Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

The Internet killed American democracy

posted by Rod Dreher

So says Robert Wright. Excerpt:

The new information technology doesn’t just create generation-3.0 special interests; it arms them with precision-guided munitions. The division of readers and viewers into demographically and ideologically discrete micro-audiences makes it easy for interest groups to get scare stories (e.g. “death panels”) to the people most likely to be terrified by them. Then pollsters barrage legislators with the views of constituents who, having been barraged by these stories, have little idea what’s actually in the bills that outrage them.
It’s no exaggeration to say that technology has subverted the original idea of America. The founders explicitly rejected direct democracy — in which citizens vote on every issue — in favor of representative democracy. The idea was that legislators would convene at a safe remove from voters and, thus insulated from the din of narrow interests and widespread but ephemeral passions, do what was in the long-term interest of their constituents and of the nation. Now information technology has stripped away the insulation that physical distance provided back when information couldn’t travel faster than a horse.
It’s no exaggeration to say that technology has subverted the original idea of America.
I don’t see a miracle cure here. It would be hard to restore much of the insulation without tampering with the First Amendment.

Via Sullivan.

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posted February 5, 2010 at 8:25 am

What goes around comes around. Who more than Obama benefited from the internet during the 2008 campaign? As President, he continues to benefit. Hardly a day goes by that Obama supporters I know don’t receive an E-mail from “Organizing for America,” suggesting that they band with others to watch Obama’s State of the Union address or support the “health reform” plan and, of course, donate money to the permanent campaign that the Obama White House has been since January 20, 2009.
The Internet has expanded the opportunity to fact check every politician’s claims, including Obama’s. If Obama needs a “break” and can’t stand the heat, I’m sure that Joe Biden woud be more than happy to take over as President.

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posted February 5, 2010 at 9:19 am

I think there may be a corollary to Wright’s concern. and other fact checkers notwithstanding, the ideologues of both extremes accept no criticism of the “truth” as they know it. For example, you can’t tell someone who has heard the truth from Sarah Palin’s lips that there are no death panels. The real concern is the spread of the extremes and the concomitant shrinking of the middle.

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posted February 5, 2010 at 10:59 am

I don’t know that it’s so much a case of technology having subverted democracy. The real problem is that the voices of the frailest, least confident people have come to define too many issues. They flock to the internet to vent and share their beefs and complaints and grievances. The real question isn’t micro-targeting, it’s why fraidy cats and cry babies have come to drive so many discussions. How is it possible that some people believed that George Bush was going to round up dissidents and put them in detention camps under the Alien and Sedition Act or the Patriot Act? How can anyone be a Truther? A Birther? How is it possible that there are people who believe that Democrats deliberately want to bankrupt America because they hate it? Or that they want to establish death panels to get rid of the least productive among us? When I talk to people I know, no one believes any of that. Yet it’s that type of blather that drives national “discussions” these days and makes resolution of issues so difficult. It even has become difficult to point out when someone is acting like a grown-up, we’ve become so used to hearing nonsense. That’s not due to technology, that’s due to people who cringed when they heard nonsense about Republicans or Democrats over the last decade not standing up and pushing back against it. The fault lies in ourselves for wimping out on that stuff, not in technology. As they say when raising children or supervising employees, when you see trouble stirring, nip it in the bud. The longer something percolates, the harder it becomes to handle.

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posted February 5, 2010 at 11:04 am

