Remain Calm: Why the Western World is Disintegrating

This post originally appeared at Heft, May 28, 2017.

On October 13, 2015, an optimistic article in the Global Future of Work was published on the internet by Brazilian editor Gustavo Tanaka. The post itself, an eight point listicle brimming with ideas, caught the attention of many readers (7.3k likes on Medium alone to date). Entitled “There is Something Extraordinary Happening in The World”, Tanaka expounded on the eight reasons why he believed our world was headed in a good direction and changing for the better.

As a self-proclaimed newly “freed” man from “standard-procedure society”, life now granted him his own perspective to see a much greater picture; one which embodied a globe of people working toward and seeking a sort of new wave enlightenment; world citizens sick of our dated employment model, of consumerism, troubling schooling trends, unhealthy eating, and cutthroat individualism.

Although unsure when exactly I caught this story scrolling through my Facebook feed, its message at the time—a hopeful promise of togetherness resolve—appeared to be the one many needed. In this “age of accelerations”, as Thomas L. Friedman put it in the title of his book, an epoch where everything is hastily changingat times literally overnight (like the ongoing political thriller that is our current reality)it was nice for some of us to find a post whose message indeed implied a happy ending to this whirlwind transition to perhaps inevitable globalization. And of course, at the center of the narrative, lay this transition’s main impetus: the ubiquitous Internet of Things.

“The internet is an incredibly spectacular thing and only now, after so many years, we are understanding its power. With the internet the world is opened, the barriers fall, the separation ends, the togetherness starts, the collaboration explodes, the helping emerges.”

Tanaka goes on to cite the Arab Spring as social revolution made possible by the internet, and how Brazilians are “just starting to make a better use out of this amazing tool.”

“Internet is taking down mass control. The big media groups controlling news by how it suits best what they want the message to be and what they want us to read are no longer the sole owners of information. You go after what you want. You bond to whomever you want. You explore whatever you may want to. With the advent of the internet, the small is no longer speechless, there is a voice. The anonymous become acknowledged. The world comes together. And then the system may fall.”

The system, which we can confidently pin down as capitalism, appears to be the overarching, central problem Tanaka is etching at. The mass free-market enterprise keeping us from his projected utopia.

And looking back, 2015, overall, did seem like an uphill climb. We experienced huge advancements in social justice and equality like the Supreme Court ruling of same-sex marriages, the growing protests and awareness of Black Lives Matters amidst continued police killings, the promotion of gender equality and fair pay in Hollywood, Caitlyn Jenner introduced herself for the first time on the cover of Vanity Fair. Heck, even an ongoing U.S. Justice Department investigation began after the May raid of a Zurich Luxury Hotel with hopes of cracking down on the dirty money dealings of FIFA, world soccer’s administering body.

With so many good things happening, progressives could hardly stop to foresee the world developing outside of their own filter bubbles, instead following a prevailing narrative that often took the form of Facebook posts inciting moral outrage.

With 2015 came a real sense of hope to cling on to. For many, the good was outweighing the bad. And although the year entailed a better future for many of us, this speedy transition was happening at a time where others were feeling alienated. The users on the other side of the algorithm; a spectrum of working-class people left behind. One man’s steady climb toward utopia would prove to be another man’s forming dystopia; a resentful backlash which would come in the form of 2016, the year we saw history unmade.

We live in a social media world where practicing scrutiny, and a lot of time plain cruelty to one another, is perpetually normalized.

In contrast to one of Tanaka’s main points, within the last five or six years, social media — predominantly Facebook — has been involuntarily playing a part in the steady erosion of Western values.

The social network may seem like a perfected virtual reality: a free market of information. In truth, the site’s intricate use of algorithms makes it quite unlike any public forum. This has led to a dramatic change in news distribution as well as in financial control.

What we consume on Facebook is made possible by the interests of its investors; groups who now indefinitely control the viewership of many. Although repercussions continue to mount, we have experienced a reshaping of the public sphere, leading to a significant loss of confidence in regards to civil discourse. Has our democracy sadly been compromised?

