The Cultural is the Technological

The kerfuffle this week over the Drexel University history prof who tweeted out “All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide,” is partly a technological problem masquerading as a cultural problem. Just as Anthony Weiner would probably not, in 2011 in his more functional days at least,  have stood outside his congressional district office exposing his nards to passing constituents, my guess is the Drexel Professor would not have stood in the quad on  32nd and Market Street (where in happier afternoons I used to see Drexel engineering students playing cricket), with a big sign saying “I love White Genocide” and screaming out related slogans. Still less, I assume, would he begin the first class by telling his white students he wanted to genocide them. Yet Twitter is more public than both acts. Twitter is a broadcast medium, but it’s a broadcast medium that is operated in large part lying on your couch at 11 PM between the third and fourth cups of spiked Egg Nog. Such dark materials the mind of man was not fashioned to encompass. Our ability to tell the difference between the private and the public modes of discourse is foiled by the glowing boxes we keep in our pockets whose main function is to blur the distance between ourselves and everyone else in the world.

In another way, too, stories like this are about technology shaping culture rather than merely facilitating it. The tendency that I call the Power of Rhetorical Radicalism and that Scott Alexander calls the Toxoplasma of Rage– the ability of the most extreme statements, (like Professor Ciciarello-Maher’s and more so) and polarizing positions to dominate all discussion- is driven by at least two factors that are technological as much as purely cultural.  First, the availability of so much language, so much, as they say, content, everywhere and always creates a lot of static for any statement to overcome in order to be heard, particularly in an asymmetric medium like Twitter where discourse needs to flow through a smaller number of power users in order for most people to see it. This favors the most extreme and incendiary statements. Second,  people are bored and eager for a fight- addicted to distraction, in Bruce Charlton’s phrase. The alt-right guys who Professor Ciciarello-Maher was making fun of  with his White Genocide tweet will often mock themselves as a bunch of late-adolescent NEETs dwelling in their parents’ basements, and the opposing “this is why white people deserve to drown in their own blood” crowd are no doubt suffering from their own forms of technological ennui. A bigger question is perhaps whether as more of the society becomes unengaged with work and generally underutilized thanks to technology, the culture will become nastier rather than more civil. A society with less material scarcity may well become more vicious in its competition for the things that are still scarce, in particular relative status, and the natural tendency of the internet may be towards greater division and a permanent defensive crouch rather than greater trust and openness. Maybe middle school is so nasty because it’s when kids fully realize they are locked in together with nothing to do but make fun of each other’s faces, and maybe the arc of the universe bends towards middle school.

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