On Umair Haque

The Master of Catastrophe

Imagine you’re on a flight in the middle of the Atlantic, suddenly the captain of the flight screams over the speaker that the plane is going down imminently.

What do you do? Pray? Cry? Laugh? There’s not much you could really do.

If somebody told you the world is ending now. What would you do? What use is that information to you?

You will no doubt have come across the headlines of Umair Haque. They scream at you “THIS PLANE IS GOING DOWN”.

Haque is one of the most gifted headline writers around. He’s also just a great writer, his prolificacy is dizzying: he has practically written an article a day since 2018.

His articles are frequently popular reads, he has dozens of thousands followers on many platforms. There are a legion of lesser writers offering self-perpetuating advice on how to crush it as an online writer, and none of these get anywhere near as popular as Haque, who has never written self-help.

When you do succumb to the hyperbole of his headlines, you’ll find that his articles so perfectly divide his audience that he gets twice as many reads: those who cheer him and those who loathe him.

For the record, I’m neither. If anything I admire him. I admire him like I admire, say, Taylor Swift. Good for you… but not for me.

Haque has made a fine art of catastrophisation. The USA is dead. The UK is dead. Civilisation is dead. We’re doomed. We can’t help but wonder why it could be so bad… and so we click.

If you haven’t come across them, here’s a selection of headings:

  • Is This How America Dies?

Most of the titles strike hard with a fatalism. They also hail and often bait an audience. “America” and “American” appears frequently. The words “idiot” and “idiots” too.

If you yelled across the street “Hey, asshole”, everyone on the other side of the street would of course turn and face you. You got their attention. His heckles-as-headlines are dotted with caustic words like “Death”, “Dying”, “Dumb”, “Dystopia”, “Fascism” and “Collapse”.

This is the first hit of a hyper partisanship that sees the other side not as somebody who disagrees with you, but as either an existential threat or a kind of plague victim who needs to be locked in their house for the sake of public safety.

It’s a potent mix, a Molotov cocktail of inflammatory divisiveness that’ll stick to whomever it hits and burn ferociously. He is grandiose and petty in turns. “I have no answer for the world,” he writes, “except to have to state the truth. Maybe Americans are this dumb.” I’m not American, but I imagine that sticks.

Attention Economics

The problem is that in all the effort to capture and hold your attention there’s rarely a moment of meaningful connection. For me at least, reading Haque is like trying to hold a conversation with somebody who only speaks in apocalyptic jazz scat.

I read a tweet the other day that said, “looking at Twitter is like microdosing poison.” It’s true. Even if you did your best to scrub negativity out of your Twitter follow list, you’re still sucked into a vortex of catastrophe somehow.

How? The internet of 2020 is ruled by the “attention economy”. People’s attention is commodified in a way that never happened before. In the attention economy there’s an arms race to capture clicks and reads. Nuance, painstaking insight and subtlety does not deliver attention.

Catastrophe works. Catastrophe gets the click. Even if the viewer feels cheated and berates themselves for wasting their time it doesn’t matter: those eyeballs hit that page, and that’s cash in the register. And as much as we berate ourselves for giving catastrophe a moment of our time, we will be hooked in again.

Marshall McLuhan wrote “The medium is the message”. What he meant by that is that the medium through which information is transmitted structures that information. It does so either through changing the behaviour of the author or the receiver of the information, or both. It is the medium that shapes the character of interaction.

From a very basic perspective, think of a lightbulb in a windowless room. The lightbulb is the medium by which people in the room can see each other. It enables people to behave in a way that they wouldn’t or couldn’t if there was no lightbulb in the room.

Now think of Twitter as a medium, how do you convey nuance and deep insight into a 280 character “microblog”? Is it any wonder that scrolling on Twitter feels like you’re speeding through hell in a convertible? You feel the sizzle of rage but somehow come out intact.

Now think about a blogging platform that values the time people spend on your posts. The canny user needs to hook and hold their audience, and Haque does a masterful job of it.

His articles read like old school sales letters: each short paragraph makes you read the next. He “twists the knife”, as copywriters say, by layering agitation on agitation, directly addressing his reader:

“How do you feel these days? Drained? Frightened? Anxious? Terrified? That’s not because you’re afraid. It’s because your defense mechanisms are overtaxed, engines burning out, running too hot and too hard.”

The text is breathless, rhythmic with machine-gun punctuation, and imaginatively vivid. He writes like I assume he speaks, which takes real talent. His fans gush at his style as much as his message. “Your best yet,” is a common refrain on the comments panel.

If you read the articles, you’ll see that Haque is well-meaning. He wants positive change. And to be fair, he has his own answers to society’s problems. He has credentials too, he’s a trained economist, he’s been a contributor to some serious academic publications and an author of books, real books.

The doom and gloom headlines, and blow by bloody blow account of the state of the world, is a set up for his promised land — his own philosophy of “eudaimonics”. According to Haque, it’s a paradigmatic alternative to economics that aims to look after the well-being of ourselves and our ecosystem. Cherry-picked maxims, like “protest is a responsibility”, ring truer now than perhaps ever before.

You may disagree with him on many levels, practical or ideological, but you’d be hard-pressed not to agree that we’re facing some significant problems. His fans feel that urgently and Haque shovels coal into their furnace of hopes and fears on a daily basis.

Believe me, I’m sold on the destination but feel a bit carsick on the journey. The tone is so hysterical as to be meaningless. It serves only to entrench people deeper into their world-views rather than engaging and enlightening them.

How many minds has Haque changed? How many conservatives have cashed in their gas guzzlers and vowed to vote liberal after being told they are an idiot over and over again? People react furiously to his taunts, pointing out how wrong they are in no uncertain terms only gives them grit. The comments can be split 50/50 between people either cheering or jeering the hyperbole that’s so hyper that it loses contact with reality.

I got through several articles and it began to feel like looking into a fish tank, the same crises floating around the same diorama of civilizational collapse. The burn of the titles wore off, the stage dressing of line charts (rising COVID infections, rising unemployment, economic collapse) and images of riots or Trump rallies washed over me, the pace became a predictable, if somewhat hypnotic, pulse.

Catastrophe is a kind of pornography. Its danger is how quickly we become desensitised to it. If every day is a cataclysm, Armageddon, the apocalypse, we’ll simply get used to it. Now more than ever, the urgent matters that face us need a cool head.

Thank you for reading.

Update: I’m getting a lot of comments. I have a principle of replying to as many comments as possible on all my stories. However, please understand that I’m not making an ideological argument here. My argument is about the way the modern internet works, not who is right or wrong on any political matter. I also wrote similar points about the pernicious effects of modern news media here and social media here. I will not reply to comments that willfully misconstrue my argument, or that are hateful or sarcastic.

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The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Say hello: stevengambardella@gmail.com

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