A demagogue’s playbook

All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be… The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.

The above excerpt is from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925/26). Richard J. Evans quotes it in The Coming of the Third Reich (2003; p. 168), along with this: “The people in their overwhelming majority are so feminine by nature and attitude that sober reasoning determines their thoughts and actions far less than emotion and feeling.”

Advertisements

Introducing “iGen.”

From Jean M. Twenge’s recent essay in The Atlantic:

The more I pored over yearly surveys of teen attitudes and behaviors, and the more I talked with young people like Athena, the clearer it became that theirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media. I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.

The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.

Twenge supplies a lot of correlated data that strongly link smartphone use to a number of generationally-distinct patterns in what she calls “iGen.” Among the more worrying data, she documents the rise of cyberbullying among young people, especially among girls. Then this:

Social-media companies are of course aware of these problems, and to one degree or another have endeavored to prevent cyberbullying. But their various motivations are, to say the least, complex. A recently leaked Facebook document indicated that the company had been touting to advertisers its ability to determine teens’ emotional state based on their on-site behavior, and even to pinpoint “moments when young people need a confidence boost.” Facebook acknowledged that the document was real, but denied that it offers “tools to target people based on their emotional state.”

At no time in human history have we possessed tools more finely-attuned to the art of manipulating the psychology of masses of people. These tools are supremely scalable. The same platforms that can target a demographic of heterogenous millions can individualize their content to reach, perhaps, a niche demographic of dozens. Taken in the context of Mark Zuckerberg’s utopian manifesto from earlier this year, the existence of the “boost” document ought to give us serious pause.

Allow me to go one step further. Scientists based in Portland, Oregon, recently succeeded in using the gene-editing program CRISPR/Cas9 to edit the DNA of embryos to eliminate the development of a genetic mutation that would cause hypertrophic cardiomyapathy. This is an incredible victory for medical science. But as I’ve said before, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. You should, too.

We have the tools to shape and reshape the human experience on a very literal level. On the genetic level, CRISPR is but the first feeble step toward technology whose power will enable us to program our own genetic makeup on scales previously imagined only in science fiction. Similarly, the algorithms of social media sites like Facebook have the potential to shape their users’ desires, feelings, and perceptions in ways that are simultaneously microscopically managed and macroscopically unpredictable. I strive to make these observations not in a spirit of alarm or histrionics but in the mindset of sober assessment. If, despite my attempts at sobriety, you feel alarmed… well, good.

The battle after the war

I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion. So I’m not just staying off Twitter, I’m cutting back on the news sites in my RSS feed, and deleting browser bookmarks to newspapers. Instead, I am turning more of my attention to monthly magazines, quarterly journals, and books. I’m trying to get a somewhat longer view of things — trying to start thinking about issues one when some of the basic facts about them have been sorted out. Taking the short view has burned me far too many times; I’m going to try to prevent that from happening ever again (even if I will sometimes fail). And if once in a while I end up fighting a battle in a war that has already ended … I can live with that.

–Alan Jacobs, recency illusions

Atomized thinking and Biblical proof-texting

The founders of Twitter are to our discursive culture what Robert Estienne — the guy who divided the Bible up into verses — is to biblical interpretation. Is it possible, when faced with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians divided into verses, to keep clearly in mind the larger dialectical structure of his exposition? Sure. But it’s very hard, as generations of Christians who think that they can settle an argument by quoting a verse, a verse that might not even be a complete sentence, have demonstrated to us all. Becoming habituated to tweet-sized chunks of thought is damaging to one’s grasp of theology and social issues alike.

–Alan Jacobs, against tweetstorms

“Be afraid human, we are coming for you.”

One line in that message is particularly revealing: “It’s the only thing I live for.” Whether or not he was exaggerating, that’s the type of obsession that fuels so much of the nastiness in gaming culture. There are plenty of great gaming communities and, in my experience, most gamers are perfectly pleasant, but too many are unable to separate themselves from their products. Video game fans who are zealously attached to their favorite games—even, as in this case, a game that has yet to come out!—are prone to get aggressive when they feel like they’re being attacked. Or when they get bad news. […]

What’s most astounding about this whole sequence of events isn’t the threats to me and to Sean Murray, nor is it the toxic elements of the No Man’s Sky community, nor is it even the sharp GamerGater who insisted that the threat was fake because he doesn’t understand how open twitter DMs work. What’s most astounding is that this has become the new normal. In a few days everyone will forget about it, and we’ll be on to the next big outrage. And on to the next set of death threats.

