Jason Arnopp: Certainty In The Social Media Age


Ah, dear Jason Arnopp. Satanist. Sexual healer. 30 squirrels in a human suit. And now, an author. He’s gone ahead and written a crackingly funny — and scary — book, The Last Days of Jack Sparks. It’s kind of like if you took a found footage horror movie and turned it into a book except made it as hilarious as you did horrific? It’s really quite brilliant. Anyway, Jason wanted to come by to talk about some stuff, and since he has those pictures of me, I decided to let him.

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If there’s one thing I’m certain about these days, it’s the glut of certainty in this world.

My novel The Last Days Of Jack Sparks started life with the idea of a guy who becomes obsessed with tracking down the makers of a creepy YouTube video. Sometimes isolated notions like this resemble ice floes, spending years adrift in search of a connection. For two years, I didn’t know who the obsessed guy would be, until finally, the arrogant celebrity journalist Jack Sparks was born from something I noticed about social media.

As one character notes in the novel, you never see anyone on Twitter say, ‘I’m undecided on this issue – let me come back to you once I’ve had a chance to properly think it over!’ Nope, we all dive straight in, don’t we, to nail our colours to any given mast. And I’m curious as to why that might be.

Let’s clarify what we’re talking about here – or rather, what we’re not. Clearly, having right-minded morals and values (aka not being an asshat) is important. Most of us naturally wouldn’t have much time for someone who questioned whether various prejudices were good or bad. Neither am I talking about actual facts, which you either know or you don’t.

So we’re talking more about issues for which there is no single answer, and often no way of gaining any definitive closure. From God to gun control to Ghostbusters to the truth about what happened to Malaysian Airlines’ Flight MH370, the fact that everyone has an opinion isn’t so much the fascinating thing here. What fascinates me is our apparent reluctance to express uncertainty. To occupy that bewildered middle ground. Why? Why has it become almost taboo to appear uncertain or undecided about any given topic?

Here’s one answer: we’re all broadcasters now. We all have our own cyber-platform, with a number of viewers theoretically open to what we’re putting out. So when we think of ourselves as broadcasters vying for attention bandwidth (and the resulting dopamine hits, which we underestimate here at our peril), it’s easy to assume that our audience will find shiny granite-hewn opinions far more interesting than namby-pamby uncertainty. Received wisdom suggests that people are more likely to show up for news and views than someone scratching their head or sitting in cross-legged contemplation.

Furthermore, a kind of race memory assures us that strong leaders make strong decisions. If we buy that logic and crave respect, it follows that we need to be seen to be assertive. Even if it means making a situation seem more binary or simplistic than it really is, as long as we deliver our vital hot take, that’s surely the priority, right? Hmm.

Perhaps another reason we rush to serve up a steaming slice of opinion pie, is that uncertainty creates unease. It leaves items in our brains labelled Action Required. Unticked items on our mental to-do list. Deciding what we feel and believe ASAP helps to clear our psychological decks, which are already cluttered enough on a daily basis.

On a very obvious level, uncertainty can be downright scary. In 2016, it’s easy to see the world as more chaotic than ever before. There are strong arguments against this. Plenty of folk maintain it’s less chaotic than before and internationally we’re actually more united than ever, in almost every sense, but an understandably widespread sense of unease prevails nonetheless. Faced with such perceived levels of chaos, perhaps we feel the all-abiding need to cling to rock-solid views, even if those views might only unhelpfully spawn more fear (“Hey everybody, we’re all fucked! KTHXBYE”)

It’s no coincidence that we find the most certainty clustered around the human condition’s biggest question mark of them all. We have no idea of what happens to our spirit when we die, or even whether our spirit is a thing. And yet endless millions get in line to place their bets. They stack their chips on the roulette table, even though the wheel won’t be spun till they stop breathing. I understand and respect anyone’s right to place such bets, but it’s an interesting phenomenon – or at least, it is until seemingly irreconcilable certainties clash and people die, at which point it becomes deranged.

Even people who don’t believe in a creator or an afterlife, they feel the need to place their own bet and share that with the world, sparking whole new certainty wars. Me? I’d love a planet on which everyone just lounges around, shrugs and says, ‘Ah, who knows? Let’s play Doom.’

In The Last Days Of Jack Sparks, avowed non-believer Jack regularly clashes with people of faith via social media. The man doesn’t seem to have an undecided bone in his body, and yet his friends and family alike are mystified when he sets out to write a whole non-fiction book debunking the supernatural. Could it have any connection with Jack’s older brother Alistair having locked him in a dark room at the age of five? Only Jack’s labyrinthine mind holds the answer, and it’s no spoiler to say that the story takes him from a place of certainty to an altogether different place… and ultimately death.

My friend John Higgs (whose own books like Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense Of The 20th Century are must-reads) introduced me to the counter-culture icon Robert Anton Wilson. Not in person, sadly, since Wilson died in 2007. The man would warrant a whole post in himself, but when it came to (un)certainty he popularised two concepts that appeal to me greatly and seem relevant here.

The first concept was the reality tunnel. A term originally coined by Timothy Leary, this means that we all see reality in our own unique way, filtered through our beliefs and experiences. We’d do well to bear this in mind, next time we try to pass our opinions off as facts. The second concept could also be considered a tonic for the internet age: multiple model agnosticism. This doesn’t just apply to God but to everything. It involves acknowledging that we see the world through our own reality tunnels, while remaining open minded about switching to any number of new tunnels. Whole new grids of belief, further down the line. Whatever feels right.

