As Wasik conducts his own experiments, he meets other people like Strahm, and concludes that their motives, too, are surprisingly simple. The desire for human connection. The desire to communicate. (Both, of course, are shadowed by the perennial corporate desire to harness those desires.) But while individual motivations may be very human, Wasik warns us that our cultural fixation on the nanostory is harming our capacity to see the big picture. He lights upon former Wall Street trader Nassim Taleb’s example of a fictional dentist who, “when he reads his stock reports less often, paradoxically becomes better informed.” Perhaps we too should take a zoomed-out approach to the hodgepodge of information confronting us every day, such that we see the spikes as gentle hills or even (if we dare zoom out so far) the merest wriggles on a flat line.
“When herded together, the extent to which [these stories] have overrun our culture becomes clear,” Wasik concludes. “We must learn how to neuter our nanostories, or at least to cut off their food supply.” He doesn’t say exactly how we should do so, but notes that we might “cordon off spaces in our lives away from information” and curtail “our obsession with short-term thinking and the ephemeral narratives that accompany it.” This is all rather vague, and the author might have spent more time fleshing out the practical implications for his readers.
Wasik calls And Then There’s This “a primer and a cautionary tale.” The irony is easy to grasp. His step-by-step procedures for assembling our very own, highly infectious nanostories are ultimately the ones he urges us (and media-savvy readers the world over) not to follow.
And that’s the problem with the book. Understanding something and mastering it aren’t such different processes, and the reader may want nothing more than to beat a fifteen-year-old wunderkind meme-maker from Alabama at her own game. But ultimately, we are asked to head back in the same direction we came from. There is no Celestial City, no Holy Grail, no resting place—we just have to hope that the journey has made us wiser, as we head back down into the latter-day Slough of Despond.