The Brilliance of All Gas No Brakes

People are joining fringe movements in search of meaning. It's one thing to read about it, another to see it.

As he prepared to go hunting for Bigfoot, Andrew Callaghan picked up the phone. 

It was just another day for the 23-year-old creator of the hit YouTube show All Gas No Brakes. For the past year, Callaghan's been driving across the U.S. in an RV, periodically hopping out in an ill-fitting suit, putting a microphone in front of people's faces, and letting them speak. What comes out is an illuminating look into the soul of the country. It's not pretty. But if we want to fix our society's problems, it's worth our attention.

Callaghan, a Seattle native, mostly interviews people on the outskirts of U.S. life, though the fringe tends to be mainstream in this country today. As people speak with him — unfiltered, uninterrupted, and at length — a sense of emptiness pervades. You can see it when flat earthers discuss their large Facebook groups, gem enthusiasts preach the power of psychedelics, and conspiracy theorists come together to rush U.S. military zones. Traditional institutions that once provided purpose and kinship are falling, and the fringe is filling the void.

"A desire to adhere to any kind of cultural fringe comes from a sort of emptiness," Callaghan told Big Technology. "You just want a brotherhood at all costs."

Religion, relationships with friends and family, and work are the primary sources of meaning in American life, according to Pew. But all three are in decline. People with "no religion" make up 23% of the U.S. population today, up from 8% in 1990. Loneliness, according to some, was an epidemic before the pandemic, and it certainly is now. Our work is more distributed, gig-based, and tenuous than ever before. The old ways of feeling like you belonged to something are diminished. So people are seeking alternatives.

Flat-earth gatherings, alien conventions, and conspiracy-driven festivals are megachurches for the unfulfilled. They provide a sense of purpose and community that people aren't getting through traditional institutions. This comes through in All Gas No Brakes. In one telling interaction, a reverend shows up at a Conscious Life Expo looking for an "Awesome Republican Goddess" to marry him. He's set up a website for applicants, but so far hasn't found the match. It's all there in one shot: A reverend without a congregation goes looking for companionship as he wanders among the fringe.

No matter the politics or fetish, attendees at the events Callaghan visits often bring up psychedelic drugs, more evidence they're seeking community absent elsewhere. Psychedelics melt away the ego, removing a person's sense of individualism and helping them feel a sense of deep connection with humanity — at least for a few hours. Their rise is unsurprising in a country where public institutions are in decline, and their prevalence in its periphery is clarifying. "I'm not built for drugs personally," Callaghan said. "But I'm definitely built to document drug use." 

Fringe communities incubate online and meet together in person. And though it's tempting to blame Facebook and Twitter entirely for their rise, that wouldn't be accurate. Society's problems manifest themselves on social media, and the platforms simply amplify them. We can't count on these services alone to heal society, since we'll get nowhere without addressing the underlying factors.

What Callaghan is doing is not exactly journalism, but it is telling a story about our society. "A journalist is going to help you process, and I think there's still a lot left on the table here," Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of Communication at Syracuse University's Newhouse School, told Big Technology.

Recently, Callaghan's been showing up to protests and using his typical interview style to speak with protestors. He lets them talk without interrupting — it's all gas, no brakes — and you see a different side of these events than what the mainstream media portrays. In a visit to the Portland protests, for instance, Callaghan shows that the attendees don't neatly fit into the narrative you see on TV. Fox News' Tucker Carlson, for example, calls the protestors "Biden voters," yet many on the streets disdain Biden. There's something to what he's doing. 

The erosion of meaning in this country is one of the underlying factors behind its struggles that's ever-present but rarely discussed. On his RV tour through the country, Callaghan's brought this issue to the fore. And perhaps seeing the problem will help us start addressing it with real solutions. 

"I try not to get too nihilistic about it," Callaghan said. "But I mean, dude, it's like a chaos country. What the fuck?"

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Facebook's antiviral for Covid-19 posts

In last week's discussion of Outputs vs. The Machine, MIT professor David Rand suggested Facebook limit the spread of Covid-related misinformation with a fix to its sharing process. "I'd be in favor of testing an intervention where anytime anyone clicks Share for anything related to Covid-19, they are then asked how accurate they think the headline is, and then re-asked if they still want to share it," he said. 

This week, Facebook rolled out something close to what Rand suggested. When people want to share posts linking to Covid-related information, Facebook will add an interstitial providing context about the link, and ask if people really want to share the post. Forcing people to stop and think before they share something cuts down the spread of misinformation, so this interstitial should be a significant improvement. I bet it will limit the spread of the next Plandemic-esque viral hit spreading lies about Covid treatments. 

You can read the full story here

A coming chat app crackdown?

This week, I suggested on Twitter that companies will phase out chat apps like Slack within 3-5 years. The idea generated a heated response, and I plan to write about it in depth next week. 

In the meantime, I'd like to hear from you. Do you see a future where workplace chat use is different than it is today? Or will it remain the same? Please reply to this email and let me know what you think. I've already had some fun conversations this week, and look forward to sharing my findings with you next week. 

See you next Thursday.