Bored monkeys play to type, this time online

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Everyone knows that American politics and society are broken. In recent years, they’ve become a giant cage match, a constant angry battle that everyone hates – almost as much as they hate the people they fight. Plus, everyone knows how and why we got here: social media. As Jonathan Haidt said in a Atlantic coverage this spring,

Social media has both amplified and weaponized the frivolous…. Social media amplifies political polarization [and] foments populism. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a few other big platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortarboard of trust, belief in institutions and shared stories that had held together a large and diverse secular democracy.

The massive and perverse impact of social media is repeatedly confirmed by everyday experience. Our lives are soaked in mud these days, online and offline. Every toxic tweet or comment we see also captures the primal passions playing out in the real world. When rioters stormed the US Capitol on January 6, they made sure selfies were taken and the fun was streamed live:

The connection between the rise of social media and the decline of American politics and society seems obvious, as we have watched the two trends play out in sync for a decade.

Safer:

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Democracy

Political history and theory

But what if what everyone knows is wrong? What if the recent correlation we’ve all witnessed is wrong and social media turns out not to be driving our discontent? The contemporaneous evidence on which Haidt relied is more ambiguous than originally presented. And seen from a historical and comparative perspective, the link between the rise of social media and the decline of democracy seems accidental. Important social and political indicators have been trending downward for several decades, long before Mark Zuckerberg was born. And claims about the massive and unprecedented impact of social media — Haidt’s article is titled Why the Last 10 Years of American Life Have Been Particularly Stupid — have been made about every new mode of communication since the broadcast television in the 1950s. None of this suggests that we are not in a sinkhole or that social media makes people better. It just means we have to face the even more troubling reality that the fault lies not with our algorithms but ourselves.

Just as eyewitness accounts seem credible but are often inaccurate, conclusions drawn from lived experience can be misleading. One reason is what cognitive psychologists call recency bias – a built-in mental tendency to exaggerate the importance of recent events and experiences while downplaying those that date back further in time. We remember things that just happened and forget things in the distant past. Social media has dominated life so much in recent years that it’s hard to think about the days before and what life was like back then, especially for young people who grew up knowing nothing about social media. ‘other. Thus, we attribute current circumstances to current causes, although this may not make sense when viewed over a longer period of time.

Another factor complementing the recency bias is the gradual impact of a constant force. Mariano Rivera was one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history – the first player to be unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame, when he was eligible. A big reason was his clipped fastball, which came to hitters in the mid-90s and seemed to break hard just before it hit home plate, making it very difficult to hit. The physical forces acting on the ball, however – gravity and spin – were constant, and a graphic trace of the trajectory of Rivera’s throw shows that it curved continuously from the moment it left his hand. So why did the batters think he fell off a cliff in the end? Because in the beginning, the divergence of the bullet from a straight line trajectory was so minimal that it was almost invisible. It wasn’t until the last stretch of the pitch, when the ball had strayed inches off the true, that the hitters noticed it wasn’t going straight – by then it was too late. to adjust their reflexes and hit her. The rupture accumulates constantly but not linearly; its effects were much more evident later than before, for both physical and optical reasons.

Something similar happened with American politics. Its recent downward turn was not caused by some new force that only recently emerged, but by the cumulative impact of decades of steady decline. In their book Recovery, Robert Putnam and Shailyn Romney Garrett document the steady deterioration of public life from the 1960s: the public square, a fraying social fabric and a descent into cultural narcissism. As the trends continued, their effects gradually compounded and became more and more pronounced and evident. And so, looking back from our vantage point today, the company seems to have abruptly shattered down from nowhere, much like Rivera’s cutter.

As misplaced as the hype around the harmful influence of social media is, it’s hardly surprising, as every advance in modern communications technology has been met with a comparable storm of negative publicity and doomsday predictions. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan was write this“Our Western values, built on the written word, have already been considerably affected by the electric media of telephone, radio and television…. Electric speed mixes the cultures of history with the dregs of industrial traders, the illiterate with the semi-literate and the post-literate. Mental collapse to varying degrees is a very common result of being uprooted and flooded with endless new information and new patterns of information. He continued, “Archimedes once said, ‘Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.’ Today, he would have pointed his finger at our electric media and said, “I will stand on your eyes, ears, nerves and brain, and the world will move in whatever rhythm or pattern I choose.” We rented these ‘places to stand’ to private companies.

Safer:

United States

future of democracy

social media

Democracy

Political history and theory

Written in 1980George S. Trow analyzed how modern media has stripped society of its traditional context:

It’s television. A TV show. How it works? It is a small lapse of time made convivial by repetition. In a way, it doesn’t exist at all. What does it do, then? A certain ability to transmit and receive, then to apply layers of affection, desire and doubt. Two abilities: to do some very complex kind of work, involving electrons, and then to cover the coldness of it with a detestable familiarity. Why hateful? Because it has nothing to do with a human being because a human being is strong. It has to do with a human being because a human being is weak and ready to be fooled.

The emergence of the Internet and its digital offspring in the closing decades of the 20th century seemed to be both the culmination of these earlier trends and an opportunity to transcend them. As a single, open communication framework, the Internet promised to connect the world, allow us to collaborate without friction, and perform at our best. The digital Eden was soon despoiled, however, as we ended up taking all of our traditional baggage with us on the journey, recreating the problems of meatspace in cyberspace. Security threats have emerged and constantly evolved. Crooks and pickpockets have arrived to defraud newcomers. Platforms meant to expand and enrich the marketplace of ideas have been hijacked by trolls and bots and flooded with misinformation. Power has increasingly become concentrated in the hands of a few private tech giants, whose self-serving choices have encouraged a race to the bottom in search of intense and continued engagement. While Web 1.0 (read only) has given way to Web 2.0 (social media), things have only gotten worse and Web 3.0 (crypto) has yet to go way beyond the scam.

We are all bored apes now, trying to escape the consequences of a constant and perverse human nature that reproduces itself in all circumstances and at all times. As Benjamin Franklin said it nearly two and a half centuries ago, humans are “a very ill-constructed sort of being, for they are generally more easily provoked than reconciled, more willing to harm each other than to repair, much more easily deceived than undeceived, and having more pride and even pleasure in killing themselves than in begetting themselves. Social media hasn’t fundamentally changed us, it’s only allowed us to be ourselves. He gave shape and color to the last eruption of our darker sides, which were always there, waiting to come back to the fore as they repeatedly did every few generations, for reasons and on a schedule that remain obscure.

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel project on the future of democracy.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial 4.0 License. Certain rights reserved.

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