It’s me again, climate denier Tony Heller (aka Steven Goddard), checking in with my loyal followers. If you’re new here, you can read my intro.
So the ice floes have started to crack and buckle. By that I mean Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, the Big Three social media networks, are finally shouldering more responsibility for feeding demonstrably toxic ideas to audiences [UPDATE 02/2020: Though Facebook has, more recently, taken a big turn for the worse by allowing political leaders to lie without consequence.]. With the recent spate of high-profile accounts that have been deplatformed, they essentially concede the notion that exposing people to false, nonsensical and manipulative information can have negative, real-world effects and undermines the foundational currency of advanced civilizations: trust.
It was a responsibility they shirked for as long as possible. Who can blame them? Policing content written by all the kooks, crooks, and other malignant forces on the internet is a huge task. Unlike bundling detailed psychographic and biographic data about all the world’s citizens for the benefit of influence peddlers, making sure the content you deliver doesn’t destabilize society is neither fun or profitable. It’s much easier and cheaper to pretend you’re doing the world a favor with fairly tales about how an invisible, all-knowing force called the “Wisdom of the Crowd”–coupled with mystical, rudderless algorithms–exist to make us all OK.
But the recent high-profile blow back from their self-justified aloofness was too much to bear as it became a real threat to their reputations. And so their insulting charade that it was impossible for them to thwart harmful content is coming to a merciful close. The Big Three have all taken reactive and some minimal proactive measures to assuage advertisers and a concerned public. One of the more promising developments was Facebook’s announcement that they would crack down on anti-vaccination content. A more tepid response by Twitter was to integrate links to reputable information sources about vaccines into search results. YouTube did something similar and also demonetized anti-vaccination accounts (which probably doesn’t amount to much).
Of course, executives overseeing these platforms know the buck hasn’t been completely stopped. Now that the floodgates have been opened a crack, it’s only a matter of time before public pressure forces them wide open. But for now, they will take a wait and see approach, hoping against all hope that it blows over.
This is financially smart but again, ethically speaking, it’s another dick move in a very long string of them. Through continued inaction, the privileged few calling the shots at these companies essentially tell us: “The public be damned, our profits and headache-free operation matter more.”
But these companies are only hurting themselves with this approach.
That’s because they have a vested business interest in ensuring a strong economy for their market of seven billion plus inhabitants looking to buy goods and services. A healthy global economy requires a relatively peaceful, stable community of nations. Wars, disasters, depressions and disruptions that slow the consumption of goods are bad for business.
Given this, I have a simple question for them:
WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU ALLOWING CLIMATE DENYING ASSHOLES LIKE ME TO SPEW BULLSHIT ON YOUR OWN PLATFORMS? ARE YOU REALLY THAT FUCKING SHORT-SIGHTED AND STUPID?
For their own good, it’s past high time for social media platforms to cut off the oxygen fueling my efforts to stop or delay action on climate change. The debate over climate change is over. Uncredentialed jack offs like me sitting in my one bedroom apartment contribute absolutely zero to the public conversation and we directly undermine society’s ability to have a reasonable debate about the most urgent matter facing the entire planet. In addition to limiting the number of minds I can poison, the Big Three could also send an extremely strong message to political and business leaders across the planet that climate change is an urgent issue that deserves more than lip service; that supplying the communication infrastructure to help crackpots undermining well-established scientific facts on climate change is morally and ethically wrong.
If banning climate deniers sounds like a crazy idea to you, it shouldn’t. It’s actually the only sane reaction to the urgent need for action on climate change.
Let’s give this idea a little perspective by comparing the threat of climate change to threat posed by some of the recently de-platformed cretins. Alex Jones will traumatize far fewer parents than climate change. And climate change will annoy far more people than Milo Yiannopoulos and Paul Joseph Watson combined. Climate change will cause far more lost work time than Laura Loomer chaining herself to the entrances of corporate headquarters. And unlike Louis Farrakhan, uncontrolled climate change will result in millions of deaths and catastrophic financial collapse. All these kooks got the boot for spreading messages with far less social consequence than mine. So by this measure, I easily qualify for deplatforming.
No sane person misses these deplatformed crackpots and most people are happy they’re gone. Similarly, nobody is going to miss a handful of mentally unstable climate cranks like me. There would be little, if any, backlash from the public with the added incentive it would be a huge public relations score for the Big Three looking to demonstrate a commitment to the public’s welfare. Banning me will be good for the Big Three’s public image, their long-term financial health, and, most importantly, for all of humankind (which I hope they give some shred of a shit about).
