or: Deconstructing this strange, stupid moment

Have you noticed that humanity seems to have gotten into the bad acid? Or that reality isn’t itself lately? Traditional limits to weirdness have been breached and allowed just about anything to happen. If our recent political history was a spy novel would you keep reading it? Or throw it in the trash for being provokingly unrealistic? Trash, am I right?

You’ll be relieved to know I have a theory.

One of the things I ramble on about here is the idea that the human race is technologically self-mutating. It’s part of our script to wrangle and then embrace new technology and rather than using it to perfect our old lifestyle, we let it alter us and transform that lifestyle.  Throughout our time on earth, this pattern has changed us sometimes in hardly noticeable increments, and sometimes with disorienting speed. While the core of human nature remains constant through history every big technology shift distorts our current culture and creates unexpected “new normals”. These new normals cause stress and static as we try to sort out what the hell is happening to us and how to retain the good part of the new tech without losing the good of the culture.  Since we are in constant flux there is no pure version of ourselves to return to or protect. Many of the normal things we grew up with were new normals to our parents or grandparents. We typically only embrace technology that gives us something we want and then we suffer and struggle over the weird “Goeswiths” we didn’t anticipate. It’s significant that there is no historical example of us adapting to powerful new technology, disliking its effect on our culture and dropping it to resume the old ways. Our way ratchets forward and locks; no take backs. The bad side effects only go away when some still newer technology dissolves them.
Cars redefined teenage freedom and liberated our sexuality. They changed socializing and working and vacations. They changed the layout of every towns and city. The economics of cars created enormous corporations and a unionized middle class. Year in and out, cars kill ~40000 Americans and it appears we’re basically all OK with that. Technology is never just technology. Technology is new organs and altered cultures and unexpected results. Sufficient technological change equals a different species. 

I don’t reckon we need another newsman…we got three.

There’s a case to be made that the seasick craziness of this moment is due to unexpected effects of new technologies that we have recently embraced. What America had in the period between radio\television and the internet was a homeostasis of cultural common sense.  Information flowed downhill through centralized viaducts from the official sources to the official reporters. The available means of sharing ideas such as publishing or broadcasting were centralized industries. You had to demonstrate competence and professionalism for years to participate at high levels. This built a set of standards directly into this community and helped support the cultural respect for standards of evidence and proof as well.

God knows America was teaming with crackpots but because of this cultural foundation of professional standards, they looked stupid when they walked out into the light. They failed to make the cut as soon as they revealed themselves to be outside the common borders of reasonable people. One standard of leadership was to be recognized as a person belonging inside the wide center of common sense values. Our low tolerance for behavior that would tag someone as unacceptable helped to protect us. For this reason, Barry Goldwater was seen as dangerously outside these established tolerances for normalcy in a leader. Some years later Reagan was also an extreme right winger for his time but his big-shouldered bland affability and bovine inner contentment did a lot to reassure voters.

In the period before cable TV, the News, our delivery system for information, rolled in like the tide, twice each day and then withdrew, allowing things to happen at their own pace. The veteran agencies and reporters would be on the job and they would swing back by tomorrow to catch us up. Even when there were only three networks, the news still often led with the exciting story rather than the important story but the limited competition and laid back “That’s all for today” closing parenthesis until tomorrow made it easier to be serious about making a quality product.

When the 24/7 news cycle appeared the homeostasis of common sense news consensus quickly began to degrade. A flood of competition deflates the value of any product and anxiety about going under in that flood created a locust army of middle managers with last-ditch dumbass ideas telling everyone to lose their integrity as quickly as all the other stations if they expected to compete.

Lots of pretty people got hired as well as a reasonable number of smart and pretty people. Having a gritty, serious background in journalism was no longer a given or a must. A spokesmodel capable of simulating gravitas could feel right at home. They were all hired to compete in a strange game of taking an average news story developing at an average rate of speed and to stand there talking about it, often in real time, until it was thin as a soap bubble.  Any restraint about choosing the sexy story before the important was lost in the food fight for viewers and the writing dumbed down enough to require no chewing. This desperate need to compete and to fill time made them easier to manipulate and control than earlier journalists.  You don’t go hard on the powerful when you’re hoping to keep friends in high places and you don’t go controversial when trying to keep millions of fickle eyeballs pointing at you.

To broaden their base the Reagan administration strategically mainstreamed extreme ranges of the right wing that had always been considered an embarrassment before. When the new generation of news reporters interacted with spokesmen for these extreme political beliefs they were passive and easy to get along with. They asked unchallenging descriptive questions: “Tell me about…”. They let stand whatever euphemisms (Pro-Life, Compassionate conservatism, etc) had been generated to soften their tone.

Finally, and fatally, when faced with divergent opinions they adopted the policy of behaving as if no expressed opinion CAN be closer to the truth than any other, “Ontheotherhandism”.  It operates as if any two opinions are always equally reasonable or absurd and that fact-checking (which implied it might be otherwise) simply wasn’t in their job description anymore. If a stupid idea was in conflict with a smart one they would ask backers of the smart idea why they refused to compromise. They hoped to be seen as distinguished, important more or less disinterested observers with high paying glamorous jobs. What posed as noble neutrality was really a chickenshit style of not rocking a comfy boat. Much of the fourth branch of government had abandoned their role.

