of early YouTube and message boards like Something Awful, 4chan, and Reddit, “when you saw a flurry of subcultural activity and content creation that became kind of a tone setter for people who are still extremely online.” So in 2021, people comment “The internet remains undefeated” to a flourishing of memes about Bernie Sanders and his mittens or the discord between your fall plans and the Delta variant, because it recalls when life online seemed less about livestreamed mass murders and the algorithmically driven death of democracy and more about rickrolling and lolcats. At the surface level, says Milner, the phrase “is a way to kind of appreciate when the early spirit of collective creativity online resurfaces.”

Environmental Law Is Getting in the Way of Climate Action

Environmental Law Is Getting in the Way of Climate Action

The decades-long failure to act shows that many existing environmental laws “are made for very old problems,” Wood says. In Nixon’s day, Americans were concerned with issues like smog, acid rain, and dwindling landfill space. Some of those issues remain, but they “have been utterly eclipsed by the oil and gas industry’s attack on the planetary system,” Wood adds. While 20th-century legislation could, in theory, be amended once again to account for soaring levels of atmospheric carbon, such laws often end up hindering emissions reduction efforts instead.

Take the Clean Air Act: In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA could include carbon, methane, and other greenhouse gases in the legislation’s definition of “pollutant,” though it was up to the agency to decide if it would. Just three years later, the same logic resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that people cannot sue corporations for excessive greenhouse gas emissions under federal common law, simply because the EPA has the statutory authority to regulate such emissions. The fact that the EPA wasn’t regulating such emissions didn’t matter—the mere fact that they could have been was enough to stop the suit. While similar lawsuits might still succeed under state regulations, the Supreme Court’s decision closed off, at least temporarily, one more path to action.

Just as the “environment” refers to people, animals, plants, and their surroundings in the here and now, environmental law tends to refer to fairly discrete efforts to manage individual natural resources—a water bill here, a forest statute there. But as “climate” refers to shifts in regional, even global weather patterns, and the consequences over time, the vision for climate law is of a discipline that facilitates bold, swift, and holistic emissions reduction. New tools—for regulating all carbon emissions, for redistributing the wealth of the fossil fuel industry to fund carbon removal, and more—are required to address the existential risk we now face.

If there’s a seminal year in American climate law, it hasn’t happened yet. While the US and others have debated national and international action since at least the early 1990s, it’s a history full of false starts and broken promises. Most recently, the US joined, left, and rejoined the 2016 Paris Agreement, which aims to hold global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels. But the treaty contains no real mechanism for enforcement.

Fortunately, the tide appears to be turning. At least internationally, new laws—with teeth—are being passed. In 2020, for example, Denmark passed a law that demands climate neutrality for the nation by 2050—and, crucially, has a provision to (at least theoretically) force elected officials to step down if they aren’t keeping the country on track. And in May, a court in the Netherlands ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut its emissions 45 percent, compared to 2019 levels, by 2030, essentially requiring the company to shrink its oil and gas portfolio.

The hope, according to journalist Amy Westervelt, is that with a combination of great strides in attribution science (which helps connect individual extreme weather events to larger climatic trends), investigative journalism definitively showing that the fossil fuel industry knew of the harms of its business practices and worked to hide them, and new legal theory, the US will have some of its own successes soon.

While Wood is a legal scholar, not a practicing attorney, her ideas are at the center of such efforts. Shocked by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, Wood developed a new approach called atmospheric trust litigation, which argues that courts should compel governmental agencies to protect and maintain the Earth’s atmosphere for public use now and into the future.

Psychologists Are Learning What Religion Has Known for Years

Psychologists Are Learning What Religion Has Known for Years

Even though I was raised Catholic, for most of my adult life, I didn’t pay religion much heed. Like many scientists, I assumed it was built on opinion, conjecture, or even hope, and therefore irrelevant to my work. That work is running a psychology lab focused on finding ways to improve the human condition, using the tools of science to develop techniques that can help people meet the challenges life throws at them. But in the 20 years since I began this work, I’ve realized that much of what psychologists and neuroscientists are finding about how to change people’s beliefs, feelings, and behaviors—how to support them when they grieve, how to help them be more ethical, how to let them find connection and happiness—echoes ideas and techniques that religions have been using for thousands of years.

Science and religion have often been at odds. But if we remove the theology—views about the nature of God, the creation of the universe, and the like—from the day-to-day practice of religious faith, the animosity in the debate evaporates. What we’re left with is a series of rituals, customs, and sentiments that are themselves the results of experiments of sorts. Over thousands of years, these experiments, carried out in the messy thick of life as opposed to sterile labs, have led to the design of what we might call spiritual technologies—tools and processes meant to sooth, move, convince, or otherwise tweak the mind. And studying these technologies has revealed that certain parts of religious practices, even when removed from a spiritual context, are able to influence people’s minds in the measurable ways psychologists often seek.

