There is a film about sex dolls I’ve had the misfortune of seeing twice. At Chisenhale Gallery in London and KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, I stumbled across Danish artist Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s short video about BorDoll, a brothel in western Germany where clients can pay 80 euros an hour to have sex with mannequins. In one unforgettable scene, a cleaner there compares her job to previous work in a care home – two institutions that exist, she says, to ‘take away anxiety.’ Watching as she sluices and disinfects the orifices of a cartoonishly imagined silicone doll, the viewer is possessed not by arousal but by a unique variety of horror. It’s like encountering pornography too young, only now the fallen veil masking human biology is compounded by the sickness of the uncanny valley, a semi-conscious fear that the machine might realise what is happening to her.
The name of Hansen’s film is Maintenancer, a play on ‘necromancer’, from the Latin term for someone who communes with the dead. Etymology can often feel like a superficial way to drill into a concept but in the case of incels – a portmanteau for ‘involuntary celibate’ – the implications of the word have not yet fully been thrashed out. In 1993, a Canadian graduate student named Alana Boltwood set up a simple HTML webpage under the heading: ‘Alana’s Involuntary Celibate Project.’ She posted a list of possible definitions for ‘invcel’ or ‘incel’ not limited to gender, sexual preference, or even marital status, the most straightforward of which was ‘the state of being sexually inactive while wishing to be otherwise’. She presumed the existence of an incel ‘movement’ and compared it to being gay in the 1950s – a time of codes and hidden lives before the liberatory activism of the 1960s. The ultimate object of her study was loneliness: why it seemed to be growing in the West and how this intersected with sex. Before the end of the decade, Boltwood gave up the site. She didn’t think too much about it until Elliot Rodger murdered six people and injured 14 in Isla Vista, California in May 2014. In the intervening years something significant had changed.
The language used by the anonymous posters on forums such as incel.co, love-shy.com, incelistan.net, lookism.net and r/braincels (until Reddit banned the thread in late 2019), is simultaneously flamboyant and rigidly codified. There’s a community-specific lexicon, and a dedicated wiki to catalogue it, which includes terms such as ‘blackpill’ (the slate of ‘truths’ that substantiate inceldom), ‘money-’, ‘status-’, and ‘looksmaxxing’ (methods of self-improvement intended to boost attractiveness), ‘IOI’ (indication of interest, a phrase incorporated from finance) and ‘cope’ (a lie deployed to protect oneself from the blackpill). The mood oscillates between bitter misogyny – women are whores or ‘foids’, female humanoids, a subspecies of man – and performative displays of abject ‘beta male’ existence. On the subreddit r/incelselfies, also now banned, teens and young men posted portraits for mutual criticism directed by protocols that forbade ‘virgin shaming’ and virtue signalling, urging instead: ‘Be honest with your ratings and tell people how they can improve.’
Loneliness, body dysmorphic disorder, self-loathing, social anxiety, addiction, unemployment and mental illness are recurring themes in these spaces but the primary difficulty around which the group’s identity coheres is the struggle to ‘acquire’ a girlfriend. It’s a frustration many see as rooted in an inflexible hierarchy of physical and social endowments – where blessings might include a square jaw, high cheekbones, vast wealth or the alluring dim-wittedness of the alpha male ‘chad’ – the conditions of which determine outcomes in a liberal market of sexual exchange. Dolce & Gabbana model David Gandy, referred to as ‘our heavenly father’, sits at the apex, while short, ‘low-tier’ men and minorities (‘ricecels’ and ‘currycels’) are rendered incidental. Women meanwhile are motivated by hypergamy (marrying up) and the 80/20 rule, which stipulates that 80 per cent of women sleep with 20 per cent of men, another concept (the Pareto principle) inherited from the business world. In her response to self-described incel Alek Minassian’s 2018 vehicle-ramming attack in Toronto, which killed 10 and injured 16 people, the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit explained the economic undertow that saturates life on the boards: ‘Sex is a commodity, accumulation of this commodity enhances a man’s status, and every man has a right to accumulation, but women are in some mysterious way obstacles to this, and they are therefore the enemy as well as the commodity.’
