Creating insular information bubbles
A civilisation of broken feedbacks generates expanding social dysfunction: IV
This is the fortieth piece in Lorenzo Warby’s series of essays on the strange and disorienting times in which we live.
This article can be adumbrated thusly: Narratives are not about facts, they’re about making meaning. However, if they’re to continue to make meaning, they have to be protected from facts.
The publication schedule and links to all Lorenzo’s essays are available here. Meanwhile, responded to Lorenzo’s 39th essay at his place.
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As discussed in a previous essay, urbanisation, technology, prosperity and bureaucratisation all enable the degrading of feedbacks within our societies.
They also permit the generation and propagation of networks—coordinated via toxic ideas—that further undermine feedbacks. The dysfunctional policy responses to Covid combined poor and suppressed feedbacks from the pathologies of bureaucratisation with dysfunctional narrative-peddling—so feedback-suppressing—mainstream media.
One can see feedback degradation within mainstream media by comparing Watergate and Russiagate. Watergate brought down a popular and effective President—one who’d won a landslide victory—because it was true. Russiagate failed to bring down an unpopular President—one who didn’t even win the popular vote, because it was fake.
Ironically, the uncovering-facts success of Watergate led to the narrative-driven fakery of Russiagate. Watergate glamourised journalism, which meant more and more graduates of elite universities became journalists. Journalism then adopted the destruction of custodianship—of any notion of services to the wider citizenry—and bundled it with a pervasive sense of moral and cognitive superiority over its fellow citizens. These attitudes were incubated in elite universities.
Any media organisation where a majority of employed journalists graduated from elite universities can be presumptively assumed to be an enemy of democratic accountability. This is especially so when accountability contradicts the narratives of cognitive and moral superiority they’ve sold themselves and are now trying to sell their audiences. As Russia specialist Jade McGlynn has observed about the use of historical narratives:
Narratives are not really about facts, they’re about making meaning.
The recent Colorado Supreme Court decision, barring Donald Trump from the ballot for something he has neither been charged with, nor convicted of—on the basis of a contentious characterisation of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot—is a case in point. Those Judges who were graduates of Ivy League law schools voted to bar the former president while those who were graduates of Denver Law School voted against. This division by law school expresses an elite culture of dysfunctional arrogance.
What, after all, is our normal assessment of a polity that blocks the Opposition Leader from being on the ballot?
A fundamental problem for developed democracies is that the processes for evading electoral accountability continue to evolve, while accountability mechanisms have not caught up—or have been actively degraded. In large part this has been due to problems of scale. Greater scale means more capacity for accountability to be evaded by feedback dilution and for mechanisms to degrade accountability to emerge.
It’s quite conspicuous that the level of insulation immigration policy gets from voter preference tends to be greater the larger a given polity’s population. This is a tendency, not a rule—see Italy under PM Giorgia Meloni—but quite a strong one.
Once you have a policy it is not legitimate to criticise, you are much more likely to end up with stupid—i.e., socially destructive—policies. The more unaccountable migration policy is, the stupider it will be. For those outside the narrative bubble that classes critical examination of migration or migrants as cognitively and morally illegitimate bad-feels, this should not be a surprise.
Internationalisation—the use of international bodies as incubators and disseminators of policy—works on a global scale to reduce accountability. The imprimatur of accession to international agreements is deployed to justify public acceptance and/or direct institutional adoption, thus bypassing voters.
Internationalisation has become both a mechanism of, and an aid to, the non-electoral politics of institutional capture. The EU of “ever greater union” is a mechanism for such politics. In expanding its imperial scope,1 it’s become a great driver of popular resentment.
While the US is relatively poorly governed compared to the other developed democracies (Detroit, anyone?) the burden of having the largest and also the most dysfunctional university sector—with the most florid evolution of toxic ideas—may yet prove too much for the Republic. Institutions that generate their own inquisitors and commissars—plus Test Act-style compliance requirements—are obviously hostile to a free society.
Contemporary migration policy dysfunction provides historical resonances. Between the 1820s to 1860s, mass migration, enabled by railways and steamships, fractured the American Republic along its faultline of slavery.2 The use of affirmative action—aka Diversity—to appoint by category rather than competence may well generate sufficient collapse of complex systems to create the decay in state capacity that lets civil war break out. This is especially so when holding individuals to account for lack of competence, or poor character, is construed as attacking their category.
Such dynamics within affirmative action regimes magnify the systematic degradation of competence signals—such as formal credentials—that Diversity already entails. The more people (rationally) judge folk as likely diversity hires, the more stereotypes replace the degraded formal markers of competence. Stereotypes are likely to become more accurate guides.
The welfare state encouraged the development of vampire elites: networks of individuals—at least ostensibly, from groups that do less well than others—who thereby gain status and leverage from this comparative lack of success. They have strong incentives for such comparative social failure to continue. That’s what justifies their moral standing and claims on resources. DEI hugely magnifies this by generating supporting narratives backed by institutional enforcement.
The delusion that a completely fair society will have exactly the same outcomes across all groups—in defiance of what we know about social and biological dynamics: disparate outcomes from different strategies is precisely what drives evolution—is the emotional basis for Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (“wokery”).