We live in a social media world where practicing scrutiny, and a lot of time plain cruelty to one another, is perpetually normalized. Common goals are fleeting as the Western narrative lay under threat by a society of people increasingly polarized on important things such as national issues.

To paraphrase what David Brooks wrote in his New York Times article “The Crisis of Western Civ, the significance of civil discourse laid down the framework for what we know as stewardship, a great need to abide by property rights, and a priority for the public to not to be controlled by theocracy. Brooks explains that over decades ago, many began to reject the Western civ narrative, instead opting to teach it as a long history rife with oppression. Particularly in academia, a momentous change in vocabulary rewrote the culture machine, leading the way for various weak points to unravel and be sought after by those truly seeking to undermine Western values. The era of strong men is upon us.

Putin, El-Sis, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump, and most recently, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. We appear to be entering a stage of widespread authoritarianism; a time where we as US citizens get to witness the heightening of what Dr. Cornel West has been calling for many years, “the gangsterization of America”.

Brooks also expounds the collapse of centrist parties. If not for Macron’s electoral win in France, the European Union and NATO, Europe’s main liberal institutions, would have undergone an immediate crisis. The victory of En Marche!, a shot in the dark compared to other center-left/center-right parties which struggle to survive, having catered to a certain democratic capitalism with which Western civ tends to lean on. Though the situation appears to have momentarily de-escalated, many of Europe’s other centrist parties, mainly the Labor Parties of Britain and the Netherlands, however, continue to cave-in. It’s high time for fringe parties. And if recent occurrences in Turkey were any indicator of an alarming trend, the country’s distrust in joining the European ideal presents a scenario in favor of majoritarian autocracy.

Even Ann Coulter, a far-right social commentator who this year published “Let’s Make Russia Our Sister Country!”, has recently criticized Donald Trump over his fascist-like hiring of family members. America is being run by a mercantile clan, the likes of which parallel with already-established regimes around the globe; dictatorships which are increasingly becoming more rocky and unpredictable. Are democracies no longer the inevitable future? Our country is on lockdown. We appear to have all been taken hostage. Donald J. Trump, in running for president, has defied every norm of statesmanship. And with all our incredulous thoughts regarding his legitimacy in office, we have done very little to defend a democracy collapsing from within.

There are liberal values at stake. The students who shout abuse at speakers on college campuses. To bring up Ann Coulter once more, who was forced to cancel an appearance at UC Berkeley due to safety concerns. An alarmist graph published in the Journal of Democracy by The New York Times shows young people’s faith in democracy is declining. Although the graph went on to be criticized by the Washington Post for its “selective presentation of data”, it still presents a troubling trend, if true. If we are to continue to paint the Western civ narrative as oppressor, we run the risk of forgetting the despotism that comes without it.

This year, at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, much of the talk was considerably geared toward climate change. In 2015, however, the tensions were made clear. The weight of the geopolitical order was beginning to cave, leaving business experts and CEOs reminded of how susceptible global markets are to political activity. It is remarkable to consider that our modern geopolitical order, which was set up after WWII and fervently embraced by China, the Soviet Union, and many others after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has led us to a period of multicausal destruction.

Some attention was given to the rolling rise of China, a country becoming more ambiguous with relation to Western power, and more truculent with its neighbors in the Pacific. Russia, today, continues to play the role of disruptor. The Middle East remains as chaotic as ever, an area riddled with calamitous remaking. The world order continues to break down.

Throughout human history, Authoritarianism, believe it or not, has been the norm. Autocracy in China and Russia has lasted longer than any Western democracy. With concern to our current geopolitical environment, what will replace our world system if and when it collapses?

Western promise has been our only blueprint on how to live “the good life”. The next step was globalization and interconnectedness. During the Clinton administration, a global economy, as it was happening then, seemed more abstract; an abstraction made clear to the ruffled feathers of the establishment as movements of more and more people became rumored invading hordes. Forget free markets, forget free people. To not refer to the history of populism is a reduction which overlooks the mounting resentments which have brought us to this strange place of disintegration. This past election animated the reality that globalization isn’t the way: that multiculturalism isn’t possible. We’re just not all meant to get rich and happy together. The division and fighting continue.

