We live in interesting times. The internet was supposed to usher in an era of increased knowledge, understanding, and maybe even human harmony. Instead it has turned us all into conspiracy theorists.
Don’t get hoity-toity and claim that it’s only those Bad Guys over on the other side of the aisle who believe in conspiracies. The Left believes that the country is run by a secret cabal of heterosexual white men whose tentacles reach into every aspect of life, from prenatal care to television to incarceration. As conspiracies go, this one is well-established and believed to some degree by nearly everyone on the Left; millions of dollars have been funneled into university research departments for the purpose of “uncovering” more evidence of this secret cabal’s universal reach.
The Right’s beliefs are far more heterogenous–unlike the left, they struggle to pick a single enemy to blame and focus all of their attacks on–but right now they are united in their belief that Democrats cheated and stole the election. This right-wing conspiracy is nearly identical to the left-wing conspiracy of 4 years ago that Russia stole the election. If any leftists are reading this, I hope you realize now just how dumb your Putin conspiracies sounded and I hope you sincerely regret the billions of taxpayer dollars you guys spent investigating that nonsense. There are people struggling to pay rent and buy food, you know.
To be clear, just because something is a conspiracy doesn’t make it wrong. People have conspired in the past; people will conspire in the future. Sometimes there genuinely is something going on. Most of the time, though, people aren’t conspiring in the way we typically use the word. People look out for themselves. They make backroom deals; they protect their turf. They grift and graft and try to cover up incompetence. Things aren’t done in “secret” so much as “most people don’t have time to keep track of all of the boring details.”
Unfortunately, if you yourself do not know much about a field, it is rather difficult to distinguish between someone who actually knows a lot about that field and someone who merely sounds like they know about that field. If you have any expertise in any field, you have probably noticed both people who think they know a lot about your field when they actually don’t and also people who believe these fakers. Many normal people simply can’t distinguish between actual expertise and things that sound like expertise.
The situation only gets worse when the popular view of a field is already incorrect. Take, for an historical example, heliocentrism versus geocentrism. If you were an ordinary person in Gallileo’s age, you’d know in your bones that geocentrism was obviously correct. Things don’t move unless you push them, and what’s going around pushing the Earth? You’ve moved–you walked and run, ridden horses and ridden in carts–and you know what movement feels like. It feels like an earthquake, which clearly doesn’t happen every day. Any idiot can look up at the sky and notice that the clouds, sun, moon, planets, and stars all clearly go around the Earth. This is all common sense. The idea that some ivory-tower mathematicians have invented a “new math” (lolwut) and used it to determine that the Earth is secretly moving but you can’t feel it because *handwaves* “You only feel acceleration and deceleration, not steady movement, I have never ridden on a horse,” is clearly just nerds making stuff up.
From the inside, any particular worldview provides detailed and accurate explanations of the universe around it, and from the outside, looks silly. Why did it rain? Well, because we did a rain dance / because the Crocodile God was angry / because energy from the sun sucked water from the ocean into the air as invisible water, and then a low pressure zone in Canada made the air flow over to your neighborhood and as the air moved uphill, it lost the ability to hold up the water and it formed into clouds and rained. Why didn’t it rain again today? You did the rain dance wrong / your sacrifice to the Crocodile God made him happy / Canada warmed up.
My mother has recently become very enthusiastic about Qanon. I don’t consider this a problem–she’s bored because of Covid and it gives her something to do–but it is fascinating to watch which ideas she finds credible and which ones she doesn’t. Of course, most conspiracies contain, at their hearts, some grain of truth. Does the Vatican have a pedophile problem? Well, yes. Is the Roman Catholic Church something like a huge international network of powerful pedophiles working together to protect each other from prosecution? Well, that’s not exactly the first definition I’d give of it, but I can see how someone who was abused by a priest as a child might see it that way. Did the Pope hack the US election in order to get Trump out of office before he shuts down the Vatican’s Satanic international child trafficking ring? I have serious doubts.
Good luck disabusing a Qanon fan of their favorite conspiracy theories: Q is internally consistent enough to provide explanations for all observed phenomena, and before you start, you’ll have to do a bunch of research on your own to figure out which of their claims are actually true and which aren’t supported by the evidence. Then you’ll have to come up with a good explanation for “why all of these seemingly trustworthy people are lying” and a bunch of alternative explanations for all of the pro-Q evidence, at which point you are trying to convince your friend that there exists a secret conspiracy of people on the internet who completely fabricated this entire Qanon thing for years and tricked her into believing it for no discernable reason other than “the lols” or maybe ad revenue, at which point you sound like the crazy conspiracy theorist.
And the exact same is true on the Left. Just try to convince them that there is not actually a great big conspiracy of white men trying to oppress them and you’ll get an endless stream of “what about this” and “you’re wrong about this minor point” and “here’s a psych study that was conducted by totally unbiased researchers that proves babies are racist.”
Bizarre effect of the internet: everyone now believes in conspiracies.
While researching my post on Music and Sex, I noticed a consistent pattern: fame is terrible for people.
Too many musicians to list have died from drug overdoses or suicide. Elvis died of a drug overdose. John Lennon attracted the attention of a crazy fan who assassinated him. Curt Cobain killed himself (or, yes, conspiracy theorists note, might have been murdered.) Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington committed suicide. Alice in Chains’s Layne Staley died of heroin. The list continues.
Far more have seen their personal relationships fail, time after time. The lives of stars are filled with breakups and drama, not just because tabloids care to report on them, but also because of the drugs, wealth, and easy availability of other partners.
