“not to waver with the wavering hours”

I’ve just been teaching Horace’s Epistles, and it strikes me that Horace ought to be the man of our social-media moment — the man who shows us another and better way.

In the first of those Epistles, Horace writes to his patron Maecenas — the one who bought him his Sabine farm that allows him to escape the noise and frenetic activity of Rome — to describe what he’s up to:

… my ambition to advance myself
In the sort of project that, if carried out
Successfully, is good for anyone,
Whether rich or poor, and its failure is bound to be
Harmful to anyone, whether he’s young or old. 

This “project” is, he says, to “devote myself entirely to the study / Of what is genuine and right for me, / Storing up what I learn for the sake of the future.” (I am quoting from David Ferry’s wonderful translation.) He needs to be on his farm to pursue this project, because life in the city, with its constant stimulation, creates too much agitation. And as he writes to another friend, Julius Florus (I.3), “if you’re able to learn to do without / Anxiety’s chilling effect, you’ll be able to follow / The lead of wisdom up to the highest reaches.”

Later (I.18) he exhorts Lollius Maximus to “interrogate the writings of the wise,”

Asking them to tell you how you can
Get through your life in a peaceable tranquil way.
Will it be greed, that always feels poverty-stricken,
That harasses and torments you all your days?
Will it be hope and fear about trivial things,
In anxious alternation in your mind?
Where is it virtue comes from, is it from books?
Or is it a gift from Nature that can’t be learned?
What is the way to become a friend to yourself?
What brings tranquility? What makes you care less?
Honor? Or money? Or living your life unnoticed?
Whenever I drink from the cold refreshing waters
Of the little brook Digentia, down below
Our local hill town, what do you think I pray for?
“May I continue to have what I have right now,
Or even less, as long as I’m self-sufficient.
If the gods should grant me life, though just for a while,
May I live my life to myself, with books to read,
And food to sustain me for another year,
And not to waver with the wavering hours.” 

The “wavering hours” waver because they’re charged with the nervous energy that comes from a too-busy life, a life of agitation and anxiety. As a youth Horace studied philosophy in Athens, and there he would have learned about the inestimable value of ataraxia — a peaceable and tranquil spirit. Because if you don’t have that, then you become a victim of your circumstances — and, especially in our time, a victim of propaganda.

Reading old books is a very valuable thing, because it takes you out of the maelstrom of “current events”; and it’s especially valuable to read old books like those by Horace because they will tell you quite directly how vital it is for you to learn this lesson.

propaganda and social media

Reading Ellul on the massive and pervasive consequences of propaganda in the twentieth century, I found myself over and over again thinking: This is how social media work on us. For instance, that passage I quoted in my earlier post — “to the same extent that he lives on the surface of events and makes today’s events his life by obliterating yesterday’s news, he refuses to see the contradictions in his own life and condemns himself to a life of successive moments, discontinuous and fragmented” — seems even more true as a description of the person constantly on Twitter and Facebook. Many other passages gave me the same feeling:

Man, eager for self-justification, throws himself in the direction of a propaganda that justifies him and this eliminates one of the sources of his anxiety. Propaganda dissolves contradictions and restores to man a unitary world in which the demands are in accord with the facts…. For all these reasons contenporary man needs propaganda; he asks for it; in fact, he almost instigates it. (159, 160) 

Or this:

Propaganda is concerned with the most pressing and at the same time the most elementary actuality. It proposes immediate action of the most ordinary kind. It thus plunges the individual into the most immediate present, taking from him all mastery of his life and all sense of the duration or continuity of any action or thought. Thus the propagandee becomes a man without a past and without a future, a man who receives from propaganda his portion of thought and action for the day; his discontinuous personality must be given continuity from the outside, and thus makes the need for propaganda very strong. (187) 

Thus the very common type of Twitter user who expresses himself or herself almost completely in hashtags: pre-established units of affiliation and exclusion.

And yet — Russian bots and political operatives (who have turned themselves into bots) aside — social media lack the planned purposefulness intrinsic to propaganda. So they must be a different kind of thing, yes?

Yes and no. I think what social media produce is emergent propaganda — propaganda that is not directed in any specific and conscious sense by anyone but rather emerges, arises, from vast masses of people who have been catechized within and by the same power-knowledge regime. Think also about the idea I got from an Adam Roberts novel: the hivemind singularity. Conscious, intentional propaganda is so twentieth century. The principalities and powers are far more sophisticated now. I’ll be thinking more about this.

