Networked Up

Criss-crossing America, alone and interconnected

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One morning last year I woke up in my van. It was late November, and I was parked in a sun-bleached lot in Santa Cruz, California. I had tried to keep pace with T-shirt weather as it crawled down the coast, but my insulation was shit, and the tip of my nose felt like frost. I had slept through my alarm. I was running late.

One of the great under-discussed facts of the world is that you can get a free hot meal every morning by combing your hair, putting on a clean shirt, and walking into almost any hotel that serves a complimentary breakfast. Nobody checks if you’re a guest, and the staff probably care less about their employer’s bottom line than you do. On this particular morning I’d planned to dine at a local Hampton Inn, but breakfast ended in fifteen minutes and getting there meant driving halfway across town on a full-body hangover.

I scraped myself out of bed and lurched five feet to the driver’s seat, scrolling through Twitter with one hand and stuffing my feet into a decomposing pair of Vans with the other. If I wanted to show up in time to eat, I’d have to test the necessity of the combed-hair and clean-shirt protocols.

By this point I’d been on the road for six months, living out of a GMC Savana that was too new for a tape deck and too old for an aux port. I’d gutted the back and bolted a homemade bedframe to the body. I had a camping stove, a water tank, and a small solar generator. I pissed in a plastic bin, shaved in Walmart bathrooms, showered at truck stops, and idled in McDonald’s parking lots to play World of Warcraft on stolen Wi-Fi. I worked remotely and circled the country on $1,000 a month.

I originally moved into a van to escape a numbing sense of static instability. I was living invoice-to-invoice on the margins of a dying print industry that was choking on the tentacles of powerful social media companies. Potential employers shuttered and announced layoffs by the week, offshoring as much economic insecurity as possible onto an amorphous fleet of desperate twenty-something freelancers such as myself. The very conditions of my work were proof that the ladder had buckled, and I felt increasingly uncertain that plugging away in New York City could lead to steady work. Everything was fucked, so I took advantage of one of the few upshots: thanks to the rise of telecommuting, I could tread water from anywhere with an internet connection. It didn’t matter where I was. I could travel the country without leaving the grid.

For a while the change of pace felt like a meaningful escape. I dramatically lowered my cost of living, visited old friends, and got to see the country, from the site of one of the oldest mosques in the United States to the flagship Waffle House. But I also started to notice a growing deficit of careful attention. Over time, I understood less and less about my surroundings, and simultaneously felt they understood less about me. I was rarely completely alone, but spending time with people either meant reconnecting after a long lapse or meeting someone for the first time. The questions were always, “What have you been up to lately?” and never “How was your day?” Everything, including my social connections, became fuzzy and abstract.

Lacking consistent, sustained human contact, I increasingly sought the passive comforts of the internet. I was in touch with old friends, sure, but when I returned to my van at night, scrolling through Twitter or running YouTube on autoplay felt more natural than calling them up. I looked at memes, read inane think pieces, watched dozens of hours of Super Mario Maker videos, and forgot everything as soon as it passed. I was tapped into the most sophisticated communications grid in world history, a supposed boon for global “community,” but there was nothing communal about the process. Still, it was the best I had—and it felt like the lifestyle the world wanted me to lead: modular, personalized, detached, isolated, and yet deeply interconnected. I lived in a fractal multitude of pathways that sapped the meaning and presence from all of its destinations. I parked my van in many different places, but the global hierarchy of computer networks was my stand-in for home.

Geography of Nowheresville

The internet also filtered my sense of place. You don’t need to remember the name of a coffee shop when you can look it up later, and you don’t have to pay attention to street names if you have Google Maps. Fleeting oddities were fodder for disappearing Instagram stories, and Tinder was my most reliable source of one-on-one conversations. As I circled the country, the U.S. Interstate Highway System started to feel like an extension of the internet—a diffuse, instantaneously interconnected collection of cataloged information systems, manifest in the material world. The veins took precedence over the organs they connected. I hadn’t just stayed on the grid; I was more deeply plugged-in than ever.

