“[I]f thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”
— Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Over many years teaching and writing about ongoing changes to what I called a 20th Century modernity view of the world, itself a kind of break away from a very optimistic Enlightenment view, I borrowed here and there a few hooks we can usefully hang and observe some of what otherwise is scattered in a daily expanding confusion.
I would say “so” and “narrative” are the “go-to” words of our second decade second millennium. Rather than responding to what someone has said, we put a stop to it with a “so” and go on to our opinion. Why do narcissists prefer texting to phoning? Because they can get their say in and not have to listen to someone else’s. They do not have to play “I talk about me and then listen patiently while you talk about you.” So, “so” may be a very useful hook on which to hang all our observations of our increased cultural narcissism, the inviolability of our own personal opinions, and the unstoppable “whataboutism” style of our Battle of the Tweets.
Jean-Francois Lyotard introduced the notion of “recits,” petit and grand. Small narrative and big narratives, the big ones eating up the smaller ones. We humans construct these stories. In fact, we construct the narratives that construct us. The physical universe is here, or there, but real; so is our planet Earth, which we can’t seem to get out of our own narrative framing of reality to observe that it is being destroyed by our constructions. Escaping our own mediations of the “Great Outdoors,” escaping our own narrative frames, our own human “worlding,” is as impossible as your own thoughts escaping your own mind.
What will stand out for a future historical review, if either the future or an interest in history are retained, is how bloody quickly we have jumped into new constructions of ourselves, other people, whatever is public, what is private, what is social, history, the rich, the poor, the future, knowledge, marriage, gender, wisdom, truth, imagination, reason, facts, opinions, progress, retrogression, and good and evil. In short, everything.
We’ve moved so rapidly into a post-truth/YOUniverse frame of mind that all previous transitions from hunter/gatherer to agriculture, from magic to religion, religions to reason, cottage to factory, fiefdoms to nations, swords to gunpowder, horse and buggy to autos, and so on seem long, slow slogs. But the movement Baudrillard describes from the real to the hyperreal, a movement to a simulacrum, which “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever” has occurred, in historical comparison, in a flash. In that flash of time, our opinionated representations are not copies of anything outside our own fabrications, our own self-spun narratives. Whether or not these bear any relationship to reality no longer matters as what is real is subject to a personal narrating of what is real. The universe has conflated into YOU. Words mean, as Humpty Dumpty tells Alice, what he says they mean.
The intrusion of cyberspace, which performs as an alternative consciousness armed with an artificial intelligence that we envision as replacing our own, has no doubt accelerated our jump from the real to the hyperreal. A home has been found for the endless spinning of fixations and fascinations, beliefs and dreams that have no need to resemble anything real. Nevertheless, all manner of inanity can find corroborating resemblance within the vast web of the cyber, online hyppereal. We have easy access to a blending of real and hyperreality, bullshit and lies, mania and madness, opinions and stories, arguments and evidence, facts and alternative facts.
So, if we ask why so much of the worst devils of our human nature, so much of our personal deviations from a public good, a general Welfare and so on now have busted loose and surround us, I think we need to look for the new variable on the scene. In her search for such a new variable that could explain a sudden rise in depression and suicide with the iGen, those born between 1995 and 2012, the psychologist Jean Twenge concluded: “There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives — and making them seriously unhappy.” (“Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, Sept. 2017)
If we expand this search to the entire culture and consider not unhappiness but instead an uncontrolled madness of our hashtag wars waged by bold, self-assured, self-confirming, unreachable, unteachable minds, we find that easy access to information seems to be the accelerant here.
Narratives and the way they frame or construct reality are not only a click away but also are proliferating at a mind boggling rate. The old fashioned mind does indeed become boggled; information overload. How many choices does it take to turn all choices into a blur? I am not nimble enough to multi-task and when it comes to multi-focusing, I try, like Einstein, to extend a concentrated focus so that my thinking on a topic can advance. Einstein said his gift was his capacity to stay so focused without distraction for 42 minutes. That is incredible, especially in a culture that privileges a rapid clicking from one screen to another, privileges the short attention span so that more choices can be enjoyed.
Enter Twitter. The medium that obliges you with a 140 character limit. If you want to write the prolegomena to any future metaphysics, you better choose another medium. Good luck in finding a reader. Opinions work best in short burst for short attention spans and the dramatically opinionated are the most attractive.