"a revisionist blizzard of alternative theories"

Tim Adams on the media in Putin’s Russia:

In this culture war, disinformation was critical. Russian TV and social media would create a climate in which news became entertainment, and nothing would quite seem factual. This surreal shift is well documented, but Snyder’s forensic examination of, for example, the news cycle that followed the shooting down of flight MH17 makes essential reading. On the first day official propaganda suggested that the Russian missile attack on the Malaysian plane had in fact been a bodged attempt by Ukrainian forces to assassinate Putin himself; by day two, Russian TV was promoting the idea that the CIA had sent a ghost plane filled with corpses overhead to provoke Russian forces.

The more outrageous the official lie was, the more it allowed people to demonstrate their faith in the Kremlin. Putin made, Snyder argues, his direct assault on “western” factuality a source of national pride. Snyder calls this policy “implausible deniability”; you hear it in the tone of the current “debate” around the Salisbury attack: Russian power is displayed in a relativist blizzard of alternative theories, delivered in a vaguely absurdist spirit, as if no truth on earth is really provable.

Social-media propaganda directed at Americans works the same way: in contrast to earlier forms of propaganda, which sought to arouse people to action by alerting them to new and previously unseen truths, this kind of propaganda is meant to be soporific: it seeks to make people indifferent to what’s true, incurious, and accepting of whatever addresses the emotions to which they are most fully enslaved.

Long ago William Golding wrote a witty little essay called “Thinking as a Hobby” in which he identifies three levels of thought. Grade-three thinking, “more properly, is feeling, rather than thought”; it is ”full of unconscious prejudice, ignorance, and hypocrisy.” Grade-two thinking — which Golding came to practice as an adolescent — “is the detection of contradictions…. Grade-two thinkers do not stampede easily, though often they fall into the other fault and lag behind. Grade-two thinking is a withdrawal, with eyes and ears open.” Grade-two thinking is shouting “FAKE NEWS” and asking people whether they always believe what they’re told by the lamestream media, or pulling out your ink pad and rubber stamp and stamping BIGOT or RACIST on people who don’t line up with you 100%. I would say that such behavior is not “lagging behind” so much as digging in your heels and refusing to move — which herds of animals do far more frequently than they stampede.

When grade-two thinking is challenged its perpetrator will typically fall back to grade-three, as David French discovered: ”The desire to think the best of Mr. Trump combined with the deep distaste for Democrats grants extraordinary power to two phrases: ’fake news’ and ’the other side is worse.’

I’m reminded of an encounter at my church. People know that I opposed both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. They often ask what I think of the president’s performance. My standard response: I like some things, I dislike others, but I really wish he showed better character. I don’t want him to lie. I said this to a sweet older lady not long ago, and she responded — in all sincerity — “You mean Trump lies?” “Yes,” I replied. “All the time.” She didn’t answer with a defense. She didn’t say “fake news.” We’d known each other for years, and she trusted my words.

For a moment, she seemed troubled. I wanted to talk more — to say that we can appreciate and applaud the good things he does, but we can’t ignore his flaws, we can’t defend his sins, and we can’t let him define the future of the Republican Party. But just then, her jaw set. I saw a flare of defiance in her eyes. She took a sip of coffee, looked straight at me, and I knew exactly what was coming next: “Well, the Democrats are worse.”

Jacques Ellul argued half-a-century ago that the purpose of propaganda is to “provide immediate incentives to action.” But propaganda that encourages us to dig in our heels, or just drift with the social-media current, is propaganda all the same. What remains absolutely essential from Ellul’s book is his understanding that the person “embroiled in the conflicts of his time” (49) is most vulnerable to propaganda — and he could not have imagined a society so locked into the current instant as we denizens of Social Media World are. I’m going to close this post with a long quotation from Ellul that was incisive in relation to his own time but is devastatingly accurate about ours. I’ve put some especially important passages in bold; and I’d like you to notice how Ellul anticipates Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Here goes:

To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it cannot permit time for thought or reflection. A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the event; be is carried along in the current, and can at no time take a respite to judge and appreciate; he can never stop to reflect. There is never any awareness — of himself, of his condition, of his society — for the man who lives by current events. Such a man never stops to investigate any one point, any more than he will tie together a series of news events. We already have mentioned man’s inability to consider several facts or events simultaneously and to make a synthesis of them in order to face or to oppose them. One thought drives away another; old facts are chased by new ones. Under these conditions there can be no thought. And, in fact, modern man does not think about current problems; he feels them. He reacts, but be does not understand them any more than he takes responsibility for them. He is even less capable of spotting any inconsistency between successive facts; man’s capacity to forget is unlimited. This is one of the most important and useful points for the propagandist, who can always be sure that a particular propaganda theme, statement, or event will be forgotten within a few weeks. Moreover, there is a spontaneous defensive reaction in the individual against an excess of information and — to the extent that he clings (unconsciously) to the unity of his own person — against inconsistencies. The best defense here is to forget the preceding event. In so doing, man denies his own continuity; to the same extent that he lives on the surface of events and makes today’s events his life by obliterating yesterday’s news, he refuses to see the contradictions in his own life and condemns himself to a life of successive moments, discontinuous and fragmented.