At least musicians get something (money, sex,) out of their fame, and most went willingly into it (child stars, not so much). But many people today are thrust completely unwillingly into the spotlight and get nothing from it–people caught on camera in awkward incidents, or whose absurd video suddenly went viral for all the wrong reasons, or who caught the notice of an internet mob.
Here we have people like the students from Covington Catholic, or the coffee shop employee who lost her job after not serving a black woman who arrived after the shop had closed, or, for that matter, almost all of the survivors of mass shootings, especially the ones that attract conspiracy theorists.
It seems that fame, like many other goods, is a matter of decreasing returns. Going from zero fame to a little fame is nearly always good. Companies have to advertise products so customers know they exist. Being known as an expert in your field will net you lots of business, recommendations, or just social capital. Being popular in your school or community is generally pleasant.
At this level, increasing fame means increasing numbers of people who know and appreciate your work, while still remaining obscure enough that people who don’t like or care for your creations will simply ignore you.
Beyond a certain level of fame, though, you’ve already gotten the attention of most people who like you, and are now primarily reaching people who aren’t interested or don’t like you. If you become sufficiently famous, your fame alone will drive people who dislike your work to start complaining about how stupid it is that someone who makes such terrible work can be so famous. No one feels compelled to talk about how much they hate a local indie band enjoyed by a few hundred teens, but millions of people vocally hate Marilyn Manson.
Sufficient fame, therefore, attracts more haters than lovers.
This isn’t too big a deal if you’re a rock star, because you at least still have millions of dollars and adoring fans. This is a big deal if you’re just an ordinary person who accidentally became famous and wasn’t prepared in any way to make money or deal with the effects of a sudden onslaught of hate.
Fame wasn’t always like this, because media wasn’t always like this. There were no million-album recording artists in the 1800s. There were no viral internet videos in the 1950s. Just like in Texas, in our winner-take-all economy, fame is bigger–and thus so are its effects.
I think we need to tread this fame-ground very carefully. Recognize when we (or others) are thrusting unprepared people into the spotlight and withdraw from mobbing tactics. Teenagers, clearly, should not be famous. But more mundane people, like writers who have to post under their real (or well-known pseudonyms), probably also need to take steps to insulate themselves from the spasms of random mobs of haters. The current trend of writers taking mobs–at least SJW mobs–seriously and trying to appease them is another effect of people having fame thrust upon them that they don’t know how to deal with.
Make no mistake: Nichols is annoyingly arrogant. He draws a rather stark line between “experts” (who know things) and everyone else (who should humbly limit themselves to voting between options defined for them by the experts.) He implores people to better educate themselves in order to be better voters, but has little patience for autodidacts and bloggers like myself who are actually trying.
But arrogance alone doesn’t make someone wrong.
Nichols’s first thesis is simple: most people are too stupid or ignorant to second-guess experts or even contribute meaningfully to modern policy discussions. How can people who can’t find Ukraine on a map or think we should bomb the fictional city of Agrabah contribute in any meaningful way to a discussion of international policy?
It was one thing, in 1776, to think the average American could vote meaningfully on the issues of the day–a right they took by force, by shooting anyone who told them they couldn’t. Life was less complicated in 1776, and the average person could master most of the skills they needed to survive (indeed, pioneers on the edge of the frontier had to be mostly self-sufficient in order to survive.) Life was hard–most people engaged in long hours of heavy labor plowing fields, chopping wood, harvesting crops, and hauling necessities–but could be mastered by people who hadn’t graduated from elementary school.
But the modern industrial (or post-industrial) world is much more complicated than the one our ancestors grew up in. Today we have cars (maybe even self-driving cars), electrical grids and sewer systems, atomic bombs and fast food. The speed of communication and transportation have made it possible to chat with people on the other side of the earth and show up on their doorstep a day later. The amount if specialized, technical knowledge necessary to keep modern society running would astonish the average caveman–even with 15+ years of schooling, the average person can no longer build a house, nor even produce basic necessities like clothes or food. Most of us can’t even make a pencil.
Even experts who are actually knowledgeable about their particular area may be completely ignorant of fields outside of their expertise. Nichols speaks Russian, which makes him an expert in certain Russian-related matters, but he probably knows nothing about optimal high-speed rail networks. And herein lies the problem:
The American attachment to intellectual self-reliance described by Tocqueville survived for nearly a century before falling under a series of assaults from both within and without. Technology, universal secondary education, the proliferation of specialized expertise, and the emergence of the United States a a global power in the mid-twentieth century all undermined the idea… that the average American was adequately equipped either for the challenges of daily life or for running the affairs of a large country.
… the political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote that “the complexity of modern life has steadily whittled away the functions the ordinary citizen can intelligently and competently perform for himself.”
… Somin wrote in 2015 that the “size and complexity of government” have mad it “more difficult for voters with limited knowledge to monitor and evaluate the government’s many activities. The result is a polity in which the people often cannot exercise their sovereignty responsibly and effectively.”
In other words, society is now too complex and people too stupid for democracy.
Nichols’s second thesis is that people used to trust experts, which let democracy function, but to day they are less trusting. He offers no evidence other than his general conviction that this change has happened.
He does, however, detail the way he thinks that 1. People have been given inflated egos about their own intelligence, and 2. How our information-delivery system has degenerated into misinformational goo, resulting in the trust-problems he believes we are having These are interesting arguments and worth examining.
