In November 1980, The New Yorker devoted most of an entire issue to a single essay. Beyond the extravagant length, the essay remains one of the strangest things the magazine has ever published. Written by staff writer George W. S. Trow and edited by the mercurial William Shawn, “Within the Context of No Context” is a fever dream of media criticism. In a fractured cascade of subtitled riffs (on “Pseudo-Intimacy,” “Experts,” “Celebrities,” “Magazines in the Age of Television”) that accrues its own manic momentum through prose-poem-like repetition, Trow analyzes how that great, fetid swamp of American culture—television—ruined our sensibilities, or at least warped them forever.
Published in book form the following year alongside Trow’s two-part profile of Atlantic Records chairman Ahmet Ertegun, the essay received some new attention. The New York Times approved.But the true significance of “Within the Context of No Context” came as a kind of countercultural samizdat: The painter David Salle recalled passing a dog-eared copy of it to the writer Joan Juliet Buck in the 1980s, who spread it in turn. “We were a little society with a secret—we felt sorry for anyone who hadn’t read it,” Salle wrote recently.
Certain essays stand as cultural landmarks: After reading them you see the world differently; they become part of your mental landscape. For many of its readers, “Within the Context of No Context” certainly belongs in that pantheon. It was republished again as a standalone book in 1997, with a new introduction called “Collapsing Dominant,” in which Trow reflected on what had changed in the two decades since the original — if anything, it was all worse.
Like the work of Benjamin or Sontag, the essay seems to apply to each new moment, particularly after Trow’s solitary death in 2006 (recounted in Ariel Levy’s magisterial posthumous profile for New York). Most recently, it was the centerpiece for critic Christian Lorentzen’s Harper’s Magazine philippic against the Internet’s effects on contemporary book-reviewing. Trow’s work is still so relevant because everything he wrote about television applies doubly for social media. If Trow thought television was bad, then Facebook would be his nightmare.
Rather than a straightforward critique, “Within the Context of No Context” expresses “only a kind of informed confusion,” Trow admitted in his 1997 foreword. Its real impact comes from the music of his prose. You have to read and reread it, which is easy enough, because it’s like a Twitter feed, each line an incantatory aphorism: “Television is the force of no-history.” “What television has to a dominant degree is a certain scale, and the power to enforce it.” It also possesses “a certain ability to transmit and receive and then to apply layers of affection and longing and doubt.”
Trow argued that the rise of television decimated the elite American intellectual community to which he had belonged as the far descendant of printing magnates, a Harvard graduate, and a magazine writer. It cut out what he posed as society’s heart: the reading, debating, literary demographic that consumed his work.
In those pre-Internet days, only two social networks remained in the wasteland created by TV: “the grid of intimacy,” or of person-to-person interaction, and “the grid of  million,” or the collective body of TV watchers. “The distance between those two grids was very great,” Trow noted. “The distance was very frightening.” And so we filled in that immense gap with the content that TV provided to us, pre-digested, in our living rooms: dancing celebrities, “Hits,” “Gossip,” and the like. (Whimsical formatting and capitalization of key phrases are part of the essay’s charm, simultaneously freighting each word with a halo of nonliteral meaning and casting doubt on its sincerity.)
The moving images of television, Trow argues, tell us that we are not alone, that we are part of the larger multimedia grid that has replaced polite society. Central to his concerns was the production of “Authority,” which once came from family lineage, then from books and perhaps glossy high-end magazines, all of which Trow was comfortable with. And then, suddenly, it came from TV, and the old regime of authority, taste, and power—the “Collapsing Dominant,” as Trow titled that 1997 foreword—was on its way out. The loss of Authority, the loss of an ability to influence the American mainstream, was the source of the intoxicating nostalgia and potent despair in “Within the Context of No Context.” Some air of authenticity had disappeared forever—for Trow, at least—and we kept on losing.
The essay’s ambivalence about this loss is what makes it truly vital decades on. It is hard to spot any self-righteousness in Trow, only a gasp of self-aware self-pity. He didn’t think you could escape television or hold yourself above it. Claiming some kind of moral high ground means mistakenly thinking that you’re unique, as he argued in “Collapsing Dominant.” “Each one of these social generations”—from the 1950s to the late ’90s, when Trow wrote his foreword—“thinks of its social aesthetic as definitive. In fact they are all in a process.” There was no great Golden Age.
Between 1997 and 2019, the Internet grew as a competitor to television and then subsumed it in the form of Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube. The Internet has a similar tendency toward erasure as well as the ability to transmit longing and doubt on an enormous scale, much larger than television’s. Instead of the grid of 200 million TV watchers, we are now enmeshed in the grid of 2.3 billion Facebook users, with an even greater distance, and thus vertigo, from the grid of intimacy, or our humanity.
Trow’s great insight was that we replaced human connection with media. We’ve vanquished our loneliness with talking heads, but now we access them through phones and feeds. The feeds grow larger and deeper every day. You can swap “the Internet” for “television” in a line from Trow that prophesied reality TV and YouTube celebrities alike: “[The Internet] will re-form around the idea that [the Internet] itself is a context to which [the Internet] will grant an access.” In other words, it creates a self-sufficient online space outweighing and displacing the offline. Meanwhile, the extremely online are rewarded with influence in the arenas we previously thought of as the real world, off-screen.
