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"The Discourse" is the Cybernetic Event Horizon of Human Freedom
Hello all — apologies for the delay, I know there has been a real shortage of words on the internet and I’m sorry to have contributed to this. I’ve just started blogging with the great folks at Crooked Timber, but I’ll keep blogging here as well, particularly the more meta-scientific thoughts. Much more in the new year, hope you enjoy this…it’s characteristically overwrought.
Twitter's spectacular conflagration, the wildfire currently burning through some of the dead wood of the digital media ecosystem, both entrances and illuminates. The fantastic release of energy produces pyrrhic phantasms, full of soot and fury...and while the catharsis and camaraderie of the bonfire are not to be taken lightly, we shouldn't assign any meaning to the random sparks. Breathless attention to what Trump did every day in 2017 was understandable (if ineffective); breathless attention to what Musk does every day in 2022 is embarrassing.
I have been extremely critical of Twitter’s impact on intellectual life, yet I am not pleased to see so many academic colleagues “leaving” Twitter because a Bad Man is now in charge. This isn’t just hipster churlishness; being critical of a bad thing for the wrong reasons can be pernicious. The implication of the current critique is that if the Bad Man were removed, Twitter would be ok.
This wishful thinking has been the opiate of the academic/media/liberal professional class for the past six years, ever since the Great Weirding of 2016. The high water mark of any trend is of course the beginning of its decline, as evidenced by the fumbling of the Obama-Clinton Presidential handoff. This class–my class–has been adrift ever since, disoriented by the reality of contemporary communication technology. Rather than confront the depth of the challenge to the foundations of liberal democracy, we are sold crisis after crisis with the promise that solving this one will bring us back to “normal.”
To be clear: the crises are real. It’s the normalcy that’s fake: “Boomer Ballast” (the central argument of my recent book) has unnaturally preserved the facade of postwar America even as the technosocial reality shifts under our feet. I fear that ours is not an age for “normal science” in the social sciences, where ceteris is sufficiently paribus to engineer marginal gains.
We need to think bigger, to be open to the possibility that the future will be radically different from the present and recent past, and then to actively envision the future we desire. This is my gloss of Maria Farrell’s recent, magnificent Crooked Timber post that challenges us “to think of technology systems and their version of the internet as an ecosystem” and to accept “that ecosystem as profoundly damaged.” This is the scale at which we need scholars to be thinking today; I, at least, have been deeply influenced by the tradition of media ecology.
I agree with Farrell that we need a healthier, stronger communication ecosystem. Ecology is fractal; each system comprises lower-level systems and composes higher-level systems.
She emphasizes the higher level of health, the balance between different species and between different ecological niches. I will discuss the lower-level system, the individual animal: the humans. For a healthier internet, we need healthier humans. Facebook is other people.
Strategically, too, I believe that developing human capacities will enable us to demand and indeed to build a healthier digital ecosystem.
The destruction of Twitter creates a space of freedom, the rapid deterritorialization of what Farrell calls a “tech plantation.” Thus far, this freedom has mostly meant wagging our collective fingers at the pyro tyrant while eagerly waiting to see what he torches next.
Instead, we should look deeply at the rest of our communication ecosystem, cast into fresh relief by the flames. The lonely and quixotic elite-media media ecologist Ezra Klein calls our attention to *attention*, to the idea of attention as a common-pool resource. Many people---even the technologists---have known this ever since the great political scientist Herbert Simon proclaimed that "what information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." The digital readers of the NYT know this too, which is why many of them wisely avoided getting bogged down in an article that they were warned would take "10+ minutes to read."
"10+ min read"!! The medium is the message, Ezra.
It is a testament also to the reigning Scientism that Klein feels the need to appeal to a study that "measured skin conductivity -- a sign of emotional response -- when participants saw positive, negative and neutral news. Negative news was consistently the most engaging." My metascientific point is against reductionism: the idea that a sentence that talks about the mechanism of human emotion in terms of electric impulses (perhaps, with $1 billion from the NSF and 20 years, we can get to molecules!) is more meaningful than a sentence that simply takes human emotion as a relevant ontological category, as *real*.
