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The Monoliths in Our Midst

Even the allure of the supernatural is not immune to the scourges of the attention economy

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I have monolith fatigue. There are too many monoliths. Every day, it seems like, there’s a new one. Every day, upon the lonely face of some mysterious and evocative out-of-the-way landscape, a new monolith shimmers into being, reminding us of the limits of our knowledge amid the dizzying expanse of the universe. It’s exhausting. I don’t want to come across as the anti-unexplained monolith guy here, but you know what, universe? We get it. You’re mysterious. Maybe somewhere in all that dizzying vastness you can find a new shtick.

I assume you’ve been following the monoliths. At this point, I assume there’s a monolith in your backyard. If you’ve somehow missed the phenomenon, here’s a quick recap. (Newsweek has a helpful timeline.) On November 18, the first monolith was discovered in a red rock cove in the Utah desert by a biologist doing a flyover for the Utah Department of Public Safety. It was a shiny metallic rectangle between 10 and 12 feet tall, and though it had no obvious purpose, it exuded a space-y, alien-y, 2001-ish vibe; the biologist speculated that NASA had put it there, though that turned out not to be the case. Nine days later, on November 27, a photographer and his friend drove out into the desert to see the structure, which by this point, this being 2020, had become a social-media sensation. While they were there, a group of men arrived and dismantled the monolith; a person claiming to be part of this group later said in an Instagram comment that they were worried about the effect on landscape if selfie-seeking monolith gawkers descended on the area in super bloom–level hordes. Others in the group confirmed this, saying they were adventure sportsmen trying to protect the environment.

This was a plausible enough explanation. At the same time, it was exactly the story that aliens might put out.

Later on November 27, a new monolith was found on a remote hillside in Romania. It looked similar to the first monolith, though it was noticeably jankier; while your 1.0-lith was a single piece of smooth metal, the sequel had visible seams and looked to have been thrown together kind of quickly. In fairness, it could also have been thrown together painstakingly, during a 10,000-year voyage from another star system, by an advanced civilization that was shitty at working with metal. On December 1, this monolith, too, was taken down. Unlike the Utah monolith, the Romania monolith vanished without anyone seeing what happened to it, or referencing influencer tourism on Instagram.

By now (that is, three days ago) speculation on the internet had reached a comfortable viral hum. The monoliths were discussed on TV in that “now here’s a curveball, Joan” voice in which newscasters are apt to discuss monoliths. Articles about the mystery appeared in national newspapers, where they were right at home among the various stories about the apocalypse. Many commenters zeroed in on the possibility that the monoliths were—if I may summarize the whole World Wide Web—“some sort of art project about attention or technology or something.” I believe it was when I saw Banksy mentioned in the New York Times that I first went, “Oh, fuck.”

On Wednesday, a new monolith appeared, this one on a hiking trail at the top of Pine Mountain near Atascadero, California. “The tall, silver structure drew some hikers to the area after photos were posted on social media,” USA Today wrote. Unlike the Utah monolith, the California monolith was not tethered to the ground, and could, according to the Atascadero News, be “knocked over with a firm push.”

By this point, after Monolith III, it’s clear that the narrative cycle of the monoliths is following the familiar arc of most viral mystery trends, in which the first appearance seems genuinely evocative and fascinating, only for each subsequent iteration to be a more transparent play for attention. The first scary clown evokes a feeling that “Oh my God an elemental evil is bubbling up from the world beneath us”; the eighth scary clown evokes the feeling that someone is standing outside your window shrieking “like and subscribe.” The problem with the attention economy is that we’ve all gotten too good at reading it. Wonder gets about 24 hours of play before repetition turns it into a gimmick.

What I’m calling monolith fatigue is the feeling that secrets and mysteries lose their appeal, start to seem untrustworthy, when they fit too neatly into the needs of social media. They start to feel cynical even if they aren’t meant that way, because the thrilling intimation of the unknown that made the story go viral in the first place starts to look like a trick. The little uplift of fascination that you felt when you first saw the story is something the story was built to exploit; the solution to the mystery is just that you paid attention to it. Maybe that’s brilliant art (just kidding, it’s not), but as mysteries go, it’s not great.

So: Fewer monoliths, please, unless you are actually a Martian or the lizard king of the Illuminati. And even then, look, I’m a person who’s online in 2020. My brain has been shaped by the internet. I could see a flying saucer the size of the Pentagon blazing overhead and, after the first shock had passed, text a friend that it must have been marketing for Ready Player Two.