Have we become uniquely stupid?

For those of you who have read the essay, the title of today’s blogpost is a dead giveaway: I am referring to Jonathan Haidt’s essay in the Atlantic, titled “Why The Past 10 Years Of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid“. The subtitle is equally depressing: It’s Not Just a Phase.

It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history. But Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.
Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people. How did this happen? And what does it portend for American life?


The essay is a lengthy read, but a rewarding one. Jonathan Haidt takes us through the evolution of the internet, with the emphasis on the social aspect really beginning to take off post 2010 or so, and gives us a book to read that goes on my to-read list: Nonzero: History, Evolution and Human Cooperation.

The next section is where the story really picks up, for we are introduced to the “villains” of the piece: the Like, Share and Retweet buttons. It’s not the buttons themselves that are to blame, of course, much like the atom not being at fault for the atom bomb. It’s what we have done with the Like, Share and Retweet buttons that is the problem:

By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game.


Goodhart’s Law is massively underrated. Rather than optimizing for the quality of the content of one’s creation, we optimize for it’s virality. The virality ought to be a function of the quality, but we’ve skipped the intermediate step, with consequences that have become manifest and deep-rooted. Or as Jonathan Haidt puts it, “these platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves”.

He then goes on to quote from Madison’s Federalist No. 10 on the innate human proclivity towards “faction”.
I have watched “The Last Dance” on Netflix more times than I should have, but this reminds me of Michael Wilbon talking about how everybody in Chicago hated the Pistons (around the 28 minute mark in episode 4, if you’re interested). He repeatedly involves the phrase “this was personal”, and that’s one way to understand what factionalism means. Tribalism in sports, but elsewhere too, is the kind of factionalism you want to think about in this context, and you might also benefit from reading the transcript of Ezra Klein’s conversation with Tyler Cowen:


Factionalism (or tribalism. I’m not sure if the two mean exactly the same thing in an academic sense, but I am using them interchangeably here) hasn’t necessarily gone down, but we seem to have found new things to be “tribal” about.

As I understand it, Haidt is making the point that our tribalism when it comes to politics is now more deep-rooted than ever, but is also more trivial than ever before. Which politician is wearing what kind of clothes for which occasion excites more debate online than substantive issues that warrant more debate. Or as I prefer to put it, our agreement with stated positions and policies is these days a function of who said it, rather than what has been said. Such tribal loyalty when it comes to close friends is one thing, although even that has its limits, but fealty of such an extreme nature when it comes to political discourse ought to worry most of us.

And as an aside, the last question that Tyler Cowen asks in that extract above is a question to which I don’t have a great answer. I agree with the point in his question, but like him, wonder about the underlying cause.

An extract twice removed now:

The digital revolution has shattered that mirror, and now the public inhabits those broken pieces of glass. So the public isn’t one thing; it’s highly fragmented, and it’s basically mutually hostile. It’s mostly people yelling at each other and living in bubbles of one sort or another.


Amit Varma made a very similar point in a recent podcast with Shruti Kapila recently, in which he pointed out that social media has, in effect, decentralized the news (I’m quoting from memory here, so please forgive me if I’ve got the exact wording wrong). Amit Varma says that this is on balance a good thing, but with some negative consequences. Jonathan Haidt disagrees:

Mark Zuckerberg may not have wished for any of that. But by rewiring everything in a headlong rush for growth—with a naïve 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.


Where do I fall on this Haidt-Verma spectrum? Closer towards the Haidt end, I’d say, but I do have to remind myself that I have written this and you are reading it, so maybe decentralization isn’t all that bad? But that’s as far as I’m willing to go – on balance, I find myself closer to Haidt’s position, at least for the moment.