Throughout his 107,000-word memoir-manifesto My Twisted World, Elliot Rodger conceives of his virginity as a market failure. Rodger was the son of British filmmaker Peter Rodger, who made a documentary about the nature of God in 2009 and was second unit director on The Hunger Games (2012). His grandfather was George Rodger, a founding member (along with Henri Cartier-Bresson) of Magnum Photos, whose images from Bergen-Belsen at the end of World War Two were syndicated and reproduced across the globe but left the photographer traumatised. A child of immense privilege, Elliot Rodger regularly calculates his assets: exotic holidays, a private education, designer shoes, cars and Gucci sunglasses, but concludes that it must not be enough. ‘I wanted to be a millionaire,’ he writes, ‘so I could live a luxurious life and finally be able to attract the beautiful girls I covet.’ As the writer Mike Crumplar succinctly puts it in a close reading of the manifesto, he is ‘the human personification of the McMansion ideology’.
Rodger was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder (PDD-NOS), an autism spectrum disorder, in 2007, and his mother Li Chin told a court hearing that her son had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as a child. His difficulty in comprehending social complexity can be seen everywhere, from the linear equation of commodities to fulfilment right down to the algebraic formulation of his prose. Throughout My Twisted World, Rodger searches for a system that will unlock reality and enable him to satisfy his urges, retreating toward insularity and virtual environments like World of Warcraft every time it fails. At dinner one evening, his father presents him with The Secret (2006), Rhonda Byrne’s self-help bestseller which encourages readers to manifest their goals through mental adjustment, crafting a preferable version much in the way that algorithms claim to ‘give us more of what we want’. What Rodger wants is to win the lottery: ‘To get revenge on everyone who thought they were better than me, just by becoming better than them through the accumulation of wealth.’ He knows it’s not likely that the universe will bend to his desire, but admits, ‘I was so desperate that I wanted to believe [it] could.’ When he loses a rollover draw, he despairs: ‘When the jackpot reset because someone else won, I lost all faith in that book, and I almost ripped it apart in frustration.’
Rodger only used the word ‘incel’ three or four times online. He was sometimes active on bodybuilding.com and PUAhate.com, message boards where men lamented that the rules and techniques sold by pickup artists and other members of the ‘seduction community’ hadn’t worked out. A refresher: canonical tools from the PUA inventory include ‘negging’, a ‘humorous comment used to communicate active disinterest’, and the ‘3 second rule’, which encourages quick conversation as a means to overcome ‘approach anxiety’. Other books, like Neil Strauss’s The Game (2005) and Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider’s The Rules (1995), sold millions of copies to men and women who considered themselves outsiders and were willing to accept matters of the heart as fundamentally – perhaps comfortingly – transactional. ‘Think of tonight as a video game’, Mystery Method (2006) author Erik Von Markovik (aka Mystery) told contestants on VH1’s The Pickup Artist in 2007. ‘It is not real. Every time you do an approach, you are playing this game.’ When love is conceived of as a competition, an opportunity for strategy (and strategists) emerges. Yet there is more than just a logic of capitalist exchange at play in the world of incels: there is a coding logic too.
Pickup artistry went mainstream in the late 2000s in parallel with New Atheism: a curiously toxic culture war that wasn’t so much about faith as a reductive form of evolutionary biology which sought to explain all human behaviour according to crude assumptions about social and biological relations on the Serengeti 100,000 years ago. If men and women conform to certain patterns of behaviour, it said, we can assume this was somehow advantageous for the propagation of the species. The same was true of religion: a neurological relic Richard Dawkins helped us to ‘outgrow’ by reprogramming us ‘with facts and logic’, hacking a faulty human OS. New Atheism was a conversation about computation, in effect, the radical application of a material conditionality, which held that everything can be explained by sufficient processing power. Today, faith in computation is ascendant. Our collective belief in the power of information consumes vastly more resources than religious belief, and whether we realise it or not, we spend much of our time labouring to validate its claims.
To exist on the modern Internet is to participate in the expansion and refinement of a planetary-scale data set. To prove you’re not a robot, you help to educate a robot, describing pictorial elements or analysing a thread of hard-to-read text in order to programme a neural network. In turn, by conditioning your behaviour, the network programmes you. New Atheism, like inceldom, had all the benchmarks of a functioning ideology. It offered a totalising ruleset for existence: a series of causal feedback loops and spurious reasonings constructed across an increasingly popular assortment of online spaces. It’s no accident that identity politics seemed to abandon the demand for material improvement in favour of greater representation (most obviously in business, politics and the arts) at a time when millions of new users were signing up to platforms that required demographic identification as a condition of entry. The first step in joining any website of the generation known loosely as Web 2.0 is to click a drop-down box and identify yourself. The second is to develop a profile. It was this set of technologies that separated the lonely invcels of Alana Boltwood’s celibacy project from the swarms of shitposters associated with the r9k board on 4chan, an integral juncture in the arrival of the so-called manosphere.
