The Titans of Tech

I reprint this article in full with citation from Quillette. The tone might sound a bit strident, but the warning signals pointing to a form of 21st-century feudalism are real. We’re seeing this in the CA housing crisis today and in the divergence in wealth and incomes since 1980, driven by cheap credit and technology. The oligarchs of tech have been able to leverage their wealth to dominate entertainment and information. They have set their sights on politics and the ideological politics of the tech industry are particularly disturbing and contradictory to its genesis in free-market entrepreneurialism.

You see, the idea here is to socialize the costs of wealth concentration and information centralization, using politics to buy off the unwashed masses who provide the raw material for their business models. Makes one feel good with noblesse oblige of the oligarchy, using the middle class’s money though.

Success can go to the brain.

What Do the Oligarchs Have in Mind for Us?

June 18, 2019

By Joel Kotkin

There seems to be no good reason why a thoroughly scientific
dictatorship should ever be overthrown.
~Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited

The recent movement to investigate, and even break up, the current tech oligarchy has gained support on both sides of the Atlantic, and even leapt across the gaping divide in American politics. The immediate concerns relate to such things as the control of key markets by one or two firms, the huge concentration of wealth accruing to the tech elite and, increasingly, the oligarchy’s control over and manipulation of information pipelines.

What has not been discussed nearly as much is the end game of the oligarchs. What kind of world do they have in mind for us? Their vision of what our society should look like is not one most people—on the Left or Right—would like to see. And yet, unless unchecked, it could well be the world we, and particularly our children, will inhabit.

Almost 40 years ago, in his book The Third Wave, the futurist Alvin Toffler described technology as “the dawn of a new civilization” with vast opportunities for societal and human growth. But instead we are lurching towards what Taichi Sakaiya has called “a high-tech middle ages.” In his landmark 1973 work, The Coming of Post-Industrial SocietyDaniel Bell predicted that, by handing ultimate economic and cultural power to a small number of technologists and financiers the opportunity to monetize every aspect of human behavior and emotion, we would be handing them the chance to fulfill “a social alchemist’s dream: the dream of ordering mass society.”

The New Aristocracy

Like the barbarian princes who seized control of western Europe after the fall of Rome, the oligarchs have captured the digital landscape from the old industrial corporations and have proceeded to concentrate it in ever-fewer hands. Like the Medieval aristocracy, the ruling tech oligarchy—epitomized by firms such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft—have never produced a single coherent political manifesto laying out the technocratic vision of the future. Nevertheless, it is possible to get a sense of what the internet elite believe and, more tellingly, to see the outlines of the world they want to create.

This tiny sliver of humanity, with their relatively small cadre of financiers, engineers, data scientists, and marketers, now control the exploitation of our personal data, what Alibaba founder, Jack Ma calls the “electricity of the 21st century.” Their “super platforms,” as one analyst noted, “now operate as “digital gatekeepers” lording over “e-monopsonies” that control enormous parts of the economy. Their growing power, notes a recent World Bank Study, is built on “natural monopolies” that adhere to web-based business, and have served to further widen class divides not only in the United States but around the world.

The rulers of the Valley and its Puget Sound doppelganger now account for eight of the 20 wealthiest people on the planet. Seventy percent of the 56 billionaires under 40 live in the state of California, with 12 in San Francisco alone. In 2017, the tech industry, mostly in California, produced 11 new billionaires. The Bay Area has more billionaires on the Forbes 400 list than any metro region other than New York and more millionaires per capita than any other large metropolis.

For an industry once known for competition, the level of concentration is remarkable. Google controls nearly 90 percent of search advertising, Facebook almost 80 percent of mobile social traffic, and Amazon about 75 percent of US e-book sales, and, perhaps most importantly, nearly 40 percent of the world’s “cloud business.” Together, control more than 95 percent of operating software for mobile devices, while Microsoft still accounts for more than 80 percent of the software that runs personal computers around the world.

The wealth generated by these near-monopolies funds the tech oligarchy’s drive to monopolize existing industries such as entertainment, education, and retail, as well as those of the future, such as autonomous cars, drones, space exploration, and most critically, artificial intelligence. Unless checked, they will have accumulated the power to bring about what could best be seen as a “post-human” future, in which society is dominated by artificial intelligence and those who control it.