Facebook is but one part, albeit a massive part, of our global economy. Our choices online play an active hand in reshaping public thought. Each log in an unconscious invite to a limitless questionnaire. Math implementations of Big Data economics have magnified the consequences of human error. These algorithms are flawed and erode the solutions to the problems they were made to resolve.

When something is shared online, it generates interest. This, in turn, prompts the algorithm to find similar content to show users. Some posts are benign enough; your friend’s family photos or how-to cooking videos. In other feeds, lie posts of more obscure origins; a clickbait article with a compelling headline may lead some to dubious terrain. With every click behind the screen is a data scientist, hoping to prolong your user visit. Your likes and comments, whether grade material or not, are eventually used to compile more and more data which can be packaged to sell advertisements.

This isn’t to imply that Facebook hasn’t tried ways to better screen content for levels of accuracy in truthfulness, thereby improving ad standards and recognizing its important role in influencing communities, especially the young. In January of this year, the company enacted and announced the Facebook Journalism Project. In an attempt to crack down on clickbait, the social network also has hopes of connecting its users with more local news. In any future case, for as long as content on Facebook engages people, the use of our data will ensure the site’s longevity. What’s next for the company may be advancements made in examining our very neuroscience.

In future elections, political campaigns will seek you out for support. They will know whether you’re open to new experiences, how well you perform in areas of life, how social or outgoing you are, how considerate or neurotic you may be.

The bleak reality of microtargeting is having a profound effect on our election results. Facebook earned over $1 billion in ads this last election cycle. This was largely due to the data-collecting techniques of the privately held company Cambridge Analytica. The firm managed to collect the profiles of 40 million voters and was especially proficient in launching a campaign of ads which targeted and discouraged potential Clinton voters from heading to the polls; an advancement in amassing demographics so effective, it successfully mapped the psychometrics of certain groups through means of the “big five” personality test.

In future elections, political campaigns will seek you out for support. They will know whether you’re open to new experiences, how well you perform in areas of life, how social or outgoing you are, how considerate or neurotic you may be. They will invade your Facebook feed. They may generate “dark posts” to send to you in an attempt to manipulate and change your voting behavior.

All in all, social media has allowed ourselves and varying entities to measure social standing. What brings us together is steadily driving us apart. It started as a silent friends list competition (“I have more friends and followers than you do.”) and has transformed us into a large map comprising digital islands; each one, its inhabitants, living in its own reality, divided among the rest.

And the psychological toll this is having. Research shows that social networks are especially associated with habitual self-comparisons, a factor contributing to negative well-being. The only thing curbing this affect would be the adrenaline-inducing likes, comments, and shares one can earn online. We are populations of addicts, looking for our next fix in media attention.

Is there hope that this can all change? Probably not..

Mark Zuckerberg can’t shut down Facebook. The money runs too deep. Even an outlet as reputable as the New York Times depends heavily on the social network for revenue and news distribution.

With regard to American democracy, however, there is hope. The Trump-Russia investigation continues. On Friday, we have learned via the Washington Post that Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, and senior adviser, was said to have discussed the prospect of establishing a “secret communications channel” with Russian Ambassador to Washington Sergey Kislyak. This comes after reports that former FBI director James Comey acted on Russian intelligence during the Clinton probe that he knew was fake.

The truth may soon reveal itself. If there’s one immediate and universal truth in all of this, it’s that things change very quickly. In order for our democracy to survive in these fast times, it needs a well-informed public. With hard-hitting facts come the bombardments of fluff.  We need to be well aware of what politicians think and want for us. It may become crucial for us to spend less time on Facebook, and our smartphones, in order to achieve that. Many of us Americans grow up in sequestration. It’s important to log off and engage with the community at large. Once civility and community weaken, a vicious cycle takes hold.  We must learn to disagree and enjoy making it work. The American experiment isn’t over just yet.


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