Originally published at: Blessed Are the Sense-Makers – Quillette
Years from now, if anyone looks at a line graph (in the OED or Google dictionary) tracking the frequency with which a word is mentioned in print, they may notice the current affinity for the word “narrative.” An already overworked word (by virtue of its abstractness), it is now almost impossible to avoid; we encounter…
Originally published at: Blessed Are the Sense-Makers – Quillette
A great history of intellectual history. I would only add that we are also beneficiaries of an altogether more invisible force created by the single greatest innovation of all time- the Printing Press. In Steven Pinker’s The Violence Paradox (a documentary) he correctly highlights increases in literacy and the opportunity afforded by fiction to ‘walk a mile in another man’s shoes’ as one of the most civilising forces in history. Before this epoch, the landscape beyond the horizon was ever shrouded in darkness, it’s denizens to be feared- with universal mistrust the default position of all novel human interactions.
To our ancestors, any foreigners with distinct garb and different customs must have seemed like potentially hostile aliens. It is perhaps fitting then that when Tolkien was writing his masterworks he borrowed heavily from Anglo-Saxon for Orc or Yrrch, which in the mother tongue means foreigner or outsider. And if literature allowed us to imagine life from another’s point of view, television allowed us to peer through their eyes, to imagine hunting the red ochre deposits like the Maasai, or craft a tinneh like the Tlingit peoples- one of longest lived cultures thanks to their mastery of aquaculture.
This is thing the woke forget with their chronological snobbery. Their predecessors weren’t monsters, they simply lacked the empathy-building tools we take as our birthright. And if they are really going to throw stones at the past, say the British Empire, they should consider that the average Brit of the time was just as much a victim of propaganda as they are- as the British were licking their wounds after the Sepoy Mutiny and wisely deciding to abandon most concerted future attempts at Christian proselytizing on the subcontinent, by far the most significant factor in the Rebellion- those at home were being fed the self-same nonsense about the mission to civilize through Christianity, without any cessation whatsoever.
The woke should really ask themselves what tales of Thuggee Cults they have uncritically been asked to absorb in relation to their own culture- as though the bloody history of colonialism were any different, other than through technological amplification, than the bloody history of the world and all its once brutal-by-necessity cultures.
My substack is free to view and comment:
Thanks for this article, and for capitalising Internet! This is a beauty:
True independence of mind may still be impossible, but the danger now is that it will appear possible, as information siloing and algorithmically generated content (tailored to psychological profiles) furnish a circle in which we are always the center, a mobile solipsism masquerading as individualism.
Whilst pausing to observe the rush of stuff which comes into our brains, and the global computer network which supports all the various individuals and organisations which pump it out, perhaps we could have a quiet moment of contemplation for what Neil Postman would have thought of all this.
He died in 2003 when broadband home access was becoming dominant and so capable of supporting some video streaming, though not full movies on demand. This was before Apple or Android full computer powered cellphones became common, and before social media as we now know it.
I suggest another contemplative pause for Max Nordau, 1849 -1923, who observed, in his 560 page rant Degeneration (2nd ed.1895, page 39 of the Englsh translation, chapter Fin-de-Siecle):
The humblest village inhabitant has to-day a wider geographical horizon, more numerous and complex intellectual interests, than the prime minister of a petty, or even a second-rate state a century ago. If he do but read his paper, let it be the most innocent provincial rag, he takes part, certainly not by active interference and influence, but by a continuous and receptive curiosity, in the thousand events which take place in all parts of the globe, and he interests himself simultaneously in the issue of a revolution in Chili, in a bush-war in East Africa, a massacre in North China, a famine in Russia, a street-row in Spain, and an international exhibition in North America. A cook receives and sends more letters than a university professor did formerly, and a petty tradesman travels more and sees more countries and people than did the reigning prince of other times.
All these activities, however, even the simplest, involve an effort of the nervous system and a wearing of tissue. Every line we read or write, every human face we see, every conversation we carry on, every scene we perceive through the window of the flying express, sets in activity our sensory nerves and our brain centres. Even the little shocks of railway travelling, not perceived by consciousness, the perpetual noises, and the various sights in the streets of a large town, our suspense pending the sequel of progressing events, the constant expectation of the newspaper, of the postman, of visitors, cost our brains wear and tear. In the last fifty years the population of Europe has not doubled, whereas the sum of its labours has increased tenfold, in part even fifty-fold. Every civilized man furnishes, at the present time, from five to twenty-five times as much work as was demanded of him half a century ago.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
“The narrative is now being written by everybody all the time. In which case, we should conduct ourselves with the same honesty and responsibility that we demand of the gatekeepers in whom we have lost faith.”
Two brilliant sentiments that we could certainly use these days. Perhaps more a narrative of self reflection & responsibility rather than blame needs to be modelled if we expect it of our future generations/gate keepers/institutions?
Humans are terrible with large volumes of data. I love this infographic of the Cognitive Bias Codex listing most of our brain’s heuristic shortcuts. When you look at the groupings of.
