May 23 • 13M

The Meta-Positioning Habit of Mind

The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 8

Open in playerListen on);
Audio version of The Convivial Society, a newsletter exploring the intersections of technology, society, and the moral life.
Episode details

Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter exploring the relationship between technology and culture. This is what counts as a relatively short post around here, 1800 words or so, about a certain habit of mind that online spaces seem to foster.

Almost one year ago, this exchange on Twitter caught my attention, enough so that I took a moment to capture it with a screen shot, thinking I’d go on to write about it at some point.

Set aside for a moment whatever your particular thoughts might be on the public debate, if we can call it that, over vaccines, vaccine messaging, vaccine mandates, etc. Instead, consider the form of the claim, specifically the “anti-anti-” framing. I think I first noticed this peculiar way of talking about (or around) an issue circa 2016. In 2020, contemplating the same dynamics, I observed that “social media, perhaps Twitter especially, accelerates both the rate at which we consume information and the rate at which ensuing discussion detaches from the issue at hand, turning into meta-debates about how we respond to the responses of others, etc.” So by the time the Nyhan quote-tweeted Rosen last summer, the “anti-anti-” framing, to my mind, had already entered its mannerist phase.

The use of “anti-anti-ad infinitum” is easy to spot, and I’m sure you’ve seen the phrasing deployed on numerous occasions. But the overt use of the “anti-anti-” formulation is just the most obvious manifestation of a more common style of thought, one that I’ve come to refer to as meta-positioning. In the meta-positioning frame of mind, thinking and judgment are displaced by a complex, ever-shifting, and often fraught triangulation based on who holds certain views and how one might be perceived for advocating or failing to advocate for certain views. In one sense, this is not a terribly complex or particularly novel dynamic. Our pursuit of understanding is often an uneasy admixture of the desire to know and the desire to be known as one who knows by those we admire. Unfortunately, social media probably tips the scale in favor of the desire for approval given its rapid fire feedback mechanisms.

Earlier this month, Kevin Baker commented on this same tendency in a recent thread that opened with the following observation, “A lot of irritating, mostly vapid people and ideas were able to build huge followings in 2010s because the people criticizing them were even worse.”

Baker goes on to call this “the decade of being anti-anti-” and explains that he felt like he spent “the better part of the decade being enrolled into political and discursive projects that I had serious reservations about because I disagreed [with] their critics more and because I found their behavior reprehensible.” In his view, this is a symptom of the unchecked expansion of the culture wars. Baker again: “This isn't censorship. There weren't really censors. It's more a structural consequence of what happens when an issue gets metabolized by the culture war. There are only two sides and you just have to pick the least bad one.”

I’m sympathetic to this view, and would only add that perhaps it is more specifically a symptom of what happens when the digitized culture wars colonize ever greater swaths of our experience. I argued a couple of years ago that just as industrialization gave us industrial warfare, so digitization has given us digitized culture warfare. My argument was pretty straightforward: “Digital media has dramatically enhanced the speed, scale, and power of the tools by which the culture wars are waged and thus transformed their norms, tactics, strategies, psychology, and consequences.” Take a look at the piece if you missed it.

I’d say, too, that the meta-positioning habit of mind might also be explained as a consequence of the digitally re-enchanted discursive field. I won’t bog down this post, which I’m hoping to keep relatively brief, with the details of that argument, but here’s the most relevant bit:

For my purposes, I’m especially interested in the way that philosopher Charles Taylor incorporates disenchantment theory into his account of modern selfhood. The enchanted world, in Taylor’s view, yielded the experience of a porous, and thus vulnerable self. The disenchanted world yielded an experience of a buffered self, which was sealed off, as the term implies, from beneficent and malignant forces beyond its ken. The porous self depended upon the liturgical and ritual health of the social body for protection against such forces. Heresy was not merely an intellectual problem, but a ritual problem that compromised what we might think of, in these times, as herd immunity to magical and spiritual forces by introducing a dangerous contagion into the social body. The answer to this was not simply reasoned debate but expulsion or perhaps a fiery purgation.

Under digitally re-enchanted conditions, policing the bounds of the community appears to overshadow the value of ostensibly objective, civil discourse. In other words, meta-positioning, from this perspective, might just a matter of making sure you are always playing for the right team, or at least not perceived to be playing for the wrong one. It’s not so much that we have something to say but that we have a social space we want to be seen to occupy.

But as I thought about the meta-positioning habit of mind recently, another related set of considerations came to mind, one that is also connected to the digital media ecosystem. As a point of departure, I’d invite you to consider a recent post from Venkatesh Rao about “crisis mindsets.”