My lab has found, for example, that having people practice Buddhist meditation for a short time makes them kinder. After only eight weeks of study with a Buddhist lama, 50 percent of those who we randomly assigned to meditate daily spontaneously helped a stranger in pain. Only 16 percent of those who didn’t meditate did the same. (In reality, the stranger was an actor we hired to use crutches and wear a removable foot cast while trying to find a seat in a crowded room.) Compassion wasn’t limited to strangers, though; it also applied to enemies. Another study showed that after three weeks of meditation, most people refrained from seeking revenge on someone who insulted them, unlike most of those who did not meditate. Once my team observed these profound impacts, we began looking for other linkages between our previous research and existing religious rituals.

Gratitude, for instance, is something we had studied closely, and a key element of many religious practices. Christians often say grace before a meal; Jews give thanks to God with the Modeh Ani prayer every day upon awakening. When we studied the act of giving thanks, even in a secular context, we found it made people more virtuous. In a study where people could get more money by lying about the results of a coin flip, the majority (53 percent) cheated. But that figure dropped dramatically for people who we first asked to count their blessings. Of these, only 27 percent chose to lie. We’ve also found that when feeling gratitude to a person, to fate, or to God, people become more helpful, more generous, and even more patient.

Even very subtle actions—like moving together in time—can exert a significant effect on the mind. We see synchrony in almost every religion the world over: Buddhists and Hindus often chant together in prayer; Christians and Muslims regularly kneel and stand in unison during worship; Jews often sway, or shuckle, when reciting prayers together. These actions belie a deep purpose: creating connection. To see how it works, we asked pairs of strangers to sit across a table from one another, put on headphones, and then tap a sensor on the table in front of them each time they heard a tone. For some of these pairs, the sequence of tones matched, meaning they’d be tapping their hands in unison. For others, they were random, meaning hand movements wouldn’t be synchronized. Afterward, we created a situation where one member of each pair got stuck doing a long and difficult task. Not only did those who had been moving their hands in unison report feeling more connection with and compassion for their partner who was now toiling away, 50 percent of them decided to lend the partner a hand—a big increase over the 18 percent who decided to help without having just moved in sync.

The combined effects of simple elements like these—ones that change how we feel, what we believe, and who we can depend on—accumulate over time. And when they’re embedded in religious practices, research has shown they can have protective properties of sorts. Regularly taking part in religious practices lessens anxiety and depression, increases physical health, and even reduces the risk of early death. These benefits don’t come simply from general social contact. There’s something specific to spiritual practices themselves.

When You’re Living in an Immaterial World, What’s for Sale?

When You’re Living in an Immaterial World, What’s for Sale?

I like a get-rich-quick scheme—what American doesn’t?—and not too long ago I alighted on drop-shipping. The idea came up like this: Plastic straws were in the moral firing line, and if they were banned, I figured Americans would soon need another way to slurp our iced coffees.

Twenty metal straws could be found on Amazon for $10, and I calculated I could sell them to cafés for $1.50 each, and they could charge $2 each, and we’d all do well by doing good. But then, as all who chase accelerated prosperity do, I got greedy. Surely I could find a cheaper wholesaler, an obscure Chinese clearinghouse where metal straws went for pennies. Realizing, too, that my modest floor space couldn’t hold much inventory, I was delighted to learn that manufacturers in China ship, then drop—drop-ship—straight to customers.

I was in. If I offshored not just the manufacturing but the warehousing and packaging and shipping of the straws, I’d just need to design some kind of advertising come-on; set up an online shop where every purchase would trigger the wholesaler to release straws to the paying customer; allow the wholesaler to dock my merchant’s account for the low price; and the markup would go to me me me. I’d never even have to see the straws, let alone store them or (God forbid) make them, like some hard-hearted, tireless American industrialist of the 1890s or 1920s. I said get rich quick.

Finding a wholesaler was easy. You can use Oberlo for that. I chose something called Dunhuangwang (or DHgate) in Beijing for its 30-cent metal straws, and I ordered 100 myself to prime the pump. I had goods! I had a shipper! Set­ting up my site for “The Last Straw” on Shopify was also a breeze. Ablaze with ambition, I engineered the site to take bitcoin, eyes on the horizon, high on my private prosperity gospel. Then I headed over to Instagram to make ads …

And there was the catch-22. Of course I can design a picturesque hero shot of a stainless-­steel straw aimed at seducing clients inspired by fine design and an organic-­modern lifestyle, if not by the taste of metal in their mouth. But how to get the posts seen? Even when I paid to promote them, they attracted few likes, and I couldn’t make a sale to save my life. To win customers I’d need to become an influencer, it seemed. And if I had a formula for becoming an influencer, I’d already be rich—and being rich already is as quick as getting rich gets.