If the internet so often seems to say I know I’m right, Robert Anton Wilson was saying I know I’m wrong. His whole self-deprecating attitude made him so diametrically opposed to Jack Sparks that it felt spectacularly right to start the novel with a Wilson epigraph: ‘If you think you know what the hell is going on, you’re probably full of shit’.

So many readers seem to find Jack Sparks as compelling as he is infuriating. Like some kind of existential duck, Jack appears perfectly calm on the water’s surface, while his legs swim furiously away underneath. Perhaps it’s appealing for us to explore the less desirable traits that social media might nurture in us, but to do so through Jack, without having to interrogate ourselves too closely.

All high-falutin’ philosophical considerations aside, of course, the idea that we have no clue what’s really going on in the universe works nicely in a novel that aspires to scare the ever-loving Christ out of readers. But the next time we don’t know what the hell is going on, we might consider plucking up the courage to say so. For every one person who thinks less of us as a result, I’m totally certain there’ll be ten who think, ‘Thank God it’s not just me’.

Jason Arnopp: Website | Twitter | Facebook

The Last Days Of Jack Sparks: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound 


8 responses to “Jason Arnopp: Certainty In The Social Media Age”

  1. For religious types, the idea of “growing in faith” is important and for decades has been misapplied to the idea of becoming “more and more certain” about theological issues, when ironically, it’s precisely the opposite. That is, logically, to “grow in faith” means to trust in the face of more and more uncertainty. There’s no leap of faith necessary for those who have certainty.

  2. Fascinating insight here. I also have to wonder if it doesn’t have to do in part with making the ‘reviewer’ king on so many platforms. Amazon has given tremendous power to the purchaser-review–with the number of reviews boosting your product into visibility. Now every time I buy *anything* online, I’m bombarded with entreaties to leave a review. Everywhere I turn, I’m told my opinion is important–no wonder it is hard for some people to doubt that message.

    At the same time, anonymity seems to make some people feel they can regurgitate any opinion they like–sometimes the meaner the better–in the same way a schoolyard bully gets accolades from his sycophants for picking on someone. Not to mention: fear sells. In some cases, even more than sex. Fear is good for the news, good for politicians but bad for anyone trying to live a normal life.

    Perhaps another reason we rush to serve up a steaming slice of opinion pie, is that uncertainty creates unease.

    This sentence is utterly brilliant.

  3. Great post and thanks for the information about Robert Anton Wilson. I definitely want to check out his thoughts and ideas.

    I am happy to say that I will be buying and reading your book. The premise and protagonist are just too compelling to not pick up.

    I would like to add to the thoughts and ideas of this post. I hope it doesn’t reek too strongly of rantinitus.

    I consider myself a member of counter culture, an outsider, at least here in America. I think the true individual is rare now with the media and technological advantages of the 21st century. Maybe that is progress, I am not certain. But what I am certain of is the feeling I get that people have been forced to make hard choices to conform to one group or another or be the lone swimmer in a sea filled with sharks. Rarely are you afforded the ability to have an opinion that differs from a political, religious or cultural view without being attacked. Those attacks drive people to chose a group, out of fear. They chose the counter point without assessing their own feelings, thoughts, and experiences. I feel fear is the wrong reason to base a choice on, since it is intense and all encompassing, blinding deafening to our own internal compass. I find that trusting both heart and mind for one’s choices trump fear.

    I find little grace and humility in the world nowadays, I still believe grace and humility exist but are hard to find in the swirling vortex of people screaming there opinions at opposing views. My hope tells me that we will stop hating the “other” and start understanding it, equally. My fear, real or not, is that we are being driven to take a side that is not our own. To chose an ideal championed by the shrewdest cynics completely, lest we be shunned for questioning any doctrine or platform. The world has become a place of “knowers” rather than seekers. It has been melted down to THEM OR US.

    Today, this post and very frequently this bog of Chuck’s has shown me that there are jewels in the dull gray stone worth searching for, a bit of strength and faith to keep searching, and most importantly a sighting of grace and humility. It is still out there. My hope is not a fairy tale.

    Cheers for that.

  4. Whoa, that post was hugely entertaining and thought-provoking. I think I’m gonna check out that book… thank you!!! ^_^ PS. Robert Anton Wilson rocks!

  5. I read The Illuminatus Trilogy while a freshman or sophomore in college, and although a lot of it was pretty pointless, some of RAWs philosophy really struck a chord with me. The most succinct phrase of it was “reality is thermoplastic.” FNORD

    I’m a big advocate of knowledgeable indecision and well reasoned open-mindedness. I believe Jack Sparks just moved up into my next-to-read slot.

  6. Thanks for the post. Sparks sounds like a juicy, polarizing character! And yes, love those thought-nuggets that inspire entire tales. You address some interesting behaviors on full display in social media, and I too, wonder why it’s unacceptable to admit an utter lack of knowledge or understanding. So much of what we say and do is illusory, an attempt to better steer life’s course, yet there’s precious few outcomes we can actually alter. Putting your book on my list to get!

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