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Joanna Baron: Blame Big Tech all you like, but polarization is in our nature


Can we blame Big Tech social media platforms for increasing polarization and the seeming dearth of civil discourse?

Or is the problem a deeper quandary concerning postmodern identity politics and base human nature, one which has been highlighted by a year and counting of lockdowns?

Last week, Facebook VP Nick Clegg wrote a long Medium article defending the company against charges that it encourages polarization. This theory Clegg, a former UK politician and highly competent hired gun, was defending Facebook against goes something like this:

Ruled by robots programmed to keep our attention as long as possible, social media algorithms promote stuff we are likely to double-tap on or share — and bury everything else. The effect is that people exclusively read and shape their worldviews via articles that confirm their priors. They meet and converse with others who are similar. Eventually, some of them end up at the U.S. Capitol building with guns.

This narrative was developed at length in Shoshanna Zubkoff’s Surveillance Capitalism, as well as the popular Netflix documentary the Social Dilemma.

Clegg countered the “filter bubbles” narrative that has become dominant concerning the effects of social media on polarization. He cited independent academic studies that undercut the idea that the network encourages us to retreat into cocoons of familiar information.

He also laid out Facebook’s new plans to allow users control over their algorithm:

“People should be able to better understand how the ranking algorithms work and why they make particular decisions, and they should have more control over the content that is shown to them,” Clegg wrote. “You should be able to talk back to the algorithm and consciously adjust or ignore the predictions it makes — to alter your personal algorithm in the cold light of day, through breathing spaces built into the design of the platform.”

Indeed, independent studies confirm that the most polarized demographic groups are the least “extremely online.” They are usually boomers and above, people who report getting their news mostly from cable television.

We are motivated not by truth but by emotive stories

Clegg contends that human nature itself is the problem. “Consider, for example, the presence of bad and polarizing content on private messaging apps — iMessage, Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp — used by billions of people around the world,” he writes.

Clegg’s apologia for Facebook points towards a much bigger problem that moving all societal discourse onto digital platforms has occasioned and for which the train has already left the station: we are motivated not by truth, but by emotive stories.

The problem is not with the Facebook or Twitter algorithm, but with human nature, and the quirks of our primal wetware. To wit: it’s already possible on both platforms, with a few clicks, to reset your feed to rank posts chronologically versus algorithmically, but who wants to do that when being fed piping-hot outrage porn is so much more satisfying? Big tech platforms essentially serve as an etheric parrot that collects information on our impulses and mirrors back the content we find tantalizing.

In the secular age, there is no central mediating authority or reservoir of meaning. Everyone is fundamentally a solipsist, the main character of their life’s movie. This epistemological fact has become elevated to a moral imperative and burnished through the rhetoric of identity. But in 2020, this solipsism expanded into the algorithmic architecture of all our social interactions.

The default in cultural and political discourse is the rhetoric of identity: who you are, which group you can profess to speak for, and your subjective experience. The problem is that we have not only begun to acknowledge our partiality, and the partiality of others, we have also begun to revere it, and this is a mistake.

In so doing, we ironically evince a fundamental post-Protestant moral puritanism — as Mark Lilla recently wrote, “The uptight Bible-thumping humbug of yore has been shamed off the public square— but only to make room for networks for self-righteous beautiful souls pronouncing sentence from the cathedra of their inner Vaticans.”

Discourse happens in our digital public squares, which have become increasingly irrational and seemingly disconnected from any earnest desire to engage in speech for the sake of the pursuit of truth. The cognitive disaster of a year and counting’s worth of lockdown is that it’s not clear how it’s even possible to disrupt our filter bubbles or widen one’s horizons. It’s as though navel-gazing was transposed onto digital fences that monopolize our line of vision.

So I spent much of this past year watching as people in my orbit demonstrated their consistent inability to peer out of their own digital channels. Sloppy diatribes, vicious personal attacks, rank partisanship. It is paradoxical that while the effect of social media has been to eliminate barriers to entry into public discourse, it has simultaneously withered down the Overton window to a sliver, enforced by the digital mob.

In pre-pandemic times, of course, the potential for disruption existed by interfacing with physical reality — whether at the ‘water cooler’ or its analogs, or even just driving through parts of one’s city where the reality is at odds with your own. Since March 2020, the only funnel available to form our views of the world has been mediated through a digital filter.

In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari points out the somewhat paradoxical reality that information overwhelm has made our fundamental irrationality more glaring: humans think in stories rather than facts, numbers, or equations. The simpler, and the more emotive the story, the more persuasive it is to the human brain: “Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.”

How this looks on a daily basis on the timeline is that nuance, reasonable disagreement and complexity became eclipsed by mutual perception of one’s political opponent’s villainy. To my friends on the right, pro-lockdown and identitarian leftists are peddlers of dangerous authoritarianism, surreptitiously buttressing the Chinese Communist Party’s agenda not just by pushing for longer and stricter lockdowns but by dividing Western culture in a million fragments over debates on trans rights and cancel culture.