The lesson was demoralizing. Not only is building influence via clever posts what must be done to make a fortune in the US, it’s one of the only things we Americans can do, whether well (like Kylie Jenner) or poorly (like me). Drop-shipping leaves the college grad with Andrew Carnegie dreams only one task, the kind formerly assigned to unpaid youths with trust funds: Turn some darling digital pictures viral.

There’s some real economics to this. Most Americans stopped learning farming or trades a century ago, and then a vast swath also stopped learning factory work, blue- or white-collar. The manipulation of undigitized, offline objects, stuff with mass like wheat or stainless steel, was no longer a promising field of endeavor.

The traditional professions like law and medicine hung steady, but as everything offered less security, even professors, doctors, lawyers, and accountants found they had to market themselves. Meanwhile, people in retail, advertising, and every kind of customer service did sales, sales, and nothing but sales, and most of us in journalism also ended up shilling for ourselves online.

A Stroke Study Reveals the Future of Human Augmentation

A Stroke Study Reveals the Future of Human Augmentation

It began in early October 2017, when 108 stroke patients with significant arm and hand disabilities turned up for a peculiar clinical trial. The researchers would be surgically implanting a neurostimulator to their vagus nerve, the cranial nerve that runs along the groove in the front of the neck and is responsible for transmitting signals from the brain to other parts of the body. By the time the trial concluded, the subjects’ once limited limbs had begun to come back to life. Somehow, pulses to that nerve combined with rehab therapy had given the patients improved use of their disabled limb—and done so faster and more effectively than any treatment before it, even on those who had responded to nothing else.

This spring, the findings of the trial were published in The Lancet. Reversal of paralysis is, in itself, an astonishing feat. But embedded in the article was something even more radical. It wasn’t what the patients learned, but how they learned it: By stimulating the vagus nerve, they had compressed years of physical therapy into months. The trial was meant as a way of repairing damage and restoring motor control. But what if there had been no damage to begin with? In the hands of the healthy and fit, such technology could significantly enhance physical performance—the question is whether humans are ready to contend with it.

The potential applications of this technology aren’t difficult to imagine. As seen in the trial, when the vagus nerve receives extra stimulation, it causes the brain to release neuromodulators, which regulate the body’s responses. They come online just as the patient is attempting a new task, strengthening the motor circuits involved. “When you practice golf or anything, it’s the same,” explains Charles Liu, the lead neurosurgeon of the study and director of the USC Neurorestoration Center. “There isn’t much difference in teaching a stroke victim to use a fork and teaching an elite athlete to hit a baseball better.” It’s just repeated action and developing and reinforcing brain-motor circuits. If that process can be sped up, then we’ve just learned how to optimize the brain—and how to augment human beings. Currently, biotech approaches such as stem cells have shown promise for repairing damaged nerves, while brain-machine interfaces aim to replace the lost function by bypassing the injury and connecting the brain directly to the muscles. But this stroke study revealed that neuromodulation plus task-specific practice enhances Hebbian learning—or activity-dependent synaptic plasticity, with all your muscles firing in sequence. Generally, to acquire a skill, the brain’s neurons need to fire in the right way at the right time; practice is the usual human course, but now, stimulation lets us do it faster, and better, too.

It’s only a matter of time before neuromodulation becomes marketable. Once it’s scalable and affordable, it’s likely to have wide appeal for a public, and specifically athletes, already interested in optimizing the human body. But in sports, enhancements come with regulations, and even aside from the usual controversies over doping, professional competitions already have their fair share of murkiness and debate in this area. For instance, the first trans woman ever to compete in the Olympics, Laurel Hubbard, was eligible to compete in the Tokyo Games only if her total testosterone level (in serum) was below 10 nanomoles per liter and has been for at least 12 months. But those same rules disqualified two-time Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya of South Africa because though she has XY chromosomes, she also has elevated testosterone levels.

Neurostimulation promises to complicate this further. Unlike with steroids or hormones, there’s no obvious way to monitor it. In a healthy person with full use of their limbs, it may be impossible to track whether or not the stimulation of the vagus nerve occurred or how long ago. If the athlete had an implanted neurotransmitter, that might be suggestive, but not conclusive. After all, the body is releasing its own neuromodulators; nothing apart from the electrical stimulation itself is foreign to the body. Even if the Olympic committee were to announce regulation requirements as they have for testosterone levels, measuring brain stimulation would require either that athletes or stimulation providers document usage, or some form of internal examinations of the implant device. But requiring surveillance of an athlete’s brain trespasses into one of the last vestiges of private space; any form of regulation would need to be accompanied by guidelines to protect against abuse. These mechanisms of monitoring and enforcement must be addressed—and quickly, before technology outstrips our ethics.