—Jason Schreier, I Got Death Threats for Reporting On a Video Game Delay

I didn’t spent a lot of time on the web over the long Memorial Day weekend, so I happened to read the above article just a few minutes after reading about the incident at Cincinnati Zoo, in which a 4-year-old managed to climb the fence into a gorilla enclosure, and zoo officials put the animal down in order to save the boy’s life. From Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos:

It’s not like Gregg lost track of her son and he bumped his head on a kitchen table or burned himself on a hot pan. Because of Gregg’s lack of supervision, an endangered animal was killed and her son’s life was put in danger.

Gregg’s perceived lack of remorse (she didn’t mention Harambe’s death) in this Facebook post has garnered an outpouring of online hate. There are now online petitions (this one has 47,000-plus signatures; another has 317,000-plus signatures) asking for Child Protective Services to investigate Gregg for neglect. There’s so much vitriol out there against Gregg that another Michelle Gregg has been harassed by people onlineThere are also unfounded rumors that Gregg is planning to sue to zoo, which would only build the hate against her. […]

We’re not that far removed from Gregg receiving death threats and her address being published, which happened to the dentist who killed Cecil (it’s possible it’s already happened in some pockets of the internet). There’s also a disturbing possibility that Gregg’s race will be brought into this and a racist narrative will emerge.

To be honest, I don’t have any thoughts about any of this that aren’t half-baked or inchoate. What strikes me, though, is that these two stories about very, very different things — the delayed release of a video game and the death of a zoo animal — are linked by several things:

  • mass media journalism
  • social media/web-based communication
  • media virality
  • the hyper-accountability of the individual
  • the near-total unaccountability of the masses
  • intense personal attachment to nonhuman objects/entities
  • exaggerated sense of moral superiority
  • defaulting to extreme rhetorical hyperbole
  • attempts by some to leverage institutional power against those who post no threat to them

What else am I missing in this? Abad-Santos links in his article to Max Fisher’s rumination on Internet mob justice in the wake of the killing of Cecil the Lion. I’m also mindful of the article from last year (which Fisher also mentions) by Jon Ronson that leads with how one woman’s racist Tweet was used by the Internet mob to destroy her livelihood in the time it took her to fly from one continent to another. I don’t think there’s any argument against the existence of an emergent pattern here (in large part because a lot of folks way more learned on such topics than me have been talking about it for years now; my bullet points above are totally unoriginal). I guess I’m just trying to settle for myself if this is simply the new normal (and if so, in what ways it will get worse) or if there’s any hope at all for reining it in.

The Gamergate candidate

My students—budding historians—tell me exactly what budding historians are supposed to say: It has always been like this. And in a way they’re right. Go back to the Early Republic and consider how Burr, Adams, Hamilton and the like went after each other. It was vicious. Adams was the worst. He famously called Hamilton “the Bastard brat of a Scotch peddler”; Paine’s Common Sense, a “crapulous mess”; and Jefferson’s soul, “poisoned with ambition.” But the difference with Trump is that, unlike past political mudslinging, his insults are divorced from political reality. Trump isn’t hissing out insults to underscore his political position, or to denigrate the political position of another. He’s doing it to bully for the sake of bullying. Trump issues taunts apolitically, all over the place (against Republicans and Democrats), and with abandon. He’s often compared to a third grader on a playground. But, honestly, that’s not fair to third graders, most of whom seem to understand that you don’t behave that way.

–James McWilliams, “Why Trump?”

