Photo by michaklootwijk
Returning to the generalization that the internet is the “best thing ever to happen to democracy,” I have to ask this: if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, how do we like the soufflé so far? Admittedly, the unprecedented scope of the Women’s March on January 21 would not have been possible without social media; but at the same time, I very much doubt that a candidate in the style of Donald Trump could have become president without social media, so I guess we’re going to have to live with that dichotomy.
Setting aside Trump’s policy agenda—to the extent that it is coherent—what I believe he represents above all was a vote of no confidence in the American system itself. And to be honest, I believe Bernie Sanders’s campaign represented this for many people as well –albeit in a very different manner. But what these two radically divergent, populists had in common was a message that the middle class is getting hammered because the system has failed. It’s why the Sanders-to-Trump voter is not the contradiction it might seem; but I do find it at least worth pondering that the election of 2016 was very much A Tale of Two Angry Old Men. Not that I discount Hillary Clinton by any means, but it seems as though the venn diagram that combines many swing votes in the electorate who would never vote for Hillary with those who reluctantly voted for Hillary shared that common complaint that the establishment itself is the problem.
And now that we’re watching Trump’s approach to “shaking up Washington” play out in an exhausting whirlwind of political heterodoxy, I can’t help but think about that youthful and ebullient mantra of Silicon Valley that preaches Disrupt Everything. Citizens across the political spectrum, fed up with the status quo on a wide range of social, political, and economic issues, either actively or passively endorsed this disrupt zeitgeist. Remember the old Facebook motto Move fast and break things that was echoed by the VCs and creators of tech startups? Could that not also serve as the headline for Trump’s first weeks in the White House?
The cacophony of political theater and real policy proposals of the new administration has certainly been breathtaking, but it is also familiar territory to those of us who spend time scrutinizing the PR and policy aims of the internet industry. The disestablishment playbook of Bannon seems to share, one might say, substantial similarity with the disestablishment playbook of Google when that company opposes legal regimes like copyright law, privacy restrictions, anti-trust regulation, or even the notion of statehood itself.
Like the sledgehammer Trump wants to take to all regulation in order to supposedly “get business flowing again,” Google & Friends have repeated almost the same message to sell the idea that legal regimes like copyright are anachronisms standing in the way of innovation. The sleight of hand works well because the goal is vague. That word innovation is no more clearly defined than the word great in Trump’s campaign slogan. But the spirit of disruption insists that we not discuss the nagging details about where we might be headed. It says that we must simply break things right away and have faith that benefits are sure to follow.
And I do literally mean faith. Because an enthusiasm for mass disruption seems to come from a deep well of magical thinking. Whether this means an overtly theocratic agenda a la Bannon or an overtly technocratic one a la Google, both visions seem to share this one underlying message: that many foundations of the American Republic (i.e. all things mainstream) are standing in the way of a bright future. It feels as though we are locking in a dismal choice between the catastrophe of a new, theocratic global order or the uncertainty of a quasi-democratic, technological, “leisure” society. Or perhaps some bizarre, dystopian version of the two. Meanwhile, the AI technologists continue their race to bring about the singularity with the same determinist zeal that Steve Bannon exhibits about the prospect of a war with China. Are we truly that eager for self-annihilation? Again? No wonder a reported 50% of these same technologists have invested millions on their survivalist backup plans.
Blind faith in information technology to preserve democratic principles is just that: blind. As I suggested in an older post, because social media has divvied us up according to our brand of outrage, it is helping to hollow out the political center, leaving a vacuum for autocrats (or technocrats?) to fill. It was just a few of years ago, when the Snowden story broke, and everyone became all leak-happy, that I criticized my progressive friends for looking in every direction for conspiracies and for putting too much faith in the illusion of transparency afforded by digital technologies.
We forget at our peril how fragile the American deal really is—that it’s nothing more than an idea we mutually agree not to destroy, no matter how much we disagree on specific issues. As I wrote in response to this 360-degree conspiracy view, if we completely lose faith in all functions of government, it means we’ve lost faith in each other, which is the beginning of the end. Michael Idov, writing for New York Magazine, provides a glimpse into his experiences living and working in Russia as a cautionary tale about what happens when that very fragile agreement does not exist—when trust itself is obliterated. In a description that reminds me of at least cybernetic America over the last several years, Idov writes:
“Russian life, I soon found out, was marked less by fear than by cynicism: the all-pervasive idea that no institution is to be trusted, because no institution is bigger than the avarice of the person in charge. This cynicism, coupled with endless conspiracy theories about everything, was at its core defensive (it’s hard to be disappointed if you expect the worst). But it amounted to defeatism.”
And that’s the underlying message being delivered 140 characters at a time from the Oval Office today—that not one institution can be trusted over the word of a single individual. It is a defeatist and dangerous message, but not one that was written by Donald Trump so much as it was exploited by him. We wrote the narrative ourselves. Feeling let down by the system, we went looking for saviors instead of leaders.
The detrimental effect of social media, feeding the illusion that this technology fosters real transparency, cannot be overstated. The very significant phenomenon that some citizens sincerely believe that a presidential tweet is more honest and informative than the investigative work of a veteran journalist may seem mind-boggling, but it was an inevitable result of disrupting everything. And it is certainly not only Trump’s supporters who’ve bought into this idea that we can all be our own news sources now because the “mainstream” cannot be trusted. To the contrary, every day I see some friend on Facebook shake a head at the White House calling a verifiable fact “fake news,” but in the next instant, share some misleading headline from a questionable source.
We usually talk about the United States in terms of strength and rarely in terms of its fragility. If that sounds “weak” to some, a reading of the Framers’ own words will show that they understood exactly how fragile the Republic is—that the moment it ceases to be a statesman’s debate about common purpose, we’re toast. But honest debate cannot occur when we have to spend so much time disputing or proving the facts themselves. Twenty years ago, we argued about what to do next, but not nearly so much about what had already happened.
As a general analysis, it is extremely hard to believe that we were not better off with a little less “information” and a little less “transparency.” Because there is simply no denying the evidence that millions of us—right, left, and center—are operating with our own sets of facts and “alternative facts.” At the same time, it is also questionable whether or not any bi-partisan cooperation could ever happen under the gaze of constant public scrutiny.
It’s a little late now, of course. With the Executive adopting an authoritarian tone, and a party-line vote like we saw in the confirmation of a patently unqualified Secretary of Education, we’ve clearly crossed some threshold in the realm of sincere debate that is neither liberal nor conservative. But this is what comes from an underlying loss of faith in the system itself and the chaos of the tech-enabled “direct democracy” that is, in many ways, an antidote to corruption but which is also highly vulnerable to corruption itself.
So, mission accomplished. We’re disrupted. “Big League.” What’s next?