How America became so profoundly stupid over the past decade

The Atlantic has a thought-provoking piece by Jonathan Haidt on the last decade's dumbing of America (and the wider world). Spoiler alert (and no great surprise): Social media.

The former CIA analyst Martin Gurri predicted these fracturing effects in his 2014 book, The Revolt of the Public. Gurri's analysis focused on the authority-subverting effects of information's exponential growth, beginning with the internet in the 1990s. Writing nearly a decade ago, Gurri could already see the power of social media as a universal solvent, breaking down bonds and weakening institutions everywhere it reached. He noted that distributed networks "can protest and overthrow, but never govern." He described the nihilism of the many protest movements of 2011 that organized mostly online and that, like Occupy Wall Street, demanded the destruction of existing institutions without offering an alternative vision of the future or an organization that could bring it about.

Gurri is no fan of elites or of centralized authority, but he notes a 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. In a comment to Vox that recalls the first post-Babel diaspora, he said:

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.

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.

I think we can date the fall of the tower to the years between 2011 (Gurri's focal year of "nihilistic" protests) and 2015, a year marked by the "great awokening" on the left and the ascendancy of Donald Trump on the right. 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.

Read the rest.

Image: Peter Bruegel, The Tower of Babel — Public Domain