That last is the best line in a relatively light piece in which McWilliams suggests that what is historically unique about Donald Trump’s campaign is that the link between his vulgar outbursts and his upticks in polling is, broadly and collectively speaking, our social media. I’m not totally persuaded by this argument, even though I suppose that, to a certain extent, social media do foster “a culture of insult that prevails in the darker arenas of the Web, in places where We The People are allowed to be at our worst.” And I do also suspect that Trump is being used as a way to, as McWilliams argues, legitimate those discourses.

In other words, he’s quintessentially a Gamergate candidate. Whatever that may mean.

The dishonesties of false personalization

We hear a lot of talk about how our country “needs to have a conversation about” this or that issue or condition. But this way of talking about “conversation” is unhelpful, and not only because it is so often a disingenuous way of nudging an orthodoxy into being. It is unhelpful because it perpetuates an egregious category error, precisely by missing the special character of conversation. Most of the communications to which we are subjected, particularly through our electronic media, are of precisely the opposite character. Overlooking and overhearing are their stock in trade, since they are required, by their very nature as the output of mass media, to be devoid of all delicacies of context. Advertising, journalism, popular culture, political campaigning and speechifying: For better or worse, these things serve a public purpose, and can foster public forms of memory and understanding we badly need. They are at their worst, though, when they try to be something they are not, and fall into the dishonesties of false personalization. The intimacy of free and full conversation, which some of us consider the crowning glory of a civilized society, is the last thing they are capable of fostering.

— Wilfred M. McClay, Overheard and Overlooked

People of the (Face)book

A few juxtapositions. First, Michael Case in a recent Verge article:

Imagine a single, central website that could answer any question you had about government and whether it can help you. One portal where you could log in, and with a tool as familiar as Google search, ask: “how can I apply for a passport?” “is it illegal to fish without a license in Washington, DC?” “where do I vote?” “what do I do if my disability claim is taking too long?” “what forms do I need to establish my business?” No matter your query, you are met with an actionable answer, or a way to contact a human being who can help you with your request.

[…]

Now imagine you’ve gotten a useful answer from that website, but you need to sign some forms, have a photo taken, or take a test. For one reason or another, you need to interact with a human being face to face. What if there was one place in every community that could deliver all government services? Post offices are ubiquitous across America — what if they could be retrofitted to also be Social Security offices and DMVs and passport offices and polling locations? What if folks who aren’t comfortable with fancy, modern websites could walk into their post office and have any question about government answered for them? Yeah.

— Michael Case, “Our future government will work more like Amazon”

Étienne Balibar, from 2003:

Surely freedom of movement is a basic claim that must be incorporated within the citizenship of all people (and not only for representatives of the ‘powerful nations,’ for whom this is largely a given). But the droit de cité (rights to full citizenship) includes everything from residential rights as part of having a ‘normal’ place in society to the exercise of political rights in those locations and groupings into which individuals and groups have been ‘thrown’ by history and the economy. Let’s not be afraid of saying it: these citizenship rights include the manner of their belonging in state communities, even, and indeed especially, if they belong to more than one such community. Given the above, the right to full citizenship is indissolubly linked to freedom of movement.

— Étienne Balibar (trans. Frank Collins), “Europe, an ‘Unimagined’ Frontier of Democracy,” Diacritics 33.3/4 (Autumn/Winter 2003): 36-44

Via an io9 article on governments of the future, a review of Zach Weinersmith’s “thought experiment in distributed government”:

“Polystate” represents Weinersmith’s attempt to work out one possible solution to this question. His hypothetical society consists of a collection of “anthrostates,” governments that proscribe laws and support institutions but have no geographical boundaries. Each citizen of a polystate would choose allegiance to an anthrostate, agreeing to be bound by its regulations and gaining the advantages of its services. Citizens of multiple anthrostates would coexist in the same region, with next-door neighbors possibly choosing to live under completely different systems. One family, for example, might pledge its loyalty to a collectivist society where taxes are distributed equally, while another on the same block might join a theocracy where tithes go to the building of churches and the attendance of religious services is mandatory.

