But there’s something different about Mueller industrialism. It’s more than yet another fusion of 24-hour information, meme culture, and internet opportunism. It also speaks to Americans’ strong desire to anticipate the future, and to live in the present as if that future has already arrived, and in the way they’d planned it to besides.
The media theorist Richard Grusin has a name for this practice: premediation. News analysts, pundits, product designers, influencers, and all the rest now create media in the present whose content anticipates future events or actions. The nonstop coverage of the 2020 Democratic primary offers an effective if humdrum example. That the left perceives the Trump presidency as odious partly explains why his opponents are coming out earlier, but the media landscape also demands and rewards this kind of anticipation. Are Kamala Harris’s policies suitable for the Democratic ticket? Is Beto O’Rourke’s hacker youth a benefit or a liability? Will Joe Biden run or won’t he? These and other stories seem like news about the present, but they are really speculations on information from the future.
The public eats this stuff up. Yesterday on Twitter, I happened across a long thread about whether supporters of Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, might be sexist because they would support a man with such modest credentials over a woman senator with experience and policy proposals, such as Harris. The thread was electric, bedazzled with hearts and replies, most frenzied in support or detraction. But exchanges like it are so common and so fleeting, I can’t even find the posts anymore. Those who weighed in were not really making arguments about the reality of the political moment; instead, they were anticipating, and practicing, the kinds of claims someone—a news commentator as much as a social-media everyperson—might make before a debate, or after one, or in the run-up to the Iowa caucus, or a local primary. So much media is premediated now, it’s almost impossible to find something whose payload isn’t partly composed of practice for future events.
Most of the time, nobody even notices this phenomenon. Premediation works because it homes in on natural anxieties or desires amplified by the hyper-mediated ecosystem in which television, smartphones, social media, and all the rest rot and reanimate. Whom should I consider voting for in the next election? Am I going to die if I board a plane? Those are questions whose future answers seem to demand consideration today.
In Mueller’s case, so many people anticipating the investigation’s end also banked on the specific conclusions that might accompany it. Certainly none of the Mueller industrialists thought it would burn out as a dud. But certainty is the enemy of forecasting. The future inspires drama because of the cloud of doubt that obscures it, not because it withholds a certainty until a later date. When SNL, Colbert, Abramson, and others began placing bets on the result of the Mueller investigation, they also sterilized their own relevance in the “no collusion” timeline that Americans now appear to occupy.