Watching someone take a large knife and cut into their own arm is exactly the kind of video your grandmother warned you about finding on the internet. But hold on grandma, the arm is actually made of cake. And so is the shoe the knife cuts next. And that tube of toothpaste. It's the kind of juxtaposition of expectation and reality that tickles us deep in the brain.
Fake cake clips went viral in 2020 after a video highlighting Turkish baker Tuba Geçkil's super-realistic creations was posted on Twitter. This year, after numerous online copycat videos, Netflix launched the gameshow, Is It Cake?, which Hollywood Reporter describes as “mindlessly brilliant” and Slate says is “an insult” to “the fine art of realistic cakes”.
It's a far cry from when I started writing about the internet nearly two decades ago. Social media then meant ‘blogs' and was limited to those with the technical knowledge to manage them. Sharing everything from online diaries to lists of favourite movie websites, bloggers built communities in their comments sections. Surely, we would soon all be bloggers?
Turning the volume up
But as Microsoft founder Bill Gates said: “We overestimate the impact of technology in the short-term and underestimate the effect in the long run.” Instead of self-managed blogs we got ready-made equivalents: Facebook pages and then Twitter domains – initially described, tellingly, as ‘micro-blogs'. And eventually the written word was left behind entirely. Today's teens communicate in short videos, with background music and special effects, on Instagram or TikTok. And they do it from pocket super-computers. The volume of content is bewildering and sometimes worrying. Who are these teens listening to, and can those voices be trusted?
Bill Gates knows a thing or two, but did that quote even originate with him? A quick online search suggests those words have been attributed to everyone from science fiction author Arthur C Clarke to management guru Peter Drucker; it was probably first said by computer scientist Roy Amara. Misattributing a quote is an easy mistake, but the internet can amplify any human utterance for billions of people – including purposely deceitful ones.
You probably don't remember the blogger who tricked readers out of their money by claiming to be dying of cancer, but you're certainly familiar with the guy who claimed to have been elected US President. The internet amplified both.
As comedian Bo Burnham says in his song Welcome to the Internet, we are constantly being asked: “Could I interest you in everything? All of the time?” Little wonder we sometimes struggle to tell truth from lies and our attention spans seem shorter with each passing year. It's as if our former certainties have been swept away in a flood of content.
But as author James Gleick writes in The Information, we have always worried about “information overload”. Yes, we are dealing with more information than ever, but so has been every generation of humans before us, and they all figured out coping strategies.
The long-term strategy of humankind for dealing with an ever-on, connected world probably won't be clear in our lifetimes. But, at the very least, we can console ourselves with myriad varieties of cake.
By Shane Richmond