Our Digital Idiocy

Few will look fondly upon 2016 as it makes its exit. It greeted us with a spate of high-profile deaths and, with a touch of macabre symmetry, it seems intent on leaving us with the same. Much that went on in between was likewise regrettable and mournful.

When I think back on the year–especially the interminable and demoralizing election cycle, but much else beside–I’m left with one dominant impression: the forces pulling us apart appear stronger than those pulling us together. If this is the case, then there are, I’m certain, multiple and varied causes. Naturally, I’ve been thinking about how technology has contributed to this state of affairs.

Let me start with a few observations from Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition. Early on, Arendt distinguishes among the private, social, and public spheres. In her argument, the social sphere is chiefly a modern development. The ancient world, the world of the Greeks particularly, knew only the private and the public realm.

“According to Greek thought,” Arendt wrote,

the human capacity for political organization is not only different from but stands in direct opposition to that natural association whose center is the home (oikiri) and the family. The rise of the city-state meant that man received ‘besides his private life a sort of second life, his bios politikos. Now every citizen belongs to two orders of existence; and there is a sharp distinction in his life between what is his own (idion) and what is communal.’ It was not just an opinion or theory of Aristotle but a simple historical fact that the foundation of the polis was preceded by the destruction of all organized units resting on kinship …

Arendt draws our attention to the literal sense of the word private: the private realm was a realm of privation, of lack. It lacked the freedom necessary for political, which is to say public action. The private realm, the realm of the household, was focused on the sustenance of biological life. Important, indeed necessary as this may be, it did not touch what was truly human, what distinguished us from the rest of the animal kingdom:

Of all the activities necessary and present in human communities, only two were deemed to be political and to constitute what Aristotle called the bios politikos, namely action (praxis) and speech (lexis), out of which rises the realm of human affairs (ta ton anthropon pragmata, as Plato used to call it) from which everything merely necessary or useful is strictly excluded.

Importantly, Arendt stressed the contrast between speech and violence: “To be political, to live in a polis, meant that everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence. In Greek self-understanding, to force people by violence, to command rather than persuade, were prepolitical ways to deal with people characteristic of life outside the polis …”

This strikes me as a critical point because it captures the dangers of our moment. The conditions under which politics can be a realm of persuasion rather than violence are always precarious and tenuous. These conditions include, to my mind, a measure of solidarity among citizens and a broadly shared vision of the common good coupled with a commitment to public spirited deliberation and compromise. We might add, as well, a shared epistemic space that establishes the possibility of meaningful debate. There are, then, horizons of plausibility, in large measure related to the viability of public speech, within which a politics of persuasion and deliberation is viable, and we are in danger of losing sight of them altogether.

Aspects of digital culture appear to abet the erosion of this cultural ground that is essential to democratic practice. To see how this is the case, let us return to Arendt. There are many facets of Arendt’s argument that I’m setting aside which might make it difficult to follow her train of thought–particularly her understanding of the realm of the social–but consider the following:

The emergence of society—the rise of housekeeping, its activities, problems, and organizational devices—from the shadowy interior of the household into the light of the public sphere, has not only blurred the old borderline between private and political, it has also changed almost beyond recognition the meaning of the two terms and their significance for the life of the individual and the citizen. Not only would we not agree with the Greeks that a life spent in the privacy of “one’s own” (idion), outside the world of the common, is “idiotic” by definition, or with the Romans to whom privacy offered but a temporary refuge from the business of the res publica; we call private today a sphere of intimacy whose beginnings we may be able to trace back to late Roman, though hardly to any period of Greek antiquity, but whose peculiar manifoldness and variety were certainly unknown to any period prior to the modern age.

I would paraphrase Arendt’s point this way: the rise of mass society and the remarkable enrichment of private life has overwhelmed the ancient prestige attached to public life. The private sphere is no longer a sphere of privation, rather it is that of which we most fear being deprived. It is the idea of idiocy as a retreat into the private sphere that I want to emphasize. Our digital idiocy as I’m calling it, then, has little to do with the intellect; it has rather to do with how the nexus of habits encouraged by digital culture undermine the public spiritedness essential to a democratic society.

Of course, as is evident even in Arendt’s analysis, the roots of this development long predate the rise of what we might, for convenience sake, call digital culture. I would only suggest that digital culture sinks us deeper into the private realm and further erodes our ability to care about public affairs in a manner that is conducive to democratic practice.

This is the case, in part, because while digital culture appears to cultivate communities that extend beyond the household and the self, they do so by establishing what we might think of as communities of affinity, and they establish these communities through the use of media that seem inadequate to sustain the kind of persuasive speech upon which democratic deliberation depends.

