Friday, October 13, 2017
Social Media, The Enemy Within?
Professor Niall Ferguson is rather obviously working this Spectator article into a promo piece for the conceit of his new book — an age-old historical see-sawing between networks and hierarches, the market and the tower.
Strictly speaking however this particular modern predicament is more about how the ways people are connected online, knowingly and unknowingly, present a threat to the shared fictions that organise their lives when they believe themselves to be 'offline': e.g a variety of inter-network contention.
A couple of days ago I wrote a post here about the ostensibly Janus-faced nature of 'Brand USA'. Patriotism, combined with the world's greatest military capability, makes the USA an insuperable power in the external, internationally arena.
Yet the internal divisions or sections that have always existed within American society mean that internally at least, patriotism acts as a rather shrill voice of social control, papering over the cracks.
And it has been largely successful up to now. But when the Internet was first developed by the country's finest military minds, few would have imagined that it would provide America's enemies with the almost perfect tool for attacking it on the inside.
For this is where the true vulnerabilities in the American edifice lie, where the underlying disconnect between the ideal and the actual really matters and is currently only masked by the flimsiest of credos. These divisions were there long before the arrival of more empowered digital networks.
This is a nation that is peculiarly tribal at the formative level, as anyone who has watched a High School movie can attest. The Internet only facilitates the extension of this playground mentality into the adult sphere.
I'd suggest that this is one reason why Americans tend to articulate their most cherished positions in such a shrieky fashion — because they intuitively realise that without such a turbo-boost, few of these ideologies can really cope with the reasoned voice of reality. Radicalisation does not require persecution, unless one finds truth oppressive in itself.
On a slightly separate note I think Ferguson over-eggs the left-leaning tendency of 'Big Tech', which actually tends to lean libertarian. As a historian he should be well aware that the contemporary American association between liberal ideas and socialist ones is largely factitious as almost none of the monolithic socialist regimes of the twentieth century were liberal in any meaningful sense.