The Perils of Our Virtual Reality
Defined physical communities are a bulwark against nationalization. Social media sees them as impediments.
Dear Reader (though not necessarily amateur rocket scientists),
When Margaret Thatcher (praise be upon her) passed away, the hashtag #Nowthatcherisdead took off on Twitter. And almost immediately, scores of people started freaking out about Cher’s passing.
I’m reminded of this story, which I thought was hilarious, because in the wake of Neil Young’s ultimatum to Spotify—“They can have Rogan or Young. Not both!”—“Who is Neil Young?” started trending on Twitter. Of course, a lot of the people saying “Who is Neil Young?” actually know who Neil Young is, they just wanted to dunk on Young or suck up to Rogan.
The brouhaha between Rogan and Young leaves me passionately ambivalent. On one hand, I feel like the world would be a better place if they settled this with broken pool cues with the Joker declaring, “We’re gonna have tryouts.” Of course, I don’t condone violence. Also, the tryout wouldn’t last very long. It would end in about 90 seconds with Rogan showing Young his still beating heart. “Doesn’t look like a heart of gold to me, old man!”
On the other hand, I agree with Young that Rogan’s anti-vax stuff is terribly irresponsible. I also think Spotify is perfectly within its rights to say, “Your terms are acceptable” to Young and show him the door.
The thing is, I’ve got more hands than the Hindu Goddess Gurda about the whole thing.
Sonny Bunch, much to my dismay, has the right take. “From a certain point of view,” the infamous defender of Alderaanian genocide writes, “this is an example of the system working well, protecting the rights of artists and the prerogatives of businesses alike. But we might stop for a moment and ask whether this is the system we want.”
He runs through a bunch of the other “hands” in this argument. And then the Sith sympathizer adds, “But this is, perhaps, an inevitable result of our flattened world and our existence within an eternally online state.”
So, like a totally innocent Alderaani family racing to an escape vessel as Sonny cackles, let’s use that as our departure point.
A brief primer on nationalism.
There are a lot of different kinds of nationalism—civic nationalism, ethno-nationalism, economic nationalism etc. And there are even more, often conflicting, definitions of these terms. But one thing they all have in common is nationalization.
I don’t mean in the economic sense—nationalized industry, socialized medicine etc. I mean the process of creating a recognizable and distinct nation.
Historically, the process of domestic nation-building requires a state; “These people and these places belong to us”—or, for a lot of monarchs and emperors, “they belong to me.” But it also requires some common denominators, chief among them language, ethnicity, and religion. The original German nationalists defined Germanness in overwhelmingly linguistic terms—the ethnicity stuff came later.
In other words, the forces of nationalization can come from above—the state—or from below—the people. But as a factual matter, it usually takes both.
James Scott, in his indispensable book, Seeing Like A State, persuasively argues that one of the chief projects of states is the process of making their citizens more “legible.” For instance, states hate nomadic tribes and other groups with no fixed address. So they make them stay put (this is called “sedentarization”). They also like to collect taxes, conscript soldiers, and generally to know where to find people and distinguish one individual from another. That’s how we got last names. In a sense, building a nation larger than a city-state involves some degree of imperialism—imposing uniformity on distinct communities, tribes, or whatever.
A lot of this has to do with economics. From the state’s perspective, the people are a giant warehouse of economic resources. And good inventory management requires knowing how many farmers, blacksmiths, soldiers, and potential soldiers you have on the shelves. That requires a tally of your inventory. And once you have a list of what you’ve got, you can also see what’s missing. This is where mass education starts. As farming becomes more efficient, the population grows, the share of the workforce dedicated to agriculture shrinks, and the need to find and fill more skilled jobs in bursting cities expands. This in turn fuels the need for even more legibility. And so it goes.
But for embryonic nation-states, education isn’t just about school stuff (“Wolfgang has 6 apples and gives 2 to Thor …”). It’s a cultural project. The state needs to explain to its own people why they owe it allegiance and, well, money. For instance, the Confederation of Germany, founded after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, was a league of some 39 sovereign states, each of which had its own distinct culture and subcultures, customs, and even dialects. It takes work to convince all of those Hessians, Prussians, and Bavarians that they are first and foremost Germans.
This effort had all sorts of legal and economic corollaries, eliminating internal borders, generating all sorts of paperwork denoting citizenship, and really putting teeth behind the concept of your “permanent record.”
This is also where nationalist ideologies come in. But I’m going to skip ahead.
The first thing to understand about 20th and 21st century progressivism is that it is thoroughly nationalist. The fact progressives don’t like the word “nationalism” doesn’t matter, and we can concede that progressivism today is not necessarily nationalistic in the ways progressives define nationalism.
But it is impossible to look at, say, the New Deal and not see it as a nationalist endeavor (a point the dean of New Deal historians William Leuchtenberg would not dispute). Federalism was a joke to the New Dealers. Industry and workers were conscripted into “industrial armies.” “At the heart of the New Deal,” writes William Schambra, “was the resurrection of the national idea, the renewal of the vision of national community. Roosevelt sought to pull America together in the face of its divisions by an appeal to national duty, discipline, and brotherhood; he aimed to restore the sense of local community, at the national level.”
Progressivism holds that the government in Washington should have undiluted authority to work its will—constrained to one extent or another by democratic legitimacy and respect for civil rights and liberties (particularly when they agree with how those rights are used). Read Biden’s inaugural speech again. It’s all about unity, American unity (he wasn’t speaking to Canadians after all). What is American unity other than a platitudinous euphemism for national unity? Or, simply put, nationalism? Read Obama’s second inaugural. In his vision, there are only two legible units in American politics: the government in Washington and the individual. No mediating institutions, no states, no churches, and no associations:
No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.