But the enhanced virality of social media thereafter made it more hazardous to be seen fraternizing with the enemy or even failing to attack the enemy with sufficient vigor. On the right, the term RINO (Republican in Name Only) was superseded in 2015 by the more contemptuous term cuckservative, popularized on Twitter by Trump supporters. On the left, social media launched callout culture in the years after 2012, with transformative effects on university life and later on politics and culture throughout the English-speaking world.


Haidt is writing this from an American perspective, for an American audience. But we in India have our own share of names for The Other, don’t we? It’s not just the fact that we have relatively trivial tribalism in areas as important as political discourse, but the fact that the discourse itself is not just trivial, but downright nasty. And the nastier it gets, the higher the support from your own side!

I’ll skip talking about a couple of sections from Haidt’s essay, not because they’re not important, but because they aren’t directly relevant to us here in India. But the subtitle of his essay gets an entire section, where he speaks about how things are likely to get much worse in the years (months) to come:

in a 2018 interview, Steve Bannon, the former adviser to Donald Trump, said that the way to deal with the media is “to flood the zone with shit.” He was describing the “firehose of falsehood” tactic pioneered by Russian disinformation programs to keep Americans confused, disoriented, and angry. But back then, in 2018, there was an upper limit to the amount of shit available, because all of it had to be created by a person (other than some low-quality stuff produced by bots).
Now, however, artificial intelligence is close to enabling the limitless spread of highly believable disinformation. The AI program GPT-3 is already so good that you can give it a topic and a tone and it will spit out as many essays as you like, typically with perfect grammar and a surprising level of coherence. In a year or two, when the program is upgraded to GPT-4, it will become far more capable. In a 2020 essay titled “The Supply of Disinformation Will Soon Be Infinite,” Renée DiResta, the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, explained that spreading falsehoods—whether through text, images, or deep-fake videos—will quickly become inconceivably easy. (She co-wrote the essay with GPT-3.)


Speaking of the amount of shit that had to be created by a person, read this article written by Samanth Subramanian in February 2017.

So what might be done? Jonathan Haidt has a three-pronged solution:

What changes are needed? Redesigning democracy for the digital age is far beyond my abilities, but I can suggest three categories of reforms––three goals that must be achieved if democracy is to remain viable in the post-Babel era. We must harden democratic institutions so that they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust, reform social media so that it becomes less socially corrosive, and better prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age.


He outlines the steps involved in each of these, and if you haven’t already, I would encourage you to go read the entire essay, and these outlines in particular. I find myself to be in broad agreement with both the suggestions as well as how they might be implemented, but also worry about whether we have the political and social will to actually do so.

Finally, a coda of sorts:

The most pervasive obstacle to good thinking is confirmation bias, which refers to the human tendency to search only for evidence that confirms our preferred beliefs. Even before the advent of social media, search engines were supercharging confirmation bias, making it far easier for people to find evidence for absurd beliefs and conspiracy theories, such as that the Earth is flat and that the U.S. government staged the 9/11 attacks. But social media made things much worse.


And I would feel very bad if you, the reader, were to read either my post or Haidt’s essay in order to confirm your already existing fears about the ill-effects of social media. And so I urge you to read this column by Tyler Cowen next:

Calling something “extremist” is not an effective critique. It’s a sign that the speaker or writer either doesn’t want to take the trouble to make a real argument, or is hoping to win the debate through rhetoric or Twitter pressure rather than logic. It’s also a bad sign when critics stress how social media have fed and encouraged “extremism.”

What the U.S. needs is more consideration of more extreme ideas. If you see someone inveighing against “extremism” or “extremist ideas,” beware: That is itself an extreme position. True moderation lies in calm and reasoned debate.


My take on this essay? I think Tyler is saying that we shouldn’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Social media has done two things: made it easier to spread “extreme” ideas, and made it much more likely that we will react with extreme prejudice and nastiness to these ideas.

The first of these is A Very Good Thing and the second of these is a Very Bad Thing. But we would do well to hold on to the first, rather than abandon both.

How? Ah, now if only we had some extreme ideas about that.

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