Nick Carr, author of The Shallows, reviews Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy and Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. I haven’t read either, but given the way my thinking has been going of late, I’ll probably be reading one or both soon. He writes:
Social media’s problems stem not just from Internet companies’ business strategies but from the technologies the companies use and venerate. By turning all types of information into the digits of binary code, computer networks encourage the consolidation of once-diverse media into data empires of unprecedented scope and power. And the very design of smartphones and apps, research shows, saps us of the patience and attentiveness we need to evaluate the meaning and worth of the information pulsing through our screens.
Read the rest in the Washington Post.
I’ve written recently about what I consider to be an emerging consensus, or if not quite rising to the status of consensus, a recognition that we have not reckoned with the societal costs of social media and are finally starting to do so seriously in 2018.
In The New Republic, Mark Oppenheimer recounts his experience of being on the receiving end of a social media firestorm after an ill-considered post. It’s worth pausing for a moment, before the laminations about the coarsening of discourse, to look at Oppenheimer’s motivation for writing this original post. He writes, “there was a lot wrong with the piece, which I wrote in about twenty minutes in the hour after I read the Weinstein story.” Oppenheimer is focused more on the fallout from his poor post, but it’s worth considering why exactly, a hot take needed to be pushed out twenty minutes into a breaking story.
The urge to post an ill-informed opinion like this must be viewed in the context of the sharing economy and the enormous pressure journalists are under to have a story go viral. All in the name of engagement, the coin of the realm of the social networks. The drive for engagement, for sharing, for virality here causes both the publication of a poor piece, but also the backlash to the piece as well. What better thing to share than an extremely bad Weinstein take! How simple to hit retweet, along with some choice words of condemnation!
And so, to escape the deluge of approbation, Oppenheimer turns away from social media. He realizes that the world outside his door does not resemble the world he has been marinating in for so long. “People continue to be overwhelmingly decent when communicating in the old ways. But that is not true of newer media. The web is thus doing something even more dispiriting than turning us into bad people: It’s giving us amnesia about how fundamentally good we are.” But Oppenheimer misses the point somewhat, describing a “coarsening” as if it’s just a thing that happens, like bad weather, rather than the result of corporate policy.
On Twitter, writer David Klion criticizes him for turning his back on humanity: “And yet they were still there, and so were the people on them, who are people, and the conversations they had, which are conversations. As a writer, how can you describe the world when you refuse to observe it?” But he’s not turning away from the world…he’s turning away from the world according to Twitter. Klion goes on to point out how “in the era when Mark Oppenheimer, straight/cis/white/male/lawyer’s son … endured less abuse, the communities he’s describing endured more, legally as well as verbally.” Again, it is the social platforms who have, in the name of engagement, in the name of active users, enabled this very abuse.
This is not the result of natural causes, but policies and preferences made by Twitter and Facebook which prioritize engagement, whatever the form it may take, over social harms, from the coarse and profane insults directed at Oppenheimer, to the threats and abuse that women and those from more vulnerable communities experience on these platforms. Twitter is not humanity, it is an environment is which humans have been given the opportunity and the incentive to behave badly. Perhaps Oppenheimer would have received similar treatment in a more humane Twitter, one with better priorities. But he’s not wrong to differentiate between the world as it is and the world according to Twitter.
The very origin of the Machiavelli graphic novel started out in a competition for the SPX 2002 anthology. The theme was historical biography, so I was primed and ready to go with this idea I had to do a comic about Niccolò. I created six pages of art which were accepted and appeared in SPX 2002. I also created my first minicomics to bring to the expo. Here I am showing one to guest of honor Eddie Campbell.
Here are the original pages. If you’ve read the book, you will recognize it as the six page prologue, which I redid completely when I started the book in earnest. I still like the hand lettering, even though it is basically illegible, especially on the second page. But it still looks very nice, kind of like an illuminated manuscript you can’t read. (click on images to enlarge)
It is not the things themselves that disturb us, but our judgments about these things” —Epictetus, Encheiridion, 1.5
Both Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus agree that people’s anguish is caused by our distress that the world is not the way we imagine it should be. I suppose that much of 2016-2017 has been a major lesson in how, and to what degree, one should approach the world as communicated by the media, both traditional and social. What we read in the news or on social media is not the world, but the world as described to us by the news and social media.