A bit of summary:
Indeed, maybe the death of expertise is a sign of progress. Educated professionals, after all, no longer have a stranglehold on knowledge. The secrets of life are no longer hidden in giant marble mausoleums… in the past, there was less tress between experts and laypeople, but only because citizen were simply unable to challenge experts in any substantive way. …
Participation in political, intellectual, and scientific life until the early twentieth century was far more circumscribed, with debates about science, philosophy, and public policy all conducted by a small circle of educated males with pen and ink. Those were not exactly the Good Old Days, and they weren’t that long ago. The time when most people didn’t finish highschool, when very few went to college, and only a tiny fraction of the population entered professions is still within living memory of many Americans.
Aside from Nichols’s insistence that he believes modern American notions about gender and racial equality, I get the impression that he wouldn’t mind the Good Old Days of genteel pen-and-ink discussions between intellectuals. However, I question his claim that participation in political life was far more circumscribed–after all, people voted, and politicians liked getting people to vote for them. People anywhere, even illiterate peasants on the frontier or up in the mountains like to gather and debate about God, politics, and the meaning of life. The question is less “Did they discuss it?” and more “Did their discussions have any effect on politics?” Certainly we can point to abolition, women’s suffrage, prohibition, and the Revolution itself as heavily grass-roots movements.
But continuing with Nichols’s argument:
Social changes only in the past half century finally broke down old barriers of race, class, and sex not only between Americans and general but also between uneducated citizens and elite expert in particular. A wide circle of debate meant more knowledge but more social friction. Universal education, the greater empowerment of women and minorities, the growth of a middle class, and increased social mobility all threw a minority of expert and the majority of citizens into direct contact, after nearly two centuries in which they rarely had to interact with each other.
And yet the result has not been a greater respect for knowledge, but the growth of an irrational conviction among Americans that everyone is as smart as everyone else.
Nichols is distracting himself with the reflexive racial argument; the important change he is highlighting isn’t social but technical.
I’d like to quote a short exchange from Our Southern Highlanders, an anthropologic-style text written about Appalachia about a century ago:
The mountain clergy, as a general rule, are hostile to “book larnin’,” for “there ain’t no Holy Ghost in it.” One of them who had spent three months at a theological school told President Frost, “Yes, the seminary is a good place ter go and git rested up, but ’tain’t worth while fer me ter go thar no more ’s long as I’ve got good wind.”
It used to amuse me to explain how I knew that the earth was a sphere; but one day, when I was busy, a tiresome old preacher put the everlasting question to me: “Do you believe the earth is round?” An impish perversity seized me and I answered, “No—all blamed humbug!” “Amen!” cried my delighted catechist, “I knowed in reason you had more sense.”
But back to Nichols, who really likes the concept of expertise:
One reason claims of expertise grate on people in a democracy is that specialization is necessarily exclusive. WHen we study a certain area of knowledge or spend oulives in a particular occupation, we not only forego expertise in othe jobs or subjects, but also trust that other pople in the community know what they’re doing in thei area as surely as we do in our own. As much as we might want to go up to the cockpit afte the engine flames out to give the pilots osme helpful tips, we assume–in part, ebcause wehave to–that tye’re better able to cope with the problem than we are. Othewise, our highly evovled society breaks down int island sof incoherence, where we spend our time in poorly infomed second-guessing instead of trusting each other.
This would be a good point to look at data on overall trust levels, friendship, civic engagement, etc (It’s down. It’s all down.) and maybe some explanations for these changes.
Nichols talks briefly about the accreditation and verification process for producing “experts,” which he rather likes. There is an interesting discussion in the economics literature on things like the economics of trust and information (how do websites signal that they are trustworthy enough that you will give them your credit card number and expect to receive items you ordered a few days later?) which could apply here, too.
Nichols then explores a variety of cognitive biases, such a superstitions, phobias, and conspiracy theories:
Conspiracy theories are also a way for people to give meaning to events that frighten them. Without a coherent explanation for why terrible thing happen to innocent people, they would have to accept such occurence as nothing more than the random cruelty either of an uncaring universe or an incomprehensible deity. …
The only way out of this dilemma is to imagine a world in which our troubles are the fault of powerful people who had it within their power to avert such misery. …
Just as individual facing grief and confusion look for reasons where none may exist, so, too, will entire societies gravitate toward outlandish theories when collectively subjected to a terrible national experience. Conspiracy theories and flawed reasoning behind them …become especially seductive “in any society that has suffered an epic, collectively felt trauma. In the aftermath, millions of people find themselves casting about for an answer to the ancient question of why bad things happen to good people.” …
Today, conspiracy theories are reaction mostly to the economic and social dislocations of globalization…This is not a trivial obstacle when it comes to the problems of expert engagement with the public: nearly 30 percent of Americans, for example, think “a secretive elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world” …
Obviously stupid. A not-secret elite with a globalist agenda already rules the world.
and 15 percent think media or government add secret mind controlling technology to TV broadcasts. (Another 15 percent aren’t sure about the TV issue.)
It’s called “advertising” and it wants you to buy a Ford.
Anyway, the problem with conspiracy theories is they are unfalsifiable; no amount of evidence will ever convince a conspiracy theorist that he is wrong, for all evidence is just further proof of how nefariously “they” are constructing the conspiracy.
Then Nichols gets into some interesting matter on the difference between stereotypes and generalizations, which segues nicely into a tangent I’d like to discuss, but it probably deserves its own post. To summarize:
Sometimes experts know things that contradict other people’s political (or religious) beliefs… If an “expert” finding or field accords with established liberal values, EG, the implicit association test found that “everyone is a little bit racist,” which liberals already believed, then there is an easy mesh between what the academics believe and the rest of their social class.