What Do the Oligarchs Want?

The oligarchs are creating a “a scientific caste system,” not dissimilar to that outlined in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian 1932 novel, Brave New World. Unlike the former masters of the industrial age, they have little use for the labor of  middle- and working-class people—they need only their data. Virtually all their human resource emphasis relies on cultivating and retaining a relative handful of tech-savvy operators. “Software,” Bill Gates told Forbes in 2005, “is an IQ business. Microsoft must win the IQ war, or we won’t have a future.”

Perhaps the best insight into the mentality of the tech oligarchy comes from an admirer, researcher Greg Ferenstein, who interviewed 147 digital company founders. The emerging tech world has little place for upward mobility, he found, except for those in the charmed circle at the top of the tech infrastructure; the middle and working classes become, as in feudal times, increasingly marginal.

This reflects their perception of how society will evolve. Ferenstein notes that most oligarchs believe “an increasingly greater share of economic wealth will be generated by a smaller slice of very talented or original people. Everyone else will increasingly subsist on some combination of part-time entrepreneurial ‘gig work’ and government aid.” Such part-time work has been growing rapidly, accounting for roughly 20 percent of the workforce in the US and Europe, and is expected to grow substantially, adds McKinsey.

Of course, the oligarchs have no more intention of surrendering their power and wealth to the proletariat than the Commissars did after the 1917 revolution in Russia. Instead, they favor providing what Marx once described as a “proletarian alms bag” to subsidize worker housing, and provide welfare benefits to their ever expanding cadre of “gig” economy serfs. The former head of Uber, Travis Kalanick, was a strong supporter of Obamacare, and many top tech executives—including Mark Zuckerberg, Y combinator founder Sam Altman, and Elon Musk—favor a guaranteed annual wage to help, in part, allay fears about the “disruption” on a potentially exposed workforce.

Their social vision amounts to what could be called oligarchal socialism, or what the Corbynite Left calls “fully automated luxury communism.” Like the original bolshevist model, technology and science, as suggested by billionaire tech investor Naval Ravikant, would occasion “the breakdown of family structure and religion” while creating the hegemony of a left-wing identity-centered individualism.

Life in a world dominated by these oligarchs would depart from the model of democratic and competitive capitalism that emerged over the last half-century. Rather than hope to achieve upward mobility and the chance to own property, the new generation will be relegated largely to the status of rental serfs. For the next generation, this promises a future not of upward mobility and owned houses, but of rented apartments and social stagnation. Here in California, Facebook is leading the drive to vastly expand this kind of housing, where the serfs and technocoolies can lose themselves in what Google calls “immersive computing.”The poor, most of whom simply want opportunity, will be relegated to permanent dependent status.

The World They Are Creating

To get a preview of the society the oligarchs want to create, the best place to look is where oligarchal domination is most complete. Wired magazine’s Antonio Garcia Martinez has called Silicon Valley “feudalism with better marketing.” In Martinez’s view, the new aristocratic class is an “Inner Party” of venture capitalists and company founders. Well below them is an “Outer Party” of skilled professionals, well paid, but forced to live ordinary middle-class lives due to high housing prices and high taxes. Below them lies the vast population of gig workers, whom Martinez compares to sharecroppers in the South, “…with the serfs responding to a smartphone prompt rather than an overseer’s command.” Further below still lie those who constitute, in Martinez’s phrase, “the Untouchable class of the homeless, drug addicted, and/or criminal.”

California, and particularly the Bay Area, already reflects this neo-feudal reality. Adjusted for costs, my adopted home state suffers the overall highest poverty rate in the country, according to the US  Census Bureau. Fully one in three welfare recipients in the nation live in California, which is home to barely 12 percent of the country’s population, while a 2017 United Way study showed that close to one in three of the state’s families are barely able to pay their bills. Today, eight million Californians live in poverty, including two million children. Roughly one in five California children lives in deep poverty and nearly half subsist barely above that.

