Last Wednesday, I was working on the draft of a newsletter I had intended to send out later in the week. Of course, that was before my Twitter feed was taken over by the failed coup or insurrection or seditious mob, or whatever else one may call it, which stormed the Capitol to interrupt the certification of the electoral college votes and, as far as some participants were apparently concerned, hang the Vice President of the United States.
I’m fully aware of the insignificance of my own judgments on these matters, but let me nonetheless make clear at the outset that, however dispassionate the following discussion may seem, I consider the actions of mob, its enablers, and its apologists reprehensible and seditious. Moreover, I regret to add, the proceedings were, in my view, merely one particularly dramatic symptom of a grave, possibly fatal condition, which will not magically resolve itself come January 21st.
It’s hard to know where to begin, of course; the situation has many interlocking layers. The most notable and disturbing elements have been well covered, and we continue to learn more about the event each day. The picture, it seems, only grows darker. For my part, I’ve been especially interested in thinking through the role of digital media in these events and what it portends for the future. Here, then, are a few reflections for your consideration along those lines.
In light of the complexity and gravity of the situation, which transpired just days ago (although it may already seem like weeks), I feel obliged to stress that this is a tentative exercise in thinking out loud. I’ll begin with a few comments about the labels and categories we use to think about digital media before turning to a more direct analysis of last week’s events and what they reveal about our media environment. More than is usually the case, the following discussion lacks a tight, well-ordered structure, so I’ve supplied the numbering to provide some sense of how my thoughts were grouped together. Think of what follows not so much as an argument but as a series of interlocking perspectives on the same phenomenon.
(1) Reading through the torrent of commentary on the assault on the Capitol has left me with the sense that we’ve still not quite figured out how exactly to talk about the relationship between digital media and human experience.
Much of the discussion has centered on the moderation policies of social media companies, particularly given their role in the organization of the assault on the Capitol. Some have commented on the role of social media during the assault. And others have sought to examine whether digital media played a more fundamental role in these events and, by extension, our cascading national omni-crisis. Each of these deserves our attention, as does much else, of course. For my part, I’ve been thinking about related matters for some time now under the assumption that digital media—like writing, printing, and electronic media before it—occasions profound social and political change. This is not, in my view, a techno-determinist position. I fully acknowledge that new technologies interact unpredictably with existing values, institutions, and social structures. Moreover, all along the way, people make choices, although perhaps increasingly constrained and conditioned by the new media infrastructure once it has become entrenched. But I remain convinced that media ought to be understood ecologically rather than additively. When a new species is introduced into a natural ecosystem, you don’t just get the old ecosystem plus a new species. You may very well end up with an entirely new ecosystem or even a collapsed ecosystem. Thus, when digital media restructures human communication in roughly 25 years time (dating roughly from the early years of the commercial internet), we should expect significant social and political change. The challenge is to make sense of it midstream, as we still are.
(2) As events unfolded and also in their immediate aftermath, it seemed as if the reality of what was happening was difficult to ascertain. What I have in mind is not simply a case of what we tend to mean when we say something like “I still can’t believe x happened,” which almost always communicates the opposite of the literal sense. Rather, it seems to me that we were confronted with a rather more nebulous sense of unreality, one grounded in a similar inability to clearly parse the relationship between digitization and our experience of the world, which is in turn related to the unfathomable proliferation of digitally mediated reality. We are, of course, well along an established trajectory dating back decades, which has been alternatively theorized, for example, as involving the rise of pseudo-events, spectacle, or hyperreality.
(3) It’s not uncommon to hear someone claim that “Twitter is not real life.” The phrase is generally meant to convey the position that only a relatively small percentage of the population are active Twitter users, thus Twitter is not really representative of reality. Consequently, those whose understanding of reality is shaped largely by their time on Twitter are not really perceiving real life or at least don’t have a good grasp of what really matters in real life.
