The Decadent Society: Maybe the internet isn’t actually a force for change

I recently read (well, absorbed via Audible) The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat.  tl,dr (summary, not opinion):

We are stuck in a civilizational rut, and have been there since either the 1980s or early 2000s, depending on how you count.

  • Technological progress has stalled since the early 2000s.  We’ve made no meaningful progress on the “big” initiatives (space exploration, fixing aging, flying cars, or AI) since the 2000s. 
  • Culture has not really innovated since the 1980s.  New art is derivative and empty, movies are mostly sequels, music is lousy covers, etc.
  • Politics has entrenched into two static camps bookended by rehashed politics from the 80s (neoliberal free trade vs soviet central planning and redistribution) 
  • Even religion is fairly stagnant.  Splinter sects and utopian communes are creepy and usually turn into weird sex cults, but represent spiritual dynamism.  Their decline indicates a stagnation in our attempts to find spiritual meaning in life. 
  • A sustained fertility rate decline in the developed world either indicates, causes, or in an unvirtuous cycle reinforces risk-aversion in both the economic and cultural planes.

In summary: Everything kinda sucks, for a bunch of reasons, and there’s a decent chance we’ll be stuck in the self-stabilizing but boring ShittyFuture™ for a long, long time. The Decadent Society is not an optimistic book, even when it pays lip service to “how we can escape” (spoiler: deus ex deus et machina).

While TDS doesn’t really make any strong claims about how we got into this mess, Douthat suggests that fertility declines, standard-of-living comforts, and the internet act as mechanisms of stasis, holding us in “decadence”. I want to talk about the last one — the internet.

Revisited opinion: the Internet might not actually be a net force for change

My pre-TDS stance on the internet as a force for social change was:  

“The internet is a change accelerator, because it massively increases the connection density between individuals.  On the bright side, this can accelerate scientific progress, give voice to unpopular but correct opinions, and give everyone a place to feel heard and welcome.

But the dark side of social media is an analog to Slotin and the demon core — Twitter slowly turns the screwdriver, carefully closing the gap between the uranium hemispheres for noble reasons, but sooner or later Dorsey will slip and accidentally fatally dose all onlookers with 10,000 rad(ical)s of Tweet poisoning.

Traditional society (with social pressure, lack of information transmission fidelity, slow communications) acted as a control rod, dampening feedback and suppressing unpopular opinions, for better or for worse, but are irrelevant in 2020.  Net-net, the world moves faster when we are all connected.”

TDS disagrees, contesting (paraphrased, only because I can’t grab a quote from Audible): 

“No, the internet is a force against social change.   Instead of marching in the street, rioting, and performing acts of civil disobedience, the young and angry yell on Twitter and Facebook.  Social media is an escape valve, allowing people to cosplay actual social movements by imitating the words and energy of past movements without taking actual risks or leaving home. 

But entrenched political structures don’t actually care what people are yelling online, and can at best pay lip service to the words while changing nothing.  While a lot of people get angry, nobody actually changes anything.”

The presented evidence is:

  1. The core topics of online debate haven’t really changed since the 1980s.  The left is still bookended by socialists and political correctness, and the right bookended by neoliberalism and reactionary religion.
  2. Non-violent protests, (marches and sit-ins) while not uncommon, are sanctioned, short, safe, and more akin to parades than true efforts at change.  No movement is even close to akin to Martin Luther King Jr’s march on Washington.
  3. Un-civil acts of disobedience (rioting, unsanctioned protests, bombings, etc) are nearly non-existent, even among radical groups, by historical standards.

(this is a short and summarized list, but the book obviously fleshes these points out in vastly greater and more effective depth)

The last point is at first take difficult to square with BLM protests, Occupy Wall Street, and occasional Mayday riots.  Media coverage makes them feel big.  But as Ross Douthat points out, in 1969, there were over 3,000 bombings in the United States (!!!), by a variety of fringe and radical groups (ex, the Weather Underground, the New World Liberation Front and the Symbionese Liberation Army). Even the tiniest fraction of this unrest would be a wildly radical departure from protests of the 2020s, and would dominate news cycles for weeks or months.

On the nonviolent side, the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam-war movements were driven to victory by public demonstrations and mass protests.  Popular opinion and voting followed enthusiastic-but-minority protests and acts of nonviolent civil disobedience (ex, Rosa Parks).

Conclusion: activists in the 1960s, 70s and 80s engaged in physical, real-world acts of resistance, in a way the protests of the 2010s do not.  Why?  Suspect #1 is the internet: would-be activists can now use the internet as a safety-valve for toxic (but fundamentally ineffective) venting. But instead of these voices instigating social change, the voices stay online while the speakers pursue safe, uneventful daily lives.

I’m not 100% converted.  The magnifying glass of social media does change behavior in meaningful, conformist, ways, and I don’t think we’ve reached the endgame of internet culture.

But put in the context of the radical (or at minimum, society-transforming) movements America experienced every decade until the 2000s, TDS makes a compelling case that the ease of yelling online without leaving home comes at a hidden cost — real-world political change.

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