For all its protestations of progressive faith, the Golden State now suffers one of the highest GINI rates—the ratio between the wealthiest and the poorest—among the states. Inequality is growing faster than in almost any state—it now surpasses that of Mexico, and is closer to that of Central American banana republics like Guatemala and Honduras than it is to developed countries like Canada and Norway. There’s even the return of medieval diseases such as Typhus tied to the growing homeless encampments. We could soon even see the return of Bubonic plague, although the mainstream media seems to be ready to blame this, like most ills, on climate change as opposed to failed social policy.

Urban website CityLab has described the tech-rich Bay Area as “a region of segregated innovation,” where the rich wax, the middle-class wanes, and the poor live in increasingly unshakeable poverty. Some 76,000 millionaires and billionaires call Santa Clara and San Mateo counties home. At the other end are the thousands of people who struggle to feed their families and pay their bills each month. Nearly 30 percent of Silicon Valley’s residents rely on public or private assistance.

As recently as the 1980s, the San Jose area boasted one of the country’s most egalitarian economies. But in the current boom, cost-adjusted wages for middle class workers, Latinos, and African Americans in Silicon Valley actually dropped. Many minorities labor in the service sector in jobs such as security guard, for around $25,000 annually, working for contractors. There’s ever-greater segregation of minority and low income families, workers forced into mobile home parks or sleeping in their cars, as well as some of the nation’s largest homeless encampments. According to the Brookings Institution, in the last decade, increasingly tech-dominated San Francisco has suffered the most rapid growth in inequality while the middle class family heads towards extinction.

Needed: An Alliance of Progressives and Conservatives against the Oligarchy

Americans, enamored of the entrepreneurial spirit, were initially slow to see in the tech oligarchy a threat to the future of the republic. But public skepticism, notably in California, towards the tech lords is growing; many on both sides of the political divide see them much like modern versions of the gilded age mogul, successfully playing the political system to avoid regulation, anti-trust action, and taxes.

Yet overcoming the oligarchs will not be easy. Far more than the old industrial giants, they enjoy unprecedented sway through their manipulation of the information pipelines, as is widely evidenced in de-platforming of largely conservative voices on outlets such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Nearly two-thirds of readers now get their news through and their dominance among younger generations is, if anything, more overwhelming. As the Guardian put it: “If ExxonMobil attempted to insert itself into every element of our lives like this, there might be a concerted grassroots movement to curb its influence.”

To this influence, they have added control over what is left of the traditional media they have helped to undermine. Often getting bargain basement prices, the oligarchs have been able to buy up prestigious outlets, including the New Republic in 2012, the Washington Post in 2013, the Atlantic in 2017, and Time last year.

In the coming political storm, the oligarchs will also retain some supporters on both the Left and Right, all aided by a huge, growing, and politically hermaphroditic lobbying operation. Some California progressives have backed the oligarchs on privacy and Senator Kamala Harris, one of the leading Democratic contenders, has gained widespread support from the oligarchs. Meanwhile, on the Right, some libertarians at places like the Wall Street Journal and conservative think-tanks, continue to defend the oligarchs as the rightful winners of dogged economic competition.

But these well-placed defenders may not be enough to fend off regulatory assaults, particularly as more people recognize how the world being created by the tech elites offers little promise for the middle class, democracy, or free thought. Rather than the saviors many once saw, the oligarchs now represent a clear and present danger to the most basic foundations of our democracy. Resisting them represents the great imperative of our era.

Joel Kotkin is a Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017).

What’s Goin’ On…

This essay by Victor Davis Hanson is worth reprinting in full (with citation). Our current politics is so focused on the Trump phenomenon that people miss the fact that this all started long before Trump set his sights on the POTUS. Trump is a symptom, not a cause.

We may all have laudable goals for society, but it matters how we attain them.

Why Are the Western Middle Classes So Angry?

What is going on with the unending Brexit drama, the aftershocks of Donald Trump’s election and the “yellow vests” protests in France? What drives the growing estrangement of southern and eastern Europe from the European Union establishment? What fuels the anti-EU themes of recent European elections and the stunning recent Australian re-election of conservatives?

Put simply, the middle classes are revolting against Western managerial elites. The latter group includes professional politicians, entrenched bureaucrats, condescending academics, corporate phonies and propagandistic journalists.

What are the popular gripes against them?

One, illegal immigration and open borders have led to chaos. Lax immigration policies have taxed social services and fueled multicultural identity politics, often to the benefit of boutique leftist political agendas.

