Are We Still Thinking?
The world’s slow move from dialogue to media
So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too —
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out —
And take upon’s the mystery of things
— Shakespeare, King Lear
Dialogue as Being
When someone asks, “Where do you get the news?” how do you answer? What are sources for the news, for new knowledge?
Before modern times, the primary source was person-to-person conversation. Knowledge transferred everywhere people converged: in marketplaces and agoras, churches and bars, courts and association meetings, job sites and hearths. Through dialogue is how all people — peasants, kings, Da Vincis and Aristotles — for most of time, received almost all knowledge. There were a few books available, but there were no newspapers. Gathering new information mostly required organic, two-way process of conversation. Any news was naturally in the category of rumor (you could call “fake news” the obvious default), with the reputation of the speaker considered, and room for doubt, clarification, contradiction, and the other benefits of dialogue given full due. In other words, in pre-modern times one talked to more people, sometimes in a single day, than one would ever read in one’s lifetime.
The primacy of this two-way process eventually ended. Between the invention of the printing press and the radio, we creaked open the heavy door to truly modern technology: media that could support mass, one-way communication. The printing press enabled genuine broad-casting. I think that the great event between the pre-modern and the modern world is not World War 2, or the Industrial Revolution, or the French Revolution, but the set of technologies that divide history into before and after this ability to truly broad-cast. It took only a few hundred years to complete.
Mass media — print, radio, television, internet — replaced dialogue’s primacy so thoroughly that we cannot have the old ways back. Just as we are no longer capable of seeing the gods, we are no longer capable of a conversational mode of being. Even before we could read, we have only ever been around others who themselves have consumed the written, the televised, the other multitudes of broadcast media. We have an interiority, an inner self, that is shaped by the language and communication modes of our lives, and ours is fundamentally different from the pre-modern era. We do not converse with knowledge sources, we consume them. We do not develop and re-develop ideas as we share them through the network of humanity, instead we share them by sharing a book, or clicking a button, and sending someone else’s words. Unlike Aristotle or Da Vinci, every single one of us will read, watch, and listen to more recordings of people than we will ever have conversations with.
How did this change us?
Ideology as Being
As a force, addiction has a quiet side and a loud side: It is usually difficult to observe the compulsion (a feeling in one’s head), but easy to observe the result (like an overdose). Mass one-way communication brings about something similar. The subtle nature of mass media is partly due to what is missing: The act of reading or listening to a broadcast leaves no room for dialogue’s benefits of doubt, follow-up, clarification, collaboration, contradiction, and so on. Without the two-way interaction, recorded media unconsciously exerts a gentle charisma of its own upon us. What is written or recorded becomes slightly more credible, its standalone existence implies authority. To consume the media at all is to sympathize with it, if only a tiny amount. After all, as you read my words right now, you do so with an inner voice of your own making. (Say hello for me.)
Everyone understands the advantage of having a person to bounce ideas off of. Wouldn’t the opposite, always removing the other person, be a disadvantage? To get our information over the last 500 years, we all switched to reading more, and conversing less. In the switch from two-way knowledge to one-way, how are we sure we are not pondering less?
Over the last five centuries, mass media deposited itself quietly over the landscape, like new snow. By the French Revolution the result of its subtle force became observable enough for an onlooker to give it a name: Ideology.
Ideology is the memetic child of mass media. Durable, non-human mediums allow for a kind of self-perpetuating machine. Superficially it looks like religion short-circuited: remove ritual, add steroids. In an ideology, thoughts are compiled, named, propagated, and slowly take on a life of their own. New information enters the ideology machine, it is massaged by the current rule-set, and an opinion appears out the other end. Original authors exert themselves on ideologies, but once they are large enough the ideologies obtain their own gravity, like celestial bodies, and we as individuals become satellites. If we get too close, we are caught in the orbit. If we get much too close, we crash.
Ideologies spread and outlive their creators. It seems the essential component of any long-lasting ideology is not any particulars it professes, but its flexibility. The rules must allow the machine enough space to take on a life of its own, adapting to changing conditions so that it may survive as long as possible. By the 1900’s mass-media became so powerful, another word was developed, this time for major infections of ideology: Radicalization. If ideology is addiction, then radicalization is epidemic. I won’t speak to this extreme, because everyone is familiar with plain-sight catastrophes. What’s more concerning I think is the in-between, the unseen tugs that affect the rest of us.
Politicization as Being
Steeped in mass media, and therefore ideology, we now largely abandon the practice of contemplative thinking that carried us for millennia. It is replaced instead with a calculating thinking, the kind that conforms well enough to be passed into an ideology as machine input, so that we may get our machine output. When a foreign thought arrives, the modern instinct is not to gather more from the foreigner, but to pass it through the machine and have an instant reply ready. Or if it does not fit into our preferred machines, to discard the thought immediately as dangerous — perhaps at the same time labeling it with an opposing ideology, just in case.
Ideology is strongest in politics, where it precipitates a dumbing-down of political thought until it can fit into the machine. Even with exceptionally vague descriptions, everyone would know what I’m talking about if I said “red tribe thinking” or “blue tribe thinking” in the United States. Something as vague as “what about this new gun law”, almost no matter the contents of the law, can be fed into the machines of people you are barely acquainted with, and you will mostly know their answers.
The horizons of political imagination, what is acceptable to even wonder aloud, can be expected to shrink by the century. We know this is true as soon as we read anything from even the recent past.
