All Hail 'Tronc': the Dystopian Future of Media Content
The growing inability of words to have meaning.
If you're reading this, I know why: you love great content. It doesn't matter if you have to read it, watch it, click through it; you need top-quality content, you need it in your veins, you'd kill for it. You trust the VICE dot com platform to bring you the freshest, clickingest, most shareworthy content, and you love to share this great content with all your friends across multiple digital self-realisation nodes. You don't care what this content actually consists of: the Disney princess that's been living and writhing tapeworm-like deep inside your soul all your life, sarky football analysis, a bullet-point explainer on how everything in politics maps directly onto Game of Thrones, jihadi execution videos, a four-hour compilation of Hitler's speeches set to screeching Balkan techno – as long as it's content, as long as it's great content, you are soothed. Isn't this what human life was always basically for, to make, share, and enjoy great content? Didn't Samuel Richardson curate the first collection of totally cringeworthy text messages? Wasn't the first viral listicle delivered in thunder and fire from the peak of Mount Sinai? Aren't you happy here, under the kindly rule of tronc?
Tronc, if you didn't know, is the name of our new benevolent overlord. Officially, it's a rebrand of the Tribune Publishing Company, owners of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, and stands for Tribune Online Content. In actual fact, though, tronc is a thing known previously only as The Entity, a vast, deep gravitational pool emitting no light, possibly built by an unknowable extraterrestrial intelligence, that has moved slowly into Earth orbit and is now broadcasting its demands to our planet. Tronc says that it loves us and wants us to grow in peace and security, but at the same time it's keen to let us know that none of our weapons could possibly destroy tronc. It's likely that tronc is some kind of godlike artificial intelligence; it certainly talks like one.
"Today the NASDAQ bell rang 'Tronc, Tronc!'" tronc announced on Twitter – and millions of us, without knowing why, did the same, raising grateful smiles to the tronc above us and shouting its name in pure blissful rapture. "Change can be terrifying", it added, "but we know what happens if we do nothing." Most chillingly, tronc announced itself and its intentions with a short video, plinky pianos and clips of green shoots bursting through the ground.
"Change is mandatory", intoned tronc. "But survival isn't. Tronc. Brilliant journalism. Higher intelligence." There is no need to fear. Remain inside your homes or places of employment. Those who cannot survive will not survive, and this is the higher justice. Love tronc. Love tronc. Love tronc.
The tronc-emission that's gathered the most attention is an internal human-resources informational video, distributed to people who thought they worked for a newspaper and are now baffled to find themselves in the service of the almighty tronc.
As various other media providers have pointed out, it's not informational at all; it's a mess of nonsense buzzwords. We open with a grinning, dazed tronc-slave, clearly insensate from his addiction to whatever toxic gloop the tronc emits. "This is the future of journalism," he blathers. "This is the future of content." Another tronc-drone, more subdued, more robotic, chimes in. "It's about meeting in the middle – having a tech startup culture meet a legacy corporate culture, and then evolving and changing, and that's really the fun part." This is then followed by a map on the new cosmos: newspapers giddily wheeling around the central tronc, a glowing blue sun that nourishes them and gives them light. Some people have tried to decode these sinister transmissions; as NY Magazine points out, what tronc is actually saying is that a lot of people are likely to lose their jobs, and be replaced by automated content-optimisation software. Which should be worrying for the thousands of people who work for tronc. But it should also be worrying for you.
You should fear tronc, because you love great content. Plenty of other media companies have been making fun of tronc and its rebrand into a planet-destroying monstrosity, but it's a nervous laughter, a narcissism of small differences. Tronc is the stupid edge of a wedge jammed firmly into your eyeballs. We're all at it; the entire media class is reconfiguring itself into an unholy machine god, and all your favourite websites probably employ someone who speaks the same impenetrable nonsense-jargon as the tronc does,. The basic unit of this transformation is "content". Nobody publishes essays any more, or book reviews, or films, or fiction: they curate and monetise content. This is dangerous. What it really marks is the total subjugation of content to form.
Usually, when people create something, they create its form as well as its content: you set out to make something of a particular type, and you're free to decide whatever you want that to be. In a content economy, the form is a given. The actual substantive matter of anything on any content platform is only a quantitative, interchangeable dimension of form, and all content is interchangeable with any other.
In the tronc videos its representatives talk endlessly about creating great content, the kind of content that people love; they don't seem to have any idea what it might actually be. Videos of cats doing the cutest things? Frontline reports from the latest war crime? Propaganda for oil-rich dictatorships? Holocaust denial? It doesn't matter, any differences are blotted out by the blank abstraction of content. What the rise of content represents is a growing inability of words and images to actually mean anything, to communicate rather than simply distract. Nothing you say and nothing you read really matters; it's all pure form, filled with some unimportant thing or another, mute, unsignifying. But it passes the hours tolerably enough, as you waste the only life you'll ever have enjoying great content online, and happy here on planet tronc.
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