The experience of 2016 on Twitter was so shocking. I feel it was due to two factors: my spending far, far too much time on it, and the design of Twitter itself encourages and rewards outrageous and lurid statements. I step outside my door and it does not resemble the apocalyptic reality that I had been marinating in for the past year. Now, that is on me, surely. By following dozens of political commentators and constantly reading the feed, I was surely responsible for my own state of mind.
But, unable to sleep on that election night, and feeling powerless dread on nights after that as I lay in bed, I realized I had to fix something. Mostly, it was a matter of bringing things back into perspective: that I was putting a lot of emotional energy and paying a lot of attention to things completely out of my control. So, I’m trying to cultivate a Stoicism in not allowing these events to have such a powerful effect on me. What good does following every twist and turn of political infighting provide to either myself or the world? Interestingly, I’ve found that during my social media sabbaticals, my knowledge of world events doesn’t really suffer, suggesting that whatever I’m reading, in addition to causing me anxiety, isn’t really making me any better informed.
Many have written about social media and Twitter in particular as having addictive qualities, as well as giving a megaphone to the most strident and outrageous voices. Could it be that the places where America is most divided are in the media (and by association, social media) and in the government? Because the disagreements on the Internet are certainly vicious, horrible, and intractable. As they are in the halls of government and among activists. When you spend enough time on Twitter, you begin to feel that it is an accurate representation of real life. Another way of putting it is that the Twitter stream in some ways becomes your stream of thought. If that is the case, it is no wonder that to those spending a lot of time on Twitter perceive the country through that lens.
The politics of the current moment are certainly reactionary, counterrevolutionary, and cruel. I do not dispute that, lest anyone misconstrue that I am advocating quietism. A citizen should do as much as they feel is right, but are the social media battles really aiding that goal? I feel a certain gestalt of 2018 is a dawning realization that social media has become—or always was—something toxic, something, like sugar or alcohol, best taken in measured doses.
We often tend to describe social media as if it were the weather: that the torrent of outrage, trolling, and negativity is just a thing that happens in these ecosystems, like the rain. Tristan Harris, in a recent interview with Ezra Klein, points out that all of these companies are very deliberately using anti-patterns to drive engagement on their platforms. In other words, since the thing that they are measuring on their platforms as benefits to sell to advertisers are clicks, comments, and time spent on the platform, they are using our own psychologies against us to drive these metrics. Since outrage drives the most “engagement” that’s what the algorithm pushes on us: that’s what it’s been designed to do. We’re subject to a constant firehose of outrage and negativity because that’s what gets us riled up, gets us to retweet, to share, to comment, thus the algorithm defaults to showing us more such content in the future and the cycle continues.
It is too early to say, but I feel that during this social winter, especially in the past two years, public opinion seems to be turning against these companies, or at least, Facebook, the one that seems the most malevolent and who has the largest footprint. People truly have begun to wake up to the fact that spending so much time on our devices, even when we are not being driven to outrage and distraction, is harmful to our health, or at least meant well-being. Perhaps Facebook will not take over the world.
What would social media look like without sharing?
When I think about the social platforms that make me the least distressed—that even seem worthwhile!—Instagram and micro.blog come to mind, as do newspapers, blogs, and other non-social online publications. One thing that both Instagram and micro.blog have in common is that neither has a sharing feature. I mean, you could conceivably hand copy someone else’s picture or post, but it’s not really designed to do that, and since it involves extra work, doesn’t tend to be a popular activity. In Twitter and Facebook, posts are easy to share, easy to promote into others’ feeds simply by liking or commenting. Since the most outrageous and provocative things tend to be the most “viral,” they are the ones that explode across the social network, riling us up. Maybe sharing is the problem. And the solution could be to make sharing harder, so that recommending something to another person required a bit more premeditation, a bit more work.
It is a choice these companies are making, to promote this type of content and these kind of interactions, it is a choice that they choose not to prioritize online brigades and extremists, as these groups and their sock puppets are very highly engaged. But always keep in mind, this is corporate strategy. It’s not something intrinsic to the Internet or even to social media. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Here’s a bit of a select bibliography for Machiavelli. I’ve tried to keep it short, to only the books that I used the most or had the most impact on my work or feel would be the most interest to you, the reader of Machiavelli.
