I did not know that Antonio García Martínez had a Substack, but he does, and he interviewed Martin Gurri on it last year, and as with all things Gurri, it’s a good read:
Human knowledge is much more limited than we like to admit. To shape the flux of events into a story that will persuade the public, therefore, the elites must control the means of communication. When that control slips, the elite class lapses into a state of crisis. Every major transformation in information technology has brought in train widespread chaos and disruption, often accompanied by bloodshed, as the old elites – wedded to obsolete forms of communication – were chased up their castle towers and heaved out the window. The most disruptive innovation of this nature was surely the printing press. It inspired revolutions in religion, politics, and science.
At the present time, we are in the first stages of a gigantic transformation from the industrial mode of information and communication to something that doesn’t even have a name yet. It’s an extinction event for the narratives. The ideal of representative democracy is in trouble, for example, and the institutions around that ideal will have to be reformed if they wish to retain any sort of legitimacy. But every possible ideology that might challenge representative democracy is even more discredited. Putting aside old threats like fascism or Marxism-Leninism, which are museum relics, there is no great cry among the global public for the “Chinese model” or Putinism, and Islamism seems to have sputtered out.
The causes, I repeat, are structural, and not dependent on the creativity of the elites. Today, even George Washington and FDR would be roasted alive over the fires of social media. Not surprisingly, the people in charge of running things are terrified of saying anything at all – it might come back to bite them. In a Darwinian sense, they are selected for the ability to use words that have no meaning.
The sterility of the ruling class in the production of meaning, in turn, has paradoxical consequences. Crude and incoherent versions of worn-out ideals like socialism and nationalism briefly regain currency, and are said to be the next big thing: amid the panicked babble of the elites, we watch these rough dreams slouch towards Bethlehem to be born again. But there is no second coming. History has never sponsored reruns of dead ideals, even as sitcoms. The appeal to the corpses of once-powerful ideologies itself is evidence of our exhausted powers of explanation, and these dusty mummies, dragged up by the swirl of surface effects, will almost certainly be swept away in the great transformation.
Many moons ago, I realized that by the time I learn enough about a big “news” story to realize I don’t care, the story turns out to be BS anyway. And so it is with the tale of Ellie Kemper, the actress and comedian from The Office and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, who was branded a “KKK Queen” this week.
Why? Because people started tweeting a rumor, based on a misunderstanding about some debutante ball in St. Louis that Kemper attended as a teenager over 20 years ago, and Twitter put it on their “What’s happening” sidebar of trending topics. It turns out that the claim is complete garbage and Kemper has never had anything to do with the Klan, but mere facts won’t do her or anyone else much good in 2021 America. The mob is always hungry for blood, and Kemper is this week’s special.
Once somebody decides to go after you on social media, there’s nothing you can do to defend yourself. Defying the mob is framed in the press as “doubling down,” and groveling for forgiveness just emboldens your tormentors. Kafka was an amateur, man.
There’s an entire media ecosystem devoted to whipping up these fake outrages for clicks. Why go after Ellie Kemper? Why not go after Ellie Kemper. Or you, or me, or anybody. We can be cancelled at any moment, for any reason or no reason at all.
If you’ve got enough money, all you can do is hide out until the mob moves on to another target. But if you can’t afford to just disappear for days or weeks or months… shrug emoji!
This sort of crap generates traffic for Twitter, which is why they amplify it. They know there’s a mob with torches and pitchforks at the ready, just waiting to be pointed toward the next victim. And Jack Dorsey sits on his billions and watches what he’s done.
With great power comes great irresponsibility.
Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones. The pile of stones the boys had made earlier was ready; there were stones on the ground with the blowing scraps of paper that had come out of the box. Mrs. Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands and turned to Mrs. Dunbar. “Come on,” she said. “Hurry up.”
Mrs. Dunbar had small stones in both hands, and she said, gasping for breath. “I can’t run at all. You’ll have to go ahead and I’ll catch up with you.”
The children had stones already, and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.
Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head.
Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.
“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
— Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery“
While the genuine thinker longs for nothing more than he longs for leisure, the ordinary scholar flees from it because he does not know what to do with it. His consolation lies in books: that is to say he listens to what someone else thinks and in this way he lets himself be entertained throughout the long day. He chooses especially books which in some way or other excite his personal sympathies, which permit him, through the arousal of like or dislike, to feel some emotion: that is to say, books in which he himself, or his class, his political or aesthetic or even merely grammatical dogmas, are the subject of discussion; and if there is a field of study in which he specializes he never lacks means of entertainment or flyswatters against boredom.
— Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator,” Untimely Meditations
Smartphones have taken the place of books these days, but the scene remains the same. There’s one house I pass on my way to town — whether morning, afternoon, or evening, the man and woman who live there are always sitting on chairs on the front porch, sometimes together, sometimes alone, but always with their chins nearly touching their chests, staring onto their phone screens, motionless except for their scrolling fingers. I wonder if future anthropologists will find twenty-first century skeletons with curved neck vertebrae and arthritic index fingers and wonder what sort of disease or malnutrition caused these curious deformations.