All of the hate tweeting that passes for argument against Florida these days boils down to the idea that states shouldn’t be able to set their own policies if those policies are at odds with those set by Washington. The progressive rage against the Supreme Court’s rejection of a federal police power to require vaccination is a nationalist’s rage. The bowel-stewing disgust at the idea the Senate should represent states is the disgust of a nationalist. The desire to federalize our election system is a nationalist desire.
The online state.
So what does all of this have to do with Sonny’s point? Again, he writes, “this is, perhaps, an inevitable result of our flattened world and our existence within an eternally online state.”
As a conservative, I’ve railed against the centralizing nationalism of progressivism for my entire professional life. It’s one of the reasons I think all of the new “nationalist conservatives” are so misguided. Yes, they’re fighting the left, but their strategy is to embrace the means of progressivism on the barmy assumption that this is the way to achieve (allegedly) conservative ends.
But there are other forces of nationalization that we tend not to recognize for what they are. Big corporations have historically pushed for national homogenization and centralization. National standards and weak internal borders are the cat’s pajamas for companies that want to maximize efficiency. The railroads, for instance, hated dealing with local jurisdictions—better to have one-stop-shopping for lobbying and bribery in Washington, after all. AT&T’s old monopoly was a nationalist nod to efficiency. Big business loved the New Deal and Wilson’s “war socialism.” Certain American Marxists like Gabriel Kolko, as well as old libertarian intellectuals like Murray Rothbard, had some important insights in their attacks on “corporate liberalism.”
That stuff is alive and well today. I assume you’ve seen these Facebook commercials. Aesthetically, they’re bizarre. Facebook employees sit down for one-on-one sessions with some nameless HR commissar type and explain why they desperately want the federal government to regulate Facebook. Others feature young, hip professionals—the sort of folks who might be freaked out about Cher’s demise—talking about how cool and modern new federal regulations would be.
But it’s not just the folks running Facebook. Facebook itself, Twitter, and all other social media platforms are forces of nationalization. The New Deal vision of creating a simulacrum of local community at the national (or global) level is at the heart of Facebook’s and the broader Silicon Valley crowd’s vision. What the hell is all this “Meta” and “augmented reality” crap if not a rejection of the idea that physical space—literally where you live—is an inconvenient barrier to be overcome?
And let’s not forget that the other part of the agenda is to make Americans ever more legible to the companies. Your data profile makes the “permanent record” my teachers threatened me with look like a toddler’s crayon drawing. When I look at China (where the distinction between the state and the private sector doesn’t exist and Tyler Durden dies on the way back to his home planet) and its Orwellian social credit score, I become evermore nervous about the idea of the U.S. government getting involved in social media regulation.
One of the greatest bulwarks against centralization and nationalization has always been the existence of defined physical communities—you know, towns, neighborhoods, whatever—that are beyond the easy or daily reach of faraway social engineers. Social media, by design, seeks to overcome these physical impediments.
And here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. We glimpse through the peepholes of Snapchat and Twitter at the wholly curated images of how people far away live and think we’re seeing something real or meaningful. We think chat room conversations are conversations, properly understood. We think we can know someone from a tweet. Nineteenth century pen pals had a better understanding of people far away than social media provides.
Does any of this foster a greater sense of community? Real community? Are livestreams of church services a remotely adequate substitute for in-person services? Maybe they’re a necessary alternative during a pandemic. But a substitute? Of course not. Just look at the damage that remote schooling does to kids. The virtual world is a pinched, two-dimensional realm that reduces the full gamut of human interaction to just a couple facets. I’ve never understood the appeal of online sex, but even if that’s your bag, you’re never going to convince me it’s an equally valid substitute for the real thing.
The funny thing is that the people most invested in the idea of homogenizing our politics and culture are often the ones most invested in social media. The Twitter socialists and Twitter nationalists spend all day owning each other, pointing out how people hither and yon live wrong, all the while deluding themselves that with one election, one change of the rules, they can impose their will across the whole of the country. But the only thing they’re succeeding at is making each other even angrier and causing their opponents to dig into their positions to the point where the opponents become existential enemies. Social media has been great for what Julien Benda called “the organization of political hatreds.”
I suspect Joe Rogan and Neil Young could have a great conversation, probably a heated one, in person. But their avatars or brands cannot abide being next to each other on a Spotify menu because of the antibody response to digitized nationalization.
Look, maybe technology will get to the point where the techno-astral plane is a real substitute for meat space. I doubt it. But in the meantime, this process of nationalization is simultaneously tearing the nation apart and encouraging the nationalists of all parties to just try harder.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: First, I want to apologize to Pippa, or at least to Pippa fans. Pippa herself doesn’t care what I tweet about her. I could compare Pippa to Bela Kun and she’d be fine with it so long as I kept rubbing her belly. But this comparison to perhaps the worst character in the Star Wars universe struck a lot of people as a low blow. Then again, I just got word that Pippa rolled in some Stygian foulness on the midday walk (I’m at the cigar shop). So maybe she is getting payback. This morning we had to put Lucy on a plane back to school and that meant everyone was up very early and luggage was ominously moved around. Zoë yelled at us in a riot of Aroos the likes of which I’ve never heard. Other than that, the girls are doing great with a great deal of silliness thanks to the cold weather. I do wonder what evolutionary function is triggered that says, “Cold weather? Snow? Let’s burn a lot of calories on pointless rough housing!”
And now, the weird stuff