Machiavelli in Hell, Sebastian de Grazia. De Grazia’s book was really the starter pistol for Machiavelli. A wonderful intellectual biography, de Grazia goes into detail about Machiavelli’s life as well as his philosophy, seamlessly working an analysis of The Prince into Machiavelli’s life story. He writes with such affection and sympathy for his subject, it opened up my mind to the possibilities of creating something myself.
The Life of Niccolò Machiavelli, Roberto Ridolfi. The definitive Machiavelli biography, in my opinion. Sadly out of print, Ridolfi writes authoritatively and and clearly, much in the way his subject does. He has the ability, rare among academics, to write with clarity and concision. He is wonderfully opinionated, but his occasional tear downs of his academic rivals never descend to the level of pettiness, and he almost always wins the reader over in the end.
Discourses on Livy, Niccolò Machiavelli, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield. Mansfield’s translation is excellent. He keeps his prose spare and without flourishes, as is appropriate for Machiavelli. His introduction to the text offers some excellent guides to landmarks in the text that the reader should visit, and his choices of passages to highlight are wise and correct. Mansfield’s later writings (on modern society) are unfortunate, but he’s at his best here.
Machiavelli and His Friends: Their Personal Correspondence. This book of wonderful correspondence between Machiavelli and his friends, coworkers, and family formed the basis for many of the events I depict in the book. It’s probably more than you need unless you’re doing a particularly deep dive into Machiavelli, but if you have access to a library that has a copy, Machiavelli’s letters are well worth your time. He is witty, profane, and insightful, and these letters show a human side to him that I tried to capture in my book.
A Florentine Diary from 1450 to 1516, Luca Landucci. Another out of print book, if you have access to a good library network, look for it.
Florence, the Golden Age 1138–1737, Gene Brucker. This is a wonderful coffee table book with lots of images of everyday life in Florence in the late middle ages and the Renaissance. Brucker has also pulled together some wonderful visuals from tax rolls and census data (such as existed) to give the reader an idea of what the population makeup, the types of jobs people had, and how much things cost. The illustrations are well chosen to give a good idea of what life was like in Florence in the Renaissance.
While looking through my backups from my old Movable Type website, seeing if there was anything worth salvaging, I came across this post written in 2004 about Strauss’ book Thoughts on Machiavelli. I think it holds up, so I’m republishing here. The final paragraph refers to the Bush administration, of course, and it’s an interesting time capsule.
I doubt many in the press have actually read Strauss, although they like to hint darkly about “Straussians” in the government. Strauss’ main contribution to philosophical discussion is that historical writings need to be understood in the context of the times in which they are written. Karl Jahn states it succinctly:
“The distinctively Straussian approach to political philosophy is, quite simply, to take premodern philosophers seriously, and to try to understand them as they understood themselves. This is, by itself, a radical challenge to modern historicism (i.e. historical relativism), which holds that the thoughts of premodern philosophers are ‘outmoded’ and irrelevant; they were mental prisoners of their epoch — usually ignoring the implication that we, too, are mental prisoners of our own epoch, so that contemporary prejudices are no better than ‘outmoded’ ones.”
Hardly the sort of thing to send shivers up the spine. In fact, it sounds quite reasonable. The aspect of Strauss’ philosophy, however, that is most pertinent to the current political situation is his ideal of esotericism. Strauss believed that the truth was best known only to the few. His writing is deliberately subtle and difficult, to the point where it is often hard to discern precisely what he is arguing.
In Thoughts on Machiavelli, he projects his own ideals onto Niccolò, parsing The Prince and the Discourses searching for hidden, secret meanings in the books. He makes some good observations, but in his quest for the obfuscated meanings that he believes Niccolò must have hidden for his initiates, he comes to some rather absurd conclusions. One is sometimes reminded of numerologists imposing invented meaning on texts with their own peculiar methodology. For an excellent send-up of Strauss’ Kabbalistic tendencies, read Brad DeLong’s piece “Thoughts on Leo Strauss, or, a Product of a Procrastinatory Monday Morning.”
