I still wonder how much we can blame on the Internet, and how much correlation may indeed in this case be mistaken for causation… Because extremism — particularly revanchist white-nationalist type extremism in the Eurosphere — is on the rise during the same decades that the Internet became ubiquitous, should we assume the one is a result of the other?
Extremism is hardly new. Bigotry, hatred, persecution are hardly new. In fact they seem pretty retro. The desire to punish or exterminate anyone “different” goes back a long way, maybe even to our primate roots. Long before the internet, before widespread literacy, humans were burning each other alive (literally) in England over questions of religious belief. The formation of armed camps, the appropriation of political power by armed camps, the abuses that result, are attested throughout history.
What might be more worth studying are the periods when such abuses diminish in scale and severity. The Convivencia, the “modern era” which now appears to be fraying a bit around the edges, the period of peace and prosperity on the shores of the Black Sea documented by Ascherson, “golden eras” of various kinds in various times and places… it seems to me worth considering how such periods of stability and mutual tolerance come about. It is not always because some superpower of the time established a “Pax Romana” by armed force and horrific collective punishment. Sometimes it “just happens;” and if we understood why, that might be a good start on encouraging more humane outcomes today.
The literalist in me wants to say that periods of peace and mutual tolerance stem simply from “technical advances plus plentiful resources.” Comparative anthro seems to suggest that the most peaceful people in the world are (a) those living a pre-industrial life in small bands in scarcity biomes like the !Kung, and (b) those living in advanced social-democratic nation-states like Iceland, Sweden, Norway. On the wide spectrum in between tribal solidary amid austerity, and “civilised” bureacracies seeking Benthamite optima — in times where there is enough natural bounty to support accumulation but not enough will or political sophistication to share for the sake of justice and/or stability — we seem to get various forms of authoritarianism (warlordism, feudalism, totalitarianism). And societies which once enjoyed relative peace and plenty, but are now gripped by drought, war, resource depletion — in these, people’s expectations are out of synch with their new reality and that seems the most dangerous situation of all.
America today strikes me as almost a textbook case of a resource-extraction society that once fed hugely on plentiful natural bounty, but is now seeing that wealth dry up. Topsoil, water, petroleum, wood, fish… you name it, North America’s natural wealth has been gobbled up at high speed and is now thinning out. To intensify the mix, the FDR New Deal policies that mitigated severe inequity in the 30’s have been slowly whittled away until inequity has reached levels not seen since the 1920s. Now add the advanced information and transport infrastructure that makes it easy for businesses to relocate manufacturing and service ops overseas, seeking the cheapest labour and the laxest regulatory environment; and to that, add the steady advances in robotics and automation which have rendered many “ordinary working stiff” jobs obsolete (and more are being automated every year, and the automation is starting to reach into white-collar territory).
So… the prosperity/security that was a reasonable expectation for (at least the Anglo) American working class, and even the plentiful menial jobs that were available to the lower-working-class, have dried up and blown away. The resource extraction that provided so many jobs has “streamlined,” hypercapitalised and mechanised to require as few human hands as possible (compare MTR with early C20 mining). The resources themselves are running low. In a sense, N America is a country gripped by drought (of capital), war (of the rentier class against everyone else) and resource depletion; in coming years, large sections of it may be gripped by drought of the literal kind as well. So the unease, simmering discontent and occasional outbursts of rage that we are seeing today seem to me adequately explained by these trends. There’s nothing like disappointed expectations to get people riled up.
That said, the Internet does enable communication between like minds on an unprecendented scale. I’ve written elsewhere (“Clickbait” article) that the Internet is village gossip on steroids, and does dangerously feed our social confirmation bias. But to blame the Internet, to finger it as the evil influence behind all today’s unrest, rage, and revanchism I think is too easy. Do we blame the printing press for the witch craze in Europe, and the mass murders that resulted? Certainly it was an enabling contributor; but technology is always an enabling contributor to everything that technological humans do — that’s practically the working definition of technology :-) There’s an old saying dear to my heart: “It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.” Blaming the Internet for the social instability we are witnessing offers us a free pass on acknowledging (let alone contending with) all the other trends that are contributing to precarity, want, disappointment, and anger.