Apart from Wright’s disturbing apparently willingness to tamper with the First Amendment to restrict the circulation of information in the interests of making the American public more informed, I have to say that it’s really rich to hear him decrying pressure being placed on Congresspeople by polls of people who don’t know what’s in the bill. As an initial matter, it’s become clear during the course of the debate over health care reform that lots of the very politicians who are voting on the bill don’t know what’s in it. Moreover, as one who tries to catch every bloggingheads convo between Wright and Kaus, it’s clear that Wright himself feels free to dispense punditry about the bill, with the goal of influencing its fortunes in Congress, without bothering to know – except in very broad and often inaccurate outlines – what’s in the bill.
What Wright and others of his journalistic ilk are really complaining about is the disintermediation of information and opinion. They lament the loss of power to control the narrative: They can’t bear the fact that when I read a news story telling me that the Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035, I can actually go online and discover that this is a load of s**t.
Wright and others would have no trouble for seeing similar claims by a religious hierarchy (we are responsible for disseminating and preserving religious knowledge; if people can read the Bible for themselves or choose to follow Buddhism or paganism, we’ll have theological, moral, and religious chaos) as self-interested balderdash driven by a panicky instinct for self-preservation. But they have no compunction in making what is essentially the identical argument to preserve their own positions as dispensers of conventional wisdom and masters of society’s secular narrative.
Yes, there’s a lot of garbage on the internet, but how can Wright say we’d be better off if the bulk of, say, commentary on economics were provided by partisan hacks like Krugman and journalistic innumerates like Eugene Robinson and Ruth Marcus. The internet has attenuated the harm that these folks could once do through their monopolistic access to the public discourse: Folks who care about these issues can now read folks like Delong, Becker, Levitt, Cowen, and others, folks who really care about honest debate and truth-seeking and have the intellectual tools to do so. Does Wright really believe we’re better off with our best economic minds languishing in academic obscurity and the popular economic discourse dominated by numerically ignorant J-school grads? The only way this can be viewed as a tragedy is if you’re focused not on the truth but on the ability of conventional (read, liberal) wisdom to dominate the discourse unopposed.
Good riddance, I say: The quicker Wright and his class of pundits whose knowledge is broad but shallower than a mud puddle in Vegas in August are rendered irrelevant, the better.

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the stupid Chris

posted February 5, 2010 at 12:38 pm

The comments here are written as if Marshall McLuhan had never existed.
Electronic media is an extension of the central nervous system, and so we perceive things that we receive via electronic media as being real, present and immediate. We no longer live with things at a “safe” distance, everything is close and intimate. We live in a global village.
The problem for America is that it was created in a linear, rational world. Electronic media overwhelms our rational selves, and so we now live in an increasingly non-linear, irrational world.
All this was predicted back when television was broadcast in black-and-white. It is a tribute to American punditry and thought that a body of work is remembered not by people actually learning from it, but as a punch line in “Annie Hall,” if it is remembered at all.
The brilliant Mr. Wright has missed the point. Our perceptions of reality are changed by the milieu of electronic media in which we exist, and because we react to what we perceive instead of what is, indeed we can’t tell the difference between the two, we no longer think rationally about the world because we are overwhelmed with real and fabricated stimuli.
Faced with this situation we create conspiracy theories, we engage in magical thinking, and we seek out “reality” entertainment that has less relationship with real life than it does with grand works of fiction. “Truthiness” replaces truth, “what I think” is more important than facts all because we’re trying to get a grip on a world that is increasingly perceived as being out-of-control.

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posted February 5, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Just to make it clear: I’m talking about people being afraid to criticize there own side when I write, “It even has become difficult to point out when someone is acting like a grown-up, we’ve become so used to hearing nonsense. That’s not due to technology, that’s due to people who cringed when they heard nonsense about Republicans or Democrats over the last decade not standing up and pushing back against it. The fault lies in ourselves for wimping out on that stuff, not in technology.”
There’s been plenty of boo-hooing across the spectrum about how mean “they” are to “us” and not nearly enough people willing to say, “what we’re saying about them isn’t right or fair.” That’s what I mean by the frailest, scaredy cat voices predominating and those who, if they were made of sterner stuff, would be able to encourage people to be stronger tending to fall silent.
@Richao, I have no problem with reading Krugman, Robinson, Marcus et al. in addition to others one finds on the Internet. They’re neither all and always bad nor all and always good. Any more than Netizens always are good or bad. I don’t see things as so binary. I the trad columnists you mentioned and nod in agreement or shake my head in disagreement, as the case may be with an individual column. And I also question or agree with the web stuff as it warrants. Good arguments and proper use of data stand up for themselves. I see no more reason to say “good riddance” to traditional pundits any more than there is a need to fear bloggers who know their stuff. It’s not any particular pundits that make me worry, it’s the way so many Americans react to complex issues by hyperventilating and freaking out that concerns me. On that point, I do agree with Wright.
@TheStupidChris, the difference between the Net and TV is in how the aggrieved and self-perceived victims often dominate blogs and forums. Back when McLuhan made his comment, people seemed more robust because we weren’t yet hearing all the blather that passes for discourse on the web. It they were thinking some of the wackier things we see and hear now, we weren’t being exposed to it except face to face.