And that was the state of things when the internet made every random asshole into a content creator.

I’m DarkBansheeSexGod1987 and you are a total cuck! LOL!

The terrible thing about human beings in the internet age is that we have all become AUDIBLE. We have given every child in the kindergarten their own megaphone.

Like most transformative technologies, when the internet appeared we imagined it augmenting the lives we were already living, not turning them into different lives. But the internet became essential and constant, a background to all things and a connection between all things. In a sense, the web became the place we all live now.  Now, when we went to look at things, they looked back at us. Everyplace we stopped and showed momentary interest was noted as if by some 50% helpful pixie and 50% creepy stalker who wanted to remember that about us for…later. We didn’t notice some important differences. My version of Amazon/Yahoo/Google/Facebook or whatever isn’t yours. It’s important that there is no one absolute version of anything major on the web. It’s like a building changing in response to who enters. It’s important that we are always being managed so as to not see things that might upset us, or god forbid, bore us. What I’m describing here is what Eli Pariser called “filter bubbles”. The internet grew into a hall of mirrors for each visitor, pre-editing content according to the dozens of attendant algorithms that matched our every step.
The absence of naturally occurring annoyances created an artificially empty and bland world. We no longer encountered normal political variance for example, and the political spectrum we WERE comfortable with would naturally undergo further levels of refinement and purification as we sandpapered down every splinter of variation.

In the real world, if a child is raised in an overly sanitized home it’s likely they will develop allergies. Their immune systems are not “sophisticated” enough to adapt to a normally messy environment. And in hospitals where intense, even constant cleansing is a functional necessity a natural Darwinian result selects for “superbugs” whose resistance and virulence are far worse than most of the run of the mill germs that were being removed.

Likewise, the web became a breeding ground for opportunistic outrage and virtual strawmen. It even became a very obvious fundraising and advertising model as provoking turned out to be a way to override apathy at least momentarily. Standards of fact-checking grew lax at best and more extreme groups have come to value the passion and intensity of the message over any reality in it. Attempts to explore nuance or find middle ground are often labeled naive or disloyal. Wherever you stand, the other side of politics probably seems more foolish and out of touch than it ever has before.

So what, then dammit? What now?

Our public sphere is always a sort of ecosystem. It was very stable in the era of newspapers and 3 highly centralized television channels. The structure lent itself to a belief in objective standards of truth as well as standards of competence and balance required for the people operating it. Somehow this arrangement supported the value of philosophical common ground. There was plenty of disagreement but it was a norm to see too much extremity as bad for the community. The stability of the system reinforced our faith in it. Our faith in that reinforced our faith in the underlying government with its checks and balances. We saw it working. And it lasted a long time.

It’s as if we were traveling along on that old machine and en route replaced it bit by bit with a radically different machine. It’s not as stable, it’s easier to fall off. It’s easier for enemies to interfere with it and sabotage us. We’ve suddenly found ourselves not quite broken down but maybe worse, rolling down a hill on half power and dodgy brakes screaming our heads off.
The problem is that there will never be a nice relaxed period for us to get used to the way this system works and understand the problems and fix them. Nope. We’re in such a rapid flux of technological (and therefore cultural) change that trying to stop and fix these specific problems probably means ignoring critical new problems growing up in the shadows.

We should consciously learn the lessons of this moment. Our culture was systematically poisoned over many years by powerful forces that profited from the polarization. In my opinion, these forces are best imagined as the ilk of the Koch brothers. Their coordinated drive to diminish the middle class and direct even more of the economy into their own pockets involved a lot of battles and players. Money drives politics and the money is easy to follow. Any thoughts of compromising with generally well accepted soft liberal positions were gradually made unacceptable. Republicans were shamed whenever they wandered off official talking points. Progressives absolutely cooperated in this polarization but they didn’t engineer the program and didn’t realize that it would ultimately make their job harder. The Russian tainted Trump administration, where the political spectrum runs from extreme right wing to attempted military coup, is the fulfillment of these decades of effort from the 1%: Oligarchy Unbound.

We should focus on the needs and dangers that exist in all times. Technology warps and changes the way these constants express themselves. We need to be smart enough to analyze, adapt and react. I would describe our reaction during this round as “Deer in the headlights” (Extended Cut).

  1. We always need truth, and we need standards of truth. Honesty is a foundation of sanity and honesty isn’t passive, it speaks and it listens.
  2. People need to mature enough to understand political “Tension force”. Human communities always naturally contain the classical forces of progressive and conservative. We need each other for balance. We are doomed forever to disagree, but if we could grasp this innate human reality we could occasionally show a little class, perspective, and humor on the subject.
  3. We need civility and we need to rebuild trust. We should notice when these good things in our lives are eroding. Consciously look for the shared territory,  if our differences matter then this matters as well and for the same reasons.
  4. We need an education in demagogues: we need to know our classic emotional vulnerabilities and how cynical people can play us for their own profit. Every political takeover uses emotions to undermine the old system. No tyrant likes transparency or openness or trust.
  5. Notice what your technology does to you. Don’t treat it as inevitable. Find ways to hack the downsides.

And we need to take responsibility. We all have some skin in this game.