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Lost in a Torrent of Noise
Our capacity for shared sense-making is gone.
In his 2008 essay entitled How to Disagree, Paul Graham wrote:
“...though it’s not anger that's driving the increase in disagreement, there’s a danger that the increase in disagreement will make people angrier. Particularly online, where it’s easy to say things you’d never say face to face.”
Nearly 15 years later, his insight has proved prescient; the online world shattered our capacity for dialogue, and now anger is a potent driver of disagreement. In this timeframe, our frameworks for shared sense-making have been dismantled, to the point where society hurtles along flooded with (mis/dis)information, drowned in a torrential torrent of unenlightening ideologies.
The erosion of our sense-making capacities appears to have three converging tributaries; the first is dramatically altered pathways of information dissemination; the second is the platforms of information sharing which form the contemporary “public square” ; and the third is the nature and characteristics of the public dialogue itself.
The first tributary is a river filled with waste, catalytic for the downstream degeneration of the others. The past 40 years have seen a seismic shift in the pathways of information dissemination, from a narrower and more regulated landscape to a broader, dysregulated, and more chaotic arena. Up until the advent of the internet and social media, the media pathways of information dissemination were far tighter, characterised primarily by print journalism together with radio and televised news reporting. Within these more defined pathways of information dissemination, there was a common commitment to fact-based reporting, and an industry standard of source verification and fact-checking that was bolstered through the legal system and regulations.
Of course, this media landscape still contained a distinction between broadsheet and tabloid journalism in terms of overall quality and content of the publication, and exhibited liberal or conservative stances depending on the publication. However, the political stances of media outlets largely reflected the political landscape of the post-Second War World years, defined by a gravitational pull between Left and Right that kept both in orbit around the centre.
The commitment to fact-based reporting meant not only that sources were more rigorously verified, but that the political slant offered by media of the centre-Left or centre-Right was a slant on the meaning and interpretation of the facts, not on the construction of the facts themselves. Importantly, as Anne Applebaum has underscored, this media landscape created a genuine opportunity for a national conversation to take place on the issues of the day, where the parameters of the issue were known, the basic facts reported, and the debate could focus on what, in interpretation and potential action, those facts entailed.
The advent of the internet, and of social media, altered this landscape in unrecognisable ways. The channels of information dissemination became infinite, from websites and blogs, videos and online “news” outlets, and any number of dark corners of the web for the most extreme voices to find expression and support. The propagation of online “news” sources occurred with a shift in the currency of conversation away from reliable and verifiable facts, to likes and clicks; from the knowledge economy to the attention economy, from news to entertainment.
Once the attention economy was established as the currency du jour of conversation, the established media - particularly the print media - had to keep pace, which found expression in the elevation of the opinion sections, once a tight section at the back of the paper, to the lead and central “content generator” that they are now.
This opened the dangerous can of worms that whatever the political slant of the paper was would now hold the “views” of the paper to ransom. Bari Weiss captured this eloquently in her resignation letter from the New York Times (I highly recommend reading the full piece):
“Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.
Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded [sic] to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.”
This issue does not necessarily belong to either Left or Right, liberal or conservative; it is all encompassing, consuming the entire landscape of information output. And it fed into the second tributary, the platforms of (mis/dis)information which supposedly acts as our “public square” for dialogue. In this forum, both sides of the political spectrum could project different presentations of the same pathology, each reflecting their respective contemporary guiding ideologies.
The conversation on the Right became a hodgepodge of conspiratorial beliefs, libertarian and nativist ideologies, and reactionary “post truth” falsehoods. The currency on the Left became monopolised by farcical theoretical ideologies of identity, a weaponised culture of grievance, and inane “my truth” hyper-relativism. And each have flowed together in a confluence of narrative warfare where if nothing is really true, everything is valid, reducing our channels of communication to the point where, to quote Timothy Snyder:
“...nothing is left but the tears of others and their own cynical laughter.”
This is where the final tributary, the nature and characteristics of that dialogue itself, converges to flow into the estuary of pollution that defines the breakdown of our shared sense-making capacities. To the sight of tears and sound of cynical laughter, issue after issue, event after event, pours onto our screens and into our ears and out of our mouths as a series of Pavlovian responses, predetermined by conditioned minds that are full of information, but devoid of ideas.