The problem is that, online, we think we’re reconnecting to that smaller grid—we follow our IRL friends, like their posts, and watch their stories! —when that connection is really mediated by a corporate entity less human than the magazine editors or television producers of the past. We are in the grid of social-media users created by that 21st-century bogeyman, the Algorithm. Loosely defined, the Algorithm—Twitter’s, Facebook’s, Spotify’s, Amazon’s, Google’s, so on and so forth—mediates what we read, watch, and listen to online, encouraging us to consume whatever appears on the screen. It regulates how often we get updates from our friends, whose unpopular posts or opinions we might not see if we don’t seek them out. Based on the data it collects, it can tell when we’re flush, lonely, engaged, or pregnant and then sell us products accordingly. We don’t understand the Algorithm, but we hate it. We don’t know how the Algorithm works, but we love what it brings us. We can’t escape it. Trow might not have foreseen social media, but he provided a framework to understand how it takes over our identities for the sake of profit.
“Within the Context of No Context” is a representation of changing business models in the media industry, from the stately pace of weekly magazines determining culture to the 24/7 morass of television. The same existential challenge that TV posed to publishing in the ’80s, social media poses to media companies today, especially with the transition to cheaper, less profitable, high-volume digital advertising. It robs prominent journalists and critics of their authority, their ability to influence mainstream taste. Even with thousands of Twitter followers, we writers are another “Collapsing Dominant,” losing out to Instagram influencers and video-game live-streamers as cultural arbiters. Trow argued that “the marketplace” subsumed everything—maybe it’s the final ebb of the myth that writers aren’t also purveyors of commodities. How you feel about this probably depends on whether you are gaining or losing authority.
The critic Christian Lorentzen laments his lost authority, as well as that of literary criticism as a whole. Formerly the literary critic at New York, Lorentzen was let go when the magazine expanded its books coverage, but in the form of author interviews, profiles, and trend pieces rather than reviews. Titled “Like This or Die,” after a line from Trow (“The message of many things in America is, ‘Like this or die.’ It is a strain. Suddenly, the modes of death begin to be attractive”), Lorentzen’s essay is a jeremiad against the Algorithm and the Feed, which have replaced critics and encouraged publications like The New York Times Book Review to embrace best-of lists and Q&As—content that follows traffic instead of critical discourse. (Of course, clickbait isn’t a problem exclusive to the pages of book reviews.) Apart from Trow, Lorentzen’s other patron saint is Elizabeth Hardwick, who bemoaned the prevalence of “sweet, bland commendations” in her own famous Harper’s essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” back in 1959.
This time, it’s the Internet rather than television that’s killing literary discourse. “Alex and Wendy’s feeds assure them that they aren’t lonely,” Lorentzen writes of the two Trowesque satirical characters who appear at the start of his essay. “Their feeds tell them that everyone else is watching, reading, listening to the same things.” (Mimicking Trow’s style when responding to his ideas is irresistible; I did it in an essay on algorithms and fashion last year.) Since the Internet took over, criticism has become a mere user’s guide and social chronicle. Taking off from Trow, Lorentzen complains that prestige television—in the form of The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Mad Men—is actually supplanting the realm of high art, soaking up all the analysis and acclaim that used to be reserved for novels.
Lorentzen’s essay mingles several threads—the cultural rise of television, especially streaming; the impact of algorithmic feeds on consumer habits; and the way that consensus is manufactured on social networks through brute-force popularity contests—without quite weaving them together. The essay doesn’t register Trow’s self-conscious irony, the way he accepts with some grace that he was on the way out. Yet the way that “Like This or Die” sparked days of fierce Twitter debate with its wide-ranging pithiness suggests that Lorentzen hit on a style of criticism that’s actually adapted for social media.
There’s plenty to critique about algorithms—the way they make racist, classist, sexist decisions about things like incarceration and employment—but complaining about their role in culture is harder. Digital platforms aggregate data about their millions of users; the evolving equations of algorithms absorb and crunch that data, then use it to make predictions about what individual users are likely to consume. Blaming algorithms means blaming people. It also means arguing that we were better off when a handful of mostly white, wealthy, male tastemakers told us what to do. The Algorithm might actually be a more efficient, accurate Middlebrow. You might not like what it says about our desires, however.
Above all, Lorentzen wants conscientious readers and conscientious critics who take literature seriously. Book reviews are important because they are “where ideas are tested before they harden into dogma,” he writes. Why disagree with that? Criticism is vital, of course, but maybe its forms are changing, as forms are wont to do. Just as we can now flip through a dozen different on-demand streaming platforms for any kind of content, from television to e-books, we get our commentary in new ways, with fewer gatekeepers, through social media—even the Trowish medium of tweet threads (the horror!).
The real problem with algorithms is that they’re terrible critics. Not even their engineers necessarily know why algorithms recommend what they do, given that most are “black boxes.” There is no driving critical intelligence questioning each new book, film, or song; only acceleration as the feed piles on more of what it calculates you want. Without human criticism, all we’re left with is undifferentiated mass of expensive banality.
Trow eventually left The New Yorker in protest after Tina Brown took over and pushed the magazine into celebrity-friendly territory (the last straw was Roseanne Barr as guest editor). A kind of Cassandra, he even predicted a figure like Trump as the ultimate consequence of this fame-obsessed media culture—the way white Americans, further alienated by the media and sped toward radicalization by Facebook ads and YouTube feeds, would reach for a demagogue: “Democracy opens up the possibility of ‘abandonment,’ and creates opportunities for men and women who understand how to play to or on that feeling,” he wrote in the foreword. “I think people will reinvent their history using specific images from a more organized moment”—the old regime, the fantasy of a 1950s that never existed except on television.