by Sarah Hoyt
This last weekend I saw no less than two posts, both by people I consider sensible and occasionally brilliant, deploring the freedom of association and freedom of expression on the web.
Oh, that’s not what either of them thought he was deploring. One of them bewilderingly taking off from what sounds like a zombie outbreak in Florida (but was, apparently one of the run of the mill effects of taking certain drugs) lamented the possibility of people with really bizarre fetishes and perversions finding each other.
The other one, (which I now can’t find because I spent the weekend in a virus-induced haze reading everywhere, yes, even that site on how to make tinfoil hats) sounding like the lords of the dying press (all kinds of presses, fiction included) lamented that anyone can say anything on the net, and people will be attracted by “the most bizarre conspiracy theories.”
This is the part of the blog in which I must regretfully inform two columnists I respect that they’ve gone insane. The type of insanity is what I often refer to as “But it SHOULD be perfect.”
Let’s stipulate that the web will allow a lot of crazy people to get together. I know from crazy. I am a science fiction writer, with friends who are science fiction writers and the internet is a huge boon to us, allowing us to compare notes, to call someone with specific expertise, to commiserate and talk about our peculiar problems. Normally, to get the type of network I command at my fingerprints, I would have to live in New York City. And so would they. Oh, our forebears in the field made do with snailmail, but it was a slow and plodding business.
But Sarah – you say, once more taking your life in your own hands by talking back to me before I have enough coffee – that’s not what the columnist was talking about at all. When he talked about people with a rare perversion or fetish banding together he was talking about those real crazies who wish to eat human flesh or blend puppies into energy shakes.
I know what he was talking about. What I’m telling you is to back up – slowly, don’t go making sudden movements around me before I have caffeine – and look at the whole picture. Will the internet make it easier for that kind of absolutely repulsive crazy to get together? Of course it will. Easier, not “possible” because guess what? One of my hobbies is reading about very weird crimes (mostly because I look normal by comparison. I think. Or something) and people with the most bizarre fetishes and obsessions have been able to get together and indulge them since there has been mail, transportation, or large cities. Is it a reason to get rid of or control those things? No? Then why the net?
Well, because… easier. Yes, and? Look, what do you think the proportion of people wanting to eat someone else’s face raw is in the population? By which I don’t mean the people who will say “I’m so mad I could eat him raw” but the people who actually want to do it? One in two million? Five million? I doubt it’s more than that. So even if the internet facilitates their getting together our incident rate might grow to… four? Five a year?
But Sarah, you say – man are you chatty early – “Four or five a year is too many.” Maybe. What makes you think people who are that far gone from human norm aren’t doing it anyway, with unwilling strangers? How do you know it’s not “increased incidents” but “increased knowledge.” And while we’re at it, how do you know that getting together on the net and talking for hours about face-eating won’t prevent these people from doing it? The studies on this type of thing are murky. On one side, some people get pushed into it. On the other, some people will be perfectly content to discuss the proper circumstances to eat face and let out their obsession that way.
Which will it be? How can you know? And you do realize how tiny a proportion of the population we’re talking about either case, right?
Yes, but why should we allow it at all?
Because there is the flip side. And the flip side is very important. The flip side actually affects the lives of the majority of the people, the sanity of our policies, the health of the republic and the ability to be free.
And this is where I read, in some astonishment, the second columnist opining that the internet allowed people to go too far from “normal” – by which he meant going too far from group consensus – and fall down the rabbit hole of weird ideas. He thinks that the only upside of the internet is letting small groups, whose obsession is physics or some abstruse portion of chemistry to discuss it, but what about those groups that will use it to come up with some odd theory about public events, conspiracies, or history? Those people are tearing consensus apart and making us maaaaaaaaaad. Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaad!!!!!!!
Okay, that’s not what he said, exactly, but it’s what he implied. This was all the more baffling since this columnist is on the right, but is clearly longing for the days of uniform media where they each repeated each other’s story until people were afraid to think – let alone say – something that shattered the consensus. In my lifetime at least (maybe the columnist is older?) the consensus of the mass media – a consensus enforced in ways ranging from professional ostracism to professional disdain – has been at the very least “soft left.”
What do I mean they repeated each other’s story till people were afraid to think or say differently? Well, the columnist says as much in the column. If you came up with a different opinion people would tell you “you’re nuts” because it wasn’t something that was in the media – back when the media had gatekeepers. I’ll go further than he did and tell you that when the media had gatekeepers, entertainment had gatekeepers that read from the same missal. For that matter so did education, partly led by the fact that schoolbooks were slow and expensive to produce. They ALL echoed each other. If you put something into a novel world-building that went against the consensus of “what everybody knows” you couldn’t publish it. So novels, movies and all our entertainment also reinforced this concept.
Which means, of course, that we were kept sane and told the truth, because journalists and editors are always responsible, admirable people in the service of the greater good, right?
Sorry. I got a bit of irony stuck in my throat.
To begin your education, google Walter Duranty. Second go and find some popular entertainment from the early eighties. Not news, but fictional world building which was downstream from that. Mystery after mystery and, yes, science fiction after science fiction novel, explains how with Reagan in power we’d be a glowing crater. It would be the end of the world and the superior Soviet system would win. How was that fact checking and future analysis, then? While you’re at it, and in a nostalgic mood, go watch ANY television series from the nineties. Gee, those militias surely committed crimes. And they were all racist, white supremacist militias, too. You’d think there were several arrests of those per day in every small town and city, right? Would it surprise you to know that the white supremacist militias of the
sixties nineties never rose above the normal background noise they constitute in normal, civilized society? It wouldn’t surprise me. But then I actually knew people in the militia movement, and most of them leaned Libertarian and the one issue causing them worry was ONLY the fear their weapons would get banned. That was pretty much it. They liked the second amendment. But you should have tried saying that in the nineties. You’d have got “Are you crazy buddy? There was that thing in Waco. Oh, and the bombings in Oklahoma, and I see tv crime shows, and I KNOW– Say, if you’re saying that, you must be one of them.”
