In 1985, journalist James Burke created a BBC TV series called The Day The
Universe Changed, about the history of technology.
Burke’s climactic speech – linked here – is astoundingly prescient in its
prediction of electronic communities and telecommuting. Yet what it
overlooks is truly ominous.
Burke’s vision was that technology would make possible a kind of utopia
where our individual cultural, psychological and personal needs and concerns
would be addressed by powerful data-processing electronics. Our systems
would be so responsive, he suggested, that we would no longer need to
require any beliefs or practices in common from dissimilar people.
The Internet came along minutes after this climactic show aired, and I’m now
thinking we’ve arrived at exactly the state Burke described.
Instead of enabling a utopia of personal liberation, however, our
personalized data-processing electronics have allowed every one of us to
custom-assemble a self-reinforcing, wholly immersive, and furiously
addictive media environment.
The most obvious problem is that no system is currently in place to
distinguish fact from fiction on the Internet. Implementing such a system
would suggest a Ministry of Truth dictating what is real and what is not –
but failing to implement such protection has created an incendiary
environment where the public’s actions are inevitably disconnected from
their real results. (For discussion of where that leads, read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”. The title gets the point across.)
The secondary problem is that custom-filtered media environments create a
particular kind of human behavior.
We think of cult psychology as a kind of spell cast over an
easily-manipulated group by a charismatic leader. Devotees of such cults are
often described as weak or vulnerable, seeking guidance and a sense of
belonging. We rightly think of cult members as victims and cult leaders as
Yet cult behavior is something we may also create for ourselves. Each of us
may follow a trail of tiny rewards to reach a cult-like level of isolation
and compulsive focus on the needs and goals of the larger collective. That
each such collective is assembled and curated by its own leader – and its
own central victim – only makes it more powerful.
This is one reason I do not think of “rationality” as the obvious solution.
Rational decision-making requires a finite and more or less complete supply
of information. When the information supply is neither finite nor complete,
rationality can become an excuse to ignore that which is challenging or
inconvenient. A human being who claims not to have blind spots is operating
with a particularly big blind spot.
Burke’s vision was of a system that respected individual rights and
reflected individual preferences – but it ignored all those things that
every individual would owe to that system in return, to ensure the survival
of both. The Tea Party and some elements of the Libertarian party would
embrace that same oversight in the decades that followed. Third-party voters
have made similar mistakes, maintaining their commitments to key issues but
setting aside the greater obligation to elect competent leaders when the
realistic choices were few.
The Internet is a major milestone in human evolution, and our use of it must
evolve to ensure our own survival. Human history is full of dangerous
behavior from people who share the same very limited views, but the
dehumanizing of our enemies – and even our allies – can now be crowd-sourced and performed with the best of intentions.
The 2016 election will prove to be a truly perverse milestone in human
history – not because voters on only one side rejected racism and violence
and the needs of future generations, but because many voters on both sides
believed they were doing so.