Instead of electrodes, my method over the past few years of media uncertainty has been to read the great postwar critics of technology, the people who saw what new media technology was doing to us. Ivan Illich provides what I think is a more profound version of Klein's point:
"Just as the commons of space are vulnerable, and can be destroyed by the motorization of traffic, so the commons of speech are vulnerable, and can easily be destroyed by the encroachment of modern means of communication."
Previous entries in this series have centered Illich, Marshall McLuhan, Neal Postman, and Margaret Mead. Today I turn to my new obsession, the missing link between cybernetics, media theory and continental philosophy, a Czech-Brazilian polyglot who has only recently been translated into English: Vilem Flusser.
You may not like it, but this is what peak male media theorist performance looks like.
I plan on adopting a Flusserian lens in many future posts---indeed, one non-tenure-relevant priority in the coming year is Flusser boosterism. I'm genuinely obsessed. For now, though, I'll read Twitter through his masterpiece, Into the Universe of Technical Images.
McLuhan pays attention to the human sensorium as media, emphasizing the two-dimensional structure of the visual field and arguing that the era of the printing press had replaced the all-at-onceness of earlier oral (ear-based) culture with the linearity of text, of the eye.
Flusser extends this to theorize the hand as media, as the mechanism by which humans rearrange our physical environment: how we imprint ourselves on the world, how we thus *create information*. Flusser sees the *creation* of information as the quintessential human activity, that human freedom is our ability to fight entropy by wrenching the physical world from more- to less-probable states. Accepting that information is physical, these states of the world include the higher-order human activities like communication through media objects.
The crux, for today’s post: "Discourse is the method through which information is transmitted and dialogue the method through which it is produced." "The ideal society," Flusser writes, is one "in which discourse and dialogue are in balance. Dialogue nourishes discourse, and discourse provokes dialogue."
But Flusser diagnoses (1985!) that the present is imbalanced in favor of discourse, that our society has similarities to the late medieval Catholic church: "the centrally radiating discourse of the Church controls the society, the sources of information threaten to dry up from an absence of dialogue…centrally radiating discourse dominates us, too, and society is threatened with entropy.”
This is counter-intuitive; modern communication technology has obviously enabled novel forms of expression, of genuine human dialogue, the creation of new information. Consider the flourishing of new music genres or the heady days of the mid-2000s blogosphere. Flusser warns that these “dialogues that are technically possible now appear as a variant of medieval disputation...should they nevertheless lead to new information, it will now be disregarded as noise, whereas at the time, it was heresy, rendered ineffective through anathema."
Some will recognize hints of anathema in the current discourse, but the shadowban is categorically different from the Spanish Inquisition. Rather than the Orwellian dystopia that hysterical critics see lurking around every corner, we are in a Huxleyian dystopia where novel information need not be suppressed because it is discarded as noise. This is how Neal Postman puts it in Amusing Ourselves to Death, also published in 1985.
Any Twitter addict will see my larger point: "The Discourse" is the universally acknowledged term for what we log on dozens of times a day to receive. People talk of "The Discourse" in fully ironic terms, accepting that the text of the tweets they encounter will be “machinically” produced -- and that their role to machinically reproduce what they encounter. Note that I'm saying "machinically" and not "mechanically" -- the distinction comes from Lewis Mumford, the early 20th-century critic of technology. “Mechanical” (rote, repetitive) use of human bodies peaked under industrialism; in post-industrial capitalism, we behave “machinically” insofar as our actions are subsumed within the functioning of a societal “megamachine” that produces something other than human freedom.
Because the reproduction of The Discourse is machinic rather than mechanical, it requires some adjustments to make it more legible under local conditions--just as in the medieval-Catholic sense. Like the previous Romans, the Catholics only projected, counting on their on-the-ground missionaries to adapt the edicts to local conditions. The Vatican had no organs for receiving doctrinal feedback, nor any desire to develop such organs.
This Discourse flourished under two distinct technological regimes. In Europe, things were more or less settled until the printing press and Martin Luther produced a dialogic shock to the discursive system. This is just about the strongest media-ecological case, so if you don't buy this, then I can't help you.
