On November 8th, we held our second seminar on Institutional Irrationality—an exploratory discussion of the various trends and developments that may be driving our present period of institutional decline. Here are a few of my own reflections.
Is Liking Reality a Privilege?
One common critique of modern culture is that it allows too many people to “opt-out” of reality. With the average American spending more than 5 hours each day on mobile phones, when does hyper-connectivity become a bad thing?
As Marc Andreessen expressed in a recent interview, to ask this question might be the surest sign of privilege
A small percent of people live in a real-world environment that is rich, even overflowing, with glorious substance, beautiful settings, plentiful stimulation, and many fascinating people to talk to, and to work with, and to date. These are also *all* of the people who get to ask probing questions like yours. Everyone else, the vast majority of humanity, lacks Reality Privilege -- their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world.
I admit he could be onto something here. Those for whom life is most fortunate are often blissfully unaware of how much suffering exists, even in relatively prosperous parts of the world. What seems like a trivial distraction to you and me may be a soothing balm to those living lives of quiet desperation. For the most powerless and isolated in society, access to social networks and the unlimited diversions of the internet may even take on the gravity of a human rights issue.
But while the internet certainly can provide a great deal of relief and even a measure of community to those who are struggling, I can’t help but feel that it has also displaced more substantive sociality in some measure. 27% of adult Americans are now estranged from a close family member and religious participation is in pronounced decline.
Some may object to using the strength of family and church community as measures of social cohesion. Might these old-fashioned and arguably stifling forms of community be giving way to freer and more fulfilling ways of coming together? A look at the less controversial measure of friendship suggests this is not the case.
As ever more opt out, the larger culture is damaged. The culture begins to fragment back into pieces. The disconnect can be profound; an American anime geek has more in common with a Japanese anime geek (who is of a different ethnicity, a different culture, a different religion, a different language…) than he does with an American involved in the evangelical Christian subculture. There is essentially no common ground—our 2 countrymen probably can’t even agree on objective matters like governance or evolution!
In December 2017, Spencer Sleyon met up with a friend he had gotten to know while playing an online version of scrabble. He was a 22 year old black man from Harlem and she was an 81 year old white woman living in a Florida retirement community, yet there was “no hint of awkwardness” upon seeing each other for the first time.
Stories like this illustrate the promise a digital world represents for many techno optimists. Online platforms can diminish the importance of many boundaries that separate people in the “real” world such as age, race, and geography in a way that facilitates learning, tolerance, and personal growth. As these powerful technologies take hold, might we expect greater unity to follow as a result?
While hyper-connectivity greatly reduces the distance between any two given people, it also allows for greater selectivity in whom we interact with than ever before. Children who would have played with kids in their neighborhood in previous generations now play videogames with friends they meet online. If the local sermon doesn’t quite mesh with your views on pressing social issues you can find an online bible study more to your liking. Should the people around you not share your affinity for anime, you can scout for someone who does on Reddit. In each case advanced search technologies enable you to “match” with someone much more similar to you than you could have found on your own.
To be sure these connections provide real value to those doing the matching, but there is also a kind of market failure here. Because sophisticated algorithms and costless search allow individuals to efficiently capture most of the benefits from the matching process, they invest less time and effort in building cohesion in the broader community. Your teenage son may well enjoy playing Halo with his online friends more than getting to know the kids in the neighborhood, but their parents aren’t likely to invite the whole family over for dinner. Over time, this technology enabled culture of matching results in cohesiveness only within small subgroups while the larger society suffers.
Enthusiasts and Strivers
As this trend of cultural fragmentation progresses, one group seems to have followed the opposite trajectory. Arnold writes,
We used to have differing realms of elites: politicians, business titans, academicians, journalists, and celebrities varied in their backgrounds, beliefs, and attitudes. Now, they all share the same class outlook. They are trained at the same universities, and in some respects they have become interchangeable.
Why are elites consolidating? In The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen describes two distinct groups of people who differ primarily in their approach to matching.
The enthusiasts have niche tastes, and some of their happiness comes from finding other people who share those passions, whatever they may be… [they] are not trying to come out ahead of everyone else; rather, they seek to have some of their niche preferences fulfilled for the sake of their own internally directed happiness.
The competitive strivers are driven less by their interests than by their drive to win in whatever context they find themselves. These are the people who strive to have the biggest office, bed the most mates, earn the most money, or climb whatever else the relevant status ladder may be. There is a finite amount of whatever they are striving for at a given moment, everyone knows more or less what it is, and lots of other people want it.
As enthusiasts withdraw from the larger culture, what remains becomes an increasingly zero-sum competition for status and power. The internet has created an environment in which elite strivers face constant risk of becoming embroiled in scandal or displaced by an unknown upstart while ultimately finding it very hard to be satisfied with anything short of nationwide prominence. For those who crave being at the top of the heap, the only relevant standards have all become global rather than local, and marrying your high school Prom Queen isn’t going to cut it.
The intense pressures of this environment lead elites to match in their own ways, whether it be through assortative mating, manipulating college admissions, settling in Super Zips, or embracing an ever-changing lexicon of woke shibboleths.