Too Much Information
Not Enough Meaning
Need to Act Fast
And consider that when you trigger those you STACK biases and I’ve never found stacking biases to lead to a centrist case. But where have we seen that trifecta of too much information without enough meaning and the need to act fast?
Social Media? Specifically twitter where millions of tweets an hour, with limited content (meaning) and the need to act fast to trend… Our social media triggers stacked biases and we wonder why it is polarizing?
This is a brilliant article. There is so much in it which has come together so well. So many observations over the centuries by good observers.
Indeed, that is the question. Is the Internet, with its redefinition of “community”, not even greater than movable type? And we are left with this,
In the best of all possible worlds—in which the market of ideas isn’t contaminated by falsehood, disinformation, and bad faith—most people would still need help developing an opinion about any one of these subjects, which they have neither the time nor the energy to fully research and consider. In this kind of information ecosystem, informed sense-makers are surely needed more than ever. People have always appealed to an educated class for the interpretation of reality, and there is no society in which people separately and spontaneously self-educate and reject entirely the opinions of informed authorities.
If, as someone said, a falsehood can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on, then how do we, each one of as an individual, choose what to believe, and understand the narrative as it applies to us? How do we, as individuals but never truly free to act as non-conformists, choose a community of belief, an umbrella, within whichwe know enough to make meaningful choices.
In ancient times, we were mostly born into hierarchies. Now we can choose our hierarchies, but we are not usually conscious of the choices we are making in identifying ourselves with communities.
Niall Ferguson has written about this in The Square and the Tower. It’s worth noting that the nodal, rather than hierarchal, type of society in which we are living (in the sense that any dog with the megaphone can bark out an ill-formed opinion), are much rarer than the hierarchal periods and considerably more chaotic.
On the plus side, it’s one of the few arguments likely to dent the enthusiasm of pure libertarians- the fact that societies which operate as distributed networks seem to have a natural tendency towards polarisation and destabilisation, without the stabilising influence of institutional hierarchies. Of course, hierarchies possess the tilt towards corruption and the adoption of status quo ideas which can be stultifying and linger longer than they would normally merit of their own accord, but at least one is reasonably safe and secure in one’s own society.
Jared’s article is one of the most insightful and timely that I have seen in a long time, because firstly it addresses the fundamentally key issue of how our sense of reality; i.e., consciousness, is formed, which is particularly relevant in an architecture of discourse that is currently drowning in its own fantasies, and secondly, he addresses how consciousness/reality is related to its means of production…and refers to the man who perhaps more than anyone else, saw how media technology really is the massage and how that variable informs, structures and colonizes consciousness; Marshall McLuhan.
McLuhan perhaps mistakenly thought that the way media mediates the way we see the world, interact with incoming information and structure our consciousness, was the whole story, but it is still a big part and a good one as far as an early reading of the electronic age went.
What Mcluhan could not so easily see was how this system would institutionalize itself through a public relations and marketing system that makes all previous means of reality management both amateurishly clumsy, and hit and miss intuitive. And it has now so colonized the collective imagination, the media massage and the propaganda message are fused into a complete enclosure of public imagination; consciousness itself.
We are living in one of the most totalitarian systems ever designed and it is all the more profoundly effective because hardly any of the punters have any idea how colonized they really are…by the interminable visions and voices in their heads. The system of state intimidation which always gave away regime intent, at least some of the time, has disappeared, because it is redundant.
This is why, despite my admiration of Jared’s article, most of it is also redundant, because the autonomy software he is looking for, over a fifty to seventy year period, has been systematically pulled. Anyone in any doubt need only observe what has happened to the collective sense of reality in universities.
At any other time, one would not have expected such profoundly irrational behavior except in an asylum. And the constituencies that brought Trump to power are exactly the same.
Rational thought is on the ropes, because if a disciplined economy and culture of needs and wants is displaced by fantasies of desire and urgently immediate satiation at any cost (like getting your penis or breast cut off) for long enough, the machinery for determining fantasy from reality washes out of the culture, to the extent that fantasy becomes delusional, because the means for determining otherwise are now lost.
The situation is much worse than Jared thinks, as the insane becomes ‘normal’; i.e., logically consistent but nutso narratives that have become so powerful, they overwhelm everything,
Faith and reason have stopped dancing, because for them to do so requires faith to have a sufficiently plausible story for reason to suspend disbelief, and reason has to be humble enough to recognize that all thought is but a modeling process that is infinitely regressive. When that relationship fails, faith becomes blind and reason is anybody’s…which is what has happened.
Pollen’s complaint seems to rest on an assumption that is a conflation, one widely shared but unwarranted: That democracy requires participants’ functional equivalence (or at least competence) as well as moral equivalence.
But this distrust does not evolve out of enlightened skepticism, as it is shared by those most susceptible to disinformation and conspiracy theorizing. Even those who have little interest in the news and/or do a poor job at reading it seem to agree that the press is out to deceive them.