Two, globalization enriched the cosmopolitan elites who found worldwide markets for their various services. New global markets and commerce meant Western nations outsourced, offshored and ignored their own industries and manufacturing (or anything dependent on muscular labor that could be replaced by cheaper workers abroad).

Three, unelected bureaucrats multiplied and vastly increased their power over private citizens. The targeted middle classes lacked the resources to fight back against the royal armies of tenured regulators, planners, auditors, inspectors and adjustors who could not be fired and were never accountable.

Four, the new global media reached billions and indoctrinated rather than reported.

Five, academia became politicized as a shrill agent of cultural transformation rather than focusing on education — while charging more for less learning.

Six, utopian social planning increased housing, energy and transportation costs.

One common gripe framed all these diverse issues: The wealthy had the means and influence not to be bothered by higher taxes and fees or to avoid them altogether. Not so much the middle classes, who lacked the clout of the virtue-signaling rich and the romance of the distant poor.

In other words, elites never suffered the firsthand consequences of their own ideological fiats.

Green policies were aimed at raising fees on, and restricting the use of, carbon-based fuels. But proposed green belt-tightening among hoi polloi was not matched by a cutback in second and third homes, overseas vacations, luxury cars, private jets and high-tech appurtenances.

In education, government directives and academic hectoring about admissions quotas and ideological indoctrination likewise targeted the middle classes but not the elite. The micromanagers of Western public schools and universities often preferred private academies and rigorous traditional training for own children. Elites relied on old-boy networks to get their own kids into colleges. Diversity administrators multiplied at universities while indebted students borrowed more money to pay for them.

In matters of immigration, the story was much the same. Western elites encouraged the migration of indigent, unskilled and often poorly educated foreign nationals who would ensure that government social programs — and the power of the elites themselves — grew. The champions of open borders made sure that such influxes did not materially affect their own neighborhoods, schools and privileged way of life.

Elites masked their hypocrisy by virtue-signaling their disdain for the supposedly xenophobic, racist or nativist middle classes. Yet the non-elite have experienced firsthand the impact on social programs, schools and safety from sudden, massive and often illegal immigration from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia into their communities.

As for trade, few still believe in “free” trade when it remains so unfair. Why didn’t elites extend to China their same tough-love lectures about global warming, or about breaking the rules of trade, copyrights and patents?

The middle classes became nauseated by the constant elite trashing of their culture, history and traditions, including the tearing down of statues, the Trotskyizing of past heroes, the renaming of public buildings and streets, and, for some, the tired and empty whining about “white privilege.”

If Western nations were really so bad, and so flawed at their founding, why were millions of non-Westerners risking their lives to reach Western soil?

How was it that elites themselves had made so much money, had gained so much influence, and had enjoyed such material bounty and leisure from such a supposedly toxic system — benefits that they were unwilling to give up despite their tired moralizing about selfishness and privilege?

In the next few years, expect more grassroots demands for the restoration of the value of citizenship. There will be fewer middle-class apologies for patriotism and nationalism. The non-elite will become angrier about illegal immigration, demanding a return to the idea of measured, meritocratic, diverse and legal immigration.

Because elites have no answers to popular furor, the anger directed at them will only increase until they give up — or finally succeed in their grand agenda of a non-democratic, all-powerful Orwellian state.

(C) 2019 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is The Savior Generals from BloomsburyBooks. You can reach him by e-mailing author@victorhanson.com.

The World’s Greatest Procrastinator: ADHD?

The inspiration for my book, Saving Mona Lisa. From the Smithsonian:

New Study Suggests Leonardo da Vinci Had A.D.H.D.

Despite his global fame, Leonardo da Vinci’s reputation as an artist is based on just 20 paintings still known to exist. While a few works have been lost or possibly destroyed over the centuries, there’s another reason we have so few genuine works by the master: the Italian artist was notorious for beginning and never completing artworks. He toiled on plans for the Sforza Horse, intended to be the largest cast bronze sculpture ever, off and on for 12 years before abandoning it. A commissioned mural of the Battle of Anghiari was plastered over when the master painter failed to complete the work. Some researchers even believe the Mona Lisa is unfinished, something mentioned by Leonardo’s first biographer.

