If We’re So Polarized, What Is The Culpability Of Technology?

About ten miles south of San Francisco, there’s a public beach called Linda Mar. As far as Northern California beaches go, Lindy isn’t particularly pleasant or pretty; the sand is gross, the water’s cold and slate gray on account of the persistent fog that hangs around the area. The spot is best known for an oceanfront Taco Bell, which is great in theory, but in practice is plagued by a perpetual sogginess and the hundreds of surfers who clog its parking lot every weekend.

I’ve been surfing at Linda Mar on and off for about fifteen years now. At first, it was because I was a beginner, and Lindy is one of the few places you can surf within a short drive of San Francisco without being sucked out to sea. Now I go because I am older and the waves at the better beaches are sometimes too big and scary. (I won’t name the other spots here; perhaps the most illuminating thing I can say about Lindy is that I can break surfer taboo and publish its name because it’s already the most packed spot in the area.)

Linda Mar was always crowded, but it’s become much worse recently, thanks to three separate innovations. The first is the wide-scale production of cheap soft-top surfboards, which are floaty enough to catch pretty much every mushy wave that rolls through. The second is the ubiquity of surf-camera Web sites that live-stream the waves and provide constantly updating, color-coded reports on the conditions. The third is the popularity of short-form surf content on social media, which, like so much of what you find on the Internet, highlights little fights or asks stupid rhetorical questions aimed at inciting as much conflict as possible.

All this has undeniably changed Linda Mar. Some shifts are obvious. When the color-coded report is green, for example, the crowds arrive. When it’s yellow, you might find fewer than twenty people in the water, even if the actual waves are no different from supposedly green conditions. Other changes are more subjective and harder to parse. Since the widespread distribution of WorldStarHipHop-style surf videos—which show surfers screaming at one another over snaked rides and tussling on the beach—I have noticed a discomforting edge in the water. Before, a typical kook at Linda Mar would cut you off, fall, and apologize while laughing at himself. Most of the time, he wouldn’t even know the surf etiquette he had violated, and, if you explained it to him, he’d listen.

Today, it’s as though the kooks are replaying, in their heads, the hundreds of social-media videos they’ve watched. They have a vague but often errant understanding of surf ethics, and it rarely translates into politeness. If they feel like you cut them off or snaked their wave, they will transform, however fleetingly and unconvincingly, into the saltiest local they’ve seen on Instagram.

I was thinking about Linda Mar while trying to sketch the basic premise for this new weekly column, which is titled Fault Lines and will run every Friday. I will mostly write about politics and the media, but I wanted to start with what’s happening at Lindy. If online content is reshaping the world of surfing—sending people to the same beaches while also making them belligerent and misinformed—who or what is to blame, and what can we do about it? Is it the responsibility of the people who run popular Instagram accounts to share more stoke and less disharmony? Should Surfline, the surf-camera and forecasting site, change the way it reports conditions, to more evenly distribute crowds? Do high-information surfers need to flag misinformation about who has priority on a wave?

Similar questions, of course, have been asked again and again, for the past decade or so, about American political life. Most Americans believe that we are in deeply polarized times; sixty-five per cent of respondents to a Pew survey last year said that they were “exhausted” when thinking about politics. Those of us who have appointed ourselves stewards of discourse have spent a great deal of energy trying to build some consensus, however imaginary and manufactured, but we are losing. Journalists have published fact-checks of politicians, government officials have created short-lived boards to combat disinformation, school systems have adopted media-literacy curricula to teach children how to take in what’s good and reject what’s bad. These efforts are largely driven by the hope that if we can control the inputs of the information ecosystem, and pump in a lot of truth and democracy, we might be able to save the country from irrevocable internal conflict. But what if the inputs don’t actually matter? What if it’s the technology itself?

Forty years ago, the late Neil Postman delivered a keynote address at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which, that year, had taken George Orwell and his works as its special topic, with particular reference to “1984.” The book’s dark prophecy of a world controlled by the censorious hand of Big Brother hadn’t come to pass, at least in a literal sense, but there were still many questions—as there are today—about where we might see Big Brother’s shadow. Postman, an education scholar at New York University, insisted that if we wanted to understand how the masses would be controlled, we shouldn’t look to Orwell but rather to his contemporary Aldous Huxley. Postman’s talk became a book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” In the foreword, he lays out the distinction between the two authors’ visions of the future: “Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

