The internet is, as a medium, fundamentally changing our conception of the political, writes Antón Barba-Kay. By removing speech from its social context, it has blurred our sense of the unsayable; by uncoupling us from our real-life community, it has made us shameless; and by fetishizing fact, it has undermined the power of reason. All help explain the extraordinary success of Donald Trump. This article is a co-publication with Eurozine.
Of all the internet’s uses, attractions and conveniences, the foremost is that it involves us immediately with an indefinite number of others. Its decisive edge over television and the printed word is just this: its participatory, social character. To the extent that it is becoming our chief means of private and public discourse, it is therefore acquiring exceptional political significance. To someone who understood nothing of the internet, much of contemporary American political life would be inscrutable. It is now our primary way of dealing with each other, our most important organ of collective speech and self-knowledge. The internet is, in this way, inherently recasting our wider notions of what to say, who to be, what to count as authoritative, and how to govern and be governed. What follows are some lines of thought sketching each of these transformations in turn.
EVERYWHERE REASONS: CONTEXT AND INFORMATION
It used to be that, when you communicated with someone, the person you were communicating with was as important as the information. Now, on the internet, the person is unimportant at all. In fact, [the internet] was developed so that scientists could communicate … without knowing where the other person was or even who the other person was. … In the future, you won’t know if you’re communicating with dogs, or robots, or people, and it won’t matter.
Communication is a community’s most important activity: what we can expect to say to each other defines and sustains our perception of the whole of which we are parts. Our form of community is in this sense embodied in a particular kind of running conversation and a particular conception of reason itself. Who we think we are will shape what kinds of arguments and ideas are likely to gain public purchase, what we think is most worth saying, and what is regarded as unspeakable. Making sense is an act of common faith. The internet widens the scope of what is shareable, in this sense, to humanity at large; it would seem to free us from the conventions of speaking within mere local conventions, from being judged only by a few who may or may not happen to understand us. It promises, on the face of it, to transcend the political divisions that had marked prior media, to put us on the way toward a single human community.
Yet wider scope also complicates our understanding of what we can get across and where others are coming from. And as online communication makes it easier to broaden and multiply the audience—as it moves us into a space of autonomous minds—it also abstracts us from a body of considerations governing the rhetoric and substance of other media: Who is speaking and why? Who is being addressed? What expectations are being adhered to or defied? What is the manner and likely tone? We speak online in the relative absence of circumstances by which we take our bearings to understand words on a page or overheard.
Most problems with and criticisms of online communication, most apologies for misunderstanding, or defenses of past remarks, make their way back to the problem of context, the problem of how to take someone’s words. In one way it’s obvious why this should be so. As ready access to all manner of views and sources has increased—and as information is so readily copied and repurposed online—some of it is bound to be misconstrued. But context is also different in kind from what we usually mean by information: information is a matter of factual content, while context is what informs our sense of how we should respond to it.
“Context” denotes how things hang together; it is the set of shared practices or notions to which we appeal when we ask someone to “put things in perspective” or to accord them “due weight” or to see them “in proportion.” These expressions invoke a set of foregrounding considerations based on what ranks highest in “our” esteem, an underlying common sense that throws into relief the features most relevant to forming a fair estimate of someone’s words or deeds. We will always argue about how to weigh the relative importance of these assumptions— what should count as an ameliorating or exculpatory circumstance, for instance—nor has there ever been a time when such arguments were straightforward. But disagreements about the application of principles within a framework may be fierce without calling the existence of the framework into question.
What is unprecedented about our own situation online is the relative absence of just such a framework, as a consequence of the net’s immediate reach. What is “appropriate,” “mainstream” and “normal”? What is “offensive,” “weird,” “extreme,” “disturbing”? Where is the “pale”? What is a disagreement in “good faith”? What is the difference between good judgment and a “slippery slope”? It is no coincidence that it is debate about just such issues that makes up so much of online controversy, where we often have little to go on—that is, where we cannot reliably measure what someone says by who they usually are or what they take themselves to mean.
This ambiguity shows up as a problem identifying humor in particular. Trolling is an online phenomenon that is only possible to the extent that there can be permanent uncertainty about whether someone is hostile, clueless, snarky, captious or “just kidding.” The term covers a varied range of online provocations that are intrinsically unfathomable because their success depends on their not being seen by their targets to be provocations at all—a successful troll must appear to be in artless earnest. Much (if not all) humor depends on our perception of another’s intentions. When these are veiled from us, as they are online, then that ambiguity may be exploited as a means to plausible deniability. Trolling is possible because there is no way to distinguish irony from sincerity outside of some context of shared assumptions about them. To know what’s funny, we say, you had to be there—and there is no there online.
Along with this fraying of context there comes a recalibration of what counts as reason at all. It is telling that the internet was first conceived as a means of efficiently sharing scientific information; this remains in some sense the case. It is a consequence of the digital medium to promote the sense that data, quantitative information, is what is most reasonable, since it purports to be neutral or beyond mere opinion. Questions that would have been ethical or moral or aesthetic in other eras are now routinely framed or supported in empirical terms (“studies have shown that…”). Even if the facts never simply speak for themselves, it is undeniably an important feature of what we mean by “facts” that they seem to, and that they are therefore supposed to dispense with the need for context.
Yet even as quantitative data and the sciences become the most prestigious kind of information exchanged online, this development has, far from making it easier to conciliate our political differences, actually intensified their polarization. It is precisely as political or social information undergoes this fragmentation into “facts”—precisely as all such information is evaluated by the standard of objective neutrality that scientific facts are supposed to embody— that it becomes more partisan.
Every fact is the result of a judgment made within a standard of admissibility. There is more or less balanced and sober reporting, but no such thing as objective or neutral reporting, reporting without any interest, perspective or view. So where the very characterization of what is newsworthy becomes optional for us online, where our sources of information are so varied as to be tailored and commodified to suit me, then it cannot be surprising if this variety serves the cause of polarization rather than centrist consensus. After all, there is no pressing reason to distinguish what I call “bias” from what you call a “substantive objection.” The sheer diversity of points of view, far from making us more ecumenical and tolerant, makes it easier to corroborate our preferences. Where more is said, less gets heard.
What is remarkable is that this retrenchment is nonetheless carried out in terms that continue to subscribe to the ideal of neutral scientific expertise. To mention a conspicuous example: those who most prominently oppose carbon caps and other environmental restrictions resort to claims that human-caused global warming is false on strictly scientific (or at any rate para-scientific) grounds, rather than countering with political or prudential arguments that other considerations should be prioritized over environmental ones. This polemic—with the suggestion that I may have my science and you may have yours—takes place under the shared presumption that neutral, empirical claims are indeed the decisive ones. There has always been quasi-science, but the internet allows it to proliferate side by side with academic research, as if they represented independent and plausible alternatives. It is sometimes said (euphemistically) that on certain questions there is a “consensus gap” between expert opinion and online media; but such a gap is in fact necessary so long as information is optional. Far from being able to mitigate or negotiate disagreements, therefore, the prestige of neutral “facts” online is entirely compatible with their political abuse. Our commitment to neutral reasons and our partisanship continually reinforce each other.