If their findings contradict conservative/low-class values, EG, when professors assert that evolution is true and “those low-class Bible-thumpers in Oklahoma are wrong,” sure, they might have a lot of people who disagree with them, but those people aren’t part of their own social class/the upper class, and so not a problem. If anything, high class folks love such finding, because it gives them a chance to talk about how much better they are than those low-class people (though such class conflict is obviously poisonous in a democracy where those low-class people can still vote to Fuck You and Your Global Warming, Too.)
But if the findings contradict high-class/liberal politics, then the experts have a real problem. EG, if that same evolution professor turns around and says, “By the way, race is definitely biologically real, and there are statistical differences in average IQ between the races,” now he’s contradicting the political values of his own class/the upper class, and that becomes a social issue and he is likely to get Watsoned.
Jordan Peterson isn’t unpopular or “silenced” so much as he is disliked by upper class folks and liked by “losers” and low class folks, despite the fact that he is basically an intellectual guy and isn’t peddling a low-class product. Likewise, Fox News is just as much part of The Media as NPR, (if anything, it’s much more of the Media) but NPR is higher class than Fox, and Fox doesn’t like feeling like its opinions are being judged along this class axis.
For better or for worse (mostly worse) class politics and political/religious beliefs strongly affect our opinions of “experts,” especially those who say things we disagree with.
But back to Nichols: Dunning-Kruger effect, fake cultural literacy, and too many people at college. Nichols is a professor and has seen college students up close and personal, and has a low opinion of most of them. The massive expansion of upper education has not resulted in a better-educated, smarter populace, he argues, but a populace armed with expensive certificates that show the sat around a college for 4 years without learning much of anything. Unfortunately, beyond a certain level, there isn’t a lot that more school can do to increase people’s basic aptitudes.
Colleges get money by attracting students, which incentivises them to hand out degrees like candy–in other words, students are being lied to about their abilities and college degrees are fast becoming the participation trophies for the not very bright.
Nichols has little sympathy for modern students:
Today, by contrast, students explode over imagined slights that are not even remotely int eh same category as fighting for civil rights or being sent to war. Students now build majestic Everests from the smallest molehills, and they descend into hysteria over pranks and hoaxes. In the midst of it all, the students are learning that emotions and volume can always defeat reason and substance, thus building about themselves fortresses that no future teacher, expert, or intellectual will ever be able to breach.
At Yale in 2015, for example, a house master’s wife had the temerity to tell minority students to ignore Halloween costumes they thought offensive. This provoked a campus wide temper tantrum that included professors being shouted down by screaming student. “In your position as master,” one student howled in a professor’s face, “it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students… Do you understand that?!”
Quietly, the professor said, “No, I don’t agree with that,” and the student unloaded on him:
“Then why the [expletive] did you accept the position?! Who the [expletive] hired you?! You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!” [emphasis added]
Yale, instead of disciplining students in violation of their own norms of academic discourse, apologized to the tantrum throwers. The house master eventually resigned from his residential post…
To faculty everywhere, the lesson was obvious: the campus of a top university is not a place for intellectual exploration. It is a luxury home, rented for four to six years, nine months at a time, by children of the elite who may shout at faculty as if they’re berating clumsy maids in a colonial mansion.
The incident Nichols cites (and similar ones elsewhere,) are not just matters of college students being dumb or entitled, but explicitly racial conflicts. The demand for “safe spaces” is easy to ridicule on the grounds that students are emotional babies, but this misses the point: students are carving out territory for themselves on explicitly racial lines, often by violence.
Nichols, though, either does not notice the racial aspect of modern campus conflicts or does not want to admit publicly to doing so.
Nichols moves on to blame TV, especially CNN, talk radio, and the internet for dumbing down the quality of discourse by overwhelming us with a deluge of more information than we can possibly process.
Referring back to Auerswald and The Code Economy, if automation creates a bifurcation in industries, replacing a moderately-priced, moderately available product with a stream of cheap, low-quality product on the one hand and a trickle of expensive, high-quality products on the other, good-quality journalism has been replaced with a flood of low-quality crap. The high-quality end is still working itself out.
Accessing the Internet can actually make people dumber than if they had never engaged a subject at all. The very act of searching for information makes people think they’ve learned something,when in fact they’re more likely to be immersed in yet more data they do not understand. …
When a group of experimental psychologists at Yale investigated how people use the internet, they found that “people who search for information on the Web emerge from the process with an inflated sense of how much they know–even regarding topic that are unrelated to the ones they Googled.” …
How can exposure to so much information fail to produce at least some kind of increased baseline of knowledge, if only by electronic osmosis? How can people read so much yet retain so little? The answer is simple: few people are actually reading what they find.
As a University College of London (UCL) study found, people don’t actually read the articles they encounter during a search on the Internet. Instead, they glance at the top line or the first few sentences and then move on. Internet users, the researchers noted, “Are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed, there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”
The internet’s demands for instant updates, for whatever headlines generate the most clicks (and thus advertising revenue), has upset the balance of speed vs. expertise in the newsroom. No longer have reporters any incentive to spend long hours carefully writing a well-researched story when such stories pay less than clickbait headlines about racist pet costumes and celebrity tweets.