Importantly, citizens would be able to change anthrostate on a regular basis, allowing them to experiment with different types of governance. He contrasts this situation to that of the current geopolitical climate, where people are born into “geostates” (traditional nations such as Mexico and Canada) and can only change their government with great difficulty, if at all. This sort of “permanent revolution,” the author contends, would swiftly remove support from unjust rulers and help eliminate corrupt systems. As he writes regarding the growth of North Korea, “It is hard to imagine that he [Kim Jong-un] would have this larger population if any of his citizens could have freely switched to any other government.”

Weinersmith argues that advances in technology would remove many of the obstacles associated with this sort of society. Digital currency and computerized money markets, for example, could alleviate the headaches caused by the unique financial systems of coexisting anthrostates, while improved artificial intelligence could help arbitrators navigate conflicting legal codes in now-common “international incidents.” Numerous benefits, such as the difficulty of waging war between nations with distributed populations, would also arise organically from the system. Yet the author does not shy from offering a realistic view of the problems facing a polystate, from international trade to the possibilities of tax evasion and cheating.

— Sword of Science, “Book Review – Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government”

John Gall’s quasi-panarchist polemic from 1975:

“Under Free Choice of Territory, a citizen of any country is free to live in any part of the world he chooses. He remains a citizen of the government he prefers, to which he pays taxes and for whose officers he votes. However, as the term Free Choice of Government implies, he may at any time change his citizenship and his allegiance from his present government to another government that offers more attractive tax rates, better pensions, more interesting public officials, or simply an invigorating change of pace (Common courtesy would seem to require two weeks’ advance notice; the standard notice any employer would give an employee.)

With these two new Freedoms in effect, one would expect that after a short period of equilibration, citizens of any nation would be distributed amongst the citizens of all other nations – not necessarily at random, but sufficiently so for our purpose, which is to remove them effectively from the grip of their own government. A government can hardly put any large number of its own citizens in jail if it has to send halfway around the world for them, one by one, and persuade other governments of the justice of the proceedings. Raising armies would become administratively impossible. Furthermore, wars of any government against another would become impractical, since large numbers of the “enemy” would be distributed all over the world, including the territory of the home government.

The net result of the two new Freedoms would be to break up the Concentration of the Governed, to divide and distribute them throughout other governments, a principle which we shall call the Comminution of Hegemony. If practiced on a world-wide scale it could lead to revolutionary changes in the relationship of citizens to their governments, reversing the traditional polarity and making governments fearfully dependent upon the favor or even the whims of their citizenry rather than vice versa.”

— John Gall, “Systematics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail” (1975)

Leonidas Donskis on the relation of the Facebook “community” to the Jewish diaspora:

“The diaspora was once the unique fate and curse of the Jews, but now we are all living in the diaspora. So that we might recognize ourselves as exiles and emigrants or, alternatively, reject these descriptions, there must exist a territorial nation along with the territory that collects and defines that nation and gives it meaning. But the nations of today are, increasingly, extraterritorial and global formations, collecting themselves in the distribution zone of virtual reality and information (of that of symbolic power and social prestige, which nowadays coincides with the attention gained and the number of ‘likes’ earned). All of us have more or less become people of the global diaspora. Nowadays we are all global exiles. Thus, the diaspora becomes a normal, legitimized, recognized, and practically routinized form of life. Who is abnormal? Only someone who pines after a territorial or local past.

[…]

There was a time when secret services and the political police worked hard to extract secrets and get people to reveal the details of their private and even intimately personal lives. Today, these intelligence services should feel simultaneously exhilarated and unnecessary. What can they bring to the table when everyone is telling everything about their own business themselves? Even if people don’t disclose what they’re doing, whom they dislike, and how they got rich, they still reveal with whom they communicate and whom they know. And it’s impossible not to participate in this orgy of sharing and disclosing. If you don’t participate or if you withdraw, you lose your sense of past and present; you sever contact with your classmates and your colleagues; you get separated from your community. In virtual reality and on Facebook, what vanishes is a fundamental aspect of real freedom: self-determination and a free choice of association. You have entered this new realm of friendships, of cyberconnectedness, because technology — and its hard-to-discern masters — have convinced you that you cannot live a civilized life otherwise. Or elsewhere.” — Leonidas Donskis, “Facebook Nation,” The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014): 94-101