Joho the Blog » Utopianism: Threat or danger?

Utopianism: Threat or danger?

Shannon Bain has posted a long, thoughtful probing of Everything Is Miscellaneous and my defense of cyber-utopianism. It’s philosophical, serious, and generally right in its criticisms. He writes about my ideas in their philosophical context, as few have. I am very grateful for (and flattered by) this extended piece of clear-headed, morally-centered thinking.

His most telling criticism is (imo, anyway) that although he and I agree the Web is revolutionary, I assume the revolution will be for the good. Shannon worries that Cass Sunstein is right, and the Web’s openness and linkiness is really leading us to harden our positions, rather than opening up us to more diversity of thought.

My position has changed over the years on this, in part because I’ve had to the opportunity to hang out with folks at the Berkman Center. So, I now accept that the danger Sunstein points to is real. But, my reaction to this “echo chamber” argument is complex and confusing. I think (a) there are enormous challenges to evaluating the extent to which the Web is closing off thought; (b) the Web is probably leading us to be both more closed and more open simultaneously; (c) there is something wrong with the formulation itself; (d) the question probably mythologizes the degree of our openness in the pre-Web world. So, ultimately my position is: I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter too much because even if Sunstein is totally wrong (which he’s not), we’re still not doing enough to increase our interests and enlarge our sympathies. The Web won’t have this beneficial effect on us by itself; we must be ever vigilant and purposeful.

Shannon usefully connects this to my out-of-the-closet Heideggerianism. He wonders if I think cocooning (or, echo-chambering, if you prefer) “isn’t all bad”:

Maybe these cocoons of confirmation – these little webs of shared connotations and self-reinforced absolutist understandings, which I claim are negative aspects of a naturally biased humanity – are really what Heidegger’s beleaguered teacher Edmund Husserl called “lifeworlds:” the necessary and inescapable social, cultural and historical contexts within and through which we experience the world. Maybe so, but the problem is, these life worlds are hermetically sealed wholes of historical and cultural prejudice, incommensurable and unassailable. As Heidegger’s most influential student Hans-Georg Gadamer formulated it, prejudice – the historical, social and cultural “situatedness” we’re born into – is essential to Being-in-the-world. Outside of your lifeworld, your cocoon of prejudice, you simply aren’t… in the big metaphysical sense. Thus primordial prejudice – our cocoon of reinforcing ideas ever ready to disregard inconvenient or inconsistent “facts” – is the foundation of meaning in this Heideggerian sense.

Shannon’s right to see a connection, but I disagree with the conclusion he draws. I do strongly believe that we are inescapably thrown into a culture, language and history, and these determine much of who we are and how we thinkg. But, I don’t think that echo chambers are ok because of that. We cannot fully escape our context, but being a small-minded bigot who assumes that your beliefs and values are right simply because you believe them is not virtuous, wise, good, or acceptable.

This is, indeed, one of the reasons I think the “echo chambers” argument is mis-founded. The sharing of ideas, language, and values is essential to who we are. Without it, there is no culture and no conversation. But we are almost always in a complex dialectic of agreement and disagreement, identity and difference: We can only argue about something because we agree about so much already. So, in most arenas of life, we do better (as people, as a society) if we try to get past our own assumptions and sympathetically try to understand how the world matters to others. (FWIW, that’s what I found appealing about the academic study of philosophy. I saw it as a way to pry up the floor I was standing on, to see how many of the ideas I take for granted in fact have long, complex histories, and thus are not as “natural” and “self-evident” as I’d thought.)

(Also FWIW, I do think there are lots of areas in which asserting one’s agreement or identity has positive value, because it forms social and political bonds. But if that’s all you do, then you’re a small-minded nebbish.)

Shannon then tries to hang some anti-scientific beliefs on me, which I’m surprised he thinks I might hold. I don’t think science is just a Western superstition. Or whatever. But — and I’m sure Shannon agrees — I also don’t think science is the only way of thinking. It works at what it does. It doesn’t work at what it doesn’t work at. But, I love science. Sign me up for my flu shots!

Now, that doesn’t mean that every question can be settled, by facts, science, or by superstition for that matter. For example, in the piece Shannon refers to, I try to argue that the dispute among cyber-utopians, cyber-dystopians, and realists won’t be settled by facts because we are engaged in a political struggle, and the unknowable outcome of that struggle will give us the lens through we we look back and say “Hurray for the utopians!” or “Damn those utopians!” or whatever.