And let’s again remind everyone for the umpteenth time that these are private platform run by private companies. They have no more obligations to put climate deniers on their platforms than they do al-Qaeda.
So if it’s in their own best interest to get rid of us and there’s nothing stopping them, why do social media platforms give tacit approval for us to continue?
The answer, of course, is it’s less risky for them to do nothing. They won’t see any perceptible impact to their profits from climate change for at least a decade. Meanwhile, their quarterly reports are always just around the corner. It’s the same old story of corporate short-sightedness.
Hand-in-hand with that is they haven’t felt any public pressure to shut climate deniers down. And so that’s gotta change. It must start here. It must start now. We must start making a very public demand that any account with a significantly large audience that doesn’t have the adequate scientific credentials to weigh in intelligently or that purposefully distorts the body of scientific evidence on climate change should be deplatformed.
I’m sure the smart executives at these social media companies would welcome a public pressure campaign to give them cover for pulling the plug on us. I’m also sure a few die-hard libertarians among their ranks will wring their hands about disrupting the “free marketplace of ideas” and how this will set us down a slippery slope of bad precedents. Yeah, well, fuck those ideologues. The world has practical shit to take care of and that’s removing hindrances to genuine debate over measures that will reduce CO2 emissions. Science has told us what the truth is. The world needs me like you need shit on your shoe. Climate deniers aren’t helping us have constructive debates, they are destroying out ability to have them. The libertarians can get back to worrying about theoretical slippery slopes after we’ve safely kept emissions below 450 ppm and have saved the planet from catastrophe. Until then, they can just shut the fuck up and get out of the way of progress. Finally, if they’re worried about Congress’ reaction, they shouldn’t be. They’ll get some blow back from phonies like Ted Cruz who like to grandstand, but no retaliatory legislation can get past the House.
If you think it would be a great service to human kind to deplatform deniers and help improve the odds of combating climate change, spread this message. Urge Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and whoever the titular head of Google is (or Alphabet, or whatever you’re calling yourself these days) and tell them to modify their policies to disallow people like me from spreading blatant climate disinformation.
Humans are bags of meat. Atop this bag sits a gelatinous electrochemical information processor the bag needs to help find nourishment to sustain itself, protect it from danger, and reproduce. The processor, what we call the “brain,” recognizes patterns which we refer to as “ideas.” Ideas can have profound effects on the brain by giving rise to emotions such as joy, fear, anxiety, love, excitement, boredom, lust, hate, curiosity and so forth. We have little understanding about the scientific underpinnings of emotions, but we can easily observe physical responses in the bodies experiencing them. These physical responses, in turn, influence the state of the brain and create a tightly bound feedback loop between what we traditionally refer to as “body, mind and soul.”
Generally speaking, the more successful our minds are at recognizing and finding patterns and generating the proper emotional response to get our bodies to take the appropriate action, the more successful the biological entity will be. For example, a brain afflicted with acrophobia isn’t going to be very successful at foraging for food found in trees. If your feelings of awkwardness cause you to constantly say inappropriate things in social settings, you will have fewer friends. Or if your mind is overwhelmed by the artificial pleasure stimulated by addictive drugs, the body can fail because other important emotions no longer exist or go badly neglected for too long. And so the quality of our emotions, coupled with the quality of the ideas that drive them, are critical phenomena to our well-being.
If that isn’t amazing enough for you to think about, then consider the fact that complex brains like ours have a special ability to associate different brain patterns with one another if they occur simultaneously in the brain. This allows the brain to think abstractly and communicate its ideas with other brains.
For example, if the brain is exposed frequently enough to the same aural stimuli generated while getting exposed to visual stimuli, the two patterns will become tightly bound and associated with one another. If the same oral grunt is heard whenever a clear, odorless liquid is seen on the ground, the grunt can come to mean “water.” The grunt will come to stimulate the same electrochemical patterns representing water inside the brains of those who hear it even if there is no water in sight. We can imagine crude grunts slowly evolving into sophisticated oral language as the pre-human brain grew in capacity over many millennia. A language is a vehicle for sharing the symbolic representation of the ideas inside of our heads with others.
