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What Jonathan Haidt is Missing
Technology shapes us. That's worse news than we think.
A few people have asked me what I thought about Jonathan Haidt’s feature essay in The Atlantic on the effect of social media on the last decade of American politics and culture. The short answer is that the essay is excellent, well-researched and convincing on a number of levels. Haidt is a gifted communicator and has been able for a while now to interrogate our social dynamics at a level most journalists and educators cannot. I imagine many will benefit from what he’s done.
The long answer is that I believe Haidt missed a big opportunity. He failed to drive home the point that the social internet itself is an epistemological habitat that creates individuals and institutions in its own image. He focused almost exclusively on the problem of disinformation, the same problem that made Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge a disappointing and myopic book. His (very brief) prescriptions for a better way forward all presume that we carry a high level of control over the Internet’s effect on us, and that we simply need to optimize our institutions and technologies to recover a reasonable centrism in politics and trust in our culture.
Because Haidt’s essay is framed as yet another explanation for the Trump era, it seems to only be interested in drawing the straightest, shortest possible line between Facebook and 2016. The resulting blind spots are serious. Here’s a good example:
So cross-party relationships were already strained before 2009. But the enhanced virality of social media thereafter made it more hazardous to be seen fraternizing with the enemy or even failing to attack the enemy with sufficient vigor. On the right, the term RINO (Republican in Name Only) was superseded in 2015 by the more contemptuous term cuckservative, popularized on Twitter by Trump supporters. On the left, social media launched callout culture in the years after 2012, with transformative effects on university life and later on politics and culture throughout the English-speaking world.
What changed in the 2010s? Let’s revisit that Twitter engineer’s metaphor of handing a loaded gun to a 4-year-old. A mean tweet doesn’t kill anyone; it is an attempt to shame or punish someone publicly while broadcasting one’s own virtue, brilliance, or tribal loyalties. It’s more a dart than a bullet, causing pain but no fatalities. Even so, from 2009 to 2012, Facebook and Twitter passed out roughly 1 billion dart guns globally. We’ve been shooting one another ever since. [emphasis added]
Asking “what changed in the 2010s” is a huge indication that Haidt’s narrative about social media doesn’t go nearly far enough. I was very disappointed to see that an essay about the epistemological effects of social media did not make one mention or citation of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, a book that far better than any other I know lays out the behavioral and philosophical case that these technologies make us qualitatively different thinkers and learners than we would be without them. And here’s the thing: Carr’s book was published in 2010. His demonstration that the “juggler’s brain” which Internet epistemology gives us is unable to carefully parse complex arguments was not rooted in #MAGA or #StoptheSteal. Carr’s observations and research on how online reading is qualitatively different than analog reading is so fundamental to understanding the informational crisis that journalists write about, yet Haidt seems completely unaware of it. His analysis is content to observe what happens when Internet-shaped people vote, but it doesn’t come close to asking why those voters became Internet-shaped in the first place.
Consider another part of Haidt’s analysis:
Research by the political scientists Alexander Bor and Michael Bang Petersen found that a small subset of people on social-media platforms are highly concerned with gaining status and are willing to use aggression to do so. They admit that in their online discussions they often curse, make fun of their opponents, and get blocked by other users or reported for inappropriate comments. Across eight studies, Bor and Petersen found that being online did not make most people more aggressive or hostile; rather, it allowed a small number of aggressive people to attack a much larger set of victims. Even a small number of jerks were able to dominate discussion forums, Bor and Petersen found, because nonjerks are easily turned off from online discussions of politics.
Yes. But there’s half of the story missing here. In 2013, the New York Times ran a feature named “This Story Stinks,” which revealed the results of a study designed to measure how negative comments online affected a reader’s perception of the content. What the leaders of the study found was that readers of a certain article who were allowed to see trollish, insulting commentary came away from reading the article with a different perspective on it than readers who weren’t allowed to see the comments. The authors conclude: “Our emerging online media landscape has created a new public forum without the traditional social norms and self-regulation that typically govern our in-person exchanges — and that medium, increasingly, shapes both what we know and what we think we know.”
Haidt’s narrative of technology and society presumes that people are already completely morally formed by the time they engage on their phones, and that the technologies exist more or less to privilege the malevolent while the good people just avoid it. But what if this isn’t true? What if our judgments about facts, opinions, and even one another are plastic and responsive to input? What if the technological crisis is not that too many jerks are getting online, but that the Web is creating more jerks out of us all?
What I suspect is going on with Haidt’s essay and many others like it is not a deliberate short-sightedness, but a discomfort with the emerging evidence of our being shaped by technology. One version of our “uniquely stupid” past decade tells us that we are really in control of our devices, we just need to punish the bad actors (Zuckerberg) and read two books or magazines for every one social media post. A different version of that story tells us that we are not in as much control as we think, that we are different kinds of people right now than we were twenty years ago, and this transformation may not be reversible. The first version is reassuring to us, as it holds out hope that with better candidates and more newspapers we can rebuild the public square we had before. The second version is eschatological. We built to the heavens, we were confused and scattered, and there is not much else to say except that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
I do suspect, though, that the morally formative effects of the Internet will be on the minds and consciences of the emerging generation of parents. After I read Haidt’s piece, it occurred to me that unlike my parents, I have access to an astonishing wealth of information to help me parent my kids in a device-addled age. And what I sense is that parents my age do not want their children to spend their adolescence the way they did. They don’t want likes and retweets to own their children’s emotional life. Haidt uses the biblical story of Babel as his chief metaphor for our times, but perhaps a better illustration would have been the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.