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the stupid Chris

posted February 5, 2010 at 3:57 pm

I think the problem is that people aren’t looking deeply enough at what has changed around us. Therefore we diagnose the issue as being one of chosen clannishness and/or intentional community rather than one of underlying environment.
But our environment today is as unlike the environment of 80 years ago as fish are from fowl, and that invisible change in our environment has the inevitable result of altering how we interact with the world and each other.
Focusing on the content of things rather than the process of them is a sure way of missing what’s really going on. Electronic media created our current environment, “the internet” merely completed the feedback loop.

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posted February 5, 2010 at 4:15 pm

On the other hand, your speech to the country club will be seen by the guys down at the union hall, and vice versa, thanks to Youtube. Richao above is right: “What Wright and others of his journalistic ilk are really complaining about is the disintermediation.” I wonder what Mr. Wright thinks of the direct election of senators.

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posted February 5, 2010 at 4:22 pm

I don’t know that the electronic media created the present environment. Whether one whines about everything or looks at things realistically stems as much from how people were brought up their parents and from their inherent character or lack thereof as much as anything else. McLuhan’s day was very different. There was a mix of high and low brow stuff on tv then. There wasn’t all the breathless 24/7 coverage of white girls gone missing and runaway brides and stuff like that back then. Things really went off track in terms of proportionality with the rise of cable in the 1980s. That coincided with a rise in partisanship in the political arean, which stemmed from other reasons that had nothing to do with electronic media. However, television and the web tend to reward the weaker people (the show offs and drama queens and agitators get attention on reality tv and the blowhards and ranters get ratings and page views). The quieter, roll up our sleeves and do our jobs types–people with good coping skills–don’t get nearly as much attention because they’re “boring.” The electronic media (cable, the web) thrives on conflict, even immaturity, not on illumination and learning.

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posted February 5, 2010 at 8:17 pm

I think you’ve summed it up best. Too many people ARE too quick to hyperventilate and freak out at any provocation. This might partly be a hothouse effect. So many of us are so well off and deal with so little material hardship that little fears eat at us far more than they should. And the outsize impact of small threats is further magnified by the 24-7 media.
Meanwhile, very real threats – like the potential instability in the way we transport and manufacture food, the way our whole complex inter-related system perches on an upside down triangle vulnerable to warfare and oil scares and sickness and terrorist attacks – is completely disregarded. Our reaction to terrorism is an interesting case study. Any attempted attack results in a lot more heat than light. We want to blame the other political party and set up a committee to sort out who all was to blame and are generally more concerned with scoring political points than with pragmatic solutions. We’re perfect terrorism targets, really, we’re almost guaranteed to get extremely terrified without addressing what went wrong and why (witness half-ignored recommendations of the 9/11 commission.) “When in panic, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout!”
I really have no idea why “celebrities” are such an important part of our popular culture now. But then, I never paid them any mind, and so I’ve not taken any time to try to analyze this phenomenon.

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the stupid Chris

posted February 5, 2010 at 9:08 pm

I don’t know that the electronic media created the present environment.
I know.
McLuhan’s day was very different.
Not nearly as different as you’d think.

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posted February 5, 2010 at 10:14 pm

“your speech to the country club will be seen by the guys down at the union hall, and vice versa, thanks to Youtube.”
This is a problem, not an accomplishment. Because often the only way to get the guys at the country club to agree to something that will help the workers is to invoke their noblesse oblige on behalf of those poor ignorant slobs who can’t make it into management. Then you go sell the same solution to the union as the best you can hope for from those brain-dead stuffed shirts.
If everybody can hear everything you say, you have no chance to make common cause with one group by denigrating the other, so you have no chance to get people who despise other classes to nevertheless condescend to help them. You’re stuck with what little genuine goodwill your audience can drum up after a speech full of pious platitudes.

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posted June 23, 2011 at 9:28 am

Oh– When I saw the headline about the internet killing America, I thought the article was going to be about how the internet makes Outsourcing…ahem…I mean “The Global Economy”…so easy! The internet has also been the primary reason for the downfall of the U.S. Post Office. So now there’s no manufacturing AND no Postal Service jobs. I guess the internet actually just put the final nail in the coffin of the American Middle Class. Now, if only we could get rid of all those pesky school jobs… Oh– How about Online Education!

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