More recently, humans learned how to purposefully manipulate objects in order to symbolize ideas. Cave drawings, totem poles, pictographs and written language are just physical manifestations of the electrochemical patterns stored inside of our brains. Anything can become a symbol and, in turn, these symbols can generate very specific patterns inside of our brains, which, in turn, can cause us to feel emotions which then, as mentioned earlier, cause our bodies to respond. And so, through this almost mystical process, inanimate objects have the power to provoke physical responses in our bodies and coordinate our actions with other bodies.
In general, the more efficiently a group of separate brains can share patterns, the more they can coordinate and cooperate to ensure mutual survival of their associated meat bags. This is what we call “society.” Without the phenomena of idea transference (i.e. communication) you cannot have complex society. Animal brains aren’t equipped to produce very complex pattern associations and they have only crude forms of communication and so are very limited in their ability to cooperate. Humans, however, have the capacity to recognize very complex patterns, associate them with one another easily and share them efficiently using technologically advanced methods of symbol transference. Our brain’s enhanced ability to recognize and associate subtle and sophisticated patterns and communicate them effectively allow us to evolve highly complex societies.
Today, we have a seemingly infinite number of ways for sharing symbols in the physical world: sculpture, painting, books, magazines, television, movies, radio, blogs, social media platforms, virtual reality, websites, memes, etc. The symbols these types of media deliver to us each contain other symbols that we can deconstruct and try to find meaning and patterns that resonate with existing patterns in our brains. Sometimes the symbolism is easy to determine while other times it happens at a wholly unconscious level either on the side of the author, audience or both. Symbols transmitted for a commercial purpose are often intended to delight us or feel profound emotions to entice us into paying for other symbols for sale. For example, advertisements employ highly crafted symbols to get us to exchange our money symbols for the products they have carefully crafted to infuse us with emotional motivators such as comfort, status, happiness, well-being/fear, and enjoyment (beds, cars, soda, health pills, movies).
Symbols have many practical applications, but the generation and deconstruction of symbols is the very fabric of our social beings. Symbols are so fundamental to our survival that we are wired to create and seek them out. Everything from engaging in idle chit chat to creating high art can be a source of great pleasure and satisfaction. Even the way we dress, move, and talk are symbolic. These cues, generated consciously or not, elicit patterns inside the brains of others that tell them, unconsciously or not, if there is reason to coordinate with the other brains they encounter. You have gotten this far in my essay because the symbols contained herein are affecting your brain patterns, creating an emotion inside of you that your brain thinks is worthwhile.
People who have the ability to create symbols that resonate with many brains–or even just the brains of other influential meat bags–can become powerful actors in a society. Gifted thespians, musicians and other artists can amass fame and fortune for their ability to arouse great emotions with the compelling symbols they generate for our pleasure or edification. Meta symbols–symbols which represent other powerful symbols that stir very strong emotions and desires–are the most powerful kinds of symbols. Money and religious texts are good examples of meta symbols. A person who can control meta symbols can more easily direct the physical actions of other humans. When the Catholic Church was more or less hegemonic in Europe and the sole arbiter of what was good and evil according to the meta symbol of the The Bible, the Pope was at the peak of his power. A key ingredient to Hitler’s ability to start World War II was his skill for attaching iconic symbols to feelings of tribalism and ethnic pride.
Political power comes as the result of an accumulation of many other symbols representing physical force and coercion. Kings, dictators, presidents, legislators, judges, armies, weaponry, jails, courts, police, and legislative bodies are all symbols that work together to compel members of a society to behave in ways approved by the society. Political symbols are also often reinforced with money and religious texts to aid in the control of individuals.
So symbols are of extreme importance to a well functioning human society. In fact, they are the foundation for it. Of course, symbols only facilitate coordination so long as they create similar patterns inside the brains of the members within a society. If, for example, a flag representing a society provokes profound pride and cooperation in one half of a society and deep-seated hatred and hostility when flown by the other half, that society is probably in the midst of a civil war or on the verge of starting one.
And so if too many people cannot agree upon a common meaning for the symbols that are shared within the society, it’s a sign that the society is not firing on all cylinders, making coordination more difficult and strife more likely especially when resources are scarce and survival becomes more precarious. That’s not to say the healthiest societies are those where symbols are fixed with permanent meaning and stimulate the same brain patterns in all individuals. In fact, static, homogenization of symbolic meaning is a very unhealthy state because such society’s are extremely brittle and cannot adapt very well to new problems encountered. A society such as North Korea can be considered a prime example of such a society and lacks a healthy dose of symbolic diversity.