This situation makes the “current-events man” a ready target for propaganda. Indeed, such a man is highly sensitive to the influence of present-day currents; lacking landmarks, he follows all currents. He is unstable because he runs after what happened today; he relates to the event, and therefore cannot resist any impulse coming from that event. Because he is immersed in current affairs, this man has a psychological weakness that puts him at the mercy of the propagandist. No confrontation ever occurs between the event and the truth; no relationship ever exists between the event and the person. Real information never concerns such a person. What could be more striking, more distressing, more decisive than the splitting of the atom, apart from the bomb itself? And yet this great development is kept in the background, behind the fleeting and spectacular result of some catastrophe or sports event because that is the superficial news the average man wants. Propaganda addresses itself to that man; like him, it can relate only to the most superficial aspect of a spectacular event, which alone can interest man and lead him to make a certain decision or adopt a certain attitude. (46-47)

Maybe I should blog a read-through of Propaganda.


Screen Shot 2018 04 08 at 12 09 57 PM
I’m quite late to this party, but I recently started using Freedom and I really like it. What led me to it was my realization that, while I have deleted my social-media apps from my phone, I could still access those accounts via the phone’s browser. And once I realized that I could do that … well, this is where Freedom comes in, because I can use it to block those sites on my phone and, when appropriate, on my Mac. So now I have Twitter blocked for all but a few hours a day. 

people and algorithms, principalities and powers

In this interview, Jill Lepore comments,

To be fair, it’s difficult not to be susceptible to technological determinism. We measure the very moments of our lives by computer-driven clocks and calendars that we keep in our pockets. I get why people think this way. Still, it’s a pernicious fallacy. To believe that change is driven by technology, when technology is driven by humans, renders force and power invisible.

I like this point, largely because I’ve made it myself — browsing this tag will give you some examples. But to say this is not to say that those humans are simply free agents, self-determining actors. It’s not as though Mark Zuckerberg is holed up here:

Zuck’s model of Facebook controlli — um, healing the world is one you should be enormously skeptical of, for reasons Nick Carr explains quite eloquently here. But even if you think Zuck is as wicked Sauron or Voldemort — which I don’t, by the way; I think he’s as well-meaning as his core assumptions allow him to be — he isn’t Sauron or Voldemort, not structurally speaking. When the Ring of Power is unmade, Sauron’s “slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired.” When Voledmort is killed, the Death Eaters slink away, fearful and powerless. But if any of the Captains of Technological Industry were to undergo some kind of moral conversion and walk away from their posts … nothing would change.

We have to keep insisting that algorithms are written by people for specific purposes in order to refute the simplistic and dangerous idea that algorithms are neutral and true and SCIENCE. But those people who write the algorithms, and those people who instruct others to write those algorithms, are implicated in the power-knowledge regime or Domination System or governmentality that I described in my previous post. The really vital long-term task is understanding how those structures work so that they may be both resisted and redeemed.

the fragility of platforms

In a comment on my previous post, Adam Roberts writes:

In terms of human intermediation, facebook and twitter are radically, fundamentally ‘thin’ platforms, where things like the church or the family are deep-rooted and ‘thick’. FB/Twitter-etc are also transient—both relatively recent and already showing signs of obsolescence. The sorts of institutions we’re talking about need to endure if they’re to do any good at all. Doesn’t this very temporariness magnify the volume of the reaction? People have been living with quite profound changes to social and cultural mores for decades, much longer than there has been such a thing as social media. When they take to Twitter they are trying to express deep-seated and profoundly-contextualised beliefs in 140 characters. It’s not surprising that what emerges is often just a barbaric yawp.

I think this is a very powerful point, because it reminds us that when we replace institutions with platforms, especially now that those platforms are uniformly digital, we’re moving from structures that, if not altogether antifragile, are relatively robust to structures that are either palpably fragile or untested.