Remember: the only explanation blank-slate views of the world can provide for disparate outcomes is malign social forces like racism or sexism. This is even more so if one defines constraint as oppression, a pattern that pervades so much Post-Enlightenment Progressivism.
Conservatives as counterbalance
Conservatives typically anchor their identity in things outside themselves. This explains the classic conservative concern for order, for the preservation of things with which they strongly identify. Hence the conservative commitment to a constrained vision of humanity: to the world as a place of trade-offs, including constraints of how Homo sapiens are. The creation and maintenance of order deals with constraints by making trade-offs. In this constrained vision, the past informs us. Homo sapiens remain Homo sapiens. The past both contains and informs human achievement.
Driving conservatives out of the academy, or silencing them within, not only encourages—even if after a considerable lag—a reaction of if you won’t share, we won’t fund. It also enables the ever-increasing generation of toxic nonsense from within universities thanks to de-legitimising problems of order. Defining constraint as oppression—as we see with Trans, fat-acceptance, queer theory, and so on—delegitimises wrestling with the unavoidable trade-offs and constraints of human existence.
One doesn’t have to give conservative answers to questions of order.3 One does have to wrestle with the questions themselves. Driving out, or silencing, conservatives not only cuts out those who focus on such questions, it has increasingly delegitimised even asking those questions. This is a classic example of how cognitive conformity degrades decision-making. The process and consequences of such exclusion and silencing has morally and intellectually degraded the universities.
Universities have been killing their ability to think about more and more intellectual domains by blocking inconvenient feedback and requiring adherence to political narratives. They have then pumped this feedback-blocking conformity into institutions.
Appointing diversity officers—inquisitors and commissars—means your organisation will come increasingly to be dominated by the sort of manipulative Stalinist apparatchiks who rise to the top in organisations with inquisitors and commissars.
Progressives typically ground their identity in things within themselves: specifically, various moral, emotional and cognitive commitments. Judging matters according to the benchmark of an imagined future—and its associated commitments—leads to embracing an unconstrained vision of people and politics. There are no inherent constraints stopping profound social change, commitment to which then becomes morally necessary.
I’ve always been sceptical of the notion that progressives are “self-hating”. That may be conservatives assuming an identification with things outside themselves that is not the standard progressive identity pattern. Denouncing one’s exterior connections to show adherence to progressive identity’s core cognitive commitments is a more costly signal of belonging than genuine self-hatred.
Meanwhile, even the most “marginalised” identities only count if they adhere to those cognitive commitments. This explains various folk being declared not to be black or gay or whatever. Think gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder being “the Black face of White supremacy”, Trump-endorsing media mogul Peter Thiel not being gay, or gender critical feminists like Germaine Greer getting their “feminism card” revoked.
This enforced compliance is not seen by its enablers as some new phenomena. It’s seen as a simple shift in acceptable opinions, and opinions have always been limited in range. That the range has become much narrower and more disconnected from majority opinion does not register.
Progressives are tribally invested in the same cognitive club, in Club Virtue.4 As their cognitive commitments provide moral standing, nothing is permitted to morally trump the status-providing cognitive commitments. This means criticism can only come from within the magical circle, from within legitimating belief.
Fundamental to this cognitive-commitments status strategy—to this sense of identity—is that “the Right” is never even close to being seen as morally legitimate. Agreeing with them is a form of moral degradation, a failure to adhere to the shared identity and its presumptive ownership of morality. Anyone who dissents from key narratives then gets “right-coded”, especially if they appear in “right” media or publications. The most notable example in British popular culture is lefty, Corbyn-voting comedian Andrew Doyle, now irreducibly right-coded thanks to hosting a weekly chat show on GB News.
This often occurs because the individuals in question are getting the “silent treatment” from mainstream media, which reinforces already widespread siloing into separate information flows. As Helen Dale has observed:
…one of the most depressing characteristics of our contemporary media environment is what I’ve come to call “the silo effect.” Both social media (by dint of algorithms) and now conventional media (by dint of deliberate hiring and firing) are herding their viewers and readers into ideological silos. Once there, they’re unlikely to encounter anything other than intellectual comfort food with which they already agree.
Commitment to this progressive sense of status through cognitive commitments is more widespread than is commitment to the full transformational political ideal. School and university students are simply trained not to consider ideas labelled with various boo words (“White Supremacist”, “Right wing”, etc).
One the key techniques of narrative enforcement is the creation of folk devils. As writer Chris Bray puts it:
We’ve watched this, now; we’ve witnessed the production of folk devils by manufactured mass hysteria. We’ve seen highly experienced academic researchers at Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford turn into scary fringe weirdos overnight because they said things that were actually pretty mainstream and scientifically accepted until they suddenly somehow weren’t. This is going to happen again. We’re on notice regarding the emergence of regular cycles in which we burn some witches.
Jumping up and down about the “alt right” is part of this pattern. The alt right lacks both institutional power and organisational coherence. It is, however, a very convenient bogey to cover moral cowardice and class condescension. Truly toxic ideas and practices coming out of transformational politics can be ignored by activating the “alt-right” bogey. Inconvenient resistance from the wider citizenry can also be damned by doing so, as happened with Ireland’s recent immigration riots.