Diversity in the symbolic representation of the world within a population can help it adapt by allowing new ideas to form and spread if they resonate with enough brains or resonate with the brains that control people with power and influence within the society. Diversity of thought and openness to new symbolic representations are characteristics of a society that can overcome new challenges.
In early 21st century America, we are witnessing a recent outbreak of skirmishes around symbols and what they mean. We argue about flying the confederate flag, we argue about what the meaning of “Black Lives Matter” is, and we argue about the burning of the American flag or even what the recently iconic “Pepe the Frog” avatar means. Without understanding the power of symbols, it’s easy to be dismissive about these debates and wonder “What does it matter, they are only symbols, these debates are nothing but tempests in a teapot.” But as we have seen, symbols do matter a great deal. Certain symbols can arouse great passions within us which influence behaviors of individuals in the physical world. If there is enough disagreement over these symbols, it can lead to conflict and even death, as we have recently witnessed by the events in Charlottesville, VA.
Disagreements over symbolic meaning are not new and have been with us since the United States was founded. As an ethnically and politically diverse society where competing symbols often clash, conflict and violence has come to be a mark of American culture. Fortunately, the symbolic foundation of our democracy, the Constitution, has flexibility built into it that allows our society to both change the document’s symbolic meaning and enforce new meanings with political power. It is this very ability that has allowed the United States to not only survive but thrive despite the vast symbolic diversity of its people.
I will return to this thought in a moment. But first, I want to point out that not so long ago, the ability to imbue symbols with power was something reserved only for a select few members of society. At first, kings and priests, who were often one and the same, controlled the political symbols and religious texts giving them vast control over the societies they ruled. As monetary symbols came into existence, those who accumulated money could gain some level of control over society as well. As technology advanced, more and more control over symbols was delivered into the hands of outsiders. Gutenberg single-handedly broke the Catholic Church’s monopoly over religious texts with the printing press. The printing press also ushered in an age of literacy which in turn allowed commoners to share symbols more easily which in turn made it possible for them to coordinate and break King George’s grip over the Americas. The Founding Fathers recognized that the sharing of symbols was key to their victory over the monarchy and so they protected the free exchange of symbols in the form of the First Amendment. Later, in the 19th century, the telegraph made it possible for trains to coordinate over great distances which opened the door for ordinary citizens who controlled the telegraphic infrastructure to accumulate massive amounts of wealth and become influential in society. Newspapers, followed by radio and television provided powerful new ways to disseminate symbols to a mass audience. These symbolic transference technologies also gave rise to the advertising industry to promote the consumption of other symbols. Those who gained control and consolidate the new mass communication technologies garnered considerable influence over society by directly controlling the symbols it consumed.
Although these technologies which spread the power of symbols enabled vast amounts of disruption and changes in the balances of power within society, they are nothing compared to what is coming.
Within the past past twenty-five years, two new technologies arrived that promise to profoundly change our society in ways we cannot yet imagine: the personal computer (including mobile devices) and the Internet. Together, these two advancements give just about anyone the ability to generate and disseminate new symbols to anyone, anywhere. Not only that, these symbols can be generated by groups or individuals lacking any serious authority. As a result, our psyche’s are now bombarded with an explosion of powerful symbols that have made it extraordinarily difficult for us to recognize any particular pattern in the symbols we are exposed to and which patterns deserve serious attention. Navigating this new symbolic space is like the difference between sailing a boat in a well-marked channel with a steady breeze and plowing a vessel through the open seas during a violent maelstrom. Our symbols are losing their reference points making it increasingly difficult for individuals to maintain their psychic bearings. And perhaps more significantly, the ability of symbols to provide social cohesion is getting diluted, making it more likely our society will become unglued and fall apart. As our collective semiotic library is getting more and more balkanized along many different fault lines, our ability to comprehend and “speak to” others who don’t share or agree upon the meaning of our symbols becomes more and more difficult.
Though only roughly twenty-five years deep into the introduction of these two new technologies, we are witnessing their profound impacts on society. First, we see increasing disagreement about which symbols are significant. For example, leaders at the highest level of government tell us that the symbols in scientific research papers that say we are headed for near certain global catastrophe as a result of CO2 emissions should be ignored. Second, we see a huge rise in the challenge of authorities that used to be able to imbue symbols with almost unquestioning power. The authority of news organizations, politicians, government agencies, businesses, unions and other established institutions is under constant attack, undermining their ability to create unifying symbols that help us coordinate. Third, and perhaps most alarmingly, it is increasingly difficult for us to agree on the meaning of symbols. A striking example can be seen in the contrast between our current and former presidents, Donald Trump and Barack Obama. The striking differences between the two leaders highlight the very polarized nature of one of our most powerful symbols, the presidency.
