Contra the Peninsula Panglossians

It’s easy, and somewhat unfair, to dismiss social networks and people who work for them as time wasters. Because since the rise of the middle class we have known that people are willing to pay substantial sums in money and/or opportunity cost to have their time wasted. Non-cynical people call this “leisure.” People who facilitate that shouldn’t be dismissed per se.

But one’s impulse to tolerance and understanding is deeply tested by living in the Bay Area, where people spend long hours working hard so other people can evade productivity, and tell themselves it’s worth it because a) their work place is like a never ending carnival and b) because they are “connecting the world” or some other such empty technoptimistic tripe.

But social media’s strength is the flaw in the “connecting the world” hypothesis – it tends mostly to bring people together who know and like each other already and who are predisposed to each other’s ideas. So yes, connecting the world, but kind of like how I’m connected to Kevin Bacon: through degrees of separation – not togetherness. Freddie DeBoer’s critique of Twitter always sticks with me:

My criticisms of Twitter as its used are multiple, but largely they boil down to this: Twitter is used as a kind of consensus machine where the like-minded band together to dismiss opinions or criticism they don’t like, by creating the illusion of consensus. If a particular group of socially or professionally connected people don’t like a story or post or whatever, someone will tweet something disparaging about it, some other people will retweet it, some people will give an attaboy…. So you can easily create the impression of consensus. Now, you might say that Twitter is an open medium, and anybody can join. And that’s true. But not everybody can actually get into the conversation. The system of followers means that rebuttals or responses are only broadcast if the people making them also have a big audience, or if an individual tweeter is principled enough to reply to criticism from people who aren’t well connected. It can be kind of a closed loop in that sense. And one of the funny things about it is that people often behave exactly this way when I complain about it– they prove the point in trying to refute it.

This makes me skeptical when technoptimists tell me that Twitter has started revolutions. And even if it has – it isn’t clear to me that it started revolutions that have led to anything more in the flavor of enduring democratic renaissance rather than new, networked insiders agitating and usurping power. It certainly is powerful that digitally networked people can use modern information technology to agitate in the physical world, but that fact need not be positive and my feeling has been for some time contra the Peninsula Panglossians.

Which is why I found this post on the Monkey Cage blog particularly intriguing:

Though scholars have long warned about the attempts of authoritarian leaders to influence the internet, little empirical evidence has been brought forth about the effects of these efforts on politics at the micro-level. In a forthcoming article, we used survey data from the 2011 parliamentary elections in Russia to examine how usage of different social networks affected users’ awareness of electoral fraud. Our results indicate that users of Western networks like Facebook and Twitter are about five percentage points more likely to believe that there was significant electoral fraud during the elections. Usage of Russian networks, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, meanwhile had no effect on awareness of electoral fraud.

We argue that the reason for this discrepancy lies in the type of information being spread on these networks. During the election season, local networks’ vulnerability to state pressure seems to have led many opposition activists to focus their social media strategy on Western social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, which are much harder to monitor and pressure. Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most popular political blogger, maintained an active public Facebook page and Twitter account, which he used to spread hundreds of YouTube videos, photographs, and anecdotes documenting electoral fraud, and yet Navalny maintained only a token presence on Vkontakte and no presence on Odnoklassniki. This strategy is at odds with the goal of reaching a mass audience since Odnoklassniki and VKontakte each have five times as many users as Facebook (only 5% of Russian internet users are on Facebook).

Emphasis mine. The point being that shepherds will stick with their flocks. Not that people are sheep or anything.

There are billions of other people in the world and Twitter is nowhere near the most populated or popular social network, and this is especially true in some key nation states where the neoliberal project is failing. Even where Twitter is popular, like most social networks, its function is more palliative: an echo chamber, an apparatus for affirmation, a platform from which to preach to a pious choir.

PS I use Twitter, unlike DeBoer who seems more principled than I am. I readily admit to following mostly white neoliberals, although I try my best to be open to those I disagree with and use the platform for genuine discourse. While that is my aim, I readily admit it’s much easier to just follow and retweet what I like to the people around me like myself. There’s utility in that – but it’s hardly revolutionary.

