Everybody dies. Until then, we age. In theory, this is a gradual process, unnoticeable from day to day, evident only to friends and family who haven’t seen us in a while. But when Facebook serves us a year-old selfie as part of its “On This Day” package, we get a glimpse of the change ourselves. When we watch time-lapse videos from people who have snapped a daily self-portrait for more than a decade, we’re fascinated with the subtle and constant shading toward an elderly face. Social media, by multiplying one’s image, provides new, sometimes frightening opportunities to track its inexorable decline.
The same platforms have splintered political narrative into countless micro-cycles of misinformation and overcorrection; we used to await the morning’s headlines, but now we dowse for the facts alongside reporters, scanning any breaking event six different ways before settling on an interpretation. This has the paradoxical effect, for “extremely online” people, of dilating time as it seems to speed up — more things happen, but they take forever. In the meantime, we’re getting old. Well before the life-sapping 2016 election, meme culture expressed this anxiety of aging-via-politics with visual comparisons of Barack Obama before and after he served two terms as president.
As one of the most photographed humans in the history of the medium, Obama laid bare the physical toll of his job (and place in history) in undeniable terms. And though not all of us got gray and creased from the reactionary Republican bullshit of that era, we could relate, having fought smaller-scale yet no less wearying battles of our own. A second wave of this sentiment swamped Twitter at the close of 2016, then popularly if optimistically regarded as the worst year ever, with people offering extreme contrasts that captured just how severely the past 12 months had degraded them, body and soul.
Now, a full year after the country elected a president who makes every day wear like a week, and this year like a vast medieval century, those of us glued to the newsfeed 24/7 are again signposting the decay it has incurred. Celebrities are most useful in this exercise, since they already read as models of dissipated beauty and innocence lost — the gawking tabloid question of what misfortune befell these stars is turned back upon the viewer, who knows full well that a permanent crisis of government and toxic media diet are to blame. The outward ravages of fame amplify our interior suffering (even if we’re making a joke about one person aging into an entirely different one).
This may not be fair to actors and musicians, yet it is a striking method of marking moments in a space where time exhibits an irregular flow. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter users navigate a stream no longer arranged chronologically, but algorithmically, a mixture of up-to-the-second posts and stuff dredged up from hours or days prior. If we occasionally get the sense of standing still while racing forward, trapped in an unending epoch of accelerated destruction, that may be why: Our apps don’t obey time’s arrow.
Then again, there is also something reality-bending and recursive about the catastrophe of the Trump regime, its nauseating feedback loops. Each emergent scandal shows a pattern of corruption previously established a dozen other ways, as if we are zooming down on a massive fractal. Or, to quote a prestige television drama I cannot goddamn believe came out in 2014: Time is a flat circle. And the feeling of having traveled through a wormhole to reach this peculiar point in the American experiment is heightened by the relitigation of “what happened” in 2016 — you might say that 2017, for all its horrors, is the year that wasn’t there, sucked into the quicksand of the foul preceding annum.
The future, though, will keep on clobbering us, and eventually cull Trump from the herd. With a little luck, he’ll be gone before we know it, in the blink of an eye, which will permit us the problematic luxury of acting like he never rose to power at all. It was over so fast — it only seemed an eternity. When we start to think that way, trying to banish the demons of this phase as insubstantial or fleeting, it will be our wrinkles and lingering aches that remind us of their punishing cost. Because age ain’t nothing but a memory.