The strategy of “nut-picking”—of elevating the most extreme voices—or discounting by applying abusive or belittling adjectives can also be useful adjuncts to narrative enforcement.
Progressives are typically more hostile to disagreement, and care more about politics—something that’s increased further in recent years—than conservatives because these things are more important to progressives’s sense of identity.5 There’s also a certain delicious pleasure to be had in indulging one’s hatred and cruelty behind a mask of morality and ostentatious kindness.
It’s all too easy for Homo sapiens to engage in such rationalisations. Our genus evolved highly cooperative reproduction and subsistence strategies that enable competitive groupishness. Homo sapiens cooperate with non-kin at a level to which no other species comes close. As part of this evolved behaviour, it’s easy for us to generate virulent in-group versus out-group distinctions.
Cognitive commitments can thus coordinate, even motivate, coalition building that can also serve more basic needs. As Peterson et al note:
Coalitional [cognitive] programs evolved to promote the self-interest of the coalition’s membership (in dominance, status, legitimacy, resources, moral force, etc.). This is why, from an evolutionary functional perspective, it is no surprise that even coalitions whose organizing ideology originates (ostensibly) to promote human welfare can slide into the most extreme forms of oppression, in complete contradiction to the putative values of the group.
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Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, Pelican, 2018.
Robert William Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, W.W.Norton, , 1994.
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Keri Leigh Merritt, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Cass R. Sunstein, Why Societies Need Dissent, Harvard University Press, 2003.
Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, Quill William Morrow, 1987.
Robert P. Abelson, ‘Beliefs Are Like Possessions,’ Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 16, 3 October 1986, 223-250.
George Borjas, ‘Immigration and the American Worker: A Review of the Academic Literature,’ Center for Immigration Studies, April 2013.
Harry Frankfurt, ‘On Bullshit,’ Raritan Quarterly Review, Fall 1986, Vol.6, No.2.
Zach Goldberg, ‘How the Media Led the Great Racial Awakening,’ Tablet, August 05, 2020.
Mark Granovetter, ‘The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited,’ Sociological Theory, Vol.1, 1983, 201-233.
Ann Krispenz, Alex Bertrams, ‘Understanding left-wing authoritarianism: Relations to the dark personality traits, altruism, and social justice commitment,’ Current Psychology, 20 March 2023.
Timur Kuran, ‘Now out of never: The element of surprise in the East European revolution of 1989,’ World politics, 44.1 (1991) 7-48.
Ekin Ok, Yi Qian, Brendan Strejcek, and Karl Aquino, ‘Signaling Virtuous Victimhood as Indicators of Dark Triad Personalities,’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Personality Processes and Individual Differences, 2020, Vol. 2, No. 999.
Petersen, M.B., Osmundsen, M., & Tooby, J. (2020). ‘The Evolutionary Psychology of Conflict and the Functions of Falsehood’, in (David C. Barker and Elizabeth Suhay eds.) The Politics of Truth in Polarized America: Concepts, Causes and Correctives, Oxford University Press.
Harold Robertson, ‘Complex Systems Won’t Survive the Competence Crisis,’ Palladium: Governance Futurism, June 1, 2023. https://www.palladiummag.com/2023/06/01/complex-systems-wont-survive-the-competence-crisis/
Max Rollwage, Raymond J. Dolan, and Stephen M. Fleming, ‘Metacognitive Failure as a Feature of Those Holding Radical Beliefs,’ Current Biology, 28, 4014–4021, December 17, 2018.
Manvir Singh, Richard Wrangham & Luke Glowacki, ‘Self-Interest and the Design of Rules,’ Human Nature, August 2017.
Daniel Williams, ‘The marketplace of rationalizations,’ Economics & Philosophy (2022), 1–25.
Historian Timothy Snyder perceptively characterises what became the EU as a substitute for empire. What he is much less perceptive about—as he sees empire as a broader social, rather than specifically state-apparat, exercise—is the extent to which the EU is an imperial substitute for empire, allowing state apparats to colonise “upwards” (via internationalisation) rather than outwards (via territorial expansion). Similarly, the welfare state is also a substitute for empire, by colonising inwards.
I discuss the causes of the American Civil War—including the destabilising effects of mass migration on the American Republic—in this post.
Just as most mutations are dysfunctional, most new ideas—lacking reality testing—are also likely to be wrong or otherwise dysfunctional. The “shock of the new” from technological change can decrease how functional received patterns of behaviour may be, thereby increasing the value of searching for better ways of doing things. That does not justify the modernist delusion—that new is always better—but can give it a spurious plausibility.
Human status can derive, at least in part, from group membership. The progressive focus on cognitive commitments as central to identity drives treating cognitive commitment as status markers, a game that requires a certain critical mass to work. Ironically, it also requires such cognitive commitments not to become too common, for they then lose status-differentiating value. Hence the enduring progressive fondness for new commitments and new terms of moral art (e.g. Latinx, birthing people, etc.).
Conservatives are also more likely to take civility codes—an ordering principle—seriously.