Further, these two tendencies combine to reinforce one another. I naturally band with those who are like me and when I do interact with those who are not like me, I do so in a context that discourages meaningful debate and humanizing encounters. Thus I become more deeply convinced of the purity of my tribe and the reprehensibility of those who are not of my tribe, and my confidence in the promise of debate and deliberation wanes. If such is the case, then politics devolves into the mere seizure of power to secure my private interests with no regard for the interests of others.

We may also note that digital culture is anchored to no particular place, and, insofar as it knows any time at all, it knows only the present. It knows no past, except as a novelty or a commodity, and it knows no future, except as a screen onto which we may project our private fantasies. It renders care for the future grounded in an understanding of the past and care for my place and the people who share it implausible.

The form of solidarity encouraged by digital culture is, as we suggested above, grounded in affinity. But politics is mostly about the possibility of living at peace with those who are not like me. If I can find no common denominator that might bind us together despite our differences, then I will be less inclined to work toward the resolution of public conflicts through speech and deliberation. Mass media at least offered the semblance of solidarity, but it was not grounded in family, creed, culture, or place, the sorts of solidarity that entail obligation and sacrifice. Rather, mass media gave us event solidarity. We shared, and even had the illusion of participating in, events (pseudo-events or hyperreal events, if you like): the moon landing, the JFK assassination, the Challenger disaster, the First Iraq War, 9/11, etc. But event solidarity makes no particular demands upon me and generates no necessary action (9/11 is a questionable case); the chief effect of such events is to constitute my identity. Thus an ostensibly public reality is, in fact, a private affair. Digital culture encourages what I’d call hashtag solidarity, which likewise entails no necessary public obligations or personal sacrifice and further privatizes the participants by augmenting the identity performance aspects of the action.

To the preceding, admittedly rambling discussion we could also add the following, which I’ll only note in passing: the further isolation encouraged by services that promise to eliminate my need, particularly in the suburbs, to go anywhere at all or interact with others who are not my paid proxies. I’m thinking here of Amazon, of course, but also the host of delivery services that will fetch all manner of goods for me. Consider also the devices toward which we may turn our gaze in order to avoid encounters with others when we are forced to exit our private spheres. Or GPS that relieves me even of the occasional need to ask a stranger for directions. Or the myriad entertainment technologies that sink me in simulated worlds. Taken alone, none of these developments amount to much; taken together they perpetuate the sort of idiocy that undermines the possibility of democracy.

I’ll leave you with no solutions, but with this from Adorno and Horkheimer: “I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.”

9 thoughts on “Our Digital Idiocy

  1. Thanks for the insightful article. Add to this the emphasis on STEM education and decline of liberal arts education and the future, not just of democracy, is bleak.

  2. Thanks for the article. Love the last quote from A&H.

    There’s a marvellous picture from many decades ago of everyone reading the NYT on the train into work with a caption about how this new social medium of the newspaper is ruining sociality. Just the same as everyone reading their smartphones.

    The development I really regret the most is the wearing of earphones in public spaces – creating what is usually a decisive barrier to casual social interaction.

    1. I think I’ve seen the same shot. Regarding the earphones, I’m always struck by Ray Bradbury’s conjuring them up in Fahrenheit 451 before they were created. Part of his imagining the isolation he feared was taking hold.

  3. I appreciated this post, Michael, especially since I spent the holiday in Athens, which made both Greece of the past and Greece of the present a little more real for me.

    I’m reminded of the old “digital dualism” discussions and the criticisms of those who say critique of digital culture is privileging local, face to face interaction. I’m not sure that digital culture can be “saved”, but perhaps the direction to bring back space and time and local social context more, whatever this means…

    On perhaps a related note, I recently started using whatsapp a little more liberally, and its been exciting, but encouraged me be looser about sending people messages, even when I don’t know much about the context in which they are living at the moment. I’ve also slowly taken to speaking people on video skype a bit more often. As long as I schedule this, and learn a bit about what the other person is up to at that time, this has felt like a reasonably healthy use of digital technology. Its still a learning curve though, and I have to take this slowly to not feel that I degrade my life through these kinds of interactions.


    1. And one more thought is that perhaps once people have gone through this learning curve of digital distance communication tools, people will relearn how to look beyond the small number of direct interactions they have with others, and out to the larger collective, or polis. And maybe at that point, it will be easier to form a sense of commonality with other people that could include everyone on the earth. On my more optimistic days, I try to see this possibility.

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