That’s the question I keep asking myself. How much of the state of the world is just me getting older and crankier and how much is actually great heaping quantities of bullshit? Moreover, how much of this has always been there and is just now getting noticed because of social media and technology proliferation? I saw a line somewhere about “amazing how as soon as everyone got a camera on their phone, police brutality went up and UFO sightings went away” and I think there’s something to that, especially for things like police shootings and stuff that was more easily hushed up in days of local centralized media. After all, when a major city has four or five TV stations and two newspapers, there aren’t a lot of channels to get the word out.
But I’m less concerned with coverage than things going the other direction. Consider the likes of Donald Trump, or indeed any major right-wing political figure in the 21st century who trades heavily in what can only be described as “racism that took a bath and put on shoes.” Twenty-five years ago, in the age of David Duke, this meant a lot of trafficking in newsletters and flyers, things that you had to go to some effort to connect with. If you wanted somebody to hype you up about immigration and the threat to America, you had to make an effort to connect with some like-minded people. Even into the 1990s, there was plenty of that sort of thing on AM shock radio, but it was considered unsavory at best and was sort of limited in what it could do – it was broadcasting and not particularly effective. Now, Facebook and email forwards are synonymous with the kind of old-white-people racism that had a tough time proliferating beyond personal contact. Or rather, the scope of personal contact has increased beyond reason.
Consider the Clinton Chronicles, that pastiche of fever-dream conspiracy theory hawked by right-wing nutjobs throughout the 90s with all the various anti-Clinton slurs bound up in it: sex, drug trafficking, murder, you name it. It was limited in its distribution by whatever holy rollers were willing to sell you a copy (and risk their tax-exempt status) or whatever radio hosts were willing to flack for it. And while it was out there, it was also limited to this subculture and had trouble leaking out of the sewer (although the willingness of Congressional Republicans to do just that was probably the first sign of the modern conservatism through which we new suffer).
By contrast: how long did it take for the “Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya” thing to proliferate? And how long was it sustained in the complete absence of evidence? And how long as it kept up despite the lack of evidence – and indeed the copious evidence to the contrary not to mention the limits of basic reason? It’s been sustained, and remains sustainable, because technology allows the like-mindeed to keep the fires burning, to keep feeding the madness with minimal effort.
Or consider the ongoing issues with GamerGate harassment or how easy it is to turn social media into an unlimited firehose of abuse. In the past, what would be the opportunity cost for thousands of people to bombard a target – whether it be Brianna Wu or the Nashville Tennessean – with threats and hate speech? You’ve got to sit down, write something out, put it in an envelope, find an address to send it to, pay for a stamp and get it in the mail – who the hell has time for that? Now you can just dash off something threatening with a single click, and rally thousands of like-minded people to do the same – when a couple of decades ago, you might have been hard-pressed to locate thousands of like-minded people, let alone connect with them. Now Reddit and Twitter have done it for you.
I keep going back to Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age for this, and the Neo-Victorian society that concluded that the solutions to these technological issues could not be technological: it had to be cultural. Our notional asshole above, in addition to having to find stationery and stamps and everything else, had to contend with the fact that society would frown on what he (almost always he, for some reason) was doing. Now he’s just one angry tweeter in a storm of thousands, with the protection that comes from just being a face in the crowd and (to borrow a line from WWII airpower doctrine) the fact that the bomber will always get through. You can’t block all 10,000 harassing tweeters, not with accuracy and precision. In the end, you either have to just let it happen or retreat and bail out altogether. Neither of which seems to be an acceptable solution, but right now, we don’t have door number three.
I don’t know if it’s manners, or norms, or what it is. It’s just that there used to be some things that were clearly beyond the pale. Some people misused those manners and norms, and so apparently the decision was taken that rather than curb the misuse, we should throw out the idea of manners and norms altogether. And now we’re reaping all the benefits – there are no standards of conduct, and no ways of enforcing the old ones without making trouble. Call out the guy smoking on the train platform beneath the “No Smoking” sign, and you’re the asshole. Writ large, there’s nobody to call you out if you decide to say something completely different one day from what you said 24 hours earlier. Everyone gets their own opinion, everyone gets their own facts, and the results are predictable.
Ian Malcolm’s Jurassic Park warning about dinosaur DNA is even more apt when you consider that we’ve put equal access to the most powerful communication instrument in the world into the hands of everyone, with no rules and no safety catch: “you’ve spent so much time thinking HOW you could do it that you never considered whether you SHOULD.” We’ve put the entire elementary school out to recess with only one teacher supervising, and that teacher just keeled over. And when you decide that whatever you want to do is fine, without any sort of societal framework to contain it, you get everything from people blowing stoplights because it’s inconvenient to Donald Trump as the leading candidate to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States.
Yes, some things were always this bad, and it’s just now becoming easy for people to see. But we’ve also created entirely new ways to make things worse, eroded the things that helped prevent them getting worse, and we aren’t going to get them back into the bottle. It’s past time to start thinking of how we can make a society that makes it possible to live with what we’ve done to ourselves.