“Amusing Ourselves to Death,” at its core, was a polemic against television, which, at the time of the book’s publication, in 1985, was cruising along in its “Dynasty,” “Dallas,” and “Hill Street Blues” era. Postman, an acolyte of the influential Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, argued that if McLuhan’s most famous postulation was correct—that the medium is the message—then television was a uniquely destructive and obscurantist force that had already ruined American discourse. Politics had become a show dictated by ratings and the aesthetics of mass media; politicians were now judged by how they looked and performed on television. Under the totalitarian paradigm of television, Postman suggested, words and their associations no longer really mattered. He wrote:

What is happening in America is not the design of an articulated
ideology. No Mein Kampf or Communist Manifesto announced its
coming. It comes as the unintended consequence of a dramatic change in
our modes of public conversation. But it is an ideology nonetheless,
for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and
ideas, about which there has been no consensus, no discussion and no
opposition. Only compliance. Public consciousness has not yet
assimilated the point that technology is ideology.

So what is the ideology of the Internet? An optimist might invoke the idea of democratization, pointing to the medium’s ability to amplify otherwise silent voices, in ways both good and bad. But the Internet is not so much a forum as a language unto itself, one with its own history, predilections, and prejudices. In the early days of online life, there were “flame wars,” performatively absurd and vitriolic debates among the people who posted messages on various bulletin boards. These endless arguments prompted efforts to better moderate discussion. The resulting desire, on the part of posters, to depose the moderators, or “mods,” has been a constant of the Internet’s existence ever since—on Usenet groups, on Reddit, and on every form of social media.

Who are the mods? The big ones are establishment institutions that aim to govern and to regulate, to maintain credentials and decorum. The mainstream press, obviously, which includes me and my employer, is a mod, and we are the target of endless ire, often rightly. The academy—particularly its most élite schools, the Harvards and the Yales—is another mod. But the mods have been weakening for some time, a trend that was dramatically accelerated by the pandemic. When the COVID-19 lockdowns began, it soon became clear that the C.D.C. would be regarded as a mod, and its recommendations and warnings would be seen by many as mere attempts to control. The mod media, which, for the most part, trusted the science of the C.D.C., had little power to enforce any consensus, even when millions of lives were on the line.

This war will continually repeat itself because the medium demands it. Huxley, as it turns out, was mostly right about the ability of drivel to entomb dissent in a way that heavy-handed censorship never could. What he couldn’t anticipate was the form that this would take. Today, we live with the irony that the intense pitch and total saturation of political conversation in every part of our lives—simply pick up your phone and rejoin the fray—create the illusion that important ideas are right on the verge of being actualized or rejected. But the form of that political discourse—millions of little arguments—is actually what makes it impossible to process and follow what should be an evolving and responsive conversation. We mistake volume for weight; how could there be so many posts about something with no acknowledgment from the people in charge? Don’t they see how many of us are expressing our anger? These questions elicit despair, because the poster believes that no amount of dissent will actually be heard. And when that happens, in any forum, the posters blame the mods.

The mods do have supporters: “normie” liberals and conservatives who still put a degree of faith in the expert and media classes and who want, more than anything, to restore some bright line of truth so that society can continue to function. A central question of our current moment is whether that faith is enough to unite a critical mass of voters, or whether the medium we have chosen for everything, from photos of our children to our most private conversations, will simply not allow for any consensus, especially one that appeals to a population as broadly complacent as the American consumer class. Normies, who are mostly unified in their defense of the status quo, still wield a reasonable amount of political power, and they will continue to exist in some form. But, as even more of our lives take place within the distortions of online life, how much longer will there be a widely agreed-upon status quo to defend?

Not much longer, I expect. This might sound nihilistic, but it doesn’t have to be. The Internet and smartphones have changed surfing at Linda Mar, but not entirely for the worse. The crowds are, in a way, more democratic. A surge in the number of surfers in the Bay Area started during the pandemic, with the normalization of working from home, which gave people more opportunities to slip out to the beach between Zoom meetings. There are far more women on the waves than there were fifteen years ago, some of whom might have been inspired by a wider range of surf content that has made the activity seem more inclusive and accessible than the old procession of bleach-blond dudes in Bali.

A few months ago, I paddled out at Linda Mar and saw two whales breach about three hundred yards to the west. I saw the spouts, the tails, the fins. Despite our best efforts to turn surfing into yet another item that can be shared via social media, optimized for negative engagement, and captured by the Internet’s ideology, the ocean still exists. There is no meaningful part of American life that does not share this duality—the Internet has placed a filter of unreality between us, but we are still real. ♦

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