Having less political imagination is one thing. But the bounds of political ideology are not fixed: A more successful machine is one that grows like a pathogen. Ideology expands to fill all of politics, and then must expand politics to fill all of life. In the 1780’s, John Adams wrote:
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
How far, in retrospect, we have walked in the opposite direction! Humanity has always been a political animal, but in leveraging the ideology machine, the scope creep of politics becomes enormous.
The most compact expression of this hyper-politicization can be found on social media. Sites such as Twitter or Facebook or any dating app have room for a biography. “Describe yourself,” they beckon. What we find filling these text areas would surprise Adams: The few, choice words people write to describe their very being often contain one or more ideology, expressed as a political symbol or signal or movement. Many choose not to identify with the actions of individuals, such as painting, hiking, loving literature, being part of a family, being a professional, and so on, but instead with the names of these machines. Machines not of their own creating, that think for them, vote for them, determine their friends and conversations for them, not just what to say, but when to get angry or cheer, and what to talk about at all.
The politicization of people’s core identities as a customary component of social media strikes me as deeply shocking. Would this not seem odd, to a pre-modern outsider? Is it not an act of self abdication to depict the essence of oneself with a political machine? When people are prompted, “describe yourself”, shouldn’t we be a little alarmed when they routinely describe something else?
If we have less political imagination, and everything is turned political, then we have something much worse on our hands. Rather than dwelling in their own thoughts, being a human being, living and experiencing things and gaining wisdom, people restrain all of their wisdom faculties with these chastity belts of ideology. If ideology becomes one’s identity, having impure thoughts is not thinking, it is a blow to your sense of self and therefore dangerous. In the political realm, it means that compromise simply isn’t possible in ways that it may have been a century ago. There is no “if we get this, you can get that”, ideology doesn’t see differing people with differing interests, it sees you — sacred, you could never compromise yourself — and when it thinks about the obverse, it can only see an enemy.
Many willingly fit themselves into ideological categories that are quite narrow, and by “identifying” with these labels, they are depriving themselves of the contemplation and reflection befitting the question of a person’s identity. I wish for no one’s life to be easily summarized by the contortions of such machines, but many seem to welcome the labels. When you express concern publicly that politics has taken over people’s lives, this is fed into the machines that have taken over, and they churn out their stock answer: “Everything is political.” You might ask them if they have the causality reversed, but at that point you must wonder who, or what, you’re having the conversation with.
Doing and Thinking
Just as much of a virtuous life lies in refusing to do what is bad, to look in the direction of thinking, we first need to decline, or at least contain, the impulses learned from ideology machines. Beyond this there is no straightforward path to contemplation, I certainly do not pretend to have one. The diagnosis as always is easier to speak than the cure. When everyone is over-steeped, how do people come to dwell by themselves, instead of dwelling inside ideologies? I have only some disjoint thoughts.
If thinking is to return to us, it may be through a reordering of priorities. Living out knowledge, through the act of doing, perfecting craft, and creating with others, cannot be counterfeited like thought can. To have a devotion, or even a productive hobby, will always be more virtuous than heaving great sums of your life energy into a political maw. If thinking is too polluted, too political, then we should spend more time doing, and through this we might improve the earth. To lay a single cobblestone path is to have more virtue than attending a hundred protests, or sharing a thousand petty articles. Through our response to our own and others acts of doing, we may move slightly beyond the chatter. To act in the world physically, through your own hands and works is its own contemplation, a primeval thinking worth re-learning.
(I do not mean to suggest that all political action is bad. But if you truly wish to live by political ideals, you should act on them instead of joining the ranks of chatter. If you wish to call yourself, say, a socialist, stop retweeting the news, find other socialists, pool your money together, and actually live communally. You can live it out today, regardless of what the rest of the people are doing. You do not need to wait for some candidate to reorder the world for you. This is true of multiple political ideologies.)
Even if we are not thinking very much, we are still feeling. And we all sense, I think, a creeping distress to some modern communications. Our intuition, while much maligned and forgotten by rationalistic ideologies, may come to be our greatest asset here, if we can only learn to cultivate it.
We are still in the early days of social media.
In some ways Twitter is the restoration of the ancient mode of knowledge gathering, sharing, and argument, albeit a restoration on fiber-optic steroids. One can talk back, doubt publicly, and voice their opinion to the masses and even to famous people. Through Twitter, the re-establishment of two-way communication is slowly dawning.
The intellectuals of Twitter are not the celebrities, scientists, journalists, comedian podcasters, or academics. They are the mass of anons and little accounts, people willing to think out loud, doubt publicly, and use the gifts of anonymity or sincerity to speak true sentiments. By mixing these people publicly, Twitter becomes a check, however small, on ideological thinking.
From the outside, it may seem a network of yet-more-chatter. But Twitter offers you the chance to ignore people who only comment on things, and befriend those who are doing, living and flourishing publicly. It is the easiest way to publicly think, and do, and by these acts, perhaps you will find your people.
I don’t think even Jack fully appreciates the nature of the thing he has built. He is still concerned with just who should be promoted, or who might best be an arbiter of truth or content, over other ways of organizing the platform. A careful lesson from before the age of print may give us a better answer, if we can find it.
I hope you did not pass over the beginning Shakespeare quote in too great a hurry.
You can talk to me on Twitter, here.
I have tried to keep religion out of this, despite its common consideration as a prototype of ideology, because it is hard to compactly agree on what constitutes religion. I think it is a mistake to casually lump it with ideology, and I think the important parts of religion have suffered a slow death starting around the creation of monotheism. The topic is too large to address here.
I have removed great chunks of this before publishing, mostly elaborating with examples, because I think what I am saying might be obvious without them. I hope I am not wrong.