The first Web 2.0 Summit was held in San Francisco in 2004. Captains of the industry including Yahoo’s Jerry Yang and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos convened alongside bloggers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to discuss an emerging paradigm of internet engagement. In their opening remarks, conference organisers John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly explained that on the ‘participatory’ or ‘social’ web, ‘customers are building your business for you.’ They outlined a future where web-based applications enable users to upload text, images, videos and other content to micro blogs and wikis forming an ‘architecture of participation’ that was, in essence, the birth of the attention economy. In this new world, tags would string together thematically related concepts from distant corners of the web, linguistic folksonomies would produce semantic clouds to improve ad targeting and users would be encouraged by easy-to-use, rich web environments and clean, uncluttered aesthetics to more fully express themselves online. Instead of building static HTML sites, as Boltwood did, users would generate content on privately owned digital real estate where it would compete for ratings or reviews. By the start of the 2010s, the unintended repercussions of this development were already becoming clear.
The number of users on Facebook exploded with the introduction of the ‘like’ function: a psychologically irresistible trigger for amplification, absorbed from competitor FriendFeed, which Facebook acquired in 2009. The approval matrix gamified interactivity and rival platforms rushed to develop comparable instruments – the ‘upvote’ associated with imageboards like Reddit or the ‘repost’ functions integral to Tumblr or Twitter. These machines pitted avatars in competition against one another to produce the most attention-‘worthy’ content, anything from a culturally encoded pictograph (a meme) to a personal story of abuse, weaponised for traction in the online space. Targets set by investors in Silicon Valley demanded network effects and greater ‘time on device’, unleashing new forms of violent sentiment in the process. ‘Safety features’ and a ‘terms of service’ rewritten ad nauseum was never more than a distraction from the baked-in priorities of the ‘social’ media business model. When black-boxed algorithms order our feeds, it will always be the loudest, most provocative content that rises to the top.
For those whose media remained unidirectional – like radio, television or print – journalists’ reports from this simulated reality seemed totally unhinged. Whether it was the dogpile misogyny of Gamergate, memorial pages for dead teens being desecrated on Facebook or the doxxing of victims of sexual assault, mainstream news coverage would report outrageous statements or acts they’d ‘uncovered’ online but did much less to investigate the conditions out of which they emerged. As celebrities, politicians, the alt-lite, junior academics and media class careerists engaged in peer-to-peer confrontations and linguistic ‘flame wars’ online, social mobility went into reverse, wages stagnated, productivity and innovation flatlined and life expectancy declined in the West. It’s not that the simulation isn’t ‘real life’ – it definitely is – but it’s a corner of reality defined by specific affordances, incentives and limitations, defined by opaque corporations who use symbols of togetherness (hearts, thumbs up, speech bubbles) and empathetic language (community, friends, sharing) to disguise a momentous recalibration of precisely those things.
Inceldom formed in this environment and is imprinted with its behavioural mechanisms. It’s not the origin of the darkness but it is the CPU through which it flows. Part of the allure of smartphones is their ability to mediate uncomfortable emotional states – to provide respite, distraction or relief from boredom, embarrassment or fear, developed by engineers who have often been schooled in the hacker mindset to seek out vulnerabilities and mine them for access. The matrix welcomes us at our most embittered and confirms our worst suspicions about the world: your career is going nowhere while your peers flourish, your social life has fizzled out, the country is dominated by right-wing or liberal elites (or both), depending on your political and aesthetic sensitivities. In the case of incels, many of whom are teenagers and a majority of whom are non-white, it captures the excoriating, adrenaline-soaked misery of perceived and real rejection, then freezes it in techno-stasis by codifying it and refusing to allow those emotions to crest and recede. Finding your echo chamber is a disaster for solidarity – locating commonalities across difference and building towards mutually beneficial ends – but it’s even worse for treatment and recovery.
