by Kevin Currie-Knight
I am not as sure as I once was, and I suppose that means I’m doing this “getting older” thing right. What am I not so sure of? For the last ten years or so, I have been convinced that the technological and cultural inertia toward increased diversity and pluralism is a good thing. We are increasingly able to customize how we want to live, choose from an increasing array of media, etc. While I still think this sort of diversity is a net positive, I worry that I’ve overlooked some of the negatives that come with it. Particularly, I wonder whether social fracturing – the loss of some common culture that enabled us all to communicate and coexist – doesn’t in some sense thwart the very condition of tolerance that enables diversity to flourish. Conversely, if we want a world where diversity and pluralism doesn’t just mean the freedom to exist in warring tribes, do we have to sacrifice some liberal freedoms, like the freedom to associate only with certain people or receive information solely from sources one chooses?
In what follows, the ratio of questions to answers will be quite low, and I might apologize if there was any other way to do this. If it helps, think of this less as an opinion piece than a sketch by a person groping for a new opinion after a crisis of confidence regarding the old one.
We live in exciting times, or so I once thought and still try to think. As anthropologists, sociologists, and technologists point out – often enthusiastically – these are times of increasing diversification and individuation. In the days of retail stores, movie theaters, and local papers, we had options from which to choose but they were markedly limited by things like floor space. Thus, we all had to conform to some degree to that range of choices. In today’s age of online retail, streaming services, and internet media, our options and abilities to find/create what is right for us – to diversify and individuate our lives – has expanded exponentially.
Add to this the decrease in what economists call information costs. If I had niche or taboo interests – say, in Wicca, swinging, the Church of Scientology, or the Libertarian political party – in pre-internet days, it would have cost me significant time and energy to seek out and find (let alone regularly communicate with) such networks. Now, it is as simple as a web search. Diversification isn’t just more possible than before, but it is cheaper to exercise than ever before.
Then, of course, there is what the internet, the upsurge in options, and the decrease of information costs have collectively done to media. These phenomena have democratized, demonopolized, decolonized [whatever you want to call it] media spaces by making it significantly harder for any “dominant players” to wrest and retain much control. As technologist David Weinberger notes, “old knowledge institutions like newspapers, encyclopedias, and textbooks got much of their authority from the fact that they filtered information for the rest of us.” And in the world of the internet, not only have those authorities lost authority, but authority itself has proved harder to monopolize and solidify. In the days where any given town had a handful of newspapers, those just were the authorities for everyone. Now, it is easier for each of us to choose the authorities that have authority for us. And in this type of space, it makes good economic sense for media outlets to gain and retain viewers primarily by flattering them.
I get giddy even rehearsing this narrative. As I was when I first discovered these lines of thought ten-plus years ago in the works of techno-optimists like Clay Shirky, David Weinberger, and Chris Anderson. Part of the reason is that I am admittedly a sucker for diversity and a libertarian “live and let live” ethic. I like diversity for aesthetic, moral, and political reasons. These techno-optimists sketched a view of a beautiful internet that would increase diversity by increasing our options and ability to find niches that served a variety of interests.
So, what is the problem? When I was reading David Weinberger glowing about what the internet would do to the idea of shared knowledge in the 2010’s, I was dismissing critics like Cass Sunstein, who warned that this newfound ability to customize and diversity experience may come at the cost of social cohesion and ironically [though it just seemed contradictory at the time], tolerance for the very diversity this new landscape was creating.
I re-read Sunstein in late 2020 and having now seen late 2020 close up, his argument seems a lot more plausible and vivid. Earlier I said that my own ethic is a libertarian “live and let live ethic,” and that second part (after the “and”) is just as important as the first. In fact, that second clause about letting live is arguably a necessary condition for the workability of the part about living. I admire diversity but equally, I admire making sure we live in a society and world that is safe for it.
Here is the best expression of the dilemma that I can offer: I want a world where diversity can flourish, but this would require an ability and desire on the part of the citizenry to tolerate difference. Ironically, it seems to me that the very mechanisms which lead to the flourishing of diversity – such as the ability to customize one’s experience and locate/carve out one’s niche – also work against the public’s ability and desire to tolerate interpersonal difference. The more we can block and unfriend on social media, the more we can curate our own spaces, and the more we get used to never having to tolerate different others. A classic double-edged sword.
Think about how the media works in our present landscape. There are obvious advantages to having an array of sources to choose from: we get to consume different perspectives, are not forced to put all our proverbial eggs in one interpretive basket, etc. But to Matt Taibbi’s point in his wonderful book Hate Inc., this just isn’t how people consume media in the internet age. Rather than considering and listening to different voices, we more often choose the one or two sources that reflect our existing biases and stick with them. And financially, those sources – which have to compete for attention like never before – have everything to gain by stoking narratives among their consumers that work against a society that tolerates diversity.
I never thought I’d say this, but part of my dilemma also revolves around notions of a shared culture as a prerequisite for toleration between groups. I know that sounds contradictory, and if I’m being honest, the idea of a shared culture among a heterogeneous population makes me uneasy. It evokes images of North Korea, the USSR, China, and of swathes of people being forced into some sort of nationalism. But on the other side, there is the question of whether groups can be so different that they can hardly communicate with each other and just don’t see the point. In other words, can a society make significant space for Black Lives Matter, Qanon, Antifa, the 1619 Project, and the 1776 Project (feel free to think of more examples yourself) and contain enough common frames of reference to have the types of conversation that respect for diversity requires? I used to be more confident in a “yes” answer,” but reflecting on why, I realize that my emphasis on “let live” assumes that different groups will be content to “let” each other live. I am no longer convinced that this is always a good assumption.
Lastly, I am concerned about the possibility that these problems can only be solved at the expense of certain cherished liberal values. I’ve written before that I think “cancel culture” is a problem that can only be solved by an illiberal curtailment of free association and free speech. I am similarly worried that solving some of the above problems means taking illiberal steps. If the pluralistic media succeeds by fracturing the social order and selling “us versus them” narratives, I can’t see a solution that doesn’t involve either illiberally limiting what outlets may report and say, or curtailing consumer freedom of access to diverse sources. If coexistence turns out to depend on societally shared norms or senses of reality, I can’t see a possible solution that doesn’t make the US a bit more like China.
This isn’t the way I want to end this essay. As said, I’m uneasy about the high question to answer ratio. But as also said, I have no good answer to give. And yeah, maybe that means I am doing this “getting older” thing right. Or maybe not.