To my friends on the left, conservatives are outright complicit in or adjacent to white supremacy, “murderclowns” indifferent to the effects of the virus, and — at least in the US — directly responsible for the attacks of January 6th on the U.S. Capitol building.

This won’t end well. As the philosopher Sam Harris puts it:

“We have a choice. We have two options as human beings. We have a choice between conversation and war. That’s it: conversation and violence.”

Howard Anglin: Cheer up, Canada. There’s nothing we can do


The thing about history is you never know when you are.

It’s not like geography, where you can pull up a map and see how far it is to your destination. With history, if you’re lucky you know where you came from, but never what lies ahead. You don’t even have a destination.

Because it can be disorienting not to know what the future holds, we have developed theories to impose the illusion of order: Giambattista Vico’s cyclical ages, Marx’s scientific socialism, the Whig interpretation of history, and countless other more and less plausible systems of thought invented to deny that history is “just one damned thing after another.”

The Hub’s inaugural editorial doesn’t fall into this deterministic trap, thank goodness. Quite the opposite — it practically fizzes and pops with optimism. It laughs at decay and blows raspberries at entropy. “The future is not some autonomous force that unfolds according to its own logic,” the editors aver, and “a different and better future is indeed within our reach if we have the foresight and discipline to make the right choices.”

It’s all so effervescently hopeful that I almost wish it were true! I too want to be one of the “agents of the future” when I grow up, and maybe by then I will figure out what it means. I kid. It’s a splendid and spirited statement and I’m glad to see the Hub, like National Review’s mission statement 66 years ago, “start with a considerable — and considered — optimism.”

It’s just that I’m not by nature an optimist, at least not in the long term. Ask me what’s for lunch and my mind will race away imagining all manner of delights, but ask me about the future and I’m a cheerful pessimist. Trollope wrote that “[t]he well-educated, widely-read Conservative, who is well assured that all good things are gradually being brought to an end by the voice of the people, is generally the pleasantest man to be met.” That has been my experience too, and I hope one day to illustrate the point.

For better or for worse, bravado is not the Canadian way.

Like my esteemed editors, politicians, alert to the rhetorical potential of the unknown, also like to assure us that our best days lie just ahead. There will be a brighter tomorrow, if only we choose and trust them. So, they quote John Diefenbaker, who kicked off the 1957 federal campaign by thundering: “My friends, this is a time for greatness in planning for Canada’s future. Unity demands it; freedom requires it; vision will ensure it.”

I wonder how many of Diefenbaker’s audience in Massey Hall that night remembered Wilfrid Laurier’s assurance to an almost identical crowd in the same venue half a century earlier: “Let me tell you, my fellow countrymen, that all the signs point this way, that the 20th century will be the century of Canada.”

Even allowing for both poetical and political license, both Diefenbaker’s and Laurier’s prediction were optimistic, but they weren’t entirely wrong either. The twentieth century did treat Canada pretty well, but we shouldn’t give politicians much of the credit. Nor should we take much credit ourselves as a country. Our real good fortune was to live next door to the country to whom the century undoubtedly did belong.

As the omphalos of cultural power crossed the ocean from London to Washington after the Great War, Canada’s cultural fortunes pivoted accordingly. Canadians, who had benefited from being preferred partners of one global hegemon, quickly adjusted to basking in the reflected glow of another.

We were fortunate on both accounts — so fortunate that we usually take it for granted.

Never before had so much of the world been so orderly, so wealthy, and so secure, and never before had a country been more fortuitously located in time and place. I once heard Benjamin Netanyahu compare Israel’s and Canada’s respective positions: Israel, he said, was bordered by three hostile powers and an ocean, while Canada was bordered by three oceans and the friendliest of neighbours. He was right: we have been spoiled, and we should not forget it.

Nor should we forget that none of this was foreordained. A wealthy heir is just a lucky sperm, and Canada has been a happy accident of history and geography.

However much earlier generations of Canadians resented English snobbery even as they emulated it, and however much we now disdain American commercialism while consuming it by the gigabyte, we should always remember our peripheral and dependent relationship to both. We are not Rome; we are cisalpine Gaul.

We were birthed by British industry and came of age alongside America. The United States used to be naïve about the wider world, but fascinated by it, and the world looked to Canada as a trusted and sometimes influential interpreter of the new superpower. Now, as American attention turns inward and it expends more energy on internal division than on outward expansion, we feel our true impotence. We shared in the optimism of America’s post-war boom; now we are yoked to a stagnant American civilization and infected by its pathologies.

Stagnation is worse than decline. If we knew that the end were truly nigh, we could unleash ourselves in a Dionysian frenzy of self-forgetting or we could repent our sins and achieve a sublime grace. Instead, we are trapped, not knowing what comes next or even if there is a next and not just more of the same, on repeat, until we hit a civilisational cataclysm: the next and worse plague or Great War.