In a viral exposé for New York Magazine, journalist Alice Hines speaks to ‘Truth4Lie’, a Dutch incel in his 30s, as he makes multiple trips to the US for cosmetic surgery. ‘In a post-monogamy society,’ she writes, paraphrasing the incel ‘worldview’ for a liberal audience, ‘genetically superior alpha guys hoard most hetero sex. There were infographics to back it up, dating app experiments with precise data. Beyond that, there was biology: genetic wiring controls almost everything about life, the forums’ users argued, ensuring the misery of people like him.’ Note the persistence of Dawkensian evolutionary reductionism (‘genetic wiring’) but also a more broadly accepted strain of technological positivism (‘precise data’). At the beginning of the story, Truth4Lie is released from a psychiatric ward. After various surgeries, he attempts suicide, though the article itself is ultimately cosmetic, describing procedures including shoulder widening or testicle enlargement while appearing to posit inceldom as the cause of mental debilitation rather than its effect. Ultimately, despite contextual asides, it fails to interrogate an intensity of societal alienation (‘he didn’t know anyone in real life’) and body dysmorphia so severe it could produce a fever dream as extreme as Truth4Lie’s:
I want to live in a plastic surgeon’s office. I just want to have a bed in one of his labs. Just a bed, a small kitchen, and an internet connection. I want to feel pure within my body and self-validate by looking in the mirror and seeing the flawless skull. When detecting a tiny deformity, I call the surgeon and he’ll be there immediately, along with his assistant and a knife in his hand to cut me open.
The terror of exclusion, malfunction and inadequacy runs like a tripwire through inceldom, generally conceived of in the press as a monolithic group the same way western governments used to speak about Islamic fundamentalism – a threat with defined boundaries that can be infiltrated, policed, stopped in its tracks. Incels have taken their place in the ‘basket of deplorables’, alongside MAGA nuts, Brexiteers, 5G truthers and trolls, and to say it should not be an offence to study their position is not the same thing as condoning what they do.
In one article, The Verge asks if we should classify all incels as terrorists. In another, a journalist at Wired (of all places) seems to think it possible to purge all incel-related content from the Internet. ‘Despite a great deal of evidence that connects the dots between these mass killers and radical misogynist groups, we still largely refer to the attackers as ‘lone wolves’,’ Jessica Valenti writes in the New York Times, citing further ‘evidence’ from message boards that ‘adherents advocated rape as a means to end their celibacy’. While clearly in poor taste, there is no evidence of widespread violent sex crimes perpetrated by incels, and as ever, the technological dimension is erased.
Most articles about incels aren’t really about incels. Arguably, this one is no different: it’s about the design mechanics that structure online ‘communities’, the role those spectres have come to play in mainstream culture and the inherent difficulty of locating solidarity online. Platforms facilitate connections between people who appear alike – at least in the eyes of machines – networked via keywords, tags, search terms and semiotic footprint, but what they produce is no more than a cloud of voices. In a quite literal sense, incels do not exist. Inceldom is a misogynist LARP that offers a small measure of catharsis, generally to teenagers and young men, a digital carnivalesque that individuals pass through but whose Potemkin existence strikes a nerve. Consider the two most-discussed cultural products associated with incels: Alex Lee Moyer’s documentary TFW No GF (2020) and Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019). Neither contains any incels. Instead they outline conditions that might drive vulnerable individuals towards a ruleset that appears to diagnose their woes (the blackpill). The metacommentary that emerged around Joker transformed an indie remake of a DC Comics standard into an infinity mirror in which you saw your preferred enemy: the rich, the patriarchy, white supremacy, austerity, the media, inequality, mental illness, familial breakdown, incels. The speculation that Joker’s release would lead to ‘extremist violence’ became so histrionic it seemed destined to speak that very act of violence into existence. Thankfully it did not.
Elsewhere incels provide a pretext for deconstructing sexuality entirely. In Amia Srinivasan’s essay ‘Does anyone have the right to sex?’ published in the London Review of Books, the Oxford philosopher interrogates the reduction of contemporary sexual morality to the on-off switch value of consent, which she identifies as obscuring the political foundations of desire. ‘When we see consent as the sole constraint on OK sex,’ she writes, ‘we are pushed towards a naturalisation of sexual preference in which the rape fantasy becomes a primordial rather than a political fact.’ The essay is an intervention in the debate around the ‘bad politics’ of sex, asking if we have a ‘duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires’. The American writer Andrea Long Chu approaches the same subject from the opposing direction, asserting ‘nothing good comes of forcing desire to conform to political principle. You could sooner give a cat a bath.’ Yet Srinivasan’s descriptions of the ways in which desire is coerced, the basis for what she calls Elliott Rodger’s ‘unfuckability’, insist on their a priori existence, meaning technology ‘simply deepens the discriminatory grooves along which our sexual desires already move’. She cites data drawn from Grindr as proof that men are attracted to well-groomed white guys and not blue-haired East Asian ones, insisting on the sort of intractable hierarchy inceldom is obsessed with – an outlook which systematically ignores the countless (generally IRL) instances in which such clichés are defied.