The fact is that Niccolò wrote in a very plain and straightforward manner, eschewing the flowery prose popular at the time, because he wished to be understood clearly. A close reading will, however, reveal some opinions that were too volatile to be written at the time. For example, in The Prince he gives examples of rulers who have killed the nobles in a region in order that they not rise up against him. Combined with his exhortation that some prince unite Italy to free it from the constant incursions of foreign powers, it seems Niccolò is advocating that someone conquer Italy and kill all the bickering nobility that would surely screw things up. I’m positive he would have preferred an Italian Republic, but anything is better than having Frenchmen marching through your city.
Machiavelli strove to be as clear as possible because he either wished to instill his republican ideals in a new generation (The Discourses) or he wished to sound a call to action to those in power to expel the barbarians from Italy (The Prince.) Neither goal is compatible with a hidden agenda that is difficult, if not impossible to decipher. He’s not writing philosophy for the sake of philosophers. He’s seeking to enlighten, to convince, and hopefully, to convert. The idea that he would hide his “true” meaning so deeply in the text that it would take 400 years to decipher it is not really credible.
However, the way Strauss’ esotericism relates to the current administration is somewhat tangential. I believe that those in the government, the so called “neoconservatives” also subscribe to this theory of esotericism. John Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, writes that they “have created the most secretive presidency of my lifetime … far worse than during Watergate.” Opacity, secrecy, and knowledge only available to a very select few are hallmarks of Straussian thought. The administration has engaged in vicious personal attacks on those who have broken ranks and told what they knew, people such as Richard Clarke and Paul O’Neill. As John Dean says, “this is a presidency that does not like the truth told about their activities.”
There’s a fascinating interview on Splitsider with Matt Klinman of Funny or Die, who recently had to lay off its entire editorial staff due to Facebook’s devouring its entire revenue stream from their video shorts. He’s very candid and forthcoming about what it’s meant for the company, in a way I’ve seen few publishers be:
The whole story is basically that Facebook gets so much traffic that they started convincing publishers to post things on Facebook. For a long time, that was fine. People posted things on Facebook, then you would click those links and go to their websites. But then, gradually, Facebook started exerting more and more control of what was being seen, to the point that they, not our website, essentially became the main publishers of everyone’s content. Today, there’s no reason to go to a comedy website that has a video if that video is just right on Facebook. And that would be fine if Facebook compensated those companies for the ad revenue that was generated from those videos, but because Facebook does not pay publishers, there quickly became no money in making high-quality content for the internet.
Now this is true for news organizations as well as comedy sites. Klinman has some interesting insights on the way that Facebook has a flattening effect on the sites that we view: so that a link from a Macedonian content mill looks very similar to a Washington Post front page story.
I hope this heralds a move more generally toward the open web, although, as a proprietor of an independent site on said web, I am not a disinterested observer. Still, I see in pieces like this and elsewhere, a general realization that Facebook is not an ideal way to experience the internet, and may even be harmful. That this idea is moving beyond technical elites (who had always been snobbishly skeptical of it) is heartening to me. Does it mean a return to the open web, as I hope? Likely not as a mass movement, but as an underground movement of people moving back to feed readers and blogs and away from over reliance on social media, perhaps.
Micro.blog is an interesting initiative from Manton Reese, who is dissatisfied with the way that conversation on the Internet has been captured by a few private social media giants. Brent Simmons, inventor of NetNewsWire, describes it like this:
But if you think of the years 1995-2005, you remember when the web was our social network: blogs, comments on blogs, feed readers, and services such as Flickr, Technorati, and BlogBridge to glue things together. Those were great years — but then a few tragedies happened: Google Reader came out, and then, almost worse, it went away. Worse still was the rise of Twitter and Facebook, when we decided it would be okay to give up ownership and let just a couple companies own our communication.
Simmons is currently working on an open source feed reader that will incorporate support for a bunch of different feed formats, and will perhaps have support for Micro.blog as well. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how it would tie into existing modes of web publishing (like WordPress, as I do here). I don’t know if something like Micro.blog would solve the many discontents of social media, but it seems like a step in the right direction. Then again, it may be something that appeals to a small subset of the Internet community; techy members of Generation X who look back fondly on the early days of the open web and are interested in setting up and managing their own web sites. But I do fall squarely into that subset, and I am looking for ways to communicate on the Internet without the toxicity of Twitter, this may represent a way out. It’s worth a try.