Stop Inflating the Inflation Threat: Project Syndicate

Eternal September: How Trolls Overran the Public Square: Project Syndicate


Project Syndicate: How Trolls Overran the Public Square Since the invention of writing, human innovation has transformed how we formulate new ideas, organize our societies, and communicate with one another. But in an age of rapid-fire social media and nonstop algorithm-generated outrage, technology is no longer helping to expand or enrich the public sphere: Every year since 1900 we have had change in human technology and organization at a blistering pace: human productivity, organization, and technological capabilities now change at a rate that packs into one year what would have been 50 years of change back before 1500. It used to be that culture, war, the rise and fall of individuals' statuses, and politics were the meat of human history, with technology and organization much of an unchanging background, and productivity growing only very slowly on average. But that is not the world we live in today.

The impact of the changing technological, organizational, and productivity foundation on the public sphere of ideas of ideas about politics and societal organization has been one of the most consequential areas of change. The shift from the age of handwritten and hand-copied manuscripts plus inscriptions to the age of Gutenberg printed books brought Europe the Copernican Revolution, but also nearly 2 centuries of semi-genocidal religious war. Pamphlets and coffee houses brought the public sphere of discussion and debate and literate public opinion as a powerful constraint upon governors and their doings, plus revolution: John Adams said that the American Revolution had been won in the hearts and minds of Americans before a shot had been fired; we can see that the decisive intellectual battle was won by Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense. But those eras saw slower change than we see. The past two human lifetimes have seen steam presses, mass-market newspapers, and presslords; radio; network television; the internet; now our social media-and narrow-slice broadcast-driven public sphere; and we will see whatever comes next before we exit the stage.

There is now a near-consensus, at least in the circles of discussion I listen to—as opposed to the broadcasts of propaganda that we are deafened by—that our current social media- and narrow-slice broadcast-impacted public sphere does not serve us well. As Annalee Newitz just put it: "Social media is broken. It has poisoned the way we communicate with each other and undermined the democratic process. Many of us just want to get away from it, but we can’t imagine a world without it..."

We have seen this, or had a panic that we were about to see this, before: back in the 1930s my great-uncles used to listen to their elders complain about how radio allowed an Adolf Hitler, a Charles Coughlin, that communist Franklin Roosevelt, and others to short-circuit the normal public-sphere processes of evaluation and distribution that kept discussion sober and rational, and so spread their favored memes without any interference from society's normal intellectual antibodies. Politicians and ideologues who might well not wish the people well used radio to get into people's ears, and then they hacked their brains. But this is not a repeat of but rather a rhyming of history: it is not one demagogue, but rather swarms of influencers and influences semi-coordinated by the dynamics of the medium who enter our brains and then shape our thoughts without our being able to properly evaluate and assess.

We ought to have seen this coming. A generation ago, back before there was a web or a brewers, back when the 'net was a university and research-institute phenomenon only, there was an annual “September“. In September, all the people newly come to school would gain their email accounts. They rapidly find their online communities. They would begin to talk. Someone would get annoyed. And for the next month, the informational and conversational usefulness of the 'net would be bathed in continuous hot blasts of flame wars. But then things would calm down. People would remember to put on their asbestos underwear, and not take newbies so seriously. Trolls would have found themselves banned from the forums they loved to disrupt. Many who had tried out the troll lifestyle would have recognized that trying to get people you do not know and will never see angry with you was not a good way to go through life. Things will return to normal. For the next eleven months, the 'net would do its proper business of greatly extending each of our cultural, conversational, and intellectual range, and thus amplifying our ability to act as a powerful anthology intelligence. Then with the coming of the rapid expansion of the 'net, people began to joke that we faced an "eternal September" until 'net growth slowed.

Well, 'net growth has slowed. Yet our eternal September is here.

The conventional explanation for why the social-learning process that calmed down newbies to the 'net in the generation from 1975-2000 is not longer working hinges on the interaction of the speed of feedback-and-reponse—which the 'net always had—with the key factor that there is more money to be made through stoking outrage than through providing information. Yet it does provide enough information that people do not find themselves able to turn it off. And part of the process of accepting the information is letting the smart information architects at Facebook, Twitter, Google (especially Youtube), and elsewhere inject their outrage- and clickbait-generating algorithms into your brains. Plus there is a great deal of money and power to be gained by shaping public opinion. And piggybacking your desired view on top of outrage is easier than making an extended rational argument that will persuade influencers respected for their wisdom—especially if the thoughts that the money- and power-seekers want to inject are not wise, and are not aimed at bettering the lives of their victims.

Annalee Newitz ends her A Better Internet Is Waiting for Us essay on a hopeful note: "Public life has been irrevocably changed by social media; now it’s time for something else. We need to stop handing off responsibility for maintaining public space to corporations and algorithms—and give it back to human beings. We may need to slow down, but we’ve created democracies out of chaos before. We can do it again..." But that hope is more a requirement of the journalistic straightjacket in which she is writing than a rational evaluation of our situation.

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