That means learning to live with the glaring contradiction that is online life and learning how, why, and when to shut it off. But not as a means of escape; instead, to remind ourselves that discomfort, like sickness, is unavoidable.

DISPASSION is a newsletter in which digital media researcher Evan Kleekamp practices emotional detachment.

Untitled camera study from 2021. 

NOR Research Studio is a research design studio. We help artists, creatives, startups, and nonprofits build and manage their audiences, fundraise, and develop intellectual property. Moreover, we want to work with you. Schedule a free 15-minute consultation here. You can also fill out this intake form, which makes for a great self-reflexive diagnostic tool.

For those of you following these dispatches closely, I’m considering a pivot away from my grant content. As I detail below, I was extremely sick this past month, which has not only put me behind on my video plans but also made me deeply aware of the economic woes that are on the horizon. It’s clear to me that grants are not going to help artists, creatives, media workers, or any of the other curious people this newsletter is meant to benefit. With each passing day, I somehow manage to abhor grant-awarding institutions with even more intensity. So instead of thinking of ways to better communicate value to them, I’d prefer to start imagining a world that operates without them. I would love to hear your thoughts and feelings about the world to come and what you’re going through now. Feel free to drop me a line at evan@nor.la if you want to trade notes.


Around 5:48am four weeks ago, I woke from a nightmare about rental listings. Afflicted with a sore throat and fever, unable to sleep, I went to my computer and found the Zillow website still open with my search for one-bedroom apartments under $2,200 in Los Angeles yielding the same unpleasant results: too few options, none of them appealing. Naturally, like a good little media professional, I condensed those feelings into tweets and self-soothed.

I have a full-time job and freelance on the side. In sum, my earnings last year eclipsed $80,000; that figure would’ve been even higher if the artist grant I received was paid out prior to 2022. On my 30th birthday this year, which I spent mostly alone, I thought about how this was the most money I had made in my life. For a moment, I was proud of myself, then reality set in.

Until recently, it was said that you needed to make $70,000 a year to live comfortably in Los Angeles. But even after the stimulus checks, higher wages, student loan forbearance, and additional freelance work, I’m still wrestling through every month. At this point, having conceded that rent prices may not ever fall into affordable ranges where I live, I’ve given up my search for better housing.

And I don’t think I’m alone.

My recent survey dispatch detailed how many media workers are likewise drawing income from multiple sources. If the survey’s findings are scalable, it also suggests that most media workers make less than $50,000 per year, even when combining employment with freelance gigs. (I would estimate that artists find themselves in a similar if not worse situation. In my experience, both groups are dependent on contract work and side gigs to cover their living expenses. But at least many media workers receive professional development training during their college years.) These figures were based on reported incomes from 2020 — in that sense, they can tell us a story about what life is like with inflation driving up prices while our incomes, and the lives we’ve built around them, struggle to keep pace. Creatives trying to survive 2022 on salaries that were already meager in 2020 are no doubt feeling the crunch. Articles about escalating rent wars are popping up in media hubs like New York City and Los Angeles. Though it’s not the first instance of widespread economic uncertainty, 2022 is among the rare instances where even the uberwealthy are folding their cards. To top it off, business periodicals are predicting that a recession will come in early 2023. Collectively, these trends suggest that we should prepare for a market where contract work may be more attainable (and desirable) than employment.

So what to do in the meantime? Suffer, apparently.

Being sick over the last few months provided me with a particularly grueling reality-check. In April, I had a cold that produced several negative Covid tests but still triggered intermittent fevers in the weeks after — a symptom resembling Long Covid (and thus freaking me out).

When I got sick the second time in May, my symptoms were extreme but didn’t match up with Covid, so I decided to go to the doctor. Though my disability qualifies me for state-funded insurance, my attempts to track down an in-network urgent care ended in a phone conversation where an insurance rep told me that I needed to speak with an agent who handles employer-provided insurance. “But I don’t get insurance through my employer,” I said. They provided me with a second number that led me to an automated machine which hung up on me whenever I entered my information. Rationally, I gave up and sprung for an out-of-pocket visit ($85). The doctor looked at me for less than three minutes, most of which were spent with her standing in the doorway several feet away from me, before agreeing that I had strep and writing a prescription.