There is, mind you, a measure of truth to this, but claiming that Twitter is not real life tends to obscure more than it illuminates. What it obscures are the porous boundaries between Twitter and non-Twitter, a fact which has for the past four years been driven home to us on a nearly daily basis. Better to say, for example, that Twitter mediates reality, as does Facebook, Instagram, CNN, your local NPR station, a textbook, a smartphone camera, and your native language. It is not a matter of real life in opposition to mediated reality. The challenge is simply to understand the nature and consequences of the various mediations that together shape our understanding of the world we all share.
While I think it is ultimately unhelpful to speak about digitization generating unreal phenomena or to think of it as a set of activities that are somehow sealed off from the so-called “real” world, it is nonetheless revealing that we reach for this language. It suggests both a lack of trenchant categories with which to describe digitization and, consequently, our inability to fully the integrate the consequences of digitization into our thinking about the world.
(4) Speaking of the digital sphere as a place or even a space is part of the problem. Digital tools do not generate places in the ordinary sense of the word, they mediate relationships, in part precisely by disassociating the self from place. It seems to me that if you think of “online” as a place, it is easier to imagine that this place is somehow detached from the so-called real world—you leave here and go there. However, if you think instead of digitized relations, then that temptation seems to lose its plausibility. The key is to understand the nature of these relations.
Let’s speak, then, of digital tools, digital media, and digitized relations. The three are clearly interdependent—you don’t get digitized relations without either digital tools or their products—but I think it will be useful to keep these distinctions in mind. When it is helpful to think of the three together as a package, I will simply refer to the digital or digitization for brevity’s sake. (Much in the same way that we speak of electrification or industrialization.)
(5) It is certainly true that the total relevant media environment includes network television, cable news, and talk radio. Many have rightly pointed out that, for example, our present situation cannot entirely be blamed on Facebook, Twitter, or any other digital media platform when television and radio also command such large and devoted audiences. This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t account for the degree to which digital is now the master medium, in the sense of being the technical infrastructure for other media (digital tools), supplying content for other media (digital media), and forming the larger environment within which other media operate (digitized relations).
(6) Let’s get back to the mob at the capital as our discreet case in point. Here again, I’ll begin with distinctions.
The event is complex not simple. It has many causes, dimensions, and consequences. If we are tempted to reduce it to one thing and search for one cause, it is because we always find it easier to think in those terms. Moreover, there are multiple, overlapping angles of analysis to consider when we set out to think through the significance of what happened. And it may be that thinking through the relationship of Digitization to this event may not be the most important consideration. As Adam Elkus, for example, has been insisting, this particular event was shaped by elite calculations about hard power during extraordinary circumstances; the attention placed on the internet and the sub-cultures it hosts is, in his view, at least somewhat misguided. I don’t disagree, although I believe its worth exploring the consequences of Digitization and its relation these events. I think we’ll find a great deal of consequence unfolding on this terrain as well.
(7) We will fail to grasp the nature of our situation unless we understand that we inhabit a world composed of two distinct but intermingling configurations of social relations, digitized and analog (for lack of a better way of putting the latter). It is a mistake to either collapse these two configurations into each other as if they were identical or to assume that the two are hermetically sealed off from one another. When this happens, the analysis either attributes too much or too little to digitization. The key, it seems to me, is to recognize the distinctiveness of the relations constituted by digitization and how these relations interact with pre-digital institutions and social arrangements. Consider, for example, the vector of time. Digitization generates temporal pressures that place acute stress on institutions which operate at pre-digital temporal settings. One doesn’t even need to pass a value judgment on which may be the “better” in order to realize that significant problems arise when these two orders of social relations are entwined.
(8) I remain relatively convinced that if we think of a culture as a materially and symbolically mediated set of human relations with a distinct, relatively coherent set of beliefs and values, then it is perfectly legitimate to speak of the proliferation of cultures resulting from the digital mediation of human relations. In this sense, I would argue that if modernity was characterized by mutually reinforcing trends towards pluralism and homogenization, trends which loosen the grip, so to speak, of distinct and independent local cultures, then Digitization has nourished the revival of micro-cultures, which, unlike older, traditional cultures, however, are not to be found in place but rather in the symbolic order of relations sustained by Digitization but whose members then spill out into a common world, which receives members from competing digital cultures and with radically different views of reality.