Thought experiment: What if Twitter actually does as many have suggested and bans Donald Trump? They would be perfectly within their rights to do so — he would have no one to appeal to — so what would he do? The very platform he uses to howl his anger and outrage would be denied him, so where would he go? Facebook? But the architecture of Facebook doesn’t lend itself quite as well to his preferred tactics of engagement (for reasons I wish I had time to explore but do not). Trump’s ability to disseminate his messages in unedited form, and more particularly to change the subject when things aren’t going his way, would be dramatically curtailed. He would be dependent on others to share his message, others whose voices don’t reach as far as his now does. Could his Presidency survive his being exiled from this platform that he has made his own?

platforms and institutions

In the new edition of his book on the modern Left, which I review here, Roger Scruton writes,

Occasional lip service is paid to a future state of ‘emancipation’, ‘equality’ or ‘social justice’. But those terms are seldom lifted out of the realm of abstractions, or subjected to serious examination. They are not, as a rule, used to describe an imagined social order that their advocates are prepared to justify. Instead they are given a purely negative application. They are used to condemn every mediating institution, every imperfect association, every flawed attempt that human beings might have made, to live together without violence and with due respect for law.

Like Scruton and most other old-school conservatives, I believe that healthy mediating institutions are essential to a healthy society. And I think he is right in noting how relentlessly the Left attacks such institutions. But international capitalism does too, because every healthy mediating institution, by providing security and fellowship and belonging to its members, reduces its members’ dependence for their flourishing on what can be bought and sold. Neither the Left nor the Market want to see such institutions flourish, though their hostility sometimes stems from different agendas.

I’m usually allergic to generalizations in these matters, but let me risk a big generalization: I think what we have seen and will continue to see in our social order is the fragmentation of institutions and their effective replacement by platforms.

Let’s take education as an example: for much of American history people were educated in a wide range of (often highly eccentric) ways. This was generally perceived as a problem, and efforts at standardization kicked in, reaching their peak in the Sixties. Since then we have seen increasing fragmentation, with ordinary public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, various kinds of private schools, homeschooling, unschooling … but all of these work on the same platforms, that is, they rely on the same communications technologies, using either the open web or walled gardens like Facebook in order to promote interaction and accomplish goals (e.g., the completion of projects and other assignments, remedial tutoring, etc.). We will more and more be asking technological platforms to do the kind of unifying work that educational institutions can clearly no longer do, which, I believe, is asking platforms to do things that by their nature they’re unsuited to do.

They’re unsuited to do it becasuse platforms are unresponsive to their users, and unresponsive by design (design that emerges from their desire to be universal in scope). It is virtually impossible to contact anyone at Google or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and that is so that those platforms can train us to do what they want us to do, rather than be accountable to our desires and needs. A model of education tied to platforms rather than institutions may seem liberating at first — “I can learn everything I need to know at Khan Academy!” — but that sense of liberation will continue only insofar as users train themselves to ask the questions the platforms already know how to answer, and think the thoughts that the platforms are prepared to transmit.

Very few people will see any of this as problematic, and only those very few will look to work outside the shaping power of the dominant platforms. This means that such institution-building as they manage will have to happen on a small scale and within limited geographical areas. As far as I’m concerned that’s not the worst thing that could happen.

But the majority will accommodate themselves to the faceless inflexibility of platforms, and will become less and less capable of seeing the virtues of institutions, on any scale. One consequence of that accommodation, I believe, will be an increasing impatience with representative democracy, and an accompanying desire to replace political institutions with platform-based decision-making: referendums and plebiscites, conducted at as high a level as possible (national, or in the case of the EU, transnational). Which will bring, among other things, the exploitation of communities and natural resources by people who will never see or know anything about what they are exploiting. The scope of local action will therefore be diminished, and will come under increasing threat of what we might call, borrowing a phrase from Einstein, spooky action at a distance.

I for one don’t welcome our new algorithmic overlords.

rising up and rising down

Richard J. Evans summarizes Pankaj Mishra’s argument:

“After a long, uneasy equipoise since 1945,” Mishra says, “the old west-dominated world order is giving way to an apparent global disorder.” We have entered an “age of anger”, in which established forms of authority and legitimacy, already seriously weakened by the forces of globalisation, have been challenged by history’s losers. We are experiencing “endemic and uncontrollable” violence, fuelled by a range of hatreds – of “immigrants, minorities and various designated ‘others’” – that have now become part of the political mainstream. In response, there is “a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism”. Societies organised for the interplay of individual self-interest mediated by the state have plunged into tribalism and nihilistic violence. To Fukuyama’s Panglossian vision of the future, Mishra opposes a nightmare.

And yet Steven Pinker continues to argue that we are simply not “experiencing ‘endemic and uncontrollable’ violence,” that, globally, violence continues to decrease. The notion that violence is on the rise may well be one of those illusions I discussed the other day.