I realize it seems churlish to complain about the feast of news and information brought to us by the Information Age, but I’m going to complain anyway. Changes in journalism, like the increased access to the Internet and to college education, have unexpectedly corrosive effects on the relationship between laypeople and experts. Instead of making people better informed, much of what passes for news in the twenty-first century often leaves laypeople–and sometimes experts–even more confused and ornery.
Experts face a vexing challenge: there’s more news available, and yet people seem less informed, a trend that goes back at least a quarter century. Paradoxically, it is a problem that is worsening rather than dissipating. …
As long ago as 1990, for example, a study conducted by the Pew Trust warned that disengagement from important public questions was actually worse among people under thirty, the group that should have been most receptive to then-emerging sources of information like cable television and electronic media. This was a distinct change in American civic culture, as the Pew study noted:
“Over most of the past five decades younger members of the public have been at least as well informed as older people. In 1990, that is no longer the case. … “
Those respondents are now themselves middle-aged, and their children are faring no better.
If you were 30 in 1990, you were born in 1960, to parents who were between the ages of 20 and 40 years old, that is, born between 1920 and 1940.
Fertility for the 1920-1940 cohort was strongly dysgenic. So was the 1940-50 cohort. The 1900-1919 cohort at least had the Flynn Effect on their side, but later cohorts just look like an advertisement for idiocracy.
Nichols ends with a plea that voters respect experts (and that experts, in turn, be humble and polite to voters.) After all, modern society is too complicated for any of us to be experts on everything. If we don’t pay attention to expert advice, he warns, modern society is bound to end in ignorant goo.
The logical inconsistency is that Nichols believes in democracy at all–he thinks democracy can be saved if ignorant people vote within a range of options as defined by experts like himself, eg, “What vaccine options are best?” rather than “Should we have vaccines at all?”
The problem, then, is that whoever controls the experts (or controls which expert opinions people hear) controls the limits of policy debates. This leads to people arguing over experts, which leads right back where we are today. As long as there are politics, “expertise” will be politicized, eg:
Look at any court case in which both sides bring in their own “expert” witnesses. Both experts testify to the effect that their side is correct. Then the jury is left to vote on which side had more believable experts. This is like best case scenario voting, and the fact that the voters are dumb and don’t understand what the experts are saying and are obviously being mislead in many cases is still a huge problem.
If politics is the problem, then perhaps getting rid of politics is the solution. Just have a bunch of Singapores run by Lee Kwan Yews, let folks like Nichols advise them, and let the common people “vote with their feet” by moving to the best states.
The problem with this solution is that “exit” doesn’t exist in the modern world in any meaningful way, and there are significant reasons why ordinary people oppose open borders.
Conclusion: 3/5 stars. It’s not a terrible book, and Nichols has plenty of good points, but “Americans are dumb” isn’t exactly fresh territory and much has already been written on the subject.
Leaving aside the issues of “Did Logan Paul actually do anything wrong?” and “Is changing YouTube’s policies actually in Game Theorist’s interests?” Game Theorist makes a good point: while YouTube might want to say, for PR reasons, that it is doing something about big, bad, controversial videos like Logan Paul’s, it also makes money off those same videos. YouTube–like many other parts of the internet–is primarily click driven. (Few of us are paying money for programs on YouTube Red.) YouTube wants views, and controversy drives views.
That doesn’t mean YouTube wants just any content–a reputation for having a bunch of pornography would probably have a damaging effect on channels aimed at small children, as their parents would click elsewhere. But aside from the actual corpse, Logan’s video wasn’t the sort of thing that would drive away small viewers–they’d get bored of the boring non-cartoons talking to the camera long before the suicide even came up.
Logan Paul actually managed to hit a very sweet spot: controversial enough to draw in visitors (tons of them) but not so controversial that he’d drive away other visitors.
In case you’ve forgotten the controversy in a fog of other controversies, LP’s video about accidentally finding a suicide in the Suicide Forest was initially well-received, racking up thousands of likes and views before someone got offended and started up the outrage machine. Once the outrage machine got going, public sentiment turned on a dime and LP was suddenly the subject of a full two or three days of Twitter hate. The hate, of course, got YouTube more views. LP took down the video and posted an apology–which generated more attention. Major media outlets were now covering the story. Even Tablet managed to quickly come up with an article: Want a New Years Resolution? Don’t be Like Logan Paul.
And it worked. I passed up Tablet’s regular article on Trump and Bagels and Culture, but I clicked on that article about Logan Paul because I wanted to know what on earth Tablet had to say about LP, a YouTuber whom, 24 hours prior, I had never heard of.
And the more respectable (or at least highly-trafficked) news outlets picked up the story, the higher Logan’s videos rose on the YouTube charts. And as more people watched more of LP’s other videos, they found more things to be offended at. For example, once he ran through the streets of Japan holding a fish. A FISH, I tell you. He waved this fish at people and was generally very annoying.
I don’t like LP’s style of humor, but I’m not getting worked up over a guy waving a fish around.
So understand this: you are in an outrage machine. The purpose of the outrage machine is to drive traffic, which makes clicks, which result in ad revenue. There are probably whole websites (Huffpo, CNN) that derive a significant percent of their profits from hate-clicks–that is, intentionally posting incendiary garbage not because they believe it or think it is just or true or appeals to their base, but because they can get people to click on it in sheer shock or outrage.
Your emotions–your “emotional labor” as the SJWs call it–is being turned into someone else’s dollars.
And the result is a country that is increasingly polarized. Increasingly outraged. Increasingly exhausted.
Step back for a moment. Take a deep breath. Get some fresh air. Ask yourself, “Does this really matter? Am I actually helping anyone? Will I remember this in a week?”