The pavement of the Interstate Highway System unfurled before me, and I consumed it with the thoughtless velocity of an Instagram feed.

It makes some intuitive sense that living out of a mobile conversion van intensified, rather than subverted, my integration into an abstract system of systems. After all, van-dwelling is most widely associated with a hashtag. Many people first encountered #vanlife in Rachel Monroe’s 2017 New Yorker feature on the phenomenon. As she put it, “vanlife, as a concept and as a self-defined community, is primarily a social-media phenomenon,” arguing that its attendant lifestyle branding had “enabled people who would otherwise just be rootless wanderers to make their travels into a kind of product.”

Monroe’s essay focuses on an obnoxious cohort of privileged, narcissistic social-media influencers, who traipse the world in search of exotic scenery to extract from local context and mythologize to a mass audience, selling an “off-the-grid” fantasy to advertisers. The phenomenon is real—it’s why I cringed when people responded to my living situation by asking for my Instagram handle—but it’s hardly the experience of most people who live in vehicles. A parallel trend is captured by a different van-dweller of the public imagination, evoked in another question I often got. Referencing a classic Chris Farley Saturday Night Live bit, people who learned I was living in a van would ask: “Down by the river?”

Evidence suggests that the vanlife of necessity, a subset of the U.S. homelessness crisis, is on the rise. In San Francisco, the share of the city’s unsheltered population living in vans nearly tripled from 13 percent in 2015 to 35 percent this year. In King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, the vehicle-bound population grew to make up more than half of the county’s homeless inhabitants in the year following Monroe’s New Yorker piece. If the stereotypical #vanlife narcissist craves visibility, this population is shunned by popular consumption. Monroe’s van-dweller is a libertine solipsist, chasing a life unmoored by social obligation; Farley’s is a product of economic circumstance, neglected by the same social contract that the other shirks. The two figures vary significantly vis-à-vis their material agency in their respective situations, but a common experience of social alienation binds them.

The truth is that many van-dwellers, including myself, fall somewhere between these extremes: indulging in adventure but not with explicit disdain for society at large; responding to economic forces but not as a last resort. These dueling figures find resolution in a great little essay by Chris Wright in the third issue of a zine called Decoy Effect. He acknowledges that the itinerant lifestyle was originally popularized by a cohort of literary Bohemians including Steinbeck and William Least Heat-Moon, but that “this kind of life doesn’t come from those writers. They stole it from the most forgotten class of all: the freaks, the weirdos, and the burnouts.”

In my case, I didn’t have savings, health insurance, or thousands of Instagram followers, but I did have other options. What unifies the spectrum of van-dwellers, from “down by the river” to the glitzy, sanitized #vanlife micro-celebrities, and what makes them emblems of a broader social order, is that they’re all produced by a political economy that de-emphasizes rootedness and tolerates a great deal of individual precarity in service of heightened interconnection and general accumulation. Vanlifers inhabit a grid that emphasizes fluidity over the specific nodes it connects.

As I grew to relate my transient physical existence to digital life, as well as to broader social trends in unfixed living, I began to understand all three as elements of a larger tack in modernity. In 1996, as the internet began to displace older forms of communication and neoliberalism solidified its grasp on the global political economy, sociologist Manuel Castells described the ascent of a global social order based on “a new mode of development, informationalism, of which networking is a critical attribute.” He called it the “network society” and outlined its general organizational logic:

Under the conditions of the network society, capital is globally coordinated, labor is individualized. The struggle between diverse capitalists and miscellaneous working classes is subsumed into the more fundamental opposition between the bare logic of capital flows and the cultural values of human experience.

In the network society, individual experience is optimized for malleability, with anchored stability giving way to the constant possibility of change. This cheapens the particularities of daily social, economic, political, and aesthetic life, asserting the primacy of novelty, growth, abstraction, and constant motion. The rapid and disorienting clip of the attention economy, and digital life more generally, makes this tendency especially visible, but its logic has infiltrated more aspects of modern existence than are commonly understood. As individual experiences of temporality are increasingly commodified—as well as experiences of identity formation and dissolution—the richness of their abundance is flattened into a droll conveyor belt of exchange values.

