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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.

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.