Two weeks later, I drove over a nail, which meant I had to replace the tires on my car. Then I had to deal with check fraud — someone intercepted a check meant for my landlord and it took several days to have the funds credited to my account so I could write another one. Then I contracted actual Covid and spent several days in bed hallucinating but happy my insurance helped me obtain Paxlovid, an antiviral medication that reduces Covid’s most extreme symptoms. So, sick, without vehicle, and technically broke, I opted to gamble on the Post Office again, which hasn’t been too reliable as of late.

As you might imagine, tasking away while ill wore on my wallet and conscience. Something about sickness always triggers me to rethink my career, and I've been thinking a lot about what life after art and media work might look like. But the problems I’m sketching out here seem benignly middle class; I’m in financial pain, not financial desolation. Given my upbringing, I suppose this means I’ve made it; I have stocks to worry about. Because I freelance, I can deduct my medical expenses. My problems, though not necessarily solvable, can be endured.

Alas, sickly, I kind of love what I do; I don’t think I want to change careers. People keep talking about the Great Resignation, which is cool and fun and great, but I basically already did that in 2017 when I swore off corporate work and began kicking it with the salty-dog freelance shills. (NB: my disability preemptively pushed me away from traditional employment.) I like to think of us digital workers as dispassionate sailors. During my recent sickness, I mindlessly cleared the first season of HBO’s pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death. My fuzzy memory tells me that the pirates were gay and purportedly self-sufficient. (Sounds like paradise.) The final episode of the season struck me as one that allegorizes our current era quite well: What happens when we try to return to the life we left behind? Consequences — some good, some bad — seem to be one indisputable answer. Failure to entirely return seems to be another.

So I’d like to propose some ideas that arose during my surprisingly lucid sickness — an outline for the Great Restructuring. And though it’s just a fledgling thesis that once bumbled about my fevered brain, I think it has some traction at its core. The traction comes from understanding that the experiences I relay above are becoming more and more common, and stem from the same structural cause: the institutions we’ve been taught to rely on are themselves quite unreliable. In the face of uncomfortable change, I recommend and will be leaning into the following dictums:

— Collectives must replace institutions.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It would be great to have more independent collectives that toe the line between activist and commercial causes. Getting people to collaborate in small groups is hard work, but once you start doing it you quickly realize the system is set to pit us against each other. Learning to work with that contradiction, and with limited resources, can change your entire perspective about work, especially any ideas you may have about equity. In the attention economy, this is particularly true and exacerbated by the function clout plays in determining who gets what work and pay: You have to make friends to get by.

— Social media will not be the solution.

Media work is ultimately just one face of the attention economy; the art world is another. Taken together, they help us understand trends common to them both. With social media, the bastard child of art and media, in its flop era, now is an opportune time to think at odd, formerly unthinkable configurations and scales. In the past, storied institutions armed with discretionary income determined what we paid attention to. Today, everything we see online is automatically gauche, especially if it comes from an official account. Yes, Covid is still making IRL seem like an impossible past. Yes, hybrid gatherings still feel demeaning. But this problem means that whoever comes up with the best improvised solution for conducting attention will likely find themselves rich in social capital (and perhaps dollars). My intuition tells me primitive ways of connecting will be in vogue. Whatever follows TikTok will very likely have elements of the most demonic elements of Twitter, but with an emphasis on direct communication rather than micro-blogs and mass appeal. (Imagine if Teju Cole had a Tumblr blog dedicated to architectural photography and eviscerating white people in which the primary mode of communication was 5-minute video essays.) A quick scan of any social media platform reveals that we are all desperate for authentic interactions and exhausted by the deep fakes our personalities have become. Ergo, the next social tool will likely have a number of constraints that make it more social than technological.

Labor is a history and a knowledge, we must maintain both.

