No B.S Friday: Social media hasn’t helped, but this death blow was always coming.
How does society survive the next 30 years?
Seems like a long shot to me.
When you look at what makes the modern economy tik, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.
A lot of the cultural norms that support the way we interact with each other – even in a commercial sense – and a lot of the institutions that make trade possible are what you call ‘soft infrastructure’.
They’re essential, but difficult to define and hold.
I was reading an interesting article in the Atlantic that put it this way:
Historically, civilizations have relied on shared blood, gods, and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow. But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?
Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three.
This piece is really about how social media has eroded this soft infrastructure, and threatens to bring down society in the process.
Gurri is no fan of elites or of centralized authority, but he notes a constructive feature of the pre-digital era: a single “mass audience,” all consuming the same content, as if they were all looking into the same gigantic mirror at the reflection of their own society.
… The digital revolution has shattered that mirror, and now the public inhabits those broken pieces of glass. So the public isn’t one thing; it’s highly fragmented, and it’s basically mutually hostile. It’s mostly people yelling at each other and living in bubbles of one sort or another.
Mark Zuckerberg may not have wished for any of that. But by rewiring everything in a headlong rush for growth—with a naive conception of human psychology, little understanding of the intricacy of institutions, and no concern for external costs imposed on society—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few other large platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.
I think that’s right. Social media rewards extreme views expressed in extreme ways, and it gives us the sense that the fringes of the left or right or whatever are far more representative than they actually are.
And you have people living through the same event – Covid, the 2020 Presidential election, the war in Ukraine – but with a completely different experience and sense-making of what is actually going on.
Social media certainly didn’t help. But I’m not sure that this wouldn’t have happened anyway.
One of the things the Internet did was liberate information. It moves freely and quickly now. As a result, there just aren’t as many places for false, stupid or corrupt to hide anymore.
Take our institutions. It’s very easy to see how politics is at the behest of big money donations these days. The light that this shines on corruption erodes faith in the institution.
But that’s just the internet shining a light on a bug that was already there. It was going to happen anyway.
The internet has also given us the ability to unplug from society and avoid all social interaction if we want. Outside of groceries, 90% of the stuff I buy is online these days.
Add that to working from home, and I actually have to make an effort if I want to interact with someone these days.
That’s not supportive of “extensive social networks with high levels of trust.”
And I think it’s the same thing with our shared stories. The light of information is forcing us to rethink them.
We can’t hide from the fact that there’s actually a lot of skeletons in our colonial history, and it gets increasingly hard to make the case that the story of a boy living in the belly of a whale is accurate historical account, rather than an elegant teaching story.
Knowledge, once it started flowing freely, was always going to do this.
And so I think we’re at an inflection point.
Where as we once allowed corrupt institutions to hide in our blind spots, or seemingly far-fetched stories go un-fact-checked, today we don’t have that luxury.
This is an evolutionary pressure bearing down on society.
Either we ground our institutions in integrity, and our shared stories in reality, or we collapse.
I’m not sure we’re up for the task.
But if we can do it, it will be a big step forward in the history of human civilisation.
(But I’m not holding my breath.)