Pardon Our Appearance – “Guest Post” by Helena Handbasket
David knows of course that it is the start of a new year—a time when one is expected to write some kind of review of the year gone by and/or a few thoughts anticipating the year to come. But as 2019 careened toward the obligatory crescendo of December’s final days, I would find him staring blankly at his computer monitor muttering, “We have abandoned all reason” over and over. I poked him with a cocktail fork a couple of times and wafted small-batch bourbon under his nose but was unable pierce the veil of his melancholic gaze.
I cannot say that I was very surprised to find him in this gloomy state. Given that the editorial nature of The Illusion of More is a skeptic’s view of tech-utopianism—namely the proposal that the information age is actually improving democratic societies—the events of 2019 can leave one in a fumbling search for enough consensus on the truth just to begin a discussion grounded in reason. At the start of the New Year in 2017, in the wake of the “techlash” following the last election, David wondered whether people might take a more sober approach to the belief that social media was elevating political discourse. And to some extent, this sobering did occur.
I know, for instance, that he expressed enthusiasm for the number of stand-up comics—Chappelle, Gervais, Sleshinger, Jeffries to name a few—who were eagerly riffing on the theme that social media beckons the ill-informed and self-righteous. I even caught him almost break a smile at the opening of Ronny Chieng’s performance, in which (after mocking anti-vaxxers), the Singaporean comedian says, “Yo, the internet is making people so fucking stupid. Like who knew that all human knowledge could make people dumber?” Indeed, who would have thought that?, David muttered.
If I had to pinpoint a moment when I began to notice David yielding to his taciturn despondency, I think it was while he was watching congressional hearings in September. Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Jamie Raskin referred to executive privilege (in context) as imaginary “like the tooth fairy,” to which Lewandowski responded sarcastically, “Thank you Congressman. My children are watching.”
David muted the television and, tilting his head like a contemplative Weimaraner, asked, “Is Lewandowski saying that children young enough to believe in the tooth fairy are watching committee hearings on Capitol Hill?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, “As I certainly do not know the Lewandowski children.”
“Fair enough,” he said, content to let it go for a moment, but then continued, “Okay, but if these political prodigies have in fact chosen C-Span over Clifford, can’t we assume that they have figured out the whole tooth fairy thing?”
“I suppose that would make sense,” I said, “but why does it matter?”
“Because barring those considerations,” David pressed on, “Lewandowski is suggesting that Members of the United States Congress, while conducting the business of the nation, should not speak metaphorically in any way that might disabuse juvenile viewers of their mythical, childhood fantasies. Or by “his children” did he mean the flock, whose blind adulation of the president demands clinging to illusions no less fictional than the tooth fairy?” And then, without saying another word, he left and drove to the liquor store.
The Lewandowski/Raskin exchange was a tiny moment of political theater in the scheme of things. But I suppose David found it both characteristic and symptomatic of the twenty-year acid trip we have been on since the dawn of the digital revolution—an acute example of raw insanity that has become normal conduct for people in positions of influence. Upon his return with a bottle of Polish vodka, David played The Clash at an impolite volume and presumed to do what he called “writing” for about an hour—an intermittent ack-ack of plastic keys between fits of scatological outbursts and the replenishing of ice cubes in the glass. He managed to produce the following …
Those in positions of authority and leadership have utterly failed to meet the challenge of galloping bullshit in the digital age. Instead, they brought bigger shovels. For instance, what began as bi-partisan congressional hearings to investigate the nature of the Russian hack and disinformation campaigns in the 2016 election soon mutated into a Trumpian (I cannot call those politics Republican) narrative in which Facebook et al should be sanctioned for kicking “conservatives” like Alex Jones off its platform.
That inversion of the whole purpose of oversight (i.e. to mitigate raving lunacy in public discourse) was a prelude to two major events in 2019: the Republican party unanimously shedding any hint of integrity in response to a clear abuse of power by the president; and Mark Zuckerberg declaring that the utopian promise of social media can still be fulfilled if we just give the experiment more time—and more of our data. It was hard to miss the visual of Zuckerberg fiddling at Georgetown while the Capitol in the background was beginning to smolder.
Of course Zuckerberg seized the moment to double down on the tech-utopian narrative in his October speech. As long as we remain neatly organized into our various competing realities, we can never effectively hold a platform like Facebook accountable for profiting from disinformation. There is no disinformation because there is no information. This is exactly why some 40% of Americans will nod, or at least shrug, when Donald Trump says that he knows better than generals, scientists, economists, State Department officials, the FBI, the CIA, etc. about any topic we can name. Of course this brand of mad hubris works in the digital age: it is a politics of memes. The pinnacle of tech-utopianism.
That was probably about when The Clash was exchanged for The Smiths; at least half the vodka was gone; and David slipped back into a dejected silence—a state in which he is frankly a prick, so I left him to it. But about thirty minutes later, he came bursting into the other room, having read an article by Joseph Bernstein about the failure of the digital age to deliver a new enlightenment. Reading from his tablet, he quoted, “When they opened their eyes, they did indeed see that the Digital Nation had been born. Only it hadn’t set them free. They were being ruled by it. It hadn’t tamed politics. It sent them berserk.”
This was ringing in 2020 for The Illusion of More. Please pardon our appearance. Restoration is in progress.
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