“As the world has gotten more crisis prone at all levels from personal to geopolitical in the last few years,” Rao explained, “the importance of consciously cultivating a more effective crisis mindset has been increasingly sinking in for me.” I commend the whole post to you, it offers a series of wise and humane observations about how we navigate crisis situations. Rao’s essay crossed my feed while I was drafting this post about meta-positioning, and these lines near the end of the essay caught my attention:

“We seem to be entering a historical period where crisis circumstances are more common than normalcy. This means crisis mindsets will increasingly be the default, not flourishing mindsets.”

I think this is right, but it also has a curious relationship to the digital media ecosystem. I can imagine someone arguing that genuine crisis circumstances are no more common now than they have ever been but that digital media feeds heighten our awareness of all that is broken in the world and also inaccurately create a sense of ambient crisis. This argument is not altogether wrong. In the digital media ecosystem, we are enveloped by an unprecedented field of near-constant information emanating from the world far and near, and the dynamics of the attention economy also encourage the generation of ambient crisis.

But two things can both be true at the same time. It is true, I think, that we are living through a period during which crisis circumstances have become more frequent. This is, in part, because the structures, both social and technological, of the modern world do appear increasingly fragile if not wholly decrepit. It is also true that our media ecosystem heightens our awareness of these crisis circumstances (generating, in turn, a further crisis of the psyche) and that it also generates a field of faux crisis circumstances.

Consequently, learning to distinguish between a genuine crisis and a faux crisis will certainly be an essential skill. I would add that it is also critical to distinguish among the array of genuine crisis circumstances that we encounter. Clearly, some will bear directly and unambiguously upon us—a health crisis, say, or a weather emergency. Others will bear on us less directly or acutely, and others still will not bear on us at all. Furthermore, there are those we will be able to address meaningfully through our actions and those we cannot. We should, therefore, learn to apportion our attention and our labors wisely and judiciously.

But let’s come back to the habit of mind with which we began. If we are, in fact, inhabiting a media ecosystem that, through sheer scale and ubiquity, heightens our awareness of all that is wrong with the world and overwhelms pre-digital habits of sense-making and crisis-management, then meta-positioning might be more charitably framed as a survival mechanism. As Rao noted, “I have realized there is no such thing as being individually good or bad in a crisis. Humans either deal with crises in effective groups, or not at all.” Just as digital re-enchantment retrieves the communal instinct, so too, perhaps, does the perma-crisis mindset. Recalling, Baker’s analysis, we might even say that the digitized culture war layered over the crisis circumstances intensifies the stigma of breaking ranks.

There’s one last perspective I’d like to offer on the meta-positioning habit of mind. It also seems to suggest something like a lack of grounding or a certain aimlessness. There is a picture that is informing my thinking here. It is the picture of being adrift in the middle of the ocean with no way to get our bearings. Under these circumstances the best we can ever do is navigate away from some imminent danger, but we can never purposefully aim at a destination. So we find ourselves adrift in the vast digital ocean, and we have no idea what we are doing there or what we should be doing. All we know is that we are caught up in wave after wave of the discourse and the best we can do is to make sure we steer clear of obvious perils and keep our seat on whatever raft we find ourselves in, which may be in shambles but, nonetheless, affords us the best chance of staying afloat.

So, maybe the meta-positioning habit of mind is what happens when I have clearer sense of what I am against than what I am for. Or maybe it is better to say that meta-positioning is what happens when we lack meaningful degrees of agency and are instead offered the simulacra of action in digitally mediated spheres, which generally means saying things about things and about the things other people are saying about the things—the “internet of beefs,” as Rao memorably called it. The best we can do is survive the beefs by making sure we’re properly aligned.

To give it yet another turn, perhaps the digital sea through which we navigate takes the form of a whirlpool sucking us into the present. The whirlpool is a temporal maelstrom, keeping us focused on immediate circumstances, unable to distinguish, without sufficient perspective, between the genuine and the faux crisis.

Under such circumstances, we lack what Alan Jacobs, borrowing the phrase from novelist Thomas Pynchon, has called “temporal bandwidth.” In Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), a character explains the concept: “temporal bandwidth is the width of your present, your now … The more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.” Paradoxically, then, the more focused we are on the present, the less of a grip we’re able to get on it. As Jacobs notes, the same character went on to say, “It may get to where you’re having trouble remembering what you were doing five minutes ago.” Indeed, so.

Jacobs recommends extending our temporal bandwidth through a deliberate engagement with the past through our reading as well as a deliberate effort to bring the more distant future into our reckoning. As the philosopher Hans Jonas, whom Jacobs cites, encouraged us to ask, “What force shall represent the future in the present?” The point is that we must make an effort to wrest our gaze away from the temporal maelstrom, and to do so not only in the moment but as a matter of sustained counter-practice. Perhaps then we’ll be better equipped to avoid the meta-positioning habit of mind, which undoubtedly constrains our ability to think clearly, and to find better ways of navigating the choppy, uncertain waters before us.