The other technological regime under which Catholic discourse flourished was military tyranny. Perhaps the only achievements of the Portuguese and Spanish imperial project was the imposition of Catholicism on Latin America, at the point of a sword caked in blood. Criticisms of the present regime are valuable (as I hope to demonstrate shortly), but never forget that things have been and could be so much worse.
Returning to the present, we should consider two parallel anxieties: the fear of machines becoming human, and the fear of humans becoming machines. In other words, the parallel fears of The Discourse and GPT. I've been concerned about the latter for some time; see my article Hello Goodbye in Real Life magazine (RIP). My prediction is that automated text generation will in fact make communication harder, by obscuring the degree of intentionality encoded in an identical string of text. As the world has come to realize in the past month, we have already entered a world in which the seminar paper, the letter of recommendation, and even the “thoughtful” post-interview follow-up email have been annihilated, the victims of informational hyper-inflation.
In the short term, I advocate for genuine novelty, a form of linguistic detournement: playing with language by deconstructing words, adopting new slang that contorts standard grammar. In Patricia Lockwood’s recent novel about language and Twitter, the tweeters find joy in using the word binch, a word whose appearance is thus far unpredictable by machines.
The machine is nervous.
But generative text models can be rapidly and perpetually updated with usage trends. All digital communication encoded in human language can be fed into the next iteration of the model. Linguistic novelty might create brief spaces of freedom, outside the machine’s training data and thus distinctively significant to humans. This will ultimately fail: some of the most powerful entities in the world are dedicated to closing these gaps as quickly as possible. “Run me over with a truck”; “inject it into my veins”: this ain’t a tweet, it's a goddamn arms race — one we cannot win.
Indeed, the most effective way to midwife the next, more powerful generation of GPT into existence is to help its creators identify the current exceptions, what are for now spaces of freedom from automation. By experimenting with ChatGPT (and then providing annotated codes of the model’s performance on Twitter) we are providing high-quality training data, empowering them through Reinforcement Learning by Human Feedback…for free.
Flusser predicts this process with uncanny accuracy: "unwanted information is reabsorbed and, in this way, reinforces the tendency of the sender to become more and more indistinct and inauthentic."
So something I've been experimenting with is tweeting poorly. I’ve been inspired in this by my colleague Josh McCrain, who has been tweeting poorly for years. There's a thrill of authenticity in sending "bad" (from the perspective of The Discourse) tweets and getting no likes. I feel like Stavrogin, or Meursault: in a fully inauthentic society, one in which our actions are “freely” chosen from a constrained space and thus without meaning, the only authentic action appears to be destructive, rebellious, binchy.
This impulse is understandable, forgivable, yet immature. Genuine freedom can only come from connection with other humans, through the proper balance between The Discourse and dialogue, a high-information-density embrace of the other.
The only durable spaces of communication must therefore remain uningestible by the machines. Twitter cannot be used for dialogue, not for long. All writing, audio/video recordings and our physical presence in space are all already machine-readable and machine-read. Facial recognition and always-on listening devices loom everywhere, and must be vigorously resisted. Both because of the civil libertarian fear of 1984 but also the Huxlyean fear of a totalized Discourse, perfectly able to predict every future human action, the cybernetic event horizon of freedom. Some critics of AI focus on the next stage, when machines are able to act in the physical, three-dimensional world, but human freedom is already threatened.
It would be all too easy for Flusser to fall into the same doomerism that has hamstrung latter-day critics of this development. Many young anti-tech activists I’ve encountered have fallen into either Kazcynskian eco-terrorism or an even more fatalistic collapsitarianism. But despite being forced to flee Prague in 1939 and then to flee his adopted home of Sao Paolo in 1972 after the military dictatorship, Flusser retains the characteristically Czech absurdist humanism of Masaryk, Havel, Capek: he simply believes that other humans are the most interesting and valuable thing in the world.
This humanism allows him to diagnose the entire trajectory of the internet: that in the short run, unfettered dialogue will produce an explosion of creativity: “if only a few people were geniuses in the pretelematic era, it was because most people were unable to participate in dialogue.” Dialogue allows us to construct each other, build each other up to higher levels of competence and thus greater opportunities for action: freedom.