I don’t know, of course, but I’m inclined to suspect that physical violence is on the decline while verbal violence, especially on social media, is on the rise. It is indeed an age of anger, but perhaps people are largely content to express that anger online. Almost infinitely more people cheer the punching of Richard Spencer than would actually punch Richard Spencer. One or two acts of mild violence — videoed on smartphones and watched on loop — might be enough to slake most people’s bloodlust.

And so the anger dissipates, and “enterprises of great pitch and moment / With this regard their currents turn awry, / And lose the name of action.” Twitter is the opiate of the masses.

P.S. My post title.

recency illusions

In his book Days of Rage, Bryan Burrough writes,

Imagine if this happened today: Hundreds of young Americans — white, black, and Hispanic — disappear from their everyday lives and secretly form urban guerrilla groups. Dedicated to confronting the government and righting society’s wrongs, they smuggle bombs into skyscrapers and federal buildings and detonate them from coast to coast. They strike inside the Pentagon, inside the U.S. Capitol, at a courthouse in Boston, at dozens of multinational corporations, at a Wall Street restaurant packed with lunchtime diners. People die. They rob banks, dozens of them, launch raids on National Guard arsenals, and assassinate policemen, in New York, in San Francisco, in Atlanta. There are deadly shoot-outs and daring jailbreaks, illegal government break-ins and a scandal in Washington…. 

In fact, the most startling thing about the 1970s-era underground is how thoroughly it has been forgotten. “People always ask why I did what I did, and I tell them I was a soldier in a war,” recalls a heralded black militant named Sekou Odinga, who remained underground from 1969 until his capture in 1981. “And they always say, ‘What war?’”…

“People have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States,” notes a retired FBI agent, Max Noel. “People don’t want to listen to that. They can’t believe it. One bombing now and everyone gets excited. In 1972? It was every day. Buildings getting bombed, policemen getting killed. It was commonplace.”

Why do so many people today — including the newly elected President — believe that the social fabric is more seriously frayed now than at any point since the Civil War? To some extent we must blame the historical ignorance with which Americans are congenitally afflicted. But I lived through the period that Burrough describes, though I was young, and while I remember many of the events he describes I also remember not being alarmed by them; nor did I know anyone who was. People were concerned, to be sure, and saddened, and puzzled, but not alarmed.

And yet on social media today everyone is in a state of high alarm all the time. Which leads me to something I didn’t mention explicitly in my year in technology post: my efforts to get onto a longer news frequency.

Those who are interested in history will remember events like the Battle of New Orleans, fought weeks after the Treaty of Ghent had ended the War of 1812 because word of the treaty hadn’t reached the armies. Since then, thanks to a series of well-known technological changes, the news cycle has grown shorter and shorter until now many people get their news minute-by-minute.

If the frequency that led to the Battle of New Orleans was too long, the Twitter-cycle is far, far too short. People regularly get freaked out by stories than turn out to be false, and by the time the facts are known a good deal of damage (not least to personal relationships) has often already been done — plus, the disappearance of the cause of an emotion doesn’t automatically eliminate the emotion itself. In fact, it often leaves that emotion in search of new justifications for its existence.

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.

is text our friend?

I’m not so sure about this argument by Hossein Derakhshan:

Before I went to prison, I blogged frequently on what I now call the open Web: it was decentralized, text-centered, and abundant with hyperlinks to source material and rich background. It nurtured varying opinions. It was related to the world of books.
Then for six years I got disconnected; when I left prison and came back online, I was confronted by a brave new world. Facebook and Twitter had replaced blogging and had made the Internet like TV: centralized and image-centered, with content embedded in pictures, without links.

Like TV it now increasingly entertains us, and even more so than television it amplifies our existing beliefs and habits. It makes us feel more than think, and it comforts more than challenges. The result is a deeply fragmented society, driven by emotions, and radicalized by lack of contact and challenge from outside.

Therefore, he concludes, “we need more text than videos in order to remain rational animals. Typography, as Postman describes, is in essence much more capable of communicating complex messages that provoke thinking. This means we should write and read more, link more often, and watch less television and fewer videos—and spend less time on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.”

I don’t think this is right. Much of the damage done to truth and charity done in this past election was done with text. (It’s worth noting that Donald Trump rarely uses images in his tweets.) And of all the major social media, the platform with the lowest levels of abuse, cruelty, and misinformation is clearly Instagram.

No: it’s not the predominance of image over text that’s hurting us. It’s the use of platforms whose code architecture promotes novelty, instantaneous response, and the quick dissemination of lies.