The best thing about the emergence of @SubstackInc is just reading people making arguments at a length greater than 240 characters! Actual, genuine exchange requires more space than tweets. There are lots of things I love about Twitter, but it’s bad for debate.
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) March 22, 2021
Yes, if only there had existed some sort of platform prior to Substack where people could write at whatever length they desired, where conversations rather than snarky one-liners predominated. Something along the lines of a “web journal,” or “bjournal” for short. Hmm, maybe that wouldn’t have caught on. Oh, well, this is why I’m not a inventor.
In this, I’m a determinist. I agree with Alan Jacobs that Twitter was the logical endpoint of the sorts of blogs that existed to argue about politics and current events. Let’s skip all the verbose preamble and get straight to being enraged by the mere sight of our tribal enemies. Substack will probably end up being the preserve of dissident journalists, while old-fashioned blogs will continue to be the rocking chairs on the front porch where the old-timers get together to reminisce about everything under the sun.
Content moderation, in my opinion, isn’t really a movement but part of this delusional thinking. The idea is to make the great digital platforms look like the front page of the New York Times circa 1980. It won’t happen. The digital realm is too vast. There can be no question that, with Joe Biden as president, we have entered a moment of reaction — a revolt against the revolt. But all the techniques of control wielded by the elites are, like their dreams, stuck in the 20th century and ineffective in the current information landscape.
To take down an opinion, or an author, or a small platform like Parler would have had a shocking impact in 1980, but today is simply swarmed over by similar opinions, authors, and platforms. This is truly a Marshall McLuhan moment, in which the message is the medium, rather than little threads of contested content.
I’m still keeping a nervous eye on developments in the exciting new field of progressive censorship. From tech giants like eBay and Amazon imposing a social-justice morality standard on products sold on their platforms, to the mania among progressive journalists for censoring Substack, Fox News, podcasts, etc. under the guise of fighting “misinformation,” to the general plague of campus mores spreading into the corporate and political environments, these are worrying times for those who value life in a society where politics doesn’t “tap you on the shoulder.” But Gurri’s book, and subsequent interviews, have helped reassure me that much of this frantic activity is just a traumatized cultural elite, accustomed to thinking of themselves as natural gatekeepers of information, trying desperately to pretend that they can bully their way back to positions of uncontested authority. Nothing is ever predestined in human affairs, but the trends all seem to be against them. We may as well try to be optimistic.
More wise words:
Advice to the troubled & confused: avoid the news. Read books. Take walks. Listen to music. You’ll be healthier, saner – & smarter too…
— Martin Gurri (@mgurri) March 8, 2021
People between the ages of twenty and thirty read a good deal, after thirty their reading drops off and by forty is confined to each person’s special subject, newspapers and magazines; so that the most important part of one’s audience, and that which should be mainly written for, consists of specialists and people between twenty and thirty.
— Samuel Butler, The Notebooks of Samuel Butler
I haven’t taken a census, but I’d be willing to bet that my own audience consists of amateurs and people between forty and seventy. I suspect that holds true for much of the remains of the blogosphere. Jonah Goldberg claims that blogging, at least the political/current events type, was a precursor to Twitter and its numerous pathologies. While there’s something to that, I like to think that the blog has evolved into the abode of an older, more reflective audience.
If Twitter were a city it would be the sort of city where the authorities allow people to defecate in public or shoot up outside a school, and then express surprise when middle-class families wish to leave because of “the better quality of life” found in a four-hour commute away exurb.
So…like San Francisco, then? I mean, considering the father, is it any wonder the kid turned out the way it did?
The choice was put to them whether they would like to be kings or kings’ couriers. Like children they all wanted to be couriers. So now there are a great many couriers; they post through the world and, as there are no kings left, shout to each other their meaningless and obsolete messages. They would gladly put an end to their wretched lives, but they dare not because of their oath of service.
There are many interpretations of this parable, but the meaning seems clear and obvious to me: Once upon a time, the blog was the ne plus ultra of social media, or “Web 2.0,” as it was then called. Each blogger ruled hizzorher own kingdom, issuing edicts, jeremiads and stemwinders according to whim. Then came the great enclosure, when we forfeited our kingdoms to move into the gated pens of Facebook and Twitter, where self-expression is limited to primitively reacting to whatever trending “news” is carelessly dumped into the feeding trough. Deleting one’s accounts would seem to be the only logical choice, but doing so would give Zuckerberg and Dorsey the legal right to harvest your organs as a result. (Always read the fine print in the terms of service.) Frankly, I had no idea Kafka was such a prescient visionary. I might have to read him more closely.
It is a folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom.
— Jonathan Swift, The Conduct of the Allies
I wish that were so, but Kristian Niemietz has been making the counterargument for some time that “Twitter is the real world,” and I’m afraid he may well be right. To paraphrase Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of monomaniacal fanatics can change the world.”