Of course, this may seem like a banal observation when we have been hearing about internet sub-cultures for years and years. However, I’d say the term has been generally understood as culture in the weak sense. In the old order of things, deep cultural differences could be sapped of their power, chiefly by the commodifying forces of the market economy, the often unstated assumptions of liberal democracy, and mass media. Culture was often reduced to a matter of cuisine, dress, and music rather than one of divergent and often competing orientations toward the world. Digitally mediated sub-cultures around particular games or films, for example, have been understood in this sense. I’m suggesting that digitally mediated sub-cultures can become cultures in the strong sense, generating distinctive perspectives on truth, morals, and norms.
And, again, I think this becomes clear precisely when we cease thinking about the internet as a space (virtual reality, cyberspace, “go online,” etc.) and begin to think of it as alternatively mediated relations. Early in the history of digitization, the internet was called the information superhighway. But the internet was never simply a conduit of information. It did not merely transmit information, it connected people in ways they could not be connected otherwise. It materialized and supercharged the dynamics of cultural formation: symbolic exchange, social networks, and the mechanisms of shame and approbation. And it did so, while simultaneously diminishing the significance of place, which has historically been the most formative vector of cultural formation, and also undermining the authority of older culturally formative institutions.
But, there’s more to this. The fact that this cultural formation happens in the context of digitized relations also means that participants can more readily be locked into alternative realities rather than simply alternative moral orders. Precisely because the formation is happening in the absence of a “common world of things” a “common sense” fails to emerge. I’m thinking here of the way that Hannah Arendt has defined these terms. “The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves,” Arendt wrote in The Human Condition. She went on to claim that “while the intimacy of a fully developed private life, such as had never been known before the rise of the modern age […], will always greatly intensify and enrich the whole scale of subjective emotions and private feelings, this intensification will always come to pass at the expense of the assurance of the reality of the world and men.”
I’ve written recently about Arendt’s understanding of a common world and a common sense with a view to our digitized age, so I won’t belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that under the conditions of digitization, it becomes increasingly difficult to arrive at a common world and a common sense, and much less any general agreement about what shape that world should take.
Digitized relations create conditions that can be described as disembodied environments of symbolic exchange structured by carefully calibrated architectures of reward and affirmation, environments which lend themselves to rapid cultivation of alternative understandings of public phenomena. Do such alternative understandings always yield violent insurrections? No, obviously not. Are such possibilities always latent? Yes.
It’s worth noting, even if just in passing, the underlying loneliness and indeterminacy of identity that render someone susceptible to the temptations of a selfhood dialectically optimized in tandem with an inscrutable algorithm.
(9) Consider the debate about whether this was a serious coup attempt or whether it was a farce and participants were there mostly for social media points. The answer is simply “yes.”
You’ve likely heard some commentary, especially early on and in light of the visually dominating presence of the QAnon shaman, dismissing the mob as nothing more than LARPers (Live Action Role-Playing), who got a bit out of hand. But this view clearly misses an important point. The reference to larping in this context suggests either games like Dungeons and Dragons or, more accurately, in-person meet ups of would be wizards and knights. Obviously, this is a misguided caricature, but it’s what the rhetoric is meant to suggest: people who should not be taken seriously because they are playing silly games.
Unfortunately, this strikes me rather as a slander of larpers, who, as far as I can tell, retain a decidedly firm grip on the borders of the game world and often deploy elaborate rites and practices to secure a high degree of self-awareness about the distinction between fantasy and reality.
Digitization affords no such distinction, as I’ve already argued, even though it is clear that since the early days of the internet, many participants believed that it did. An illusion, I suspect, generated in part by the disembodied and anonymous nature of the early internet forums.