In the same breath, though, Flusser tells us the cost of telematics: “This strategy…applies to artificial intelligences as well as human beings….these artificial intelligences will also become more like geniuses. So the question of how human intelligence and artificial intelligence are related will become the center of the dialogue very soon. We will face the unpleasant choice between humanizing artificial intelligences and making human ones more like apparatuses.”
So here we are. The Discourse is making humans more like machines and GPT is making machines more like humans. Flusser warns that the time for action is short: that we must reprogram the “telematic apparatus” to enable truly dialogic communication, and soon, before the ultimate triumph of The Discourse. “The relationship between people and images is descending into entropy, a fatal boredom is setting in.”
The future thus depends on “anti-spectacular revolutionaries.” Cultural critics or political activists who do not prioritize the reprogramming of the communication network cannot succeed because their targets are not solid, they are not “tilting at windmills but storming Kafka’s castle.” Any spectacular action, action that is visible through images and fed back into The Discourse, cannot be revolutionary. “Truly revolutionary engagement would be to turn the technical question [of whether and how dialogic threads can be drawn] into a political one…to turn a technical question into a political one, it must be torn from the technician’s hands. Technology has become too serious a matter to be left to technicians.”
This is why I am so frustrated by the current desperate search for a Twitter replacement, for Twitter minus the Bad Man. The scope of possibility is limitless: the internet could be used in uncountably many yet-unimagined ways. Many interesting variations already exist! Since the beginning of the pandemic, almost all of my “social media” activity has been on semi-private/Patreon-supported, pseudonymous Discord servers or on small- and medium-scale end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp groups.
These forms have enabled (for me) the emergence of genuine community. There are no algorithms; content is arranged chronologically, within defined chat rooms. The online (and offline!) reputational risks of good-faith dialogue are minimal – and the community is empowered to define the norms of “good-faith dialogue.” In contrast, massive platforms like Instagram require a one-sized-fits-all approach to content moderation that inevitably produces unreasonable outcomes.
On Discord, entry is restricted to members paying a $5-10 monthly fee that also includes access to specialized content (podcasts, IRL events, URL events like livestreams) put on by the hosts. This money also pays for a few part-time moderators who have been deputized to enforce the server rules, to ban or suspend problem users. This setup is exemplary of the “exitocracy” advocated by the recently deceased political philosopher Jeffrey Friedman in his magnificent Power Without Knowledge: A Critique of Technocracy. This work influenced me deeply and I expect to keep returning to it in coming years.
To rephrase the thesis of this post: liberal democracies have been scrambling to figure out how to “regulate the internet.” The EU has moved fast (eh…it’s moved) and gunked up the works a bit; the US, ridden with institutional and demographic scleroses, might get around to changing Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 at some point in the next decade.
But consider the car. How do we regulate the car? First, we had a lot more time: it took over a century for household car ownership to go from 0% to 80%, compared to just over a decade for the same growth in cell phone ownership. For our liberal democratic institutions to have a chance — for science, journalism, education, deliberation, elections and legislation to function — we desperately need to slow the pace of communication technology. The liberal project cannot succeed without its conservative pole; at present, the dialectic has collapsed in favor of unfettered Progress.
But how did we use that time to regulate the car? We invested massive resources in developing and updating federal laws, strict standards for vehicle manufacture, licensing requirements for drivers, roads and road signs enabling healthier driving, and the most powerful police force in the world to enforce all this.
Was this bundle worth it? Great question – Ivan Illich says “hell no!”, and I’m inclined to agree. Digital communication holds unique promise, could be used to produce a flourishing Dialogue to balance the Discourse of modernist institutions and broadcast media. Digital communication could also lead us to the Huxleyian dystopia, premature heat death for the human mind. Hence Flusser’s urgency.
What would it look like if we “regulated” the internet the way we “regulate” the cars? In other words: who should “regulate” the internet? Everyone. Who must be enabled and empowered to “regulate” the internet? Everyone.