Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people. How did this happen? And what does it portend for American life?Jonathan Haidt, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid“
This raises the question as to whether America is under judgment. Is social media a vehicle for divine wrath?
The dominant accounts of the Internet’s rise in the 1990s are filled with positive sentiment, pointing to the web’s promise as a vehicle for human connection and the sharing of ideas. Haidt follows this standard account, and there is much evidence to support it. But as technologies have developed and social media has come to dominate the Internet’s landscape, Haidt argues that the social fabric has been weakened. Twitter, Facebook, and the like have eroded social capital, undermined institutions, and weakened the commonalities established through a shared story. We’ve unraveled.
I’ll call this the erosion thesis. Things were good, and social media has been tearing it down. It is certainly plausible.
My working thesis, however, hasn’t been one of decay. Rather, I think we’ve experienced a revelation, an apocalypse. As more and more people joined social media, we have been enabled to see more and more of what humanity is, especially at the fringes. Social media amplified what was marginalized or shaded within localized communities (what Haidt refers to as “hidden communities”), and enabled the loudest voices to ascend and dominate the room. We’re now seeing more and less of humanity at the same time. We see more of those formally pushed to the margins. We see less of those within the mainstream.
“Normals” have gone dark on social media. They’ve been shouted down and shamed. Without the average citizen, our perceptions of “normal” shift. We’re comparing fringe to fringe.
Haidt’s account offers tremendous insight into the ways “viral dynamics” changed social media, our digital ecosystems, and the nature of our public discourse. And once you understand those dynamics, you can begin to understand why social media environments have become what they have become, and why some people have abandoned those hellscapes.
Those remaining on social media remind me more of the various tribes and factions roaming the world of Mad Max, protecting their fiefdoms, scanning horizons, and marauding and destroying anyone who dares step on their turf and violates their norms. Twitter is Thunderdome. Virality incentivized hatred, purity, and extremism. As Haidt writes, “The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.”
Social media has yielded a mob, not a “public” or a “town” or a “global village.” Mob dynamics are very different than discourse dynamics. Haidt observes, “When our public square is governed by mob dynamics unrestrained by due process, we don’t get justice and inclusion; we get a society that ignores context, proportionality, mercy, and truth.” Rationality goes out the window. Impulse takes over. We move from the human to the animal. Bearers of the divine image become beasts.
And apparently, we’re stuck. There is no going back. Haidt claims:
We can never return to the way things were in the pre-digital age. The norms, institutions, and forms of political participation that developed during the long era of mass communication are not going to work well now that technology has made everything so much faster and more multidirectional, and when bypassing professional gatekeepers is so easy. And yet American democracy is now operating outside the bounds of sustainability. If we do not make major changes soon, then our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse during the next major war, pandemic, financial meltdown, or constitutional crisis.
That’s downright scary. Can we prevent a societal collapse? That’s uncertain. But Haidt proposes that we harden democratic institutions, reform social media, and prepare the next generation by equipping Gen Z with wisdom on how to steward usage of digital technologies. These might be hints toward a solution, but in no way do these proposals add up to a plan.
And I’m not sure a workable plan is possible, due to the fragmentation and division wrought by our present circumstance. America is too big, too geographically diverse, and too divided among ideological and class lines to expect a renewal of social capital, trust in institutions, and adoption of shared stories. If such a renewal were to occur, from whence would it come?
At the conclusion of the essay, Haidt states, “What would it be like to live in Babel in the days after its destruction? We know. It is a time of confusion and loss. But it is also a time to reflect, listen, and build.”
Who is this “we?”
It won’t be the same “we” who pass their days on the world of Twitter, pretending that the Internet is the real world. It will be the “we” who have returned to local communities and local work, who develop shared discourses and make common commitments, and who adopt common stories and a common purpose. “We” are those who build institutions, who establish trust through action, and who tell a story that’s true.
Such communities can be established on any number of foundations. But the one I have in mind, one that has tremendous promise, are communities that are already familiar with the Babel story, who know that after Babel comes Abraham, a covenant, and the establishment of a community called to acknowledge God as God and people as not, and who are tasked with bearing the image of the divine before the watching world as stewards and servants.
Who am I thinking of? I’m thinking of the church.