My copy of Capital recently lost its front cover. It’s a well-loved edition and one that I plan to keep with me even as I downsize my library in preparation for what will likely be years of austerity as the pandemic, global inflation, and market volatility wind on. While I have coyly described myself as a Marxist in the past, I think it’s now time to accept that all theories — even the most compelling and damning among them — have not prepared us for the current moment. Strangely, I think that is a good thing. Time to reassess our relationship to the past and the tools we’ll bring with us into the future. For workers in the creative industries, this will no doubt cause fractures in terms of how we choose to organize. Let us not forget that political organizing comes in many forms not just limited to protesting and unionization. Organize with the energy and resources within your capacity — do not abandon yourself for the sake of others. Martyrdom is no longer useful or chiqué. It’s also a way for people who are not really your allies to let you suffer for their cause. Let that be the lesson of the recent Netflix layoffs.

— Structure can change, but we must be willing to impart order.

Composition is what differentiates one substance from another. If we are unwilling to change how we are composed, or what arrangements we are willing to place ourselves in, then restructuring is not possible. Some things must be graciously given up or deprioritized. For many of my clients, that means letting go of the idea that we can do things on a shoe-string budget or accomplish tasks best delegated to a larger, more organized group. I’ll personally be doubling down on the claim that my labor — like yours — is valuable and should only be given away for free when strategically viable. In part, this means prioritizing clients who are further along in their career journey, but the good news is that this decision should aggregate information that can be cheaply circulated as a byproduct — newbies get their fill, too. It’s the same triage logic that says you should put on your own oxygen mask before helping others, but with the added step of discerning how help can be most efficiently recirculated as something resembling equity when more resources become available.

— We must disprove our own assumptions and theories.

Boiling things down to yes-or-no questions reduces decisions to their consequences. It can also make contradictions rise to the surface. As an independent researcher, I’m always striving to disprove my own assumptions and to incorporate humility into my communication strategy. My interest in talk therapy also makes me believe that unstructured, discursive conversation is valuable research; I trust people to lead me to the information I need and try to refashion my theses throughout my projects. To add structure to that dynamic process, I try to apply a slightly more scientific process that aims to break or disprove my theories; as soon as I finish a draft I search for any proof that contradicts it and edit accordingly. To be honest, this has led to interesting moments of self-discovery and a deeper awareness of my own bias.  In an industry built on amplifying the hottest takes of the day, I think self-directed critiques will be more than welcome. In times of uncertainty, fictions — like tweets — are a form of self-soothing. But fictions about labor and money can be dangerous. Don’t believe me? See what’s happening to the crypto people.

— The return of small business.

Small businesses don’t have the ability to destroy entire economies and that’s why I hope more businesses and workers would defer to small- to medium-size clusters. One of the primary reasons that the creative industries need unionization so badly is that large corporations place more faith in their investors than their employees — especially when money gets tight. When workers are incorporated into decision-making processes, whether through collective ownership or similar employee-operated models, they at least get the benefit of knowing how the machine works. When everyone understands what’s at stake in running the business, there is less reason to work outlandish hours or subject anyone to unfair labor conditions. But it also means workers must confront some of the less savory aspects of operating a business. Twitter is abuzz with conversations about types of work that leaves digital media workers vulnerable. The reality here is unsettling: the further you are from the budget sheet, the less likely you are to survive money-saving measures. This shouldn’t scare creatives away from the work they have trained to do and feel comfortable doing so much as remind them to always chart that work back to its dollar value, adjusting accordingly to make sure they get paid their due wage.

And last but not least.

— Resurrect that which does not suck.

I maintain a deeply held belief that we are all nostalgic for a time before the internet — a difficult request for artists and digital media workers. But contradiction is inherently material. If we are doomed to live in interesting times, let’s at least make the most (content) of it. That means learning to live with the glaring contradiction that is online life and learning how, why, and when to shut it off. But not as a means of escape; instead, to remind ourselves that discomfort, like sickness, is unavoidable. Embedded within this acceptance is permission to live a little asynchronously, to make online life happen IRL and vice versa. Resurrecting the past is difficult, sometimes banal labor, as is keeping daily life from descending into a nonsensical, unnecessary trash fire. Plus, it’s not nostalgia if you’re putting in the work to keep yourself alive and well.