The defining characteristic of the (mis/dis)information landscape on platforms for “sharing” and “connection” is the trampling of complexity, compressed into a pressure valve of absolutes and conviction. Under the stress of compression, the valve can only explode into a rejection of diversity in perspectives and of complexity in subject matter. All that sustains is a demand for ideological conformity.
We have various euphemisms now to describe the nature of this polluted estuary; “polarisation”, “division”, “atomisation”. But we seldom articulate how these are merely an inevitable consequence of the demand for conformity, because if both sides to any issue have predetermined perspectives based on the sweeping narratives that define membership of their respective in-groups, the only possible outcome is the generation of an Us and a Them. In what serious society can you tell in advance every single stance on any issue that someone will have by whether they have pronouns declared in their bio or, conversely, proudly state that they are “anti-woke”? In what serious society do political parties become identities?
If we took a sample of 10 individuals, five conservatives and five liberals, and asked them what ‘critical race theory’ is, we could predict their responses. Conservatives would say something akin to “it teaches our children to hate their country”, while liberals would say something akin to “it teaches children about the history of racism”. And it’s not that both interpretations are spectacularly wrong; it is the utter conviction with which those views are held, both sides unassailable in their fallibility, righteous in their ignorance, and immovable to reason. A viewpoint on an issue that neither have even bothered to understand, because their respective perspectives were predetermined by the colour of their ballot box.
Thus dichotomised by the flattening of complexity and the demand for conformity, the nature of what passes for dialogue is merely an exchange of ideological salvos, a shouting match between the articles of faith that define the “Us” and the “Them”. Both sides have become characterised by increasing authoritarianism, flowing from the perception that each are an existential threat to the other, in turn providing respective justifications for censorship and coercion, both hallmarks of our “public square” discourse.
Yet even the delineation between the Us and the Them is a false dichotomy, because this delineation does not merely reflect the traditional Left-Right political spectrum, but now exists within each side of the Left-Right divide. Hostage to outrage algorithms, the platforms reward the extremes, flooding the zone with shit from the fringes of the socio-cultural ideologies of liberals and conservatives; the alternate realities which both worlds have created for their disciples to hide in, from the identitarian to the conspiratorial. Anyone that doesn’t join the fringes of the socio-cultural Left, even if they are on the centre of Left, is branded with the scarlet letters of “ist” and “phobe”. Anyone that doesn’t join the fringes of the socio-cultural right, even from centre of Right, is brandished as “simp” and a “sheep”. The centre cannot hold.
Forget reaching agreement or compromise; we don’t even know how to disagree productively. What is more frightening is the sheer disinterest, the total lack of basic intellectual curiosity, to get to grips with another point of view in a way that fairly and accurately characterises someone’s perspective, rather than simply strawman it into a stereotype. For those in the broad centre, any attempt to foster conversation about the malaise within one’s own political tent is never met with engagement, only whataboutism. To question some of the ideologies and practices on the Left, for example, is never met with any honest discussion about the issue, just finger-pointing at the Right.
Liberals are more guilty of this than anyone, because they have the luxury of higher education, yet appear committed to ignorance and incuriousness in relation to both their own articles of faith about the nature of reality and society, and in relation to the lived experience of the bottom 50% of the population. What emerges is a movement lacking all reflectiveness, bereft of perspective, and devoid of any serious intellectual discourse.
Yet this movement does not exist in a vacuum, and does not absolve the Right for discarding the intellectual roots of conservatism; what is it exactly that contemporary conservatives seek to conserve? Nothing: their sole aim is moral histrionics and destruction. And so we are caught in a pincer movement, with the Right seeking to dismantle the institutions of State and democracy, and the Left seeking to repudiate society itself.
Caught in all of this, here we are as societies trying to make sense of one of the most fraught and complex periods of global transition in the past 50yrs. The stakes are high for the planet, for democracy, for individual rights and freedoms. Yet we are trying to make sense of this while wading in an estuary of effluence, the confluence of the three tributaries of the overhaul of (mis/dis)information pathways, the chaos of the “public square” platforms, and the putrid characteristics of public dialogue.
We’ve walked ourselves to one of the most tragic paradoxes in human history; flooded with information, we know everything and nothing; we hear everything but won’t listen; we react to everything but won’t reason; we’re sold connectivity but won’t connect; we demand of others but we won’t seek to understand them. We cannot think.
The centre will not hold.
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