It’s no secret that the current state of discourse is in a bad way. And if you’re one of those people who’s come to reflexively roll your eyes at any use of the term “discourse,” you might be part of the problem. Discourse matters—more pointedly, the absence of discourse matters, for we have a nasty historical tendency to fill that absence with atrocity. This isn’t narrow fetishism of abstract principle over tangible human suffering. Human suffering is precisely my motivating concern here.
Social media have proven a mixed blessing to humanity, to put it mildly. The Internet at once gives us unprecedented access to an enormous diversity of perspectives and makes it unprecedentedly easy to form world-spanning echo chambers around a single favored perspective. It also gives us a constant audience for which we can (and often feel compelled to) perform outrage, virtue, dominance, and other acts of self-promotion that can interfere with our abilities to communicate productively and reason properly. There’s a lot more than just so-called “Facebook depression” or the preponderance of “Fake News” to concern us in this sphere. What we’re increasingly seeing is a deep epistemic balkanization, an inability to agree on even the conditions under which we might labor to find the truth of a given matter.
We need to map out and understand the incentive structure of this new online omniopticon before it isolates us even further. I suspect it has been hugely, if unappreciatedly, influential in the increasing political polarization now threatening democracies the world over. I don’t mean to sound conspiratorial here. The problem is with our own minds, not with some shadowy cabal. The “conspiracy” I’m worried about is a conspiracy of uncoordinated selfishness and stupidity. Think Smith’s invisible hand going all Dr. Strangelove on its own body politic, where social prestige is the dominant currency.
Not everything posted here will bear directly on this project, but it is a major organizing issue for the blog at this point in time.