So when we cannot agree on the significance of the symbols, and when we are unwilling to trust many of the authorities creating the symbols, and when we can’t even agree on what the symbols we do share should represent, what hope is there for us of ever coordinating on a large scale again? Not much, I’m afraid. And I predict we will soon see our founding symbolic document, the Constitution, come under great strain. It’s importance, meaning, and the authority to imbue it with power will come under increasing attack which will eventually lead to chaos because a society that cannot agree on the fundamental meaning of one of its most fundamental symbols cannot possibly function well.
Other society’s which do not place as high of a value on the free creation and exchange of symbols understand the importance of controlling symbols to maintain a functional society. China has gone to great lengths to try to ensure the Internet and computers do not introduce new disruptive symbols into their culture that could undermine the existing power structures. I am not suggesting the United States should follow this path. As I’ve pointed out, the maintenance of symbols from a single authority leads to a very brittle and unhealthy society and usually only to the benefit of the few who maintain those symbols. But it’s ironic to point out that the free flow of symbolic ideas that once gave the United States its strength is now working to directly undermine it.
Collectively, we are only at the beginning of our journey out into the open sea of symbolic flotsam and and jetsam. We can still see the shore behind us and we will still see the beacon of the Enlightenment on the horizon for some time to come. But before too long those will disappear as time places a distance between an age when symbols had meaning and had the power to unify and the coming age when all symbols become mere noise. Perhaps there will be some kind of rescue boat that we will find which can restore the power of symbols for us and hopefully it is a benevolent one. Or, perhaps the death of shared symbols is the next step in human evolution and will open the door for some new extraordinary method of coordinating our actions. Whatever the fix, we better find one of these deus ex machina solutions quick. The open sea does not look very inviting.
This post is the third in a series chronicling my email exchanges with a climate-change-denying, retired dentist who has mistaken me for Tony Heller, a climate denier, and how I am able to lead him down a path toward fascism using the twisted logic of climate change denial as my entry point. If you haven’t read Part 1, or part 2, please do.
In part 2, “Bill,” our unwitting target, had assented to me helping him get his thoughts published to help defend Western Civilization against climate change scientists, progressives and Muslims. Part 3 goes far deeper into the rabbit hole with Bill showing no reluctance accepting my egregiously fascist positions and continues to show eagerness to team up with me.
We pick up Part 3 with this email from Bill which recounts his progression from a Gore voter to a climate change denier and right-wing ideologue and the influences which moved him there:
My name is Tony Heller (aka Steven Goddard). I’m a professional climate change denier and I use this blog to blow the whistle on myself and sometimes others, too.
Today I continue my series on denier assholery by calling them out for their pearl clutching when they get called “deniers.” My post here is inspired by this blog post, written by Blair King, a self-proclaimed free-market, lukewarmer who apparently helps mop up fossil fuel waste for a living. In his post he explains why use of the word “denier” to describe individuals who deny climate change “saddens” him. His blog post was, in turn, inspired by his recent Twitter war with the denier-slayer from down under, Sou, who recounts the details of said war here. As usual, Sou does an excellent job sending him up.
Anyway, back to my point: why are deniers like me, who object to the label “denier,” major assholes? Now, I know I’m late to this debate and I’m on the losing side of it, at least if the AP were judge, but our King fellow has resurrected feelings I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for a while now. So let’s get to it.
First, the dainty deniers and supposed lovers of the free, rough and tumble exchange of ideas are almost always the first mother fuckers in line to recoil in horror at the idea of “political correctness.” Our dear Mr. King, the aforementioned inspiration for this post, is no exception. For example, in the last paragraph of this blog post from May, he laments how “honest scientists” are victimized by “attack-first climate activists,” for challenging what he calls “politically incorrect” positions on climate change.
Boo fucking hoo. Pass me a tissue.
But then, after railing against the idea of political correctness, deniers want us to believe describing them as deniers hurts their feelings. Well, guess what assholes, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim you despise political correctness on the one hand and then swoon every time you get called a name you don’t like.