Looking at the scant details of his life and his penchant to procrastinate and abandon artworks, two neuroscientists have presented a possible reason for Leonardo’s behavior in the journal Brain. They suggest that the artist may have had Attention Deficit and Hyperactive Disorder (A.D.H.D.).

“While impossible to make a postmortem diagnosis for someone who lived 500 years ago, I am confident that A.D.H.D. is the most convincing and scientifically plausible hypothesis to explain Leonardo’s difficulty in finishing his works,” co-author Marco Catani of King’s College London says in a press release. “Historical records show Leonardo spent excessive time planning projects but lacked perseverance. A.D.H.D. could explain aspects of Leonardo’s temperament and his strange mercurial genius.”

In the paper, the researchers report that while Leonardo dedicated “excessive” time to planning out his ideas, his perseverance waned when it came to executing them. “Leonardo’s chronic struggle to distill his extraordinary creativity into concrete results and deliver on commitments was proverbial in his lifetime and present since early childhood,” they write.

In fact, in a biography of famous sculptors and painters, the first to include information about Leonardo, Giorgio Vasari writes an almost textbook definition of A.D.H.D.:

“in learning and in the rudiments of letters he would have made great proficiency, if he had not been so variable and unstable, for he set himself to learn many things, and then, after having begun them, abandoned them.”

When Leonardo was older and began apprenticing in the workshop of painter Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence, his inability to execute became more apparent. There, he received his first commissions, and though he planned the works extensively, he ultimately walked away from them. In 1478, he received his first commission as a solo painter for an altarpiece in the Chapel of San Bernardo. Despite taking an advance of 25 florins, Leonardo did not deliver.

This may explain why Leonardo stayed in Verrochio’s workshop until the relatively advanced age of 26 while other painters set off on their own. When he left the atelier, it wasn’t as a painter, but as a musician working for the Duke of Milan.

When the Duke of Milan finally let Leonardo go after 20 years of service, the artist wrote in his diary that he had never finished any of the many projects the Duke had commissioned from him. Even the pope got on his case; after working for the Vatican for three years he was dismissed by Pope Leo X who exclaimed, “Alas! this man will never do anything, for he begins by thinking of the end of the work, before the beginning.”

Novelist and contemporary Matteo Bandello, who observed Leonardo during the time he worked on The Last Supper, provides one of the few glimpses we have of these work habits:

“I have also seen him, as the caprice or whim took him, set out at midday, […] from the Corte Vecchio, where he was at work on the clay model of the great horse, and go straight to the Grazie and there mount on the scaffolding and take up his brush and give one or two touches to one of the figures and suddenly give up and go away again”

Besides these biographical tidbits, Emily Dixon at CNN reports there are other signs of A.D.H.D. Leonardo is known to have worked continuously through the night, alternating cycles of short naps and waking. He was also left-handed and some research indicates he may have been dyslexic, both of which are associated with A.D.H.D. At age 65, Leonardo suffered a left-hemisphere stroke, yet his language centers were left in tact. That indicates that the right hemisphere of his brain contained the language centers of his brain, a condition found in less than 5 percent of the population and prevalent in children with A.D.H.D. and other neurodevelopmental conditions.

While this study may feel like a slam dunk diagnosis, Jacinta Bowler at ScienceAlert cautions that these type of postmortem diagnoses are alway problematic. That’s because, in many cases, medical professionals don’t have the skills to properly critique or place into context historical documents and may interpret things incorrectly. And anecdotes, short biographies and diary entries are no substitute for a direct examination.

Graeme Fairchild of the department of psychology at the University of Bath tells Dixon at CNN that diagnosing Leonardo with A.D.H.D. could be a positive. It shows that “people with A.D.H.D. can still be incredibly talented and productive, even though they might have symptoms or behaviors that lead to impairment such as restlessness, poor organizational skills, forgetfulness and inability to finish things they start,” he says.

It also highlights the fact that the disorder affects adults too, not just children as some think. “For many people, A.D.H.D. is a lifelong condition rather than something they grow out of, and it certainly sounds like Leonardo da Vinci had major problems in many of these areas throughout his life,” says Fairchild.