I’d blame the SJWs for the outrage machine–and really, they are good running it–but I think it started with CNN and “24 hour news.” You have to do something to fill that time. Then came Fox News, which was like CNN, but more controversial in order to lure viewers away from the more established channel. Now we have the interplay of Facebook, Twitter, HuffPo, online newspapers, YouTube, etc–driven largely by automated algorithms designed to maximized clicks–even hate clicks.
The Logan Paul controversy is just one example out of thousands, but let’s take a moment and think about whether it really mattered. Some guy whose job description is “makes videos of his life and posts them on YouTube” was already shooting a video about his camping trip when he happened upon a dead body. He filmed the body, called the police, canceled his camping trip, downed a few cups of sake while talking about how shaken he was, and ended the video with a plea that people seek help and not commit suicide.
In between these events was laughter–I interpret it as nervous laughter in an obviously distressed person. Other people interpret this as mocking. Even if you think LP was mocking the deceased, I think you should be more concerned that Japan has a “Suicide Forest” in the first place.
Let’s look at a similar case: When three year old Alan Kurdi drowned, the photograph of his dead body appeared on websites and newspapers around the world–earning thousands of dollars for the photographers and news agencies. Politicans then used little Alan’s death to push particular political agendas–Hillary Clinton even talked about Alan Kurdi’s death in one of the 2016 election debates. Alan Kurdi’s death was extremely profitable for everyone making money off the photograph, but no one got offended over this.
Why is it acceptable for photographers and media agencies to make money off a three year old boy who drowned because his father was a negligent fuck who didn’t put a life vest on him*, but not acceptable for Logan Paul to make money off a guy who chose to kill himself and then leave his body hanging in public where any random person could find it?
Let’s take a more explicitly political case. Remember when Bill Clinton and Janet Reno sent 130 heavily armed INS agents to the home of child refugee Elian Gonzalez’s relatives** so they could kick him out of the US and send him back to Cuba?
Now Imagine Donald Trump sending SWAT teams after sobbing children. How would people react?
The outrage machine functions because people think it is good. It convinces people that it is casting light on terrible problems that need correcting. People are getting offended at things that they wouldn’t have if the outrage machine hadn’t told them to. You think you are serving justice. In reality, you are mad at a man for filming a dead guy and running around Japan with a fish. Jackass did worse, and it was on MTV for two years. Game Theorist wants more consequences for people like Logan Paul, but he doesn’t realize that anyone can get offended at just about anything. His videos have graphic descriptions of small children being murdered (in videogame contexts, like Five Nights at Freddy’s or “What would happen if the babies in Mario Cart were involved in real car crashes at racing speeds?”) I don’t find this “family friendly.” Sometimes I (*gasp*) turn off his videos as a result. Does that mean I want a Twitter mob to come destroy his livelihood? No. It means a Twitter mob could destroy his livelihood.
For that matter, as Game Theorist himself notes, the algorithm itself rewards and amplifies outrage–meaning that people are incentivised to create completely false outrage against innocent people. Punishing one group of people more because the algorithm encourages bad behavior in other people is cruel and does not solve the problem. Changing the algorithm would solve the problem, but the algorithm is what makes YouTube money.
In reality, the outrage machine is pulling the country apart–and I don’t know about you, but I live here. My stuff is here; my loved ones are here.
The outrage machine must stop.
*I remember once riding in an airplane with my father. As the flight crew explained that in the case of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, you should secure your own mask before assisting your neighbors, his response was a very vocal “Hell no, I’m saving my kid first.” Maybe not the best idea, but the sentiment is sound.
**When the boat Elian Gonzalez and his family were riding in capsized, his mother and her boyfriend put him in an inner tube, saving his life even though they drowned.
Ages ago when I set off to college, my political views were fairly moderate and conventional, if passionately argued. (For that matter, I still consider myself a “moderate,” if an unconventional one.) At some point I read Persepolis (volume 2), Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of the Iranian Revolution and her childhood in Iran, college years in Germany, and return to post-revolution Iran. It’s a pretty good book, though I liked Vol. 1 better than Vol. 2.
While in Germany, Satrapi began reading Bakunin, whom she refers to as “The anarchist.”
So of course I read Bakunin. According to Wikipedia:
Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin…. 30 May 1814 – 1 July 1876) was a Russian revolutionaryanarchist, and founder of collectivist anarchism. He is considered among the most influential figures of anarchism, and one of the principal founders of the social anarchist tradition. Bakunin’s enormous prestige as an activist made him one of the most famous ideologues in Europe, and he gained substantial influence among radicals throughout Russia and Europe. …
Bakunin’s increasing radicalism – including staunch opposition to imperialism in east and central Europe by Russia and other powers – changed his life, putting an end to hopes of a professorial career. He was eventually deported from France for speaking against Russia’s oppression of Poland. In 1849, Bakunin was apprehended in Dresden for his participation in the Czech rebellion of 1848, and turned over to Russia where he was imprisoned in the Peter-Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg. He remained there until 1857, when he was exiled to a work camp in Siberia. Escaping to Japan, the US and finally ending up in London for a short time … In 1863, he left to join the insurrection in Poland, but he failed to reach his destination and instead spent some time in Switzerland and Italy.