It is widely taken for granted that today’s mass communications technologies, promoted as tools for “connectedness,” instead induce profound alienation. It is less understood that their logics are perfectly aligned with a broader, inhuman structure that values mobility over presence, cars above fixed housing. The network society produces strangers, and I was an efficient stranger by the time I woke up in Santa Cruz. I’d been in town for less than thirteen hours, and I definitely didn’t have my bearings, but I’d learned to do without them.

Digital Nomadness

Whenever I arrived somewhere new, my first order of business was to sink into the unfamiliar hum of the first dive bar I could find. In Fargo, it was The Aquarium. In New Orleans, The Saint. After scouting a parking spot in downtown Santa Cruz, I happened into a dimly lit joint called The Blue Lagoon, where I learned that a band called Machine Head was playing down the street. I had never heard of them, but I met a pair of women who’d come down from Sacramento for the show. They’d been invited to the after-party, and one of them, Alex, told the bouncer I was her younger brother.

I walked in, and a gruff middle-aged man with a tattoo sleeve and a cowboy hat immediately handed me a beer.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

No answer. He scoffed and walked away.

“That’s Robb Flynn,” Alex whispered, somewhat exasperated.

A blank stare, this time from me.

Quieter, and somewhat more exasperated: “The vocalist of Machine Head.”

Under most circumstances, you could be forgiven for failing to recognize the front man of a washed-up groove metal band. But this was a Machine Head after-party, the precise context in which Robb Flynn is the biggest celebrity you can imagine. I had spat in the face of God.

I was struck by the sameness of change without context; the canned repetition of constant introduction; the disorientation of perpetual travel.

Most people have experienced culture shock. It takes time to ingratiate oneself into a new community or to feel at ease in the physical space it occupies. Without an appropriate investment of time and attention, you risk unintended disagreement or offense. A permanent traveler lacks the capacity for this investment over time, as their contextual expectations are perpetually shifting. You can improve at surface-level engagement, and you can prepare for new environments with academic detachment, but you can’t reproduce authentic feelings of home or intuitive belonging.

Living in a van often involved an isolating disorientation, but the boredom— even in the face of continuous novelty—was more surprising. Without a grounding frame of reference, the overwhelming newness numbed me. It became harder to appreciate fleeting details, and I found myself having the same introductory conversations over and over. Everywhere started to feel the same, and to address my heightened tolerance, I began relocating with greater frequency. Bozeman, Montana. Vancouver, British Columbia. Roswell, New Mexico. Tulsa, Oklahoma. St. Louis, Missouri. Atlanta, Georgia. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Only in hindsight did I realize that the exercise had less to do with individual destinations than the process of continuous making and unmaking. I was an addict. The pavement of the Interstate Highway System unfurled before me, and I consumed it with the thoughtless velocity of an Instagram feed.

Marxist political theorist Fredric Jameson identified late capitalist aesthetics with the experience of the schizophrenic, which he described in the 1983 essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” as one of “isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence.” Finance capital courses through the digital and physical veins of the network society, privileging scale above content—exchange above use value—and fundamentally affecting our ability to rationalize surroundings into stories or put them into coherent sequence. It expands and rearranges organizational structure without regard for the context required to create empathy or mutual understanding. As van-dwellers embody the logic of finance capital in physical space, the internet increasingly applies it to how almost everyone relates to each other and the broader world.

Nearly three quarters of U.S. adults get their news from social media, despite the fact that a majority say they expect the news they see there to be largely inaccurate. Putting questions of sensationalist virality and editorial integrity aside, consider how content is arranged on these platforms. It’s an absolute mess, a decontextualized stew of complex information that, taken as a whole, is absolutely incomprehensible to anyone who is honest with themselves.