Leonardo recognized his difficulties with time and project management and sometimes teamed up with other people to get things done. But he also beat himself up for what he saw as his lack of discipline. Even at the end of his life, he regretted his failures and reportedly said “that he had offended God and mankind in not having worked at his art as he should have done.”

Catani tells Kate Kelland at Reuters that Leonardo could serve as the poster child for A.D.H.D., which in the public mind is often associated with low IQ or misbehaving children. He says there are many successful people with the problem, and they can be even more successful if they learn how to manage or treat the disorder.

“Leonardo considered himself as someone who had failed in life – which is incredible,” he says. “I hope (this case) shows that A.D.H.D. is not linked to low IQ or lack of creativity, but rather the difficulty of capitalizing on natural talents.”

In fact, recent research indicates that adults with A.D.H.D. are often more creative than those without, giving them a leg up in certain fields.

Tweet, Tweet, Twitter…

Obviously, it is a way to hear about news and opinions. It also helps us to manage FOMO, the fear of missing out on trends and memes and fun things our friends are doing. And it gives us a chance to self-promote and virtue-signal.

I repost this article in full because I think it makes very good points about what people are doing on Twitter and why. Focusing on social behaviors and instincts helps us understand where social media needs to go. Republished from The New Atlantis:

The Emergent Order of Twitter

Why the platform should be fixed from the bottom up, not the top down

Andy Smarick

When a set of arrangements is making people miserable, coercion is often a big part of the explanation. Think of authoritarianism, discrimination, or vigilantism, where individuals suffer because of conditions they can’t change, imposed by others possessing power.

But in some cases, incentives, not coercion, are to blame. This happens often in markets and in personal relationships — and it’s true also of Twitter. The environment is such that free people, making individually rational decisions, harm themselves and the group as a whole, creating suboptimal but — paradoxically — highly stable outcomes. History, economics, psychology, and sociology are rife with examples. Or, looking to game theory, we might say that Twitter is a dilemma in which we are all prisoners.

When misery is caused by coercion, the solution is typically straightforward: Stop those with illegitimate power from hurting people. But when misery is caused by voluntary activity, the proper intervention is less clear. Respect for liberty generally requires avoiding the use of a central authority — whether the state or Silicon Valley algorithmic overlords — to override the lawful, morally permissible choices of individuals. Even when there is general agreement that peoples’ choices are causing damage to themselves or others, authorizing an authority to intervene also means authorizing it to decide what the right outcomes are, what constitutes enough social “damage” to justify intervention, what kinds of penalties should be applied and when, and so on. State authorities, when granted such power, may well go on to claim they’ve found negative externalities warranting suppression of people’s choices in other areas — how they spend their income, where they live, which organizations they join, how they raise their children. There is always a technocrat, a redistributionist, or a “nudger” convinced that the world would be much improved if her learning and sense of justice could replace everyone else’s.

No one is forced to use Twitter. It is a mess founded on voluntary choices. So, although it may be doing harm to individuals, degrading public discourse and social norms, we should begin by appreciating that its users must be currently assessing that their participation provides them greater benefits than costs.

A fruitful approach might therefore not be to bemoan Twitter’s downsides or to infringe upon individuals’ liberty to speak and associate in this way, but to start by understanding what the utility is that keeps people on the platform. We may then appreciate that Twitter is bound to change — perhaps even to fix itself — as users change their assessment. Our aim should be to seek not engineering or policy solutions but a gradual, organic transformation of the platform by the users themselves.

What benefits does Twitter offer its users? Obviously, it is a way to hear about news and opinions. It also helps us to manage FOMO, the fear of missing out on trends and memes and fun things our friends are doing. And it gives us a chance to self-promote and virtue-signal. Although these are usually derogatory terms, they can also simply acknowledge that we have a need to be recognized for our worth and to be seen as on the side of the angels. Many journalists and other content providers are also under pressure by business managers to prioritize “engagement,” which manifests in everything from clickbait headlines to provocative content to engaging directly, if often pointlessly, with users on social media. Twitter also serves as a virtually cost-free venting mechanism, catharsis at the fingertips. Your fury can be decompressed almost instantaneously with nothing but a few keystrokes.