(1) I don’t believe you know very well what constitutes – not “passes for” – “enlightened skepticism” broadly among the segments of society. (More on that in my comment on the next quoted passage.)
(2) The term “conspiracy theorizing” should really laughed out of our “enlightened” society. First of all, conspiracies – meaning (Wikipedia) “a secret plan or agreement between persons … for an unlawful or harmful purpose … especially with political motivation, while keeping their agreement secret from the public or from other people affected by it” – are all but inevitable to greater or lesser extent at the tops of all hierarchies. (Need I enumerate the proven ones in American political history?) Theorizing about them, of course by using evidence and rationality, is something all critical-thinking citizens in a democracy should be doing. All the time.
The gift of print fostered distrust in institutional narratives, but this new technology did not automatically teach people how to adapt, nor ensure the level of self-education it demanded of them.
Self-education of the level demanded here is not necessary. The implication that they become able dispense Versailles wit to scheme, and Oxford debating skills to sew up the endgame, in a democracy is a ridiculous demand. People without great knowledge, and even without great intelligence, are able both to smell bullshit and to know when they are being shafted, even when it takes a few tries. They deserve the moral right to be the governing board, even if rarely the functional right to be CXOs. We need to stop conflating the two, and figure out better how to ensure the former for all. Those who promoted democracy in the 17th and 18th centuries understood this. But it took people like Lenin and Hitler to see how they could game the slower of us so that they could always stay a step ahead of, riding the wave of the bullshit and the shaft, via a holy “vanguard”. “It works the same in any country.” Even ours. Especially today.
The pledge of a democratic society is that every person gets to decide for themselves—that anyone can '“figure it out”
No, it is not the pledge. (As I discussed above), you left out the word “representative”. It should be in “a representative democratic society”. Like the one we have little choice of avoiding in a nation of 330 million people. What we’re supposed to be figuring out is not how to do things, but who to trust to do them. Trust is the problem – not knowledge. People are more than willing to trust those of superior mind if they are of superior character – and this has happened at various times in our (at least America’s) past.
Democracies breed distrust of elites, a resentment leftover and displaced from the old distrust of nobility and clergy.
I don’t undertand how America, in 2021, is acting out of memory of the 1st and 2nd estates, as if we (the British colonies!) lept from 1789 France to 2016 Trump, ignoring all that transpired in between. Need I fill in the blanks? (Not to mention: Do you think it was *irrational" to distrust the 1st and 2nd estates?) It is human nature that breeds distrust of elites, lording over thousands and millions of people, for which we are not designed by evolution to do, and so can be tricked by modern representational media (i.e. video/audio) to believe are our “friends” … until we are burned one-time-too-many. That distrust earned from being burned is healthy, and so often well-earned by the elites. It’s only in a democracy that the distrust can be effectively harnessed to overthrow elites. It’s a feature, not a bug.
[C]omment threads become rambling appendages to articles, commentaries on the commentary appear in the same space, every voice can be heard at once, and every contribution is equalized by the same sized font.
Oh, the horror! Have you not heard “democracy is messy, and it’s hard”? I think that includes public discourse.
Bellow wrote[:] “…[O]ne can hold enlightened opinions.” Indeed, this is the very least that can be asked of anyone with the ability to vote. The stability of a polis rests on the education of its citizens.
Nonsense. If in the event, say, some Modest Proposal idea took off, and 90% of the population is killed, who would got the “enlightened opinions” then? When would this Best-and-Brightest machine stablize to epistemological nirvana?
But how much sense can an average citizen be expected to make of their reality?
How much, for that matter, can the sense-makers?
Remember this, and digest it well, if nothing else: It’s ALL belief.
To some degree, our ability to ‘trust’ is controlled by Dunbar’s number. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests that humans can only have approximately 150 ‘meaningful contacts’ – people who we easily recognize and interact with on a regular basis. This seems to be a natural constraint on group sizes, and seems to go back to prehistoric times.
According to Dunbar and many researchers he influenced, this rule of 150 remains true for early hunter-gatherer societies as well as a surprising array of modern groupings: offices, communes, factories, residential campsites, military organisations, 11th Century English villages, even Christmas card lists. Exceed 150, and a network is unlikely to last long or cohere well. (One implication for the era of urbanisation may be that, to avoid alienation or tensions, city residents should find quasi-villages within their cities.)
Beyond 150, there are various layerings farther out, of perhaps 500 ‘acquaintances’ and and 1500 faces you recognize, but beyond the inner 150, who you have your own knowledge of and opinions of, with whom you know how far you can trust them, we have to rely on the leaders within out circle to guide us as to how we trust others beyond our circle. And their knowledge is constrained by their own circles. The larger the society, the more links there have to be in the trust.
Technology may speed communication, but it doesn’t make it any easier for us to trust people we can’t interact with. As you say, it’s messy.
And the population of the US is perhaps 150 times what it was in 1787.