Taking swipes as proof of anything ignores the fact that interfacing with an avatar is more akin to shopping or staring at advertising than encountering another human being. ‘It’s true that the kind of women Rodger wanted to have sex with – hot sorority blondes – don’t as a rule date men like Rodger,’ Srinivasan writes, unintentionally alighting on one of the most common talking points on incel boards, where assumed sexual discrimination based on race forms the basis of a sort of twisted alliance. Rodger himself was half-white and furious that the sexual privilege he believed his (aristocratic) whiteness entitled him to did not materialise. When the simulation is confused for real life, whether it be the social hierarchies familiar from high school movies, the confected lives presented on IG or the ‘research’ many journalists prefer today – a mix of basic data analytics and things people say on the Internet – the results may seem clearer than they are. Chemistry, propinquity and the inexplicable, imperceptible drives that lead to actual sex are complicated and do not necessarily conform to set narratives. We can measure swipes, but that’s where the data gathering ends. Is every match a hook-up? Is it even a conversation? Is the most superficially attractive person in the room the person we’re inclined to fall for in the long run? Perhaps, but not necessarily. ‘[Patriarchy] makes even supposedly unattractive categories of men attractive,’ Srinivasan adds, ‘geeks, nerds, effete men, old men, men with ‘dad bods’.’ But is it really patriarchy that coerces women into affection towards physically ordinary men? Or could this be the real of human sexuality peeking out from beneath our media-saturated lens?
The fear that video games are ruining our children’s minds has been replaced with a present in which we lionise those attempting to gamify every aspect of our lives at the firm encouragement of capital. The rigid architectures that marshal interactivity online make them easier to comprehend for those with extreme learning difficulties – and cases like Rodger, Minassian, Christopher Harper-Mercer and Nikolas Cruz, all of whom suffered from autism spectrum disorders, make clear the potential tragedy that comes from trying to apply those rules offline. Each believed they had found answers in an online world where all sources of information are tailored and curated to the protagonist. In tech it’s called user-centred design but it’s something all humans are susceptible to. Awarding primacy to the simulation, for whatever reason, means failing to do battle with complexity. The death of the myth that our tools are neutral should be the first step in our rehabilitation.
The second is leaving our bubble. The early days of the Covid-19 lockdown seemed to spell the arrival of a hot girl summer for the extremely online – yet cries of ‘NEET’ triumphalism (‘I hardly go outside anyway’) should be approached with caution, especially by those on the left. Of all the pronouncements made about the likely outcome of the crisis only one felt substantial enough to repeat: the longer our new habits under quarantine remain in place, the harder they will be to undo. We have grown used to being surrounded by people, yet distanced, an everyday paradox that has accelerated the transition of mass sociality into the metaverse. We have become familiar with hygienic protocols that guide our movement and possibilities for intimacy. We join others on Zoom, Discord, Houseparty, Twitch, WELink, FaceTime and Google Hangouts, where we cannot touch, taste, smell or perceive the real intent, humour or subtlety of the people we’re reacting to. As vital as video conferencing may be, it represents a flattening of experience that can be exhausting. On the Critical Inquiry blog, French philosopher Catherine Malabou describes the need to quarantine from quarantine as a ‘condition for my exchanges with others.’ Surrounded by screens, there is no ‘escape from the social’. Being ‘cooped up’ with others via networked technology produces an ‘estrangement’ in which Skype conversations are no longer ‘dialogues, but veiled monologues’. Instead, she writes, ‘an epochè, a suspension, a bracketing of sociality, is sometimes the only access to alterity, a way to feel close to all the isolated people on Earth.’
Incels are intimately familiar with the limitations of the virtual as a means of socialisation. Unlike many heavy Internet users, they acknowledge that living online is a ‘cope’ or at best a distraction – something which separates them from the view that blowing up the feed is the height of doing politics. It’s no accident that many look up to Kantbot, an internet dandy who sees the Sturm und Drang of 18th-century proto-Romantic literature – think Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and Schiller’s The Robbers (1781) – as a useful analogy for the present, attempting to steer his fans’ responses to a sententious and dishonest culture (a contemporary of 18th century sentimentalism) towards art and away from nihilism. The verbal theatricality and purple prose on incel forums can read like literature from another time, like a roaming miscreant in Knut Hamsun or Dostoevsky scavenging not for bread and latent greatness but for dopamine. The red and black pills should not be confused: the red pill reveals your enemy but the black pill confirms that all hope is lost. And yet it is remarkable how close the black pill brings posters to acknowledging the limits of hedonistic excess and the relentless commodification and valorisation of sex to which all are subjected – even if only, paradoxically, by considering its absence.