These benefits have a common feature. They all enable us to feel like we matter — that we are part of something, that we’re being heard, that we’re on the right side. In an era of profound dislocation, Twitter offers something resembling community. We can find our tribe and our anti-tribe. We can speak and get a reaction. By simply typing a few words and hitting “tweet,” we are given voice. With every reply, like, retweet, and new follower we are given a sense of efficacy. The prospects of our meme or witty retort going viral offers us the potential of mattering a great deal.

Unfortunately, with Twitter the costs of bad behavior are generally delayed or are felt by individuals other than the actor: It’s the target of the outrage mob rather than the instigator who loses her job; the full consequences of destroying social norms are only felt far down the line. So the typical user’s short-term cost–benefit analysis approves more tweeting and fails to warn against Twitter’s anti-social use.

Of course, we make many of our decisions in less analytical and more impulsive ways, especially when we are feeling anxious, disconnected, or under assault. Splurging on that pricey item, yelling at a friend, or relapsing into an addiction doesn’t make sense in the long term, but by a calculation in the moment it does make sense, when the benefits feel so immediate and exaggerated, and the costs so abstract and distant. Similarly, our hunger for meaning and connection is so acute in this historical moment that we inflate social media’s immediate gains and discount its future costs.

However, because so many users have had years of experience with Twitter, its corrosive consequences, once far on the horizon, can now be felt by many of us. We have witnessed its depressive and isolating effects, and we have seen how it harms relationships and civil discourse. We should recognize the platform’s trouble with profits in recent years as a lagging indicator of its social costs.

The good news is that, because voluntary systems allow for a gradual, evolutionary process of self-reform, we can expect that behavior on Twitter may improve on its own.

Voluntary associations, unlike systems of coercion, include participants’ right of exit. Those engaged can disengage at any time and for any reason. Second, norms and traditions are highly malleable, since they are not encoded in legislation. Dissenters can arise at any moment to challenge them. The shifting views and actions of countless individuals then continuously remold the communities and systems of which they are part. Consider customs related to manners, courting, chivalry, child-rearing, and so on. These didn’t change suddenly or at the direction of a central authority; shifts were organic and gradual, but their influence was systemic in scale.

So while great attention has been paid to Twitter’s official terms of use and its enforcement thereof, the more important and lasting changes will almost certainly be brought about by individuals’ changes in behavior resulting from their recalibrated cost–benefit analysis. Twitter will change as some users drop out and others decide to reshape its norms of conduct — both actions that lead users to make ever new assessments about how to use Twitter, and whether using it at all is worth it.

There have already been high-profile examples of fed-up media figurespoliticians, and celebrities quitting Twitter. These instances of exit are likely to be bellwethers, not outliers: Other users will likely follow suit, and this could cause a cascade. A platform with fewer users and less attention offers the remaining users less voice, efficacy, and sense of community. The benefit part of the cost–benefit ratio will drop — which will make remaining users less willing to bear the costs, perhaps decreasing their willingness to tolerate bad behavior.

Gradual changes in norms on the platform could lead to even more significant improvements in the average Twitter user’s experience. For instance, there is currently a clear incentive to join a mob vilifying someone who has done something you find objectionable. Doing so is virtually costless to the participant, and it can contribute to the effort to get the offender chastened or fired. But a change of certain norms might well produce a new sense of proportion. People might become less willing to offer gut-wrenching public apologies for minor infractions, and employers might become more willing to privately admonish and forgive transgressors. If so, the wind would be taken out of the mob’s sails. Similarly, if Twitter users begin reprimanding those who dredge up a public figure’s embarrassing tweets from when she was 14, that practice could disappear. Or, if journalists agree to stop engaging with anyone disrespectful or anonymous, disrespect and anonymity could decrease.

A social-media community is not an institution, a forced or planned entity instituted by a powerful authority. It is more like a garden; it forms organically and with decentralized tending, but not centralized direction. The path to altering an institution is clear: Whatever powerful device, such as legislation or regulation, that was employed to bring it about can be employed to change it. Organic formations, on the other hand, emerge through voluntary responses to conditions and incentives. And they evolve because of voluntary responses to changes in these conditions and incentives. If we want Twitter and social media to change, we need to approach the problem more like gardeners, not engineers.


Andy Smarick (@smarick) is the Director of Civil Society, Education, and Work at the R Street Institute. He has tweeted more than 55,000 times.

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