That criticism is toward the end of the piece, where Shannon then proceeds to argue against what I think is a strawman:

So, back to Weinberger’s utopianism. Remember that utopianism is the idea that the web is essentially good or for the best. Specifically that its native capacity to allow users to add metadata to content and make subtle, personal connections and relations is fundamentally and wholly positive.

Let’s drop the “wholly” from that last sentence. I never thought that the Web is wholly positive and I doubt I ever said it. (I am, however, quite capable of overstatement, so maybe I did. I am a writer with political interests, not a philosopher.) Shannon and I are closer than he thinks. He gives two alternatives to validate my utopianism. Either (says Shannon) I’m saying that we “Ignore the unfortunate facts about humans’ tendency to avoid disconfirmation…” or that we “embrace these tendencies as a prerequisite of authentic, human meaning.” I agree with Shannon that neither of these are acceptable. In order:

(1) I acknowledge our tendency to prefer the comfortable and closed. I acknowledge that the Web won’t magically overcome that. Rather, it is an unprecedented opportunity to work on overcoming it. Constant vigilance. And I think that may be a change in my thinking over the past decade. As I’ve said, I think the echo-chamber alarmists sometimes fail to acknowledge what sharing assumptions and values enables for us humans. But, my utopianism is not based on Shannon’s first alternative.

(2) I know ten years ago I thought “authenticity” was a good idea. But for the majority of the years since then, I’ve thought it’s a pretty bad idea. It does capture something that we want to be able to talk about — a country-western singer who grew up rich but pretends to be hardscrabble — but the metaphysics of authenticity is all screwed up…and within Heidegger it’s an unfortunately throwback to the essentialism he hated. (It did give philosophically-minded Germans a rationale for dying for their fatherland, however. Fucking Nazi.) I do think it’s good to acknowledge the inescapable effects of our birth, language, culture, history, family, etc. But acknowledging that doesn’t mean you can just settle into your prejudices. The reality is that we share our world with lots of people. They care about their lives and their world. If you reject that realization, you’re schizophrenic or evil. It’s our responsibility to always try to expand our circle of sympathy, to understand and care about how the world matters to others.

So, in what sense do I call myself a cyber-utopian? Applying that admittedly ridiculous term to myself is a political act. As I tried to say in the piece Shannon is commenting on, there are political consequences to these labels. I am a utopian because (in my view) it is useful to The Struggle to be one. Utopians remind us that the opportunity in front of us is epochal, and keep us from settling for too little imagination and hope. But the good the Web can do will not happen automatically, as we sit passively on our couches and let the Web work its magic on us. It will only manifest itself if we work tirelessly. My utopianism, as I understand it, is a denial of the sort of technological determinism that Shannon criticizes me for.

But, when you come down to it, I am indeed optimistic about the change we’re going through. It’s not inevitably or purely good, of course. And Shannon is completely right that I do tend to overstate the positive and understate the negatives. I tell myself that I do that for political reasons — there are enough fear mongers, and if they get their way, the Web gets restricted in ways I don’t want — but it means that I’m often writing a form of polemics. We are living through a “transvaluation of values,” and at this stage I feel a need to push on the door that’s opening. That undoubtedly means I need to acknowledge the risks and dangers more than I do, but I still want us to push on that door until it’s all the way open.

Thanks, Shannon, for your post. Truly. [Tags: ]

4 Responses to “Utopianism: Threat or danger?”

  1. A conversation between two people across a table is rich in complexities and experience beyond the language used that in my opinion is more likely to elicit sympathy to other states of existence.
    The web can be considered a precursor to a far better world but it I think it is unlikely that the bulk of the value generated will be done within cyber interactions. The internet simply cant and may never be able to provide rich enough experiences to the senses to free minds.
    These types of experiences require conditions that can however benefit greatly from the higher levels of organisation the web provides us.

    Why do I feel like the above arguments (although I dont have time to read Shannons) dont allow for the moves into national and regional political spheres of organisation that are soon to be upon us. People will need to deal with opposing values face to face and ‘wicked’ problems will be the everyday of politics at the individual level (im hypothesising here). I am optimistic that the most successful ideas at this level will be linked to autonomy and opportunity not dogma.

  2. David,
    A nuanced, balanced and brilliant response, as usual. Thanks so much and I agree that we’re on the same side in this battle. You indeed caught me setting up a strawman for rhetorical demolition. Dramatic argumentation aside, however, the view you and I seem to share is that we need to be mindful our significant ethical responsibility when it comes to the web, without making the easily caricatured “scientistic” assumption that we exactly know what those responsibilities are.

    Anyway, keep it up and thanks for the thoughtful response. Great stuff.

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