Weekend Edition: Blaming the tower, forgetting about the architects
What Jonathan Haidt's "Tower of Babel" essay on the last decade in America oversimplifies and where it might could invite us to go.
The conversation about the connection between our modern media systems and the disruption of our civic life is getting louder. President Obama has given two major addresses about it in the last two weeks. We all feel the dysfunction of a public sphere that is not working for us, and there is more and more energy at work on actually doing all the things needed about it. I remain certain that we can redesign these systems that are making us less healthy, less safe, and weakening our social community bonds rather than building them, that we can rediscover the optimism we held for how greater connectivity could unlock a new era of transparency and participation and stronger democratic cultures. That said, the responsibility modern media companies especially the giants of social media is certain. However, it is not absolute.
Jonathan Haidt is a significant social psychologist well-known for developing the Moral Foundations Theory (TED Talk; primary text). MFT helps explain in-group and out-group psychology and attempts to explain psychological motivations for ideology in modern society. The theory has garnered a lot of attention over the last few years as people clamor for ways to explain our partisanship. And despite its elegance and clarity, like pretty much all theories trying to explain exceptionally complex human community and modern politics, it is imperfect and has found its critics including this one centered on the disconnection with established evolutionary cooperation and on this one that suggests a correlation but not causation between personality and ideology.
In the last week, Haidt’s latest thinking in an essay in The Atlantic has been making the rounds and getting a lot of attention. (It's worth the read, and I'll be here when you're done.) In something of an extension of a 2019 essay, he doubles down on the connections between the last dysfunctional decade of American life and the pressures of social media. Others including Micah Sifry on Medium have pointed out the problem with casting what is ailing us too narrowly — pointing out that social media is only one weight we are experiencing among all sorts of anti-social dysfunction from exploding income inequality to rejecting democratic norms. Despite Haidt’s long-held focus on the moral foundations of social behavior, he spends so much effort on the effects of the systems, he misses the chance to dig at their foundations. Underlying these systems — what he refers to as our new Tower of Babel — is a culture of innovation built on a particular political economy defined by a specific moral worldview that gave birth to them.
Ultimately, many of Haidt’s conclusions are right about social media itself —especially its compounding effects on the other factors of social friction and fissure. But without attending (kind of ironically) to the underlying moral principles at work in the designers who created the tools and in the culture that imbued them, Haidt leaves us stuck in painkillers-versus-cures territory. Without going deeper, it is hard to know where to begin other than ameliorating the symptoms.
Our media systems are optimizing for what we should expect of systems geared toward maximizing growth and profit, designed around efficiency, and built on acceptable exploitation and the externalization of unintended consequences. The goal here is not just to critique Haidt, but to take his essay as a starting point rather than a too-simple explanation for all that ails us. An invitation to see that each of these assumptions that our media systems are optimizing for come from some where. Those assumptions are choices and reflect the moral foundations of the civilization that makes them. And those foundations are what mostly desperately need inspection.
Because story creates culture and culture defines the norms and expectations of our social contract, storytelling is an expression of power and community will. Media systems are the tools and networks we rely on to tell, to discover, and to consume the stories that help us express that power and discern our world. Ours, Haidt’s Tower, are indeed deeply flawed, but so to the designers and the civilization they represent. We ought to do what we can to ameliorate the dysfunction and out-right cruelty of our modern systems including social media immediately, but we ought to engage in that work while taking a longer view at how we built what we rely on, and how we can build something fundamentally different. Systems rooted in elevating and optimizing for genuine community. A regulatory environment that guides innovation and creativity toward what is best for all of us and not just for wealth expansion. Business models centered on human flourishing, value creation, and a respect for equilibrium. The assumptions underneath these systems are the cultural air we breathe and as such they are incredibly difficult to recognize. But without seeing them clearly, inspecting them, questioning them, recognizing them as choices we make and stories we hold onto together, our transformation will remain limited to less cruel — and never amount to more.