Yes, the Internet Has Us Dazed and Confused. But Our Real Problem Is Lack of Civic Trust
Old verities about the centrality of truth have been conked on the head.
This column originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.
In 2008, back in the halcyon days of the digital revolution, author Nicholas Carr sent up a warning flare in his provocatively titled Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The progressively addled attention spans he predicted have come to pass and then some.
What few foresaw, however, was just how angry and crazy our online lives would make us. Today’s mainstreaming of QAnon-style conspiracies has put us far enough down the digital rabbit hole that it’s an open question if or when we’ll find our way out.
Personally, I’d say the odds are tilting against us. After rioters sacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, New York Times tech journalist Kara Swisher wrote: “Digital hate and misinformation finally jumped out of the screen and into the real world. … Few will now deny that the miraculous tools that Silicon Valley has invented have been badly perverted.”
No fooling. For years, America’s big-tech titans have refined ways to hijack our attention with bile-inducing algorithms, as studies show. The resulting loss of our collective marbles has been dandy for Silicon Valley. Polarization has meant big profits. Too bad the triumph of lies over the truth has sent our better angels flying for cover.
Yet something even deeper is gnawing at us. Years of working-class malaise have helped discredit the small-l liberal ideals that Democrats and Republicans could once agree on to make post-World War II America great — a consensus on policy parameters that helped deliver jobs and anchor communities.
Today, the trouble has spilled well beyond the working class. In a gemlike 2017 essay I like to quote, author Brink Lindsey noted that the lives of a large majority of Americans, those “[o]utside a well-educated and comfortable elite comprising 20–25 percent” of the population, show “unmistakable signs” pointing to “the progressive unraveling of the human connections that give life structure and meaning.”
“This is a genuine crisis,” Lindsey, vice president of the Niskanen Center, argues, “but its roots are spiritual, not material, deprivation.”
Little wonder, then, we’re experiencing a crisis of public trust. “Ultimately what we believe is true is based on who we trust,” Civic Signals co-directorEli Pariser told On the Media co-host Brooke Gladstone. “If you want a better truth architecture, you need a better trust architecture. … [F]ixing the relational problems to me is as or more important as fixing the content problems.”
Meanwhile, old verities about the centrality of truth have been conked on the head. The cornerstone of classic liberal thinking is the “idea that good information, good arguments will triumph over bad information and bad arguments over time,” Siva Vaidhyanathan told On the Media co-host Bob Garfield.
Today, Vaidhyanathan, a University of Virginia professor of media studies, argues that a regard for facts has given way to a kind of epistemological tribalism. “People are subscribing to … claims about the world based on their identities, based on their relationships with others, based on what makes them feel better about themselves … the clustering of the Like-Minded for the sake of comfort.”
And that’s moved us onto dangerous ground. “When we give up on truth,” Yale historian Timothy Snyder observed in a New York Times essay published shortly after the U.S. Capitol attack, “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.”
That very lack of concord may be pushing us to a pivot point in our social order. In a 2020 essay for Comment magazine, author Tara Isabella Burton wrote that people both right and left, die-hard Trump populists as well as progressives, feel increasingly alienated from a society that doesn’t satisfy basic human desires for a strong sense of individual identity rooted in community.
It’s too early to tell where this value migration might take us, but it is possible to glimpse what troubles us, especially younger Americans, including millennials, the oldest of whom are now entering early middle age.
“[Y]oung, postliberal cultures — from social-justice activism to the brutal atavism of the masculinist right,” wrote Burton, “share a disillusionment not just with liberalism as a principle of governance,” but also with a “disembodied rationality” that “renders human beings interchangeable, reproducible.”
This feeling of lost traction, of becoming cogs in social machinery seen to be driven by and for uncaring elites, may help explain our inflection point, much as it did when the Silent Generation of the conformist 1950s broke loose into the rebellious boomers of the ’60s and ’70s.
Burton’s solution? “We must preserve, with liberalism, a robust vision of human equality that does not lead us inexorably to the implicit liberal conclusion of human interchangeability: universalism that turns people into capital, translatable in the same way you can translate dollars into euros.”
Burton’s argument borrows on Christian humanism but isn’t limited by it. “[W]e must preserve space in our conception of the human person … for an irreducibility that neither culture nor nature can explain,” she says. Or, as we might second in Walt Whitman’s quintessentially American way: “I … am not contain’d between my hat and boots. … I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself.”
Working to expand those areas of life necessary to sustain spirit as well as body may seem like a wild dream in our turbulent times. On the other hand, digging out of our civic trust deficit might just set us free.