after babel

jonathan haidt, 2022

  • history involves a series of transitions, driven by rising population density plus new technologies (writing, roads, the printing press) that created new possibilities for mutually beneficial trade and learning. (Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny - Robert Wright, 1999)
    • Zero-sum conflicts—such as the wars of religion that arose as the printing press spread heretical ideas across Europe—were better thought of as temporary setbacks, and sometimes even integral to progress. (Those wars of religion, he argued, made possible the transition to modern nation-states with better-informed citizens.)
  • The high point of techno-democratic optimism was arguably 2011: Arab Spring, global Occupy movement, Google Translate available on virtually all smartphones... 2011 was the year that humanity rebuilt the Tower of Babel. We were closer than we had ever been to being “one people,” and we had effectively overcome the curse of division by language.
  • Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three.
    • Postal ServicePostal ServicePostal ServicePostal ServicePostal ServicePostal ServicePostal ServicePostal Service through the telephone to and textinging`—that helped people achieve the eternal goal of maintaining their social ties. But gradually, social-media users became more comfortable sharing intimate details of their lives with strangers and corporations.
  • In February 2012, as he prepared to take Facebook public, Zuckerberg reflected on those extraordinary times and set forth his plans. Facebook hoped “to rewire the way people spread and consume information” he wrote in a letter to investors. By giving them “the power to share,” it would help them to “once again transform many of our core institutions and industries.”
    • Facebook had given users a simple timeline––a never-ending stream of content generated by their friends and connections, with the newest posts at the top and the oldest ones at the bottom.
    • 20092009200920092009201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122012201220122`. “Like” and “Share” buttons quickly became standard features of most other platforms.
    • Shortly after its “Like” button began to produce data about what best “engaged” its users, Facebook developed algorithms to bring each user the content most likely to generate a “like” or some other interaction, eventually including the “share” as well.
  • Facebook and Twitter make it possible for parents to become outraged every day over a new snippet from their children’s school lessons and any new pedagogical shift anywhere in the country. The motives of teachers and administrators come into question, and overreaching laws or reforms sometimes follow. One result is that *young people educated in the post-Babel era are less likely to arrive at a coherent story of who we are as a people, and less likely to share any such story with those who attended different schools or who were educated in a different decade.
    • constructive feature of the pre-digital era: a single “mass audience,” all consuming the same content, as if they were all looking into the same gigantic mirror at the reflection of their own society.
    • Mark Zuckerberg may not have wished for any of that. But by rewiring everything in a headlong rush for growth—with a naive conception of human psychology, little understanding of the intricacy of institutions, and no concern for external costs imposed on society—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few other large platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.
      • hhhhmmmmmmmm..
  • The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer (an international measure of citizens’ trust in government, business, media, and nongovernmental organizations) showed stable and competent autocracies (China and the United Arab Emirates) at the top of the list, while contentious democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, and South Korea scored near the bottom (albeit above Russia).
  • Trump did not destroy the tower; he merely exploited its fall. He was the first politician to master the new dynamics of the post-Babel era, in which outrage is the key to virality, stage performance crushes competence, Twitter can overpower all the newspapers in the country, and stories cannot be shared (or at least trusted) across more than a few adjacent fragments—so truth cannot achieve widespread adherence.
    • Those who had argued that Trump could not win the general election were relying on pre-Babel intuitions, which said that scandals such as the Access Hollywood tape (in which Trump boasted about committing sexual assault) are fatal to a presidential campaign. But after Babel, nothing really means anything anymore––at least not in a way that is durable and on which people widely agree.
  • The stupefying process plays out differently on the right and the left because their activist wings subscribe to different narratives with different sacred values. The “Hidden Tribes” study tells us that the “devoted conservatives” score highest on beliefs related to authoritarianism. They share a narrative in which America is eternally under threat from enemies outside and subversives within; they see life as a battle between patriots and traitors.
    • when the newly viralized social-media platforms gave everyone a dart gun, it was younger progressive activists who did the most shooting, and they aimed a disproportionate number of their darts at these older liberal leaders.
    • on balance, social media amplifies political polarization; foments populism, especially right-wing populism; and is associated with the spread of misinformation.

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