Early internet theorizing and some present day nostalgia celebrates this stage of the internet as a golden age, wherein individuals could freely play with different identities. The reality, of course, was more complicated. Such role playing could liberate aspects of the self that were unjustly suppressed by existing prejudices, but they could just as easily liberate aspects of the self that were justly suppressed by legitimate and salutary moral and ethical standards. Getting to role play white supremacy, for example, can hardly be conceived of as a commendable experience of liberation.
The critical point, however, is that there is no line between political role playing online and the so-called real world. When there is no clear line between the stage and the world, you cannot go on playing a role or acting a part without assuming the risk that you will in fact be transformed by the performance. Moreover, there being no line between digitized relations and analog relations, the perceived immateriality of the digital spectacle can be seen to invite actions that might otherwise have stuck the same person as ludicrous or ill-advised.
Perhaps best remembered for having coined the phrase “the global village,” Marshall McLuhan later came to prefer “the global theater.” In a 1977 interview, McLuhan was asked about his view of technology as a revolutionizing agent. “Yes,” McLuhan responds, “it creates new situations to which people have very little time to adjust. They become alienated from themselves very quickly, and then they seek all sorts of bizarre outlets to establish some sort of identity by put-ons. Show business has become one way of establishing identity by just put-ons, and without the put-on you’re a nobody. And so people are learning show business as an ordinary daily way of survival. It’s called role-playing.”
(10) One of the most widely circulated responses to the events on January 6th has been an essay in the New York Times by historian Timothy Snyder, who has written widely on authoritarianism in the 20th century. It’s a long piece and I won’t pretend to summarize its contents here. I do, however, want to engage one particular section of Snyder’s argument. As we move into the heart of Snyder’s analysis, he writes the following:
Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions. Truth defends itself particularly poorly when there is not very much of it around, and the era of Trump — like the era of Vladimir Putin in Russia — is one of the decline of local news. Social media is no substitute: It supercharges the mental habits by which we seek emotional stimulation and comfort, which means losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true.
Snyder pays some attention to the role of digital media, although he is narrowly focused on social media platforms. But those comments, most of which are accurate and point us toward a better understanding of the role of digital media, do not quite get us there. And, in this paragraph I’ve cited, which has been widely quoted online and can be justly called the crux of the essay, we see the consequences of an inadequate account of digitization.
To see the problem, ask yourself this question: Who exactly is the “we” who has given up on truth?
It would seem that the problem is rather a proliferation of “truths,” stridently and even desperately believed. Am I prepared to say that some of these “truths” are, in fact, lies and falsehoods? Yes, of course. But that’s immaterial. They are believed. Furthermore, politics has always been understood to be the realm of lies and falsehoods, noble, Big, or otherwise. It would seem that we are dealing with something more than conventional lies in this sense.
Additionally, we did not “lose” the institutions that produce facts, these institutions have lost their authority among large segments of the public across the political spectrum.
It must be understood that these two developments proceed in tandem, such that we can describe our situation not as post-truth but as post-trust. Although, even then it is not that we are post-trust so much as we are beyond the age of institutions that commanded widespread trust. Trust has always played a role in the establishment of public knowledge. None of us have independently reasoned ourselves to every single belief we hold about public realities, nor could we even if we so desired. We take on authority a great deal more than we realize. So, when the old institutions we trusted for a base of common knowledge and understanding have (deservedly or otherwise) lost their standing, then public knowledge splinters accordingly.
(11) Last summer I argued that, in the context of information superabundance, the Database now precedes the Narrative. Digitization has made possible the dissemination and storage of information at unprecedented scale and speed. To the degree that your view of the world is mediated by digitized information, to that same degree your encounter with the world will be more like an encounter with a Database of unfathomable size than with a coherent narrative of what has happened. The freedom, if we wish to call it that, of confronting the world in this way also implies the possibility that any two people will make their way through the Database along wildly divergent paths.