What’s particularly idiotic is these assholes can’t even figure out the difference between labeling someone for their ideas and true hate speech. For example, in this blog post from 2015, Mr. King has the gall equate the term “denier” to the “f” word used to disparage homosexuals (go read his blog post if you want to see the slur spelled out). As if a word intended to exclude or shame a person for a central part of their being is the same thing as a descriptive moniker for a kook making wild claims in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Sorry, but if I think your conclusions about climate change or the proper response to the crisis are shit–especially if you act like a juvenile, know-it-all asshole–I get to call you out on it. Nothing personal.
But the crux of King’s argument is he objects to the word “denier” because that word is somehow sacred, like a retired sports jersey number, and should refer exclusively to Holocaust deniers. Weirdly, he’s actually cool with calling someone a “denialist.” Even more weirdly, he suggests we call the hard core deniers “sky dragons,” instead. Whatever. Anyway, for King, the word “denier” is off limits because it “carr[ies] with it the toxic scent of Holocaust denial.” What a bunch of total and utter horseshit.
First of all, there are all kinds of deniers. There are “Jesus deniers,” “moon landing deniers,” “9/11 deniers,” “religious deniers,” “vaccine deniers,” “liquor deniers,” “racism deniers,” “evolution deniers,” etc., etc. Google these phrases and you’ll see them everywhere. But by this moron’s reckoning, all such terms describing all the many types of deniers should be off limits because it unfairly associates them with evil Holocaust deniers thereby diluting the word “denier” that King, at least according to him, worked hard to imbue with super, magical powers to beat back white supremacists.
It’s obvious to anyone beyond a sixth grade reading level that the word “denier,” used alone, is shorthand for a specific kind of denier. The type of denier it refers to is made clear from the context the word is used in. If I’m writing about “evolution deniers,” for example, I don’t continually have to write the term “evolution deniers” to make clear I’m not referring to Holocaust deniers. I can just use the word “deniers” and it’s obvious from the context what kind of denier I’m referring to.
Aside from Blair, the only people who read “Holocaust denier” into the word “denier” are those who’d like to convince the world they are getting wrongfully persecuted by “alarmists.” Now some might try to argue that if a group is offended by a label, it’s just common courtesy and respectful to discontinue using it. For example, shouldn’t the “Washington Redskins” rename their football team out of consideration for the Native Americans that have raised objections to it? This seems to be the reasoning behind the AP’s decision last year to not use the term “denier.”
And that brings me to my final point. What truly make deniers who feign offense at the use of the word “denier” assholes is they essentially try to equate themselves with groups, like Native Americans, who have endured long histories of racial, ethnic and social persecution and who have legitimate gripes about the words used to describe them; words that were used to alienate, ostracize and dehumanize them so they could be divided, conquered, enslaved, persecuted and killed by an unsympathetic, dominant culture. So to these mostly male, mostly white, often wealthy, well-educated, reality-denying assholes, I say, “Fuck you, quit complaining, and go do the hard work of publishing legitimate science to back your crazy claims up.”
And you want to know the real reason deniers don’t like being called “deniers?” Because, just like the moon landing deniers, 9/11 deniers, evolution deniers, vaccine deniers and yes, Holocaust deniers, that word effectively paints them as the fucking kooks that they are. So don’t listen to Blair King. Keep calling them “deniers” every opportunity you get.
In his 1962 book, “Gutenberg Galaxy,” the Canadian English professor, Marshall McLuhan, introduced the intriguing idea that the methods a civilization uses to transmit ideas profoundly influence the structure and psychology of societies. His central premise was that the content getting transmitted mattered little and that the technology employed to deliver the content had a much more profound influence on society. For example, a literate society which relied heavily on printed text to communicate would be vastly different from a society which communicated via television and radio, the dominant new mediums of the last half of the 20th century. Though sometimes baffling and unscientific, McLuhan’s ideas were thought provoking and he became a pop culture phenom, even earning a bit part in Woody Allen’s, Annie Hall.
Thirty six years after his passing, McLuhan’s ideas are still being explored and debated particularly with how they might be applied to the internet and the seemingly never-ending explosion of new methods for sharing information and experiences. As individuals, we wonder about our own ability to adapt psychologically to the constant bombardment of new information available to us. We also ask how will a world where everyone can be in touch with everyone instantly be different from a world with gatekeepers and hierarchical structures?