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In the future…

A bearded man sits at a desk. He is the chairman of the Federal Reserve. He is a life-long academic. He holds a PhD from a vaunted Ivy League Institution, where his dissertation is widely regarded as one of the most penetrating of analyses on depression economics, especially monetary policy during the “Great Recession” of the previous century. He is, at his desk, watching the trading of NGDP futures. All seems well — no crisis here.

One of the ironies of the chairman’s dissertation — the one that really makes him chuckle to himself — is that his Great Recession predecessor was, like him, a student of depressions. In some ways, it could be said that the central bank had learned from the Great Depression of the early 20th Century because monetary policy seemed much looser during the Great Recession. There were, after all, 5 iterations of “Quantitative Easing” between 2008 and 2020.

But this was an illusion. That’s the great insight, really, of his paper — why it was so well received. It challenged the notion that progress is an upward trajectory. It repudiated the idea that we don’t always get it right the second time around, but we’re damn closer. Sometimes we regress in our actions even in spite of our putative understanding.

Because, you see, a rogue group of intellectuals in the emergent “blogosphere” of the early Internet pointed out that monetary policy was in fact too tight all along. These people were both radical and traditional. They wanted to change the entire monetary regime by replacing interest rate targets with nominal income targets. Yet their analysis rested on a simple age-old foundation: MV=PY.

They went ignored, and the economy languished for years. After all, there was really just one great academic among them, but he wasn’t from an Ivy League institution. Another irony of the dissertation: the bellwethers were a handful of bloggers who generally opined on broad issues of political economy, and even a high schooler blessed with distinct natural and temporal privileges, but a high schooler nonetheless.

After the Great Depression, the Ivory Tower led the way in understanding what went wrong and creating a regime with the idea of “never again.” Then it happened again. After the Great Recession, it was the slow and painful bottom-up lowercase-d democratic dissemination of ideas by a humble class of a few who ultimately prevailed in changing the regime, again.

At the time their singular, penetrating focus and advocacy on NGDP targets led people to call them myopic. It turns out they saw more broadly than anyone. That novel insight dressed in sophisticated data presentation at an Ivy League institution does a future Fed chairman make. Some things never change.

Social capital and decay.

A few thoughts that stemmed from Ross Douthat’s latest column. He writes:

The question hanging over the future of American social life, then, is whether all the possibilities of virtual community — the connections forged by Facebook and Twitter; the back alleys of the Internet where fans of “A Dance to the Music of Time” or “Ren & Stimpy” can find one another; the hum of virtual conversation that’s available any hour of the day — can make up for the weakening of flesh-and-blood ties and the decline of traditional communal institutions.

I think this is precisely the question – because we’re not going back from the cliff. We’ve already taken the plunge.

There’s a lot of chatter about the decay of Social Capital. Charles Murray sees it as a huge problem for poorer communities that are lagging socially and economically. Robert Putnam obviously has shed great light on it through Bowling Alone.

My question though is whether we have properly adapted our conception of social capital. One ought to expect social capital as we traditionally conceive it to rapidly decay as people make marginal substitutions of physical interaction for online social networking. They will continue to do so until technology stops advancing in ways that make virtual life more and more pleasant. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a decade we look back at a lot of the early studies of the diminishment of social capital and physical communities as a little archaic and misspecified. It’s very hard to measure anything in social science and assumptions can be critical. People, especially of middle age, appear to me to be quite biased toward personal interaction.

Last thing:

Today, social media are hailed for empowering dissidents and undercutting tyrannies around the world. Yet it’s hard not to watch the Google video and agree with Forbes’s Kashmir Hill when she suggests that such a technology could ultimately “accelerate the arrival of the persistent and pervasive citizen surveillance state,” in which everything you see and do can be recorded, reported, subpoenaed … you name it.

This is why I will shout from the rofftops that, while Orwell gave us so much, it was Huxley who got the future right. People will not live in totalitarian torture forever. Hedonic bliss, however, completely disarms them.