The Way Back

by | May 5, 2022

Every now and again we feel time click forward like a big, slow, historical clock. The increments are seldom predictable, but after that Big Click, the new present closes the door on old illusions.

Did you feel it this week, too? The Supreme Court news felt like a brick through a window, the culmination of a decade-long descent into madness. You wouldn’t think we’d require more confirmation after the 2016 campaign fiascos, four years of Trumpian treason, vaccine conspiracy theories, the Big Lie, Jan. 6th, and the invasion of Ukraine by the GOP’s second-favorite President, Vlad Putin. But apparently we did. All those wise, condescending establishment voices who told us the stolen GOP majority on the Supreme Court would never actually overturn Roe were wrong.

And here we are. Not merely on the brink of rolling back women’s right to privacy, but being herded towards boxcars on a night train to the 1930s.

Kinda changes your perspective, doesn’t it?

So: How did we get here? And what do we do now?

There are lots of stories that try to answer the first question, and here’s mine: I’d built websites before, but in 2003 I started blogging and learned how to configure an RSS feed. This was open-platform technology pioneered by Dave Winer, whom I would meet a couple years later, and it changed my life. From wikis to aggregators to podcasts and comments, a new digital commons was emerging, and the leaders of that movement toward equal access to tools understood that we were standing at a truly historic crossroads. It wasn’t enough just to create that commons. We had an opportunity to shape the culture of this new thing called Web 2.0 before Big Money caught up and converted our digital commons into just another market to be controlled and commodified.

At the time I was a journalist who spent his spare time writing fiction, and I was making progress. But it turns out I’m a sucker for visionaries. These people wanted to use this new Web to make a better world, and I wanted to help them. So I devoted years to their revolution, sometimes up, sometimes down, but always committed to the idea that things could get better. Which is true. But I severely underestimated just how much worse things could get. Here’s social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, writing in The Atlantic:

In February 2012, as he prepared to take Facebook public, Mark Zuckerberg reflected on those extraordinary times and set forth his plans. “Today, our society has reached another tipping point,” he wrote in a letter to investors. Facebook hoped “to rewire the way people spread and consume information.” By giving them “the power to share,” it would help them to “once again transform many of our core institutions and industries.”

In the 10 years since then, Zuckerberg did exactly what he said he would do. He did rewire the way we spread and consume information; he did transform our institutions, and he pushed us past the tipping point. It has not worked out as he expected.

I’m not here to vouch for everything in Haidt’s April article “Why The Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” but here’s the gist: In 2011, when social media fueled “Arab Spring” protests from Tunisia to Syria, social media was a grassroots organizing tool. Since 2011, however, social media has been increasingly redeployed as a weapon of mass manipulation.

By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game.

This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action. One of the engineers at Twitter who had worked on the “Retweet” button later revealed that he regretted his contribution because it had made Twitter a nastier place. As he watched Twitter mobs forming through the use of the new tool, he thought to himself, “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”

There’s a lot more to the argument, and I recommend you read it. But here’s what he misses: It’s not just that social media turned against us. It’s that years before it morphed into a 21st century Bond villain, social media was already our last, best hope. I didn’t join The Revolution That Failed because I thought social media was fun. I joined it because I was already alarmed by the changes I was witnessing.

I’d experienced the corrosive effects of the far-right “liberal media bias” scam firsthand. Public education became a culture war battleground. A college education became a worthless debt scheme, and academia in the humanities and social sciences squandered much of its credibility on questionable orthodoxies. Entrepreneurs became con men. Work lost all expectation of basic dignity. And the young technologists we admired in 2006 were replaced by a new generation of callow bro-trolls within a decade. Corporations are not people, my friend, and here’s how you know that: In today’s world, people only matter when corporations need them to perform some particular function: Buy, sell, vote, reproduce, whatever.

It’s often said of the new cohort of Gen Z voters that “they’ve never seen our system work,” and that’s a bad thing. But here’s what’s worse: I was born in 1963, and I’ve felt that system crumble beneath my fingertips for the last 22 years.

What do we do now?

Maybe we do whatever it is that we do. In my case, for instance, that means one thing: I write novels that tell entertaining stories about the hopes and horrors I’ve experienced in this messy, overcrowded, overheating world. I don’t do it to indoctrinate. I do it because telling stories is a fundamentally human thing to do. I do it because I devoted decades to journalism and I saw where that got us. I do it because every time we tell each other the truth, we stick it to the man. And there are some truths I only know how to tell through fiction.

What’s your thing? Music? Food? Carpentry? Gardening? Painting? Video? Volunteering? Organizing? Standup? Whatever it is you do, do that thing. But do it to connect.

That was the original point of what we believed about social media in 2006, way back when we just called it “blogging.” That if you did what you really loved to do, and shared it, you’d connect to new people and be better for those connections. And we weren’t wrong, y’all. We just made the mistake of trusting the wrong people, and we’ve all paid for it.

I’ve been sad and depressed over the last few weeks, but I’ve been working my way back through those feelings instead of whistling past them. It forced me to ask myself the questions I ask about the characters I create:  What do I want? What I am willing to do to get it? And what I understand today that I didn’t understand last week is that my way forward demands finding new allies. Not necessarily new friends — I’ve got more good friends than I can properly tend sometimes, and I’m blessed by that — but allies. Collaborators. People I can support in good conscience, but also with some confidence that the relationship will be founded in reciprocity.

Because I think that may be how we work our way out of this place where nothing works and no one can be trusted and we all feel isolated. Not through the squishy and over-used idea of “community,” but through a more transactional idea: Cooperation.