In 1868, Bakunin joined the socialist International Working Men’s Association, a federation of trade unions and workers’ organizations, which had sections in many European countries, as well as in Latin America and (after 1872) in North Africa and the Middle East. The “Bakuninist” or anarchist trend rapidly expanded in influence, especially in Spain, which constituted the largest section of the International at the time. A showdown loomed with Marx, who was a key figure in the General Council of the International. The 1872 Hague Congress was dominated by a struggle between Marx and his followers, who argued for the use of the state to bring about socialism, and the Bakunin/anarchist faction, which argued instead for the replacement of the state by federations of self-governing workplaces and communes. Bakunin could not attend the congress, as he could not reach the Netherlands. Bakunin’s faction present at the conference lost, and Bakunin was (in Marx’s view) expelled for supposedly maintaining a secret organisation within the international.
However, the anarchists insisted the congress was unrepresentative and exceeded its powers, and held a rival conference of the International at Saint-Imier in Switzerland in 1872. This repudiated the Hague meeting, including Bakunin’s supposed expulsion.
Since then I’ve read a smattering of other anarchist writings, (eg, Thoreau,) but none of the major figures like Proudhon or Chomsky.
Wikipedia goes into a bit more detail about the Anarchist/Marxist split, quoting Bakunin:
They [the Marxists] maintain that only a dictatorship—their dictatorship, of course—can create the will of the people, while our answer to this is: No dictatorship can have any other aim but that of self-perpetuation, and it can beget only slavery in the people tolerating it; freedom can be created only by freedom, that is, by a universal rebellion on the part of the people and free organization of the toiling masses from the bottom up.
Collectivism without the gulags and KGB certainly sounds like an improvement over collectivism with it. As a college student trying to reconcile libertarian-ish tendencies with SJW dogma, Anarchism seemed like a good fit, and I began calling myself an Anarchist.
To me, Anarchism was more of a starting point than an end point, a default position that you should leave people alone to regulate their own affairs unless you have proof that there’s an actual problem that needs fixing and that your fix won’t make things worse than the original problem. You might see parallels here with my current thinking. Society was full of rules, those rules seemed oppressive and arbitrary (Why can’t I eat waffles for dinner and lasagna for breakfast? Why do different states have different traffic laws? Why does copyright last for 90+ years? Just leave me alone, man!)
One of the most important anarchist insights was that “government” should be thought of as more than just the official, legally-defined “state.” “Government” is really the entire power structure of a country, from the domestic relationships of your own home to the influence of religious leaders to the power your boss wields over almost every aspect of your 9-5 daily life. What does it matter if you have “Freedom of Speech” on paper if in reality, speaking your mind results in instantly losing your job, and so no one does it? If the result of government pressuring businesses to fire outspoken employees is the same as businesses doing so voluntarily, the effect on liberty is the same either way, and your boss must be considered part of the power structure.
This is why argument along the lines of “It’s just fine for violent mobs to shut down speakers because Freedom Of Speech only applies to the government” are stupid.
So, armed with my shiny new philosophy, I marched out bravely to meet my fellow internet Anarchitsts.
That didn’t go well.
There were some interesting people in the community, like the guys who wanted to make their own Sea Land.
And there were a bunch of angry Marxist-Stalinist-Maoist who thought everyone who wasn’t in favor of forcefully redistributing wealth along racial lines and sending whites to re-education camps was a counter-revolutionary.
The presence of such people in Anarchist communities genuinely confused me. Didn’t these people know about the Marx-Bakunin split of 1872? Didn’t they understand they were advocating Communism, not Anarchism, and that in practice, these two were direct opposites? I spent a while trying to impress upon them the importance of leaving people alone to run their own lives, but this failed rather spectacularly and I began to seriously hate SJWs.
I eventually decided that there must be something about unusual philosophies that draws crazy people–perhaps folks who are already a little bit off are more willing to consider ideas outside of the mainstream–and while this didn’t necessarily mean that the actual principles of Anarchism itself were bad, it certainly meant that Anarchist communities were full of unhinged people I didn’t want to be around.
Some time later for totally independent reasons I became interested in what scientific research had to say on the effectiveness of parenting strategies on children’s life outcomes, (short answer: not much,) and more relatedly, the neurology underlying people’s political persuasions–why do some people turn out liberal and others conservatives?
That path, of course, eventually led me here.
It was only later that I connected these cranky internet communities to the now rather visible AntiFa who shut down Berkley and have been generally making a ruckus.
Back when I started this blog, I had high hopes that the internet would allow people to bring together more and more information, resulting in an explosion of knowledge I referred to as the “Great Informationing.” To some extent, services like Google and Wikipedia have already started this ball rolling by essentially creating searchable databases of crowd-sourced data on a scale and at a speed never known before in human history–indeed, this blog would be much more limited in scope could I not look up at a moment’s notice almost anything I desire to learn.
In the past year, though, I have become disillusioned. While the internet does put a great deal of information at my fingertips, it also puts a great deal of misinformation at my fingertips.
Rumor flies halfway around the world before Truth has got its pants on.–variously misattributed
It’s bad enough to try to delve into subjects where I don’t speak the correct language to read most of the sources and thus can’t even begin properly searching. It’s even worse if the news I am getting isn’t reliable.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about “fake news.” I’m not sure which sites, exactly, have been promoting “fake news,” but I noticed toward the tail end of the election a seeming proliferation of websites and news sources I’d never heard of before. Clicking on these links generally led me to a site plastered with adds and images (which had a high probability of instantly crashing my computer) and headlines that looked lifted from other sources.
Since noticing this trend, I’ve tried to avoid linking to or trusting any headline that comes from a site I don’t recognize on the grounds that I have no way to confirm whether they are trustworthy, and further, I don’t like having my computer crash. The downside to this policy is that the internet is vast and I certainly do not know every respectable site out there.
