Recently, I was visiting a friend’s house when a Michael Jackson song came on the radio and my friend said something interesting that I hadn’t really thought about before. He noted that, at the peak of Jackson’s fame, the releasing of one of his albums was a global event with a coordinated marketing campaign which meant that pretty much everybody in the western world and many parts of the non-western world would have known when a Michael Jackson album was released whether they liked his music or not. This is something the young people these days wouldn’t comprehend as they each have their own social media influencer or Youtube celebrity or whatever that they follow in much smaller sub-cultures than before. Even the most popular pop stars of today are only known to a subset of the population never the whole population like Jackson was. This observation got me thinking about a subject that I have been pondering for a while which is the impact of the internet on our culture. It seems to me this impact is not really discussed much anymore even though it is directly contributing to our current woes. One of the main changes wrought by the internet is the shattering of “grand narratives”. A Michael Jackson album release is one. But the pattern extends into other areas of the public discourse where its effects are far more important such as the narratives that hold countries together. As the corona event drags on interminably, there are those in the dissenter camp who still think the “narrative is about to crack” any day now and the “truth” will be revealed. This mindset from the old, pre-internet world is no longer valid in the world we live. There is no unifying narrative any more that is going to crack and be replaced by a better, more truthful narrative. Rather, there are now just a seemingly infinite number of sub-narratives with a dominant narrative imposed on top of the them. The dominant narrative is not necessarily truthful, just dominant. The emergence of the “conspiracy theory” label alongside the daily censorship that now happens on social media platforms are among a number of tactics that are now used to try and subdue alternative narratives in the hope of allowing a centralised narrative to form. But it never does for the simple reason that you cannot coerce people into believing a narrative. Narratives must evolve organically with a feedback loop between top-down and bottom-up. The increasing use of censorious tactics in the last couple of years reveals the underlying weakness of the dominant narrative. The powers that be have gone all out in attempting to hold together a narrative that itself doesn’t make sense as it is changed willy-nilly according to purely political considerations. It’s tempting to think the politicians are doing it on purpose with some larger objective in mind. But what if there is no larger objective? What if these tactics are simply what is required now to create any type of dominant narrative at all? What if these tactics are now the price you pay to create a narrative? If so, that price has gone through the roof. We can usefully call this narrative inflation. If you increase the supply of money, you get monetary inflation. If you increase the supply of narratives, you get narrative inflation. The price to create a dominant narrative has gone up for a number of reasons but one is that the internet opened the floodgates on the flow of information and allowed multiple alternative narratives to be created. This has created its own dynamic independent of the political and economic considerations that are also driving the trend. It may turn out that one of the consequences of allowing free and instant information is to destroy centralised narratives. There are good sociological and psychological reasons why this would be the case.
Eyewitness testimony has long been problematic for police trying to investigate an incident or crime. Even for something relatively straightforward like a car accident, where the eyewitnesses themselves have no personal stake in the story, accounts can diverge radically. Ten people witnessing a car accident can give you ten different stories of the crash. These problems are greatly exacerbated when the individuals involved have a vested interest in the case as often happens in criminal investigations. This eternal problem has been dealt with in numerous fiction and non-fiction works. The best non-fiction work I have seen about the subject is the documentary “Capturing the Friedmans” in which a school teacher is found to have child pornography in his home which leads to a series of events including him pleading guilty to sexually abusing some of his students. The documentary follows the motivations of those involved as rumour of the crime spreads in the local community creating its own dynamic as gossip and innuendo put enormous pressure of the family at the centre of the case. By the end of the documentary, we don’t know whether any of the official story is true as the lies and deceits create second and third order effects that distort the whole picture. This real-life account mirrors one of the best fictional representation of the problem, Akira Kurosawa’s movie “Rashomon”, in which a murder occurs in the forest but we hear radically different versions of the event told by the people involved (including, dramatically, the deceased). The philosophical question raised by both films is whether or not there can be found an objective standard of truth. This is a problem philosophers have wrestled with for millennia but it becomes a practical problem in cases involving crime where we want to see justice served and yet we have multiple, irreconcilable accounts about reality and seemingly no way to choose between them. At the end of the process, the system gives a verdict of guilty-not guilty and this is taken as the “truth” but is it really the truth?