To demonstrate this, I’m going to borrow an exercise that Jenny Odell recommends in How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy: describing the contents of a feed in writing, with full context, in the order in which they appear. I just opened Twitter. Here is what the app suggests I look at:

  • A poll from a bot that posts emojis arranged as a game of Snake and allows users to vote on each move;
  • An advertisement featuring a meme of dancer and minor social media influencer Kj Sandcroft posing with a bottle of grape Fanta;
  • An account called “boiled spoiled lime,” which describes itself as a “normal internet female with no peculiar attributes,” saying “fuck time”;
  • Tech writer Kelsey D. Atherton retweeting Brazilian-American New York Times contributor Fernanda Santos sharing an op-ed in which she expresses fear in the wake of a white nationalist terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas;
  • Left-wing political writer David Klion tweeting about getting waved down with metal detectors before seeing Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish;
  • Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery retweeting journalist Kai Ryssdal quote-tweeting Washington Post White House reporter Seung Min Kim’s post of a screenshot of an email from Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) to Attorney General William Barr, in which Sasse demands that the Justice Department investigate the apparent suicide of Jeffrey Epstein, who was being held without bail on charges of sex trafficking minors;
  • An aerial photograph of a census tract in Georgia, from a bot that posts aerial photos of census tracts;
  • Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias joking that someone should make a prestige drama about Forest Service cops;
  • A poll on whether it seems more likely that Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton arranged an assassination of Jeffrey Epstein;
  • A promoted video from Bloomberg TicToc about global clothing retailer Gap’s pledge to rely exclusively on renewable energy.

Taken as a sequence, what would you make of this? Understanding each individual post requires you to identify a discursive context, mentally embed yourself within it, situate the content in conversation with meaningful referents, and then dissociate from that conversation in order to move onto and relate to the next post. This is a communications apparatus that force-feeds the world to its users as a rapid succession of floating signifiers, circulated for the sake of circulation and not because they cohere into any rational meta-narrative. It reminds me of how, when talking to the owner of a coffee shop in North Carolina who asked why I was in town, I was unsure of the answer. It reminds me of driving across the desert at one in the morning, silently consenting to spend the night in whichever border town crept into view as I got too sleepy to continue.

People who work remotely and live off the internet’s data-drip are sometimes called “digital nomads,” but the term captures a larger swath of society than those who live out of vans, hotels, and suitcases. Like the digital nomad, almost anyone who consumes online information frequently finds themselves on unsteady and unfamiliar conceptual terrain, struggling to remember how and why they ended up at the after-party of a Machine Head concert.

How Did I Get Here?

Back in Santa Cruz, I gripped the wheel with clammy palms and directed my focus into Google Maps with strained and bloodshot eyes, impatiently waiting for the arrow that represented my home to reach the end of a thick blue line that led to stale muffins and soggy eggs. My thoughts flickered. I tried and failed to mentally reconstruct Robb Flynn’s face. It’s hard to pay attention to details when you know from the outset that the context of their utility is fleeting.

I arrived at the Hampton Inn at five past ten, and a homeless man was on his way out with an armful of bagels—probably the last to go before hotel staff cleared the buffet.

I had missed my meal, but that was OK. I crawled into the back of my van, scraped the last bits of powder from the walls of a small plastic bag I’d stuffed into my pocket the night before, and cut my breakfast on the cold surface of a metal desk I’d installed at the foot of my bed.

Once again, I was struck by the sameness of change without context; the canned repetition of constant introduction; the disorientation of perpetual travel. “Sounds like you’re living the life,” strangers often remarked. And who was I to disagree? I felt like they knew me as well as I knew myself. Maybe this was the life. But was it really mine?

I recently abandoned the transient #vanlife after a year on the road. I’m back in an apartment, with heat and running water—and I’m thinking about selling my Savana. But I can’t shake the disorienting haze of the road, which hangs onto everything around me. I’ve settled down, but I’m still looking for a home.

A 1950s-era mother and daughter ride home in a flying saucer with their groceries. A basset hound in the back seat looks out the clear canopy at the midcentury house below, where another flying saucer is parked in the driveway.
The Advertising Archives / Alamy Stock Photo

Evan Malmgren is a researcher for Type Media Center who occasionally writes about power and communications technology for outlets including Dissent, Logic, The Nation, and New Labor Forum, among others.

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