Want more? Get your favorite newspaper, or the newspaper of your town, go back and count the number of headlines in the last three years that announce the economy is recovering; no, it really is recovering; the economy is totally recovering; this time we mean it, the economy is recovering. It’s amazing with all this recovery that I’m sitting here writing this instead of out there, trying out my new Cadillac. More? Look up Fast and Furious, and tell me why it’s not in every newspaper throughout the land, twice a day and why the TV stations aren’t talking about it.
Conspiracy? Buddy, you don’t need a conspiracy when you’re in an industry with a few thousand people nationwide, where publishing something that goes against the current means when you get laid off there might not be another job for you. I know this. I am in one of those industries. I know how far I’m sticking out my neck. I know very well why I’m now working for only one publishing house, itself considered a pariah by the others. I always knew it. I was on the blogs for ten years under a cover so deep you couldn’t penetrate it, all the while maintaining a conventional persona for my editors and agents.
Yes, having news funnel through a small number of gatekeepers kept it uniform and built consensus. THAT was exactly what was wrong with it.
Did it keep devotees of UFOs and Space Invasions from falling down the particular rabbit hole of their own illusions? Sure it did. Kind of. Here’s the thing, people obsessed with something that odd have been in touch with each other for years. I know, because sometimes I have to research this stuff. (It’s a professional hazard.) As long as I’ve been writing, you could get that stuff – it might be in purplish mimeographed sheets, but you could find it and order it.
On the other hand, it kept people looking at headlines from saying “But I don’t think the economy is getting better.” It kept people looking at raw unemployment numbers from telling the less math-advantaged “Hey, there’s something seriously wrong with the way these numbers are tallied. I think real unemployment is closer to fifteen percent.” Because even if people came to believe they were right, what was the point? If they opened their mouths and said anything – oh, like, say, “the superdome during Katrina was NOT a haven of murder and rape” – people would think they were insane. If these things weren’t true, why would ALL newspapers say exactly the same?
THAT is what the precious “consensus” was keeping. Yeah, it might build a community (of the deluded) but it also made you lack the real data you needed to live in the real world.
At least it kept crazy ideas from circulating, though, right? Ideas that had no plausible basis in reality and in fact went against observed fact… Which is why the phrase Grassy Knoll has NO meaning in American pop culture.
Yes, the net is or can be wild. Yes, it might allow consensual cannibals to gather and do their thing. It also allows people like me and my colleagues to talk to each other and help each other to better plots or more plausible science in our books. It also allows people like me and my friends to have a social life and not feel like we’re out there on the fringes of thought and behavior alone, because we think reading about dinosaur digs is comfort-reading and we spend our spare time comparing two obscure medieval authors most people never heard of. There might be a danger in that. As I’ve said in the past, by allowing outliers to meet and marry other outliers, it might eventually lead to speciation (maybe) but in the mean time it leads to less human loneliness and misery.
Yes, the net can encourage conspiracy theories and little pockets of insanity to form. But most people have their own internal bullshit meter. I knew exactly the moment when the geology site I was reading for information on the climate of Pangea went off the deep end – it was when it talked about the spaceship full of intelligent dinosaurs who would come back and… How do I know that’s bullshit? Well, because it would require WAY too much silence from too many people who have nothing vested in keeping silent, including RETIRED NASA scientists. Also, it had nothing to do with the climate of pangea, which is what the rest of the page was about. And how many “films” of dragons or mermaids show up every week on you tube? Most people recognize the “grey cotton wool” look of faked or odd footage. Heck, so many people can tell photoshoped pictures that those get outed too, including a few put out by places like Iran. And if you think “oh, come on, Iran. No one would take them seriously anyway.” I’ll remind you our own CIA data – let alone what was published – exaggerated the financial (and demographic) health of the USSR right to the end. Because, you see, they were going off official figures. Anything else would be crazy.
But it also allows respectable, well thought out minority opinion to be heard, and to get in touch with people who will verify it.
Yes, the media and entertainment and even to an extent the scientific establishment before the net was cohesive and formed a beautiful picture. No one ever asked the disturbing questions such as “Since every packet of international aid is predicated on the population of the country, and since even in our own country we count people we think should exist… What makes us think that small, third world countries aren’t manufacturing statistics wholesale? What makes us so sure population is still climbing? Wouldn’t the world-wide economic crisis be consistent with a falling and aging population?” (Coff, not that I mean anything by those questions, of course.) And no one with better knowledge and more time ever set out to investigate and prove or disprove those crazy questions. So we never knew. Or rather, we knew a lot of things that just weren’t so.
But… what does it matter? Go read Puppet Masters. Devote sometime to the period labeled Masquerade. What you think you know can kill you faster than what you don’t know.
The Wild Wild Webs is wild – it is also uncontrolled, and therefore allows each individual to think for him or herself.
Knowledge is not just power. Real data is important to navigating times of catastrophic change, where knowing only false things might destroy you. For instance, if you know Amazon is evil, you might never read your traditional publishing contract closely enough. On the other hand, if you’ve read on a crazy site or two – say this one – what publishers have been slipping into contracts, you’ll read very closely indeed.
The lives we save might be our own.
Echoed over at According To Hoyt