There are a couple of ideas running through my mind today.
One is the shifting of our democratic institutions from one of representative democracy to one of direct democracy. Why can’t we all vote for every issue on our phones? Why shouldn’t we?
Two is that cancel culture and mobbings are here to stay for as long as the technology which enables it continues to exist. Social media facilitates cancel culture and mobbings. The two go hand in hand.
Three, the only way to preserve the great western values – freedom, the rule of law, democracy, opportunity and trust – is to decentralize our society.
Let’s start with an analysis of technology, specifically social media. Why am I focusing so much on it? Because I think that changes in morality usually happen when intolerant groups of people encounter an environment that lets the majority go along with it. Nobody will become a vegan, for example, until meat alternatives become affordable. Then, everybody will become vegan, and meat-eaters will be seen as cruel and immoral. The same goes for technology. The underlying landscape for what can be morally tenable has shifted. So I think technology is one such landscape.
Social media is a very small space, just like a large family living in a small house. In a family, everybody is in everybody else’s business. You can’t keep what you’re doing in your room or in the basement from your sister or your mother. There are no secrets that last for a long time, and everybody remembers what you have done. The reason for this is because of your literal proximity to one another. You can hear your family members through the walls. You have scarce resources that you need to share with others, like the bathroom, the silence (or its absence), the kitchen, the living room.
Social media is quite similar. There are no secrets that can last for a long time because once something gets out and goes viral on social media, it will never be forgotten. If you’re accused of sexually assaulting someone, a google search will always make you known as an (alleged) sexual assaulter. But the alleged is bad enough that your reputation is forever spoiled. So first, there’s permanence.
Second, there’s virality. It refers to the speed at which information can spread along with the number of people it can spread to. Information spreads through social media very quickly, just as it can in a family. But social media is different from telephone calls or emails or newspapers or telegraphs in that you can get a sense of what other people are feeling quite quickly. Emotional content tends to go viral because the algorithm that curates what you see on the app will give you the information that keeps you on the app for the longest period of time. Emotional content tends to do this very well.
Three, there’s the pleasure that comes from being part of a big group, and also of gaining status in the group, and of being popular within the group. One way to do this is to be righteous and angry and a part of a mob on social media. It’s intoxicating. Each like and retweet and comment is a hit of dopamine. Each is a sign that you’re articulating something which everybody feels, and thus appreciates you for articulating it.
You upload your identity onto the web – nay, your identity is the web.
If you can go viral for being angry and get attention, if you can get dopamine from thousands of people agreeing with you, and if you get status and honour for doing so as well, you’re going to keep doing it and doing it. That’s what we all want, after all. Attention, honour, and status. The natural group which then forms turns out to be a mob. And individuals identify themselves based on which mob or group they belong to. We no longer identify ourselves with the people most physically proximate to us. Instead, we do it with the people we agree with the most over the internet. I think one example of this is how young people add pronouns and “BLM” to their bios to broadcast to others that they are progressive and inclusive.
Once you’ve identified which group (or tribe) you’re in, you’ll then go on to try and advance in this tribe. Abusing and harassing individuals who your tribe deems to be in the out group, retweeting and honouring those who articulate what you believe in, supporting those who you agree with when they go after their enemies, these are all things that you can do to demonstrate your identity and allegiance, and also which let you rise within the group.
If you want to stop cancel culture from arising, it’s easy! You need to make the algorithm proportionate to the content being generated. You need to make it pricy to create content. And you need to distance the idea from the writer of it (ie. reveal the writer only after someone has liked a tweet). But unless these things stay the same, then cancel culture is the natural and default mode of social media.
I also don’t think that it’ll go away because of how new platforms and Generation Z have accustomed themselves to living on the internet. Their primary identity is on the cloud. It’s no longer a physical embodiment. And so they are already cancelling each other in junior and senior high school. They are not being trained to cancel other people. It looks to me like they’re entering university already cancelling people as their natural default.
I don’t think that this explanations explains all of the reasons behind cancel culture – it doesn’t explain why it’s popping up in Canada’s Supreme Court, for example. But I think this explanation explains why it’s here to stay, and the crucial role that technology plays in facilitating it.
That’s point two. Point one builds on my analysis of technology to help elucidate why we are shifting from representative democracy to direct democracy.
First, what’s the difference? Representative democracy is where individuals in a group pick someone to represent their desires in a democratic assembly. You can have one group who picks multiple representatives, or you can split up a group into smaller groups, of which each picks a representative. Direct democracy is when a group of people come together to deliberate what to do together. Athens was a direct democracy in that all of her citizens had a vote when it came to deciding what to do policy wise. It is argued that direct democracies are better because they more accurately reflect the desires of the people who compose it. But it’s argued that representative democracies are better because they let most citizens (except for the few unlucky ones who happened to become politicians) live their lives without thinking about politics and law all the time.
I think we’re moving away from representative democracy towards direct democracy.
Legitimacy in a representative democracy comes from citizens voting politicians into power through free and fair elections. It’s more about the process than it is about the outcome. If proper procedure is followed, then it’s a legitimate representative democracy. Legitimacy in a direct democracy? It’s more like whether or not everybody has had their input in the matter or not. If only a quarter of the population votes on a certain policy, then when the quarter puts the policy into action, three quarters may not agree with it, and will find it coercive. So direct democracy depends on the extent to which individual citizens participate in the democracy.
Because of social media and because of how easy it is to influence and read public opinion, we’re moving closer and closer to a representative democracy model at base. The Francois Legault government, in their press conference announcing the end of the provincial curfew, answered a question which a journalist had asked about polling. Apparently, the government had spent millions of dollars on polls to see whether the public agreed with their restrictions or not. They found that the public did in fact agree (~90% did?) and they needed to learn this because they wanted their rules and regulations to be followed. So we have two important and interesting concepts here. One is that the legitimacy of coercive rules depends on there being a very large majority of people who agree with it. Two, they moved away from other sources of legitimacy, like democratic deliberation, in their putting forward of policy. This is quite scary because the mob and their polling may be seen as more legitimate than the actual democratic processes we have! And so you can end up with coups and things like that.
Moving forward, why wouldn’t politicans of any stripe not continue to rely on strong public support when pushing forward a bill which might threaten rights and freedoms? It would certainly be easy to create a “democracy app” that lets people vote for what they believe should be the law. The mob becomes far more capable now because of how quickly information can flow laterally. There’s no need to build up infastructure like polling stations and all of that. It takes 10 seconds to download an app, and then another 10 to vote.
I fear for this future world because democracies without a separation of powers and without the rule of law are simply mobs. And we’ve seen the horrendous, disproportionate, and unforgiving nature of mobs in cancel culture.
So what exactly is the solution to the (possibility of) the mob? The answer is decentralization. You remove the ability of the mob to come after you. You disassemble the institutions that are capable of such great coercion. You stop socializing online with the people who hate you. You find people who you get along with and who want to play a similar game. This all happens online, on the internet. We’re watching the unbundling of the nation-state.
The promise of the west is also one of choice, and minimal coercion. In representative democracies, there’ll always be people who feel like they’ve been coerced into public policy. Bruce Pardy, for example, believes that anything other than the minimal state is coercion – like using tax dollars to fund schools. This is coercion: you must work for me and let me spend your money, or else I’ll take away your freedom. But decentralization allows for a proliferation of choice. If you disagree or don’t like it, then you can move away. You can change. It all runs through choice. If one jurisdiction is taking you improperly (or is misusing your taxes) then you can move away. Jurisdictions will/can/must compete with each other to win over their customers. Competition requires consent. And decentralization leads to competition. So decentralization leads to consent.