Is it then any surprise that a man who thinks in fragments, who doesn’t entertain thoughts, especially in books or the legacy press, challenging his own opinions, who can’t stay focused on any thought long enough to give it a self-reflexive going over would be a very attractive presidential candidate? This is a newly fabricated type of humanity who has found enough people or more precisely, Electoral College votes, similarly framed to vote him into the presidency.
Easy access to information also accelerates a bonding between fringe types who previously had a very difficult time finding their peers. Consider all those states coming out strong in support of Donald J. Trump, all those collapsed cities and economically abandoned towns that before cyberspace access would have to hang around the local alt-right bookshop or the local National Socialism clubs, or meet in the woods with sheets over their heads. They faced the same difficulties as everyone in the Heartland seeking porn faced. Now, it is all a click away. Whether you believe the Earth is flat or Blacks are genetically inferior or women are biologically less able than men to code you can find a welcoming website. You can find a home for every mind in cyberspace.
Easy access to information on an iPhone is now replacing or has already replaced a great deal, such as teachers, journalists, required reading (reading outside your choice domain), experiential learning, the French Academy (or the American version we were already too dedicated to individual authority to institute), erudition extending to the work of others, geography, syntax, and, most of all, an appropriate placement of facts in intellectual development.
Once again, Donald J. Trump seems clearly to be the consequence of all this easy access. He has been president long enough for us to observe that his mind circles within a fixed set of opinions, his own, and so is not free to choose whatever is outside those boundaries. In short, he cannot learn because he cannot listen to other voices. Perhaps this has been his condition for a very long time. But that is a cultural condition he reflects and has not created. If he can easily dismiss reason and empirical evidence, discount arguments that do not match his opinions, and can easily mock all attempts at correcting his insulated knowing, he is merely doing what a great many are also doing. He would not be this society’s leader if nothing he displays, regardless of how low it lies in the Great Chain of Being, was not already present in this society. Present and demonstrably forceful.
Because there is no possibility of compromise, consensus or even communication that will lead to such, we can expect a clash of different personally shaped narratives. The one common thread that runs through all is that reality is what I (whoever “I” may be) says it is and that my freedom to choose is demonstrated by my cyber click choices. Everyone on the battlefield then carries a shield protecting each from narratives outside one’s own narrative domain. Thus, your challenging opinion is violating my sense of personal freedom. By upholding a view that negates my own, you are seeking to take away my freedom.
Thus, the alt-right protagonist and the anti-alt-right protagonist are not in a battle in which rational argument or empirical evidence prevails but in a kind of ontological battle in which my sacred being-in-the-world, which I have personally chosen is being trashed by your rejection of it, your denial that it represents an unimpeachable case, an unassailable truth.
It is devolution, of mind, society, and civilization, surely but such a statement as this is thrown into the moshpit along with all others. What is astounding is the speed at which we have devolved from an acceptance of the criteria leading to a common understanding to the chaos of personal understanding, which is an understanding fixed within the vicious circling of our own choices. And thus no understanding at all.
We can go off into countless, undeterminable variables, as in the global warming battle, but I think what remains clear is that easy access to information (including where can I find a home for my opinions?) is the medium, the platform, upon which the very worst in our human natures has found an easy release of all that a civilizing intent has blockaded.
This assertion too will be thrown into the moshpit of “whataboutism” and a claim made for the direct democratizing this easy access affords, the fulfillment of an apparently long time desire for “information wanting to be free,” for the opportunity for Everyday Americans to voice their opinions without passing a review by the Old Guard, the Gatekeepers who now stand like ancient despots restricting our personal freedom.
This is an inevitable response in a culture that no longer brooks any challenge to the freedom of personal opinion. And yet, what still remains in view is our astounding descent into a chaotic order of things, which is no order at all, and the fact that without our easy cyberspace access to information, we would not have made this descent at all. Or, at least, not made it so rapidly.
In the conclusion of her Atlantic essay, Twenge writes: “I realize that restricting technology might be an unrealistic demand to impose on a generation of kids so accustomed to being wired at all times.”
It is equally unrealistic to believe that we can change the awful political/social climate we are in by somehow reversing or terminating our absorption in an alternative cyber consciousness. That alternative hyperreality is not so much channeling the worst in us along with the best but conflating and confusing the two so that no accepted rule of evaluation and judgment can be made.
Nevertheless, our descent into the maelstrom, into the abyss of our own dark appetites and desires, unrestrained by any judgment superior to our own, our own rooted in the depleting soil of our own potted minds, is doubtlessly brought to a stop sign, a pause when the malady is recognized and described. If we know Smartphone use is increasing depression and suicide in our children, I do not think we bend and bow to that as an unstoppable inevitability.