From Common Sense to Bespoke Realities
The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 12
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. In this installment (which is uncharacteristically brief!), I offer a story in three parts about how the relationship among information, knowledge, and political communities has evolved over the last few centuries. At the end of the post I also have some suggestions for further reading. Cheers!
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“Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on.”
— W. H. Auden, “Friday’s Child”
Here’s one way to frame our situation with regards to information, knowledge, and the public sphere in three stages:
Pre-modern information environments were locally shared common worlds mediated chiefly by our embodied experience.
Modernity offered instead a de-situated public sphere built on a shared institutional and expert knowledge mediated by print and mass media.
What we are now living through is the collapse of the modern arrangement and the emergence of virtually shared common worlds mediated chiefly by digital media.
I grant those are pretty dense statements and also very broad generalizations. You can tell me whether or not they do some useful descriptive work. But first let me unpack them just a bit.
In the first claim, I have in mind Hannah Arendt’s discussion of common sense and a common world.“Only the experience of sharing a common human world with others who look at it from different perspectives,” she wrote in The Human Condition, “can enable us to see reality in the round and to develop a shared common sense.”
Arendt also insisted that to live an “entirely private life means above all to be deprived of things essential to a truly human life,” by which she meant that one is “deprived of the reality that comes from being seen and heard by others, to be deprived of an ‘objective’ relationship with them that comes from being related to and separated from them through the intermediary of a common world of things.”
Understood this way, “common sense” might better be called a “communal sense” to distinguish it from what usually comes to mind when most of us hear the phrase. Under these conditions, to know is to share a world. A world in this case is more than just the things out there. It is a community of interpretation.
What all of this presupposes is that our body (and its sensory apparatus) is the focal point of our experience. We perceive a common world and thus cultivate a common sense, or a sense of the world we have in common. The upshot here is not necessarily that I as an individual possess an infallibly true account of the world, but that I share an account of the world with my neighbors. Knowledge is not merely an accumulation of abstract bits of information, it is also, for the local community at least, a binding agent.
Thinking about this state of affairs, I’m also reminded of an observation offered by the Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in Space and Place: “In the past, news that reached me from afar was old news. Now, with instantaneous transmission, all news is contemporary. I live in the present, surrounded by present time, whereas not so long ago, the present where I am was an island surrounded by the pasts that deepened with distance.”
Or to put it another way, before the advent of electronic communication, the regulation of information was partly a function of our being bodies in place. Immediacy was structured by place rather than time.
Throughout the modern era, however, especially after the advent of electronic media, knowledge, place, and the public sphere begin to diverge. While local realities still loomed large epistemically and politically, there was a drift toward more abstract knowledge and more abstract communities (some might say “imagined communities”). The nation is a more abstract reality to inhabit than, say, the village or the county. The public sphere becomes a metaphor rather than a shared place. It named the multifarious ways that issues are taken up in the press and through mass media. Similarly, in a democratic context, the knowledge presumed of the informed citizen expands in scope and detail, and it is often wholly divorced from their everyday experience. These conditions generated a growing dependence on an expert class and knowledge institutions to certify the epistemic foundation for informed public discourse.
Mass society of the mid- to late-20th century is the apotheosis of the modern media environment. In the absence of a shared communal sense, it sustained the appearance of consensus. Interestingly, consensus is a mid-19th century term whose etymology suggests feeling or sensing together. We might say, then, that consensus mediated by knowledge institutions and experts supplants what Arendt called common sense. Although, perhaps supplants isn’t the best way of putting it. That suggests some kind of intentionality. The development is rather a function of the scale of human action enabled by modern technology. At every point the relationship is dialectical. Electronic media extend the individual’s perceptual capacity beyond the limits of their embodiment, inadvertently disrupting the bonds of common sense and later generating the appearance of consensus.
At this point in the story, we reach a certain homeostasis, but it is short lived. What often gets overlooked in discussions about the state of the public sphere is just how brief and tenuous the age of consensus really was. First through novel applications of traditional mass media (such as cable and satellite television) and then definitively with the emergence of digital media, we enter a splintering age. And we should not miss how one era prepared the ground for the other. The age of the mass media spectacle prepared us for the age of the participatory spectacle that was social media. The loneliness of mass society drove us to embrace the promise of ubiquitous connection. The valorization of information led us to indiscriminately embrace the disorienting conditions of information superabundance.
While, for better and for worse, the multiplicity and scale of digital media effectively brought the age of consensus to an end, it did not return us to an age of common sense. There is no imagined community to encompass the body politic, and our perceptual capacities are still untethered from our bodies. The worlds we now inhabit are digitized realms incapable by their nature and design of generating a broadly shared experience of reality. This can be lamented, if one is so inclined, but it cannot be undone.