Life as a sexual being can be traumatic. At its worst, it can feel like torture, an inescapable reminder of one’s inadequacy and inability to find contentment. There can be relief in opening up about the perverse and unspeakable ways desperation manifests, from suicidal ideation to having sex with silicone mannikins in a drab hotel in Dortmund. It’s a cliché to say the limits of compassion are tested not by those who provoke our sympathy but those who don’t, and yet the talking cure, rehabilitation, counselling, every kind of witness: these are among the healing strategies built up by humans over time. These are outgrowths of friendship and true community, by which I mean understanding unmediated by corporations with the necessity of turning a profit at their core. Our contemporary moment turns all care and struggle inward, privatises it, pathologises it and disregards it as a chemical imbalance in order to knock up medical or technical solutions while enclosing all spaces (both physical and digital) for truly free expression and the diagnosis of graver ills. The word incel is regularly partnered with a second word, ‘community’, but if incels are a community then the software and CEOs that made them are a part of that community too – a part with a far greater voting share. It is not in their interest for anyone to log off.
In episode 9 of Naama Kates’s podcast Incel we hear from Jack Peterson, a former incel forum moderator who remembers discovering how his misfortune could be traded as a currency online: ‘It was the one way where you could climb the dominance hierarchy by being more and more of a loser.’ Today he defines the blackpill as the internalisation of a scale of extremes, which is both a caricatured vision of society, but also a system of wires. Most people are tangled up somewhere in the middle. ‘It’s just the Internet,’ he says. ‘It’s the fact that now you can join a group of people that can’t get laid. In real life people keep you in check: your family or your friends, if you have any.’ Ultimately, Peterson points listeners to the grey area outside of polarisation and binary thinking, which is where life is. It wasn’t the scale of Alek Minassian’s crimes that compelled him to extricate himself but the day after day spent hardening a perception of his own worthlessness. ‘Incels are more of a danger to themselves than anybody else,’ he says, ‘I figured I didn’t have much to lose.’
In her essay, Srivinasan argues that gay men know that who we choose to have sex with is a political question, while ‘white, able-bodied cis straight people’ do not. I don’t believe this is true: though the process of working through it early in our sexual lives (in our lives, full stop) will never be as clean as some believe it needs to be. By the end of the 2010s ‘incel’ had become yet another middle-class slur for ‘loser’, casually reinforcing the way society views sexlessness as problematic, which was Alana Boltwood’s project 27 years ago. As other parts of the incel lexicon are absorbed into normative discourse – simp, cuck, chad, sperg, soy and ascend – they carry echoes of an era in online politics where users needed to be able to sort each other into zeroes and ones, and incontrovertible proof of male corruption was the problem for which incels appeared to be the solution. This culture was powered by machines that were hastily and inexpertly constructed. Today there is a stricter division between the clear and dark net. Platforms have improved their capacity to selectively hide one kind of belief from another and to some degree our hyperactive, depressive minds simply grew tired. Inceldom is just one LARP among an index of thousands – you can be an e-boy, trad wife, an unconditional accelerationist or left communist – but you should know these personalities will become thought experiments for people who would never consider them in earnest. As the 2010s drew to a close, the popularity of political compass cosplay and ideological scenario planning took a central role in the production of identities online. It may be incels today but it could be eco fascists, anarcho primitivists or neo-monarchists tomorrow. After a brief moment of revolutionary speculation induced by the pandemic, the reality that we are a captive audience for a new range of web platforms is now settling in. The longer you accept an uncanny mode of being in society as the ultimate truth the harder it becomes to undo it. After our own year in the basement will it be possible to return to the world from before?
Philip Maughan is a writer and editor based in Berlin and London. He recently completed the Terraforming programme at the Strelka Institute in Moscow.
On pessimism in two essays, two stories and four poems. Featuring illustrations by John Slade/HYT Studio. The print edition includes contributions by Stoya, Sasha Bonét, Sam Riviere, Lara Mimosa Montes and Wayne Koestenbaum.