Current Affairs digital rhetoric

why we can’t have nice things

It’s that old saying but one that might cut in two directions. Yes, “we” can’t have nice things because “you” are always ruining them with your irresponsible behavior, lack of class, etc. But possibly we also can’t have nice things because we’re always getting crap shoved in front of us. Or both. Facebook is case in point. Sure it’s a cesspool because of the way people behave, but it’s also crap in and of itself. Why can’t we have a better way to live online? And why don’t we live that better way?

n+1 has a piece apropos to this topic (h/t to Casey pointing this out, via Fb of course). It focuses on the treacherous minefield (are there other kinds of minefields?) that is the social media environment surrounding op-ed writing–in online journals like their own but principally in mainstream media, specifically the NY Times and Washington Post. There’s a range of concerns and complaints here. Authors and editors who write/publish works knowing they’ll be re-litigating them on Twitter. And readers have it no better. “In the not so distant past, we could sit with an article and decide for ourselves, in something resembling isolation, whether it made any sense or not. Now the frantic give-and-take leaves us with little sovereignty over our own opinions.” Surely I am far from the only one who encounters something shared in social media and the ensuing “conversation” and thinks “I have something to say about that, but why bother?”

In the few days since this piece was posted there’s been a whole story about the New Yorker Festival announcing Steve Bannon as a headliner, a bunch of other celebrities dropping out, a flurry of social media complaints, Bannon being dropped, and resulting analysis over whether or not that’s the right decision. My wife turns on MSNBC this morning and the pundit crowd is tut-tutting the decision, trotting out the typical argument about how these ideas need to be dragged into the light of day and debated in the public square where they will wilt. How naive is that? As if they aren’t doing that every day already on Morning Joe with their collection of refugees from the GOP. As if the Times and the Post don’t have their own cadres of neocon pundits.

It’s a peculiar, though founding, fantasy of the US that at their core people are the same, they are kind, they are rational, they have a “strong moral compass,” and so on.

But here’s the thing. At their core, people are pretty stupid. I don’t mean most people are stupid or people are stupid these days. I don’t mean people who don’t resemble me are stupid. I mean we are all stupid in the sense that as individuals, as independent entities, to the extent that we can be independent (try going it on your own without oxygen), we lack the cognitive resources to make the kinds of judgments necessary for democratic participation, especially in the very complex global present.

I mean this in roughly the same way as Nick Bostrom does when he observes, “Far from being the smartest possible biological species, we are probably better thought of as the stupidest possible biological species capable of starting a technological civilization—a niche we filled because we got there first, not because we are in any sense optimally adapted to it.” To put it more generously, I mean it in the way Katherine Hayles does when she takes a cue from Edwin Hutchins’ theory of distributed cognition and writes “Modern humans are capable of more sophisticated cognition than cavemen not because moderns are smarter, Hutchins concludes, but because they have constructed smarter environments in which to work.” Of course this is also Bostrom’s observation (and fear): that these smarter environments are becoming to smart for their own, or at least our own, good. But that’s a different subject.

It is in this context that one might be tempted by Nick Carr’s “google is making us stupid” claim, but really my assertion is simply that we don’t need any help being stupid. Instead we might want to ask what it means to suggest a la Hayles that we are “capable of more sophisticated cognition.” Can we be more precise about the nature of those capacities? In what ways are our environments smarter? What does smarter mean?

Empirically, we have access to a tremendous amount of media/data. In a digital context, media are data and data are mediated; it’s the resampling of the McLuhan maxim. We also have unprecedented capacities for communication. The choke point in this system is human consciousness, so of course we need to build smarter environments that can swim up the media/data stream and handle that firehose for us. So the first problem is that environment turns out to not be that smart. As you know, people connecting to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc. etc. are not really demonstrating much capability for “sophisticated cognition,” at least not by any sense of that term I can conjure. To the contrary, wading into this media/data stream seems to reinforce poor reasoning and bad information. Maybe it’s confirmation bias or the Dunning-Kruger effect. IDK.

The other part of this is communication. I am reminded of a line. I’m probably misremembering it but my memory is that it comes from Virilio’s Art of the Motor. It has something to do with how when train travel became available in Europe, the belief in France was that it would reduce wars on the continent by making it possible for people to travel and improve understanding among nations. Meanwhile in Germany the realization was that trains would make moving troops and supplies to the front more efficient. The arrival of the Internet, especially the social media that have made billions of humans into online participants, was similarly meant to foster mutual understanding among people around the world… I don’t think I need to say more about that, do you?

So maybe this post appears to be moving toward a conclusion that this stuff is bad, but it’s not. I’m not in the business of making judgments like that. I am, however, in the business of evaluating the rhetorical effects of digital media. Give a proto-human a bone club and he’ll bash his neighbor’s skull in (a la 2001, which I just recently saw again). Give the same, slightly more evolved human a web connection and he’ll join in conspiracy theories about how those bones were put there to test our faith in a young Earth. That’s what humans are: just not very smart. It’s not really a fixable situation. But the situation isn’t hopeless. We actually have managed to disabuse ourselves of bad ideas in the past; it could happen again.

But you can’t really change people’s minds by talking to them. You change people’s minds by changing the environment in which they think, the distributed part of their distributed cognition. Not understanding this is a common error. The idea of a public debate is that a critical mass of people are there so that when the audience is persuaded the whole community is shifted. But that doesn’t happen anymore. It certainly isn’t happening in your social media feed.


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