Consider the events of January 6th. Long before any kind of credible and authoritative narrative had been established, most of us had already encountered a multitude of data related to the event: videos, images, audio, and endless commentary from people directly involved or observing from a distance. In this context, no one controls the narrative. In this context, speculation runs rampant. In this context, people will form impression, that while false, will never be corrected.
Existing digital cultures will connect the disparate entries in the emerging database to form narratives, which line up with their existing understanding of reality. It is possible to run through the database in countless plausible ways. A consensus narrative will almost certainly not emerge.
It is impossible to overstate the speed with which any phenomena, however slight it may seem, gets entered, irrevocably, into the Database for the generation of narratives, which is to say for the curation of competing realities. The “realtime” nature of this dynamic is critical as is the easily manipulable nature of digital media.
And consider that this is not merely a function of willful ignorance or intentional deceit. Under these conditions, it is entirely possible for serious, educated people to arrive at disparate understandings of reality. The grifters and manipulators don’t help mind you, but I think it’s too facile, and falsely comforting, to say that they alone are the source of the problem.
It’s notable, too, that this fragmentation of perspectives happens at a foundational level. Which is to say that it’s not just that there is widespread disagreement about how to interpret the meaning of an event. It is also that there is widespread disagreement about the basic facts of the event in question. It is one thing to argue the meaning of the moon landing for human affairs, it is another to incessantly debate whether the moon landing happened. Which is why I have argued in the past that we are all conspiracy theorizers now. We are all in the position of holding beliefs, however sure we may be of them, that a sizable portion of the population considers not just mistaken but preposterous and paranoid.
I should, of course, acknowledge another dimension to this reality. The conspiracy theorist is ordinarily imagined as a lone, troubled individual convinced of things hardly anyone else believes. Under the conditions of digitized relations, this is no longer the case. We can readily find others that share our view of the world, which is to say that they have run through the Database and discovered the same patterns. This naturally reinforces what might otherwise have been a tenuously held belief or suspicion. We are not alone, there are others. So rather than saying that we are all conspiracy theorizers now, I should say that we are all cult members now.
The trouble, of course, is that while we might inhabit very different perceived realities, we live in the same world. In the case of the United States, the election and the pandemic are both troubling examples of what can happen under these circumstances. In both cases, it might be said that the world as it is catches up with our mediated realities. You can spin alternative political realties only so long before blood is shed. You can argue the true nature of a virus only so long before the deaths pile up. But this is little comfort and hardly points us forward.
Seen in this light, then, the spectacle, as Snyder puts it, or the Database, as I have called it, precedes the epistemic fragmentation. Is it the case that digital sophists with wealth and charisma will do their best to manipulate this state of affairs to serve their own ends? Yes, of course. But I think it is important to consider that even apart from such actors, we are in a bad place. The epistemic habits are becoming ingrained and the Database only grows.
(12) Thomas Kuhn famously argued that scientific revolutions happened when a reigning scientific paradigm, could no longer account for proliferating anomalies. For some, the encounter with the Database may be described as an incessant assault of anomalies, perpetually deferring the establishment of a paradigm or compelling narrative. The result, I suspect, is generalized suspicion and reluctant indifference bordering on apathy, if not finally cynicism.
Digitized relations, then, allow for the possibility of getting locked into an alternative reality. But they also create the possibility of descending into a state of permanent skepticism about public knowledge. Neither are conducive to a healthy public sphere.
Thus, as William Butler Yeats put it in “The Second Coming,” a poem published interestingly enough in November 1920, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
(13) While the events of January 6th were the result of a confluence of factors that were in large measure independent of digitization, the event itself could not have happened apart from the general context created by digitization. Consequently, I think it best to view the event, which cannot be said to be complete even as I write this, to be an early, if also particularly outrageous and violent actualization of a pattern of event that will become increasingly common barring any large scale and unforeseeable changes to our digital media environment.