The marriage of technology and mass commercial culture, two more dividends of our American partnership, contributes to this experience of stagnation and traps us there with them. The internet on our phones, our televisions, our computers, and in our smart homes surrounds us with an infinite archive at our fingertips that means nothing is ever left behind and our next experience is more likely to be a re-run than something genuinely new.

Taylor Swift performs during her 1989 World Tour in Vancouver. Jonathan Hayward/ The Canadian Press

We have become cultural hoarders, mentally boxed in by stacks of old movies, old music, old news clips, most of it not of our making. An episode of Frasier from 1995 or The Office from 2005 or the latest episode of The Bachelor: it’s all “on demand.” The instant availability of everything means we don’t have to move on culturally, so we don’t; we just accumulate more content, all of it equally accessible all the time.

The effect is flattening and sterile. A stagnant age is an age of revivals, franchises, and sequels. The appearance of something new usually turns out to be, on closer inspection, just an illusion of embellishment and filigree, a variation on an old theme, a reinterpretation of culture rather than its advancement. A teenager in Fresno making a dance remix of last year’s Taylor Swift hit may be inventive, but that’s not the same as invention.

What Mark Fisher described as “the slow cancellation of the future” in popular music now applies in all areas of life. Even politics. What are the latest political trends? Socialism, anti-fascism, political correctness — pastiches of once vital ideologies. Past and present blur, and the future never arrives, it just merges into a limbo of permanent past-present. We are stuck in time.

So where does that leave us, we aspiring agents of the future? Or, rather, when does that leave us?

We should start by lowering our expectations of what is possible. In his recent memoirs, Barack Obama offered a surprisingly bleak prognosis for America. Writing about former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Obama says that:

“Like me, he had come to believe that this was all any of us could expect from democracy, especially in big, multiethnic, multireligious societies … [j]ust the observance of rules that allowed us to sort out or at least tolerate our differences, and government policies that raised living standards and improved education enough to temper humanity’s baser impulses.”

Given the political polarisation and social disintegration now engulfing America, we may be lucky if the future is that good. The alternative is much worse, and at least equally likely.

We are free to think small but beautifully and not worry about what we can’t control.

Two years ago, Emmanuel Macron told the assembled ambassadors to France: “We know that civilizations are disappearing; countries as well. Europe will disappear.” When was the last time you heard anything like that from a Canadian politician? Can you imagine a prime minister saying: “Canada is a wonderful place to live, but one day it will end. We don’t know how or why or what will replace it, but we know for certain that it will.” Poor Diefenbaker would spin in his concrete-reinforced grave.

Macron’s conclusion was that, facing “obliteration,” France must adopt “a strategy of boldness, of risk-taking.” He boasted that “the French spirit is a spirit of resistance with a universal calling,” a calling to “humanism” that means “we can make things happen.” It is hard not to smile at such Gallic chauvinism or to admire its audacity — “toujours de l’audace!” as Danton insisted. And maybe he is right that a riven continent can rally around a common cause — even something as hollow as humanism, which Macron deflatingly called a project centred on “man with a capital M” — but I doubt it. It sounds more like the bravado of desperation.

For better or for worse, such bravado is not the Canadian way. Even if we want to be bold, we can only be bold in the margins of the history books. And that is nothing to regret. We have a good patch of earth here, blessedly dull and usually just about well-enough run by just about good-enough leaders. We are free to think small but beautifully and not worry about what we can’t control. We can still tend our garden, and wait to see what the calendar brings for Rome and our allied province.

This could be mistaken for a counsel of complacency, but it’s not. Any gardener will tell you that cutting and pruning and keeping the weeds at bay is full-time work, and a well-kept garden brings great joy and sustenance. I don’t object to the vaulting ambition of The Hub’s editors, it’s just that my ambition differs in scope and scale. I certainly agree with them that “[a]n aggregation of our individual and collective choices will ultimately shape the society that subsequent generations inhabit.” I just prefer to focus on those individual choices and let the fruits of aggregation follow — or not.

Let civilizational battles rage elsewhere; we can’t stop them. If we tried really hard collectively, we might be able to filter out some of the worst American tendencies — the politicisation of our private lives and the pornographication of our culture — but there is no stomach for that fight among the people and our leaders have already surrendered. A blended mass culture means what happens on American streets also happens in our living rooms, and our corporate, academic and media elites seem hell bent on misdiagnosing here the same problems that are tearing our neighbours apart, and prescribing the same radical interventions.

In the end, there is no science to human history, and thus no knowing when we are. Canada’s fortunes rose with the British Empire and were carried along for a time by American cultural imperialism; now we face their fates. Whatever that will be, it will be our fate too.

To borrow a conceit from the almost-great Canadian novel: we’re Fifth Business. Ultimately it doesn’t matter that we cannot know when we are in history, because we are not the heroes of the story.