I noticed some time ago that even “respectable” papers like the WaPo and NYTimes had quite a lot of one-sided or otherwise questionable reporting. Lies and more Lies were another theme that got hounded a lot in the early stages of this blog, but my focus was more on society than the media. Since reading a lot of iSteve, however, I’ve grown more sensitive to the ways media shape narratives, especially via what they chose to report and chose to remain silent on.
When you realize that there are stories the media isn’t commenting on, or is giving you a particular spin on, what do you do?
Look for other sources, I guess.
Last summer I noticed prominent papers printing not just mistakes or one-sided stories, but outright false statements that could only have made it into print because someone purposefully decided to make them up. (For privacy reasons I’m not going into more details, but you can probably supply your own cases.)
There are a variety of things going on with the media, but the internet, sadly, appears to be making matters worse.
It’s no secret that traditional print media has had a rough time since the information super highway started jazzing up our lives.
I remember when Borders first opened in my neighborhood. I loved that place. I’d bike over there and spend endless hours browsing the shelves, especially during the summer. I found my first anthropology books there.
And I remember when the Borders went out. The empty husk of the building is still there, unoccupied. It’s been empty for years. I wonder what on Earth is wrong with the person who owns that spot. Can’t they find someone to rent it to?
Newspapers have also suffered; with dwindling subscriptions, they’ve simultaneously cut everyone with enough expertise to demand a high salary and turned to generating click-driving content.
When you have subscribers who actually pay for newspapers, they value thoughtful, high-quality reporting. (Otherwise, what are you spending all of that money on?) When readers are just clicking through, outrage drives the news cycle. Articles don’t even have to be about something outrageous–the article itself can be the outrageous thing, so long as people link to it and say, “OMG, can you believe they wrote this?”
Every hate click makes things worse.
The outrage machine is helping drive the SJW-fueled obsession with “identity politics,” particularly feminism, anti-racism, and LGBT issues. This isn’t the first time this style of political correctness has broken out–remember the much-mocked silliness of the late 80s? But back then, only the National Enquirer could hope to use stories about transgender elementary school kids to sell papers. Now everyone can.
It’s bad enough being the kind of person who worries about whether or not the division between “tree” and “bush” is just a social construct, or the basic unknowablity of what one doesn’t know.
But now we have to consider the effects of hate-clicks and outrage on everything we know.
They aren’t talking to each other; they aren’t even talking about the same stuff anymore.
I normally hang out with liberals, but this past weekend I spent around some of the more traditionally conservative members of my extended family. Since I spend a fair amount of time critiquing liberal ideas, you might think we’d have a ton to discuss, but no. The things I’m concerned about and the things they’re concerned about are totally different things.
Think about it: how often do you hear liberals make an impassioned defense of Obama’s actions in Benghazi?
Personally, never. I’ve never heard liberals discuss Benghazi at all. The only time I’ve heard the word cross their lips, (or keyboards,) is in the context of, “Oh god, my conservative relatives ae going to rattle on endlessly about Benghazi at Thanksgiving dinner.” It might as well be a hemorrhoid treatment for all liberals want to talk about it.
Now take the conservative side. When’s the last time you heard your conservative relatives talking about “white privilege”?
Some stuff makes it into both communities–riots, for example–but a ton of political debate, discussion, philosophy, development, etc., is going on in total isolation from the other side.
The reason, quite simply, is the internet.
Once upon a time, there was no internet. Everyone watched TV and/or read newspapers, and even if you hated Fox News or MSNBC, you probably still encountered it occasionally or knew people who watched it. In other words, there were only a few news sources, and chances were good that you were watching/reading them.
Then came the internet. Many young people today get most of their news/political discussion from internet sources like Tumblr and Facebook. Many of them do not take a newspaper or watch the evening news, and neither do the majority of people they know.
Older people still get their news primarily from TV and newspapers. (One older relative claimed to spend $190 a month just so he could watch Fox News–a news source he very adamantly vowed to never give up.)
So young people progress ever leftward, largely oblivious to what old people are thinking and talking about. And old people, in their own information-bubble, have no idea what young people are thinking and talking about.
Conservatism tends to be pretty bad at making coherent counter-arguments to liberalism, (mostly, I think, because conservatives tend to operate on an emotional basis of “I like it like this because I’m used to it,” rather than on rational arguments,) but if the two sides aren’t even talking, the chances of getting the two sides to agree on anything or debate their way to a rational consensus seems even less likely than usual.
I think it likely that some new form of conservatism may spawn from the depths of the internet.
I’ve never been convinced by the Singularity argument (when graphs start going straight up, my assumption is that a crash is immanent,) but I do believe we are in the midst of a great period of data conglomeration via the wonders of Google, Wikipedia, Snopes, etc., etc., with the effect that many formerly disparate strands of thought will (are) finally find each other, producing new insights.
The process has most likely been going on for quite a while, of course. For evidence, I point to the general plethora of nonsense that was widely believed back in the ’80s–UFOs, faith healing, crop circles, ley lines, ESP, psychics, horoscopes, Satanic daycares, and religion in general–that has drastically declined in popularity since the internet arrived.
The potential for data conglomeration to really benefit people seems most obvious in medicine.
There are probably some downsides, of course. Our general bullshit detection modes aren’t all that advanced, after all. So there’s still a lot of nonsense wandering around. But one can hope for a brighter future.