There's a reason things have gotten so dumb.
"A lot of journalists don’t even really think of themselves as journalists anymore. They’re political activists, who use reportage as a tool to pursue their political goals. The same dynamic is also playing out in academics and politics and even medicine, where the impact is even more profound."
That really sums it up. The way I've been describing it is that these professions have all been hijacked by lawyers. Truth-seeking professions, like journalism, science, medicine, sociology, etc., are supposed to begin with a question or hypothesis and then apply the tools of their respective trades to work towards truth, while employing ethical principles and techniques to mitigate bias.
What we've seen particularly since Trump's election is that these tools of the trade have been cast aside and replaced by raw lawyering. In the litigation world, we begin with the answer we want and work our way backwards to support it, cherry-picking and spinning evidence and legal principles as we go. This is what academics, journalists, and even scientists are doing now in our post-truth era. The answer they begin with is whatever supports the preconceived narrative of their respective twitter tribes, and thus enhances the individual's status within the tribe. They are less burdened by truth than even lawyers because there is no genuine adversarial process - they simply denounce adversaries as bad faith actors spreading misinformation and call on them to be shunned and censored. Boy would my job be easy if I could just have my adversary censored and banned from the courtroom! This is all so, so distorting and destructive. And I see no way out.
The digital big bang of the internet turned out to be a nasty little curve ball for the elites. Whereas before the internet, the news business more or less enjoyed a monopoly on the relatively tiny info-sphere and could feign certainty about pretty much anything, the internet’s inception led to an epistemic free-for-all. Information was no longer limited to a newspaper and the 10 o'clock news, nor was it dispensed in a rigid top down, one to many pyramid.
The hierarchy of power and control was thrown into a Stage V Crisis when the concept of authority as a belief system anointing the chosen few was upended. The sheep were no longer in need of shepherds. If I've learned anything the past few years, it's that our “experts” are far from the deities of intellect they've billed themselves as, and that today’s media luminaries are little more than jaundiced windbags more committed to hidden loyalties and agendas than the pursuit of truth and an informed public.
I joined Twitter for the first time in the wake of the Floyd killing, sensing an important social movement was afoot and wanting at that time to be a part of it. I then quickly realized the platform was making me mentally ill. I then further realized that the other people on there were all mentally ill already, and had probably been marinating in Twitterverse mental illness for years. I then realized further still that these same mentally ill people I was observing on Twitter were running our news rooms, universities, government agencies, corporations, nonprofits, etc. It was like all of a sudden staring into the abyss. THE HORROR!
I deactivated my account within a couple weeks of joining, and my brief foray revealed to me all that needed to be revealed. Get out of the Twitter asylum while you still can! Or you'll end up like Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Great article Leighton. I wonder if the dominance of the heteronomous pole brought about by social media will end up simply destroying all fields, for good (sad outcome, à la idiocracy), or if this is creative destruction, leaving something better in its place. I’m already seeing evidence of the latter; one could argue that Substack is an early manifestation of a positive reaction. In medicine, I imagine that if the AMA simply becomes a heteronomous approval-seeking zombie, that some self-aware and conscientious Doctors will start something better.
Re the epistemological crisis aspect, this strikes me as a two-edged sword. On the one hand, external pressure has brought light to anti-scientific practices, cronyism, etc. across many fields, leading to all of the absurd “trust the science” and “democracy dies in darkness” type taglines in reaction from the fields in question. But, it’s also true that much / most of the criticism and pile-ons are themselves pseudo-scientific or just plain lazy. TLDR; sunlight is a good disinfectant, but there doesn’t yet seem to be a great replacement for what was there.
Again, really enjoyed this.
When faced with the heteronomous pole, there will always be some who cry out, "I want to be autonomous," and then do what it takes to break away from crowd-sourced thinking. The act of fracturing will be condemned by the priests of society, but breakaways are necessary to preserve a society.
The roots of this go far, far back to the first "art critic" who sneered at the first person to say "I don't know nuthin' about art but I know what I like." The horror--an individual unafraid to be laughed at for having a mind of his own.
I mean--how ya gonna produce best sellers if you let all them cats remain unherded?
I think this model does a good job of explaining why academia is doomed. Most institutions are forced to incentivize one pole or another. I don't think this model maps to the efforts of independent efforts at cultural production, however. I very much doubt that you, for example, are most concerned about pleasing others or pleasing other journalists. You seem to be interested in developing ideas, and fortunately the market has found a way to accommodate that interest in substack. If this pursuit is what makes you popular and starts getting you paid, then you'll need to maintain commitment to that interest to keep that kind of following. Is this some third pole, or does this concept just not map very well to independent contributors to cultural production? Maybe it applies to both institutions, and individuals but only those that lack intrinsic motivation and purpose. In any case, thanks for the though provoking read!
There’s a sweet spot, between heteronomy & autonomy. Kraftwerk found it. So this article has made me think about what that might look like in other fields.