With the internet, we have seen the same psychology applied to the public discourse and this has created practical problems for politics. Politicians love to divide the public where it suits their interest but it’s also true that they need to appeal to a foundation which unites the public. The process is similar to the justice system. Although there is disagreement and competition within the system, everybody must agree to play by the rules. The system itself is the thing people believe in. The public discourse which existed prior to the internet was facilitated through a system in which the media was known as the “fourth estate”. Its job was to hold government to account. Of course, this was not a perfect system but, as the saying goes, it seems it was better than all the others. It was certainly better than the system we have now where the media does not hold government to account at all and is little more than a public relations branch of the government. Recently in the New Zealand parliament, Jacinda Ardern was questioned about $55 million her government gave to media with certain conditions attached about what could be reported on. In Australia, the government waived the usual licence fee for the mainstream media channels back in March 2020. This amounted to around $44 million in subsidies. The theory was that this was needed because covid was expected to reduce advertising revenue, a strange claim given that the whole population was about to be locked at home with every incentive to watch the news. That measure came after the Australian government famously held Facebook and other big tech players to ransom and forced them to pay money to Australian media companies for content. Whatever the ethical dimensions of these issues, what lies beneath is the fact that the media companies are no longer viable businesses capable of existing without government support. Because they are now reliant on government money, their function as the fourth estate that holds government to account has also all but disappeared. That’s a problem for them but it’s also a problem for the government. The “official narrative” is transmitted through the legacy media. If the legacy media goes away, so does the narrative. Governments know that if the media disappeared, so would a large chunk of their power. The government needs the media as much as the media needs the government.
I would argue that the public also needs the media. It needs the media to act as its representative. That was the whole point of the Fourth Estate arrangement. The public paid for the media and that meant the media had an incentive to represents the readership’s interests. But that is all gone now. Some people think the public doesn’t really need the media. For almost any event, we are able to watch live video online now. Once upon a time we needed the newspaper to tell us the facts, but we simply don’t need that anymore. You might think that’s a good thing. We remove the middle man and allow the public to see events for themselves. But that introduces the same problem you have with eyewitness accounts which is that you get as many versions of the “truth” as there are people. The discourse becomes fragmented and the checks and balances that once held disappear. It’s a bit like having a crime investigation without a detective. “The system” can no longer control the discourse the way it previously could. This is not a trivial matter. It leads us back to one of Plato’s most dangerous ideas which is the Noble Lie. The idea goes that society cannot exist and justice cannot be served unless there are a number of lies which bind society together. Lie is, of course, a very strong word. We could soften it by calling them myths or ideals but the effect is the same. The myths and ideals are the glue that holds things together and, according to Plato, without them society will disintegrate.
Our post-internet public discourse provides some evidence for this assertion. It has become completely detached from reality or, to put it another way, it represents only one version of reality: the one that comes from the top-down. This process is especially advanced in the US. It hit a fever pitch with the Trump presidency and has not relaxed since. There are now at least two mutually incompatible narratives going on in the US meaning that agreement about the fundamentals which hold society together is called into question on an almost daily basis. It’s quite common to hear somebody on either side of the debate label somebody on the other side as “crazy” or “insane” and that is one manifestation of the problem. Within this new world, the idea that the “narrative is about to crack” doesn’t make sense. The dominant narrative is held in place by power, not by truth. By definition, the only thing that can “crack” it is another source of power. This was Trump’s genius. He hijacked the entire machinery that generates the narrative and turned it to his own purposes. But I think Trump was the end of the road. They got rid of him but in doing so they removed any last pretence that the narrative was “fair” or “truthful”. You can’t just delete the sitting President and then go back to normal as if nothing happened. As a result, a large proportion of the population no longer has any faith whatsoever in the system. That holds true no matter who is in power. The dominant narrative is now nothing more than the story told by those in power.
In Australia and much of Europe and Canada, we are just now catching up with the US. Here in Melbourne, more than a hundred thousand people marched against the government last weekend. The Premier’s response was to write them off as “thugs” and “extremists”. It reminded me an awful lot of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” moment. When politicians no longer feel like they need to accommodate the interests and opinions of a substantial proportion of the population you know the narrative is already fractured. Andrews may or may not get away with that politically for now but the protestors represent a new group in Australian public life; the ones excluded from the narrative. The same goes for the demonstrators in Europe who are simply ignored by the mainstream media. Because the public discourse no longer pretends to reflect reality, nobody really believes in it including the people who nominally go along with it. Deep down they also must know that it is fake. We are entering a time when even the idea of a centralised narrative is no longer believed in. If Plato was right, this fact alone is an existential threat to the state and it is understandable that the state would strive to fix the problem. But it’s almost certainly too late. All of the censorship and victimisation in the world won’t put humpty dumpty together again. Going forward I expect we’ll still have an “official narrative” but nobody will really believe it. That’s what is implied by the falling revenue numbers of the mainstream media channels. Will that lead to the disintegration of the state? Plato would have said yes. We may be about to test that theory.