[Caveat lector: More so than usual, the following is an exercise in thinking out loud. I send it out into the ether to be battered into shape.]
Near the close of my last post, I wrote, “The arc of digital media is bending toward epistemic nihilism.”
It’s a line to which I frequently resort as a way of addressing a variety of developments in the sphere of digital media that have, as I see it, eroded our confidence in the possibility of public knowledge. I’m using the phrase public knowledge to get at what we believe together that is also of public consequence. This is an imperfect distinction worth teasing out, but I’m just going to let it go at that right now.
When I use that line about the arc of digital media, I have in mind phenomena like the facility with which digital media can be manipulated and, more recently, the facility with which realistic digital media can be fabricated. I’m thinking as well of the hyper-pluralism that is a function of the way digital media connect us, bringing conflicting claims, beliefs, and narratives into close proximity. “The global village,” McLuhan told us, “is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.”
It occurs to me, though, that it might be worth making a clarification: digital media does not create the conditions out of which the problem arises.
I’ve thought now and again about how we are recapitulating certain aspects of the early modern history of Europe. At some point last year I shot off an off the cuff tweet to this effect: “Thesis: If the digital revolution is analogous to the print revolution, then we’re entering our Wars of Religion phase.”
Although the story is more complicated than this, there is something to be said for framing the emergence of the modern world as a response to an epistemic crisis occasioned by the dissolution of the what we might think of as the medieval world picture (see Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, for example).
The path that emerged as a way toward a solution to that crisis amounted to a quest certainty that took objectivity, abstraction, and neutrality as methodological pre-conditions for both the progress of science and politics, that is for re-emergence of public knowledge. The right method, the proper degree of alienation from the particulars of our situation, translations observable phenomena into the realm mathematical abstraction—these would lead us away from the uncertainty and often violent contentiousness that characterized the dissolution of the premodern world picture. The idea was to reconstitute the conditions for the emergence of public truth and, hence, public order.
Technology (or, better, technologies) plays an essential role in this story, but the role that it plays varies and shifts over time. Early on, for example, in the form of the printing press it accelerates the crisis of public knowledge, generating the pluralism of truth claims that undermine the old consensus. The same technology also comes to play a critical role in creating the conditions under which modern forms of public knowledge can emerge by sustaining the plausibility of a realm of cool, detached reason.
Consider as well how we impute to certain technologies the very characteristics we believe essential to public knowledge in the modern world (objectivity, neutrality, etc.). Think of photography, for example, and the degree to which we tend to believe that a photographic image is an objective and thus trustworthy representation of the truth of things. More recently, algorithms have been burdened with similar assumptions. Because they are cutting edge technologies feeding off of “raw data” some believe that they will necessarily yield unbiased and objectively true results. The problems with this view are, of course, well documented (here and here, for example).
The general progression has been to increasingly turn to technologies in order to better achieve the conditions under which we came to believe public knowledge could exist. Our crisis stems from the growing realization that our technologies themselves are not neutral or objective arbiters of public knowledge and, what’s more, that they may now actually be used to undermine the possibility of public knowledge.
The point, then, is this: It’s not that digital media necessarily leads to epistemic nihilism, it’s that digital media leads to epistemic nihilism given the conditions for public knowledge that have held sway in the modern world. Seen in this light, digital media, like print before it, is helping dissolve an older intellectual and political order. It is doing so because the trajectory we set out on 400 years ago or so has more or less played itself out.
One last thought for now. According to Arendt, “The trouble is that factual truth, like all other truth, peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life. The modes of thought and communication that deal with truth, if seen from the political perspective, are necessarily domineering; they don’t take into account other people’s opinions, and taking these into account is the hallmark of all strictly political thinking.”
In other words, what if the technocratic strain within modern political culture, the drive to ground politics in truth (or facts) is actually the drive to transcend the political altogether? What if the age of electronic/mass media, the brief interregnum between the high water mark of the age of literacy and the digital age, was in some ways merely a momentary deviation from the norm during which politics could appear to be about consensus rather than struggle? In this light the political consequences of digital media might simply be characterized as the revenge of politics, although in a different and often disconcerting mode.