Arendt argued that to live an “entirely private life means above all to be deprived of things essential to a truly human life.” Digital media has made it possible to live an even more intensely private life, inhabiting what Renee DiResta once called “bespoke realities.” And, as McLuhan warned us, “Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don't really have any rights left.”
I have no tidy or edifying conclusion for you, but I do have two recommendations. First, take a look at an ongoing series by Jon Askonas in The New Atlantis titled “Reality: A Post-Mortem.” The first installment published in the spring, “Reality Is Just a Game Now,” is now out from behind the paywall. You should check it out. Paid subscribers can look forward to a live discussion thread about this essay with Jon next Friday (July 22nd).
Second, Sean Illing and Zac Gershberg’s The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion offers a compelling and sober-minded assessment of our situation, and I commend it to you for your consideration. I confess they won me over early when in the Introduction they observed the following:
If democracy consists of citizens deciding, collectively, what ought to be done, then the manner through which they persuade one another determines nearly everything that follows. And that privileges media ecology as the master political science. Some of its foremost practitioners, like Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, sensed, far better than political scientists or sociologists, that our media environment decides not just what we pay attention to but also how we think and orient ourselves in the world.
You can read a much longer discussion of these themes in Arendt in this installment of the newsletter from 2020.
Although, if pressed, I’d suggest Ivan Illich’s call for a new askesis of perception.
From the New Atlantis piece on ARGs. “Both journalists and spin doctors attempted to massage or manipulate the narrative here or there, but eventually mass media converged on whatever the narrative was. In an age of alternate realities, narratives do not converge.”
In the late 1970s, I worked on an IT system for Lloyds Register of Shipping, in London. It was called the Shipping Casualty database, and was designed to monitor and record in real time the reports of “shipping casualties” around the world - everything from a ship bumping into a jetty and scratching its paintwork, to bulk carriers breaking up in mid ocean and sinking with the loss of all hands. Reports came in from shipowners, Lloyd’s agents, news agencies, port authorities, coastguards, search and rescue, and just simple gossip, and were collated and added to the database, with a time/date stamp. They were not fact-checked, edited, compared with other reports, just captured as accurately and completely as possible, from the source.
Initially, reports varied widely, sometimes hysterically - from no damage, to extensive, from no human casualties to dozens killed or missing. Gradually, sometimes over weeks, the agreed facts began to emerge - sometimes very sparse, such as a disappearance over deep water of a large freighter, only finally resolved years later after finding the sunken ship, courts of enquiry etc. More generally, the facts were settled fairly quickly (within days or weeks) - how much damage to the ship, ships or port facilities, how many injuries or deaths. The explanation often took much longer, perhaps only finally settled in a court of law or some sort of enquiry.
The point is, in the end, mostly (not the Marie Celeste!) an agreed set of facts emerged, if not an explanation, out of the initial fog and confusion of conflicting reports.
It seems to me that that is the problem with much of our current online discourse, on everything from climate change to vaccinations, Covid responses, myriad Trump related stories - we never seem to get to the bottom, the solid ground of consensual agreement on what actually happened. In fact a lot of participants, on all sides, have no interest in getting to those facts (because to some extent the party would be over and what would we do then?). In other cases, we simply won’t know - whether or not climate change will have had a significant impact by 2100 until, maybe, 2100 - or we will not be allowed to know e.g. about the merits or otherwise of Covid vaccinations, lock downs, mask mandates, because too many of the actors in the drama have a political or economic incentive not to have their decisions questioned.
Another, perhaps more sinister, aspect is where for example everyone (in effect - say 90%) has been vaccinated. It will be very hard to establish then whether the vaccines prevented a much worse outcome, or achieved nothing, or made things worse - a powerful incentive for those pushing for 100% vaccination to keep doing so, and to try to suppress or manipulate information that suggests vaccinations may not be an unmitigated good.
I now realise I’m starting to write an essay of my own, and I don’t know where it’s going, and I have to get on with my real world day . . .
"Electronic media extend the individual’s perceptual capacity beyond the limits of their embodiment, inadvertently disrupting the bonds of common sense and later generating the appearance of consensus."
Until the last several years, I was content to live to a large degree within the limits of my embodiment, not counting vicarious experiences through reading *printed* material. Now that I've experienced the chaos and seeming futility that lies on the other side of that fence, I spend too much time imagining a return to my former, happily circumscribed domain, all the while taking sustenance from voices like yours, which I hear from afar. Thank you!