But we no longer have to guess so much. The internet has been with us forty-five years or so, the world wide web about twenty five, and the ubiquity of true personal communication for less than ten. A clearer picture of the impact of these technologies on us is beginning to emerge. And so far, I’m afraid to report, it’s looking pretty fucked up.
Once upon a time, the dream was that the internet and the accompanying technologies built atop it would usher in something like McLuhan’s profoundly misinterpreted phrase, “global village.” We imagined people across planet would be woven into an interconnected, electronic hive mind which would amplify and transmit the greatest ideas and allow us to coordinate thoughts and actions like never before, driving civilization to ever higher heights and dwarfing the accomplishments of the past century.
What we failed to consider, however, is that the key value of the Enlightment—that reason must guide our decisions—is simply not the overriding principal most individuals strive toward. We also forgot that humans are, before all else, social creatures. We seek out and maintain relationships and form alliances with those who are most like us; we have a very strong tendency to tribalize and become more warlike. This is what McLuhan actually predicted would happen as a result of a “global village.”
And so the internet, rather than bringing people together, is having precisely the opposite effect. By making it exceedingly easy for like-minded people to find and communicate with one another in virtual spaces, the creation of tribes around any particular idea or value, even if totally baseless or detached from reality, becomes much more prevalent. Combine this with a weakening of traditional, gate keeping institutions like political parties and major news organizations, the internet has set the stage for vast political and social disruption.
Witness the rise of Donald Trump. What else can explain him as a phenomena? Political scientists are at a loss. The country is not in severe economic turmoil. Even when we were, we still turned to establishment figures like Roosevelt to lead us. Some political scientists have posited theories that Trump appeals to authoritarians. But haven’t there always been politicians that did that? I argue that what’s different today is that a huge share of the population is plugged into the internet.
As Trump demonstrates and as McLuhan taught us, content simply doesn’t matter. As we have seen, the more incoherent drivel Trump spews, the more popular he seems to become with his followers. What explains the Trump phenomena is the internet and the tribal bonds and relationships that can be built as a result of it. Websites, videos, social media are allowing members of the Trump tribe to share symbols and feel connected with one another in ways never before possible. And you could replace Trump with just about anyone. Trump is, in fact, irrelevant. He is merely scaffolding for a cultural movement made possible by the internet.
And then there’s dreck like me. Bypassing scientific journals with a Twitter account and a blog, I have been able to amass quite a following pumping out reams of pure bullshit everyday about global warming. The fact that what I say is detached from all scientific evidence is immaterial. I have successfully carved out my own little tribe of like-minded climate deniers to the point where my lunatic conspiracy theories are getting traction on alt-right websites that they can turn around and feed to their own tribe.
Rational individuals have trouble wrapping their heads around what’s happening because they make the mistaken assumption that clear, rational thought is an ideal everybody strives for and can achieve. They can’t understand how someone like me can exist. Unfortunately, the desire to belong and be part of a tribe trumps all logic. So here I am.
I believe it’s only going to get worse. As 20th century institutions continue to weaken, the internet will usher in an era of what I call hypertribalism. Each tribe will have its own set of values, worldview and established “facts” they operate from. Members of the various tribes will be ensconced in their own sub-sub-cultures to the point where it will be difficult for them to relate to members of other tribes. Perhaps economic survival and the need to create wealth is the only force strong enough to hold a complex society together in the face of such hypertribalism. Where this all might lead us is anybody’s guess. But unfortunately, hypertribalism will likely make tackling issues that require massive global coordination like climate change exceedingly difficult.
Anthony Watts can suck my dust. I’m worldwide now, baby. Armed only with a Twitter account, cheap website and a lunatic’s drive to prove the entire global scientific community wrong about climate change my fringe conspiracy theories are now infecting the minds of of high ranking Australian politicians like Malcolm Roberts.
Never underestimate the power of a crackpot with a Twitter account and free blogging software. After over half a decade of obsessive compulsive nut jobbery, my efforts are paying off. I, Steve Goddard, am now influencing one of the most powerful institutions in the world, the US Senate. Last Tuesday, fellow sociopath and Senator, Ted Cruz, showcased a completely bogus chart I created to back up my claim that NOAA is engaged in a conspiracy to fudge data.
Senator Cruz’s prospects for becoming the Republican nominee are looking good right now. Today the Senate, tomorrow, who knows? I just might become a high-placed science advisor for the President of the USA on the matter of climate change!