Jonathan Haidt is a well-regarded scholar who has written a compelling article for the Atlantic, titled “Why The Past Ten Years Of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” He begins by referencing the biblical story of Babel:
What would it have been like to live in Babel in the days after its destruction? In the Book of Genesis, we are told that the descendants of Noah built a great city in the land of Shinar. They built a tower “with its top in the heavens” to “make a name” for themselves. God was offended by the hubris of humanity and said:
Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.
The text does not say that God destroyed the tower, but in many popular renderings of the story he does, so let’s hold that dramatic image in our minds: people wandering amid the ruins, unable to communicate, condemned to mutual incomprehension.
Babel, according to Haidt, is not a story about tribalism. Instead, he insists it’s a story about the “fragmentation of everything.” And he makes a point that is often overlooked: this fragmentation isn’t just happening between those who see themselves as red or blue, but within both left and right, and “within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.”
How have we come to this point? Haidt blames social media.The early Internet seemed to promise an expansion of co-operation and global democracy.
Myspace, Friendster, and Facebook made it easy to connect with friends and strangers to talk about common interests, for free, and at a scale never before imaginable. By 2008, Facebook had emerged as the dominant platform, with more than 100 million monthly users, on its way to roughly 3 billion today. In the first decade of the new century, social media was widely believed to be a boon to democracy. What dictator could impose his will on an interconnected citizenry? What regime could build a wall to keep out the internet?
The high point of techno-democratic optimism was arguably 2011, a year that began with the Arab Spring and ended with the global Occupy movement. That is also when Google Translate became available on virtually all smartphones, so you could say that 2011 was the year that humanity rebuilt the Tower of Babel. We were closer than we had ever been to being “one people,” and we had effectively overcome the curse of division by language. For techno-democratic optimists, it seemed to be only the beginning of what humanity could do.
Then, he writes, it all fell apart.
Haidt references the three major forces that social scientists have identified as collectively necessary to the cohesion of successful democracies: they are social capital–defined as extensive social networks with high levels of trust– strong institutions, and shared stories. And he points out that social media has weakened all three, as the platforms morphed from a new form of communication to a mechanism for performing –for what Haidt characterizes as the management of ones “personal brand.” Communication became a method for impressing others, rather than a sharing that might deepen friendships and understanding. He blamed the introduction of the “like’ and “share” buttons–which allowed the platforms to gauge users’ engagement–as a critical turning point.
As a social psychologist who studies emotion, morality, and politics, I saw this happening too. The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.
I encourage you to click through and read the entire, lengthy article, but if you don’t have time to do so, I’ll end this recap with the paragraph that struck me as a description of the most troubling consequences of our current use of these social media platforms.
It’s not just the waste of time and scarce attention that matters; it’s the continual chipping-away of trust. An autocracy can deploy propaganda or use fear to motivate the behaviors it desires, but a democracy depends on widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms, and institutions. Blind and irrevocable trust in any particular individual or organization is never warranted. But when citizens lose trust in elected leaders, health authorities, the courts, the police, universities, and the integrity of elections, then every decision becomes contested; every election becomes a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side.
Haidt’s very troubling conclusion: If we do not make major changes soon, then our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse.
I’m very afraid he’s right.