The World Got a Lot Like the Internet
Updated: May 2
This is chapter one of my forthcoming book, and corresponds roughly to podcast episodes 25, "The World Is a Lot Like the Internet", and #28, "Suburban Holy War".
Technology and Political Psychology Have Entered a Strange Feedback Loop, Making the 2020s the Authoritarian 1960s
I grew up in a lot of different places, and in pretty much all of them I encountered a guy who was too racist to eat Chinese food. The repetitions were uncanny: I would be in someone's house where a woman was trying to serve tacos or Chinese food or something, and her husband would get angry, maybe say something like: “My buddy Jim didn't die over in Vietnam so I could eat this shit.” At that time, exploration and self-expression, as such, were markers of a divide. People were so shocked and enraged by things like blue mohawks that they assaulted such deviations from aesthetic norms on sight. In many places, this was a central aspect of what it meant to participate in counterculture, to always be at war with those who punished the strange.
Now everyone in North Dakota has a blue mohawk, and as far as I can tell too-racist-to-eat-Chinese-food guy is gone. He has been replaced by a guy who wants a border wall but also vapes DMT, who is screaming for new cosmologies that will return us to primal unity with the the fundamental cruelty of existence, a guy who loves when the marionberry lemon weed candy hits at exactly the moment he sits down to laugh his way through a compilation video of fatal traffic accidents.
Shamans have been called the first truly socially differentiated persons (Levi-Strauss 1963). In his book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Eliade (1964) describes shamans, in the Eurasian context from which the term derives, in ways that conspicuously resemble art weirdos in mass societies, back when we had art weirdos: cross-dressing, sexually deviant, vocationally committed to bizarre behavior, subject to arresting visions that translate into elaborate performance art, unusually intelligent, intentionally divergent from the social norms, and prone to staying awake all night and wandering around experiential realms others don't.
When one reads these accounts of the relations between shamans and their societies, in many cases it is apparent there is tension of a familiar variety. Think of the way lots of languages have words for 'left' that have a constellation of meanings like magic and clever, but also evil and strange and weak and gay (Mandel 2011). There's a deference in traditional societies for their weirdo visionaries, an understanding that what they see must be respected, but often also a skepticism and hostility, afforded social deviants in all times and places. Along the trajectory from the kinds of societies that have shamans to the one we live in now, there were more or less weirdos, but being one was always a choice that involved tension, was accompanied by hardships, and reflected deep difference. Now there is no real normalcy to deviate from, and pretty much everyone stays up all night doing bizarre things to put on the internet.
This is a recent development, and it fundamentally reframes sociopolitical conflict. One of the core findings of political psychology, durable across methods and theories, is that variation in political outlook is related to variation in preference for established behaviors and traditional cultural forms vs. novel behaviors and social change:
… political conservativism is an ideological belief system that consists of two core components, resistance to change and opposition to equality, which serve to reduce uncertainty and threat. The idea is that there is an especially good fit between needs to reduce uncertainty and threat, on one hand, and resistance to change and acceptance of inequality, on the other, insofar as preserving the status quo allows one to maintain what is familiar and known while rejecting the risky, uncertain prospect of social change. The broader argument is that ideological differences have psychological roots: stability and hierarchy generally provide reassurance and structure, whereas change and equality imply greater chaos and unpredictability. (Jost et al. 2007)
This characterization has many converging lines of evidence in its favor. It is one of those interesting cases where the fact that substantially different models are used to assess something actually helps make a case about what it is. If, from a wilderness of different theoretical starting points, the same conclusions are repeatedly reached, it probably doesn't mean nothing.
There is nothing more characteristic of a political disagreement than a lack of a shared vocabulary, and politics is notable, even in an age of avid commitment to mutual incomprehension, for a particularly bewildering lack of consensus definitions for its terms, even the major ones like left and right, even among academics (Bitton 2020). Thus, those who wish to study the psychology of the left-right divide—or the liberals-conservative divide, which is interchangeable to some, including most political psychologists, but has radically different meanings for others—find themselves defining what it is in the first place. Carney et al. (2008) quote a few descriptions of the meaning of right-wing from major theoretical contributors throughout the years, all of which describe aversion to novelty and experimentation: obedient, conformist (Adorno 1950); rigid, intolerant (Wilson 1973); conventional, ordinary (Altemeyer 1998); restrained, inhibited (Block and Block 2006).
A widely-cited meta-analysis of questionnaire-based research into the psychological predictors of political orientation—encompassing 88 samples from 12 countries, totaling over 12,000 cases—concluded that the central meanings of left-right (or actually liberal-conservative, which they essentially use synonymously) are two: variations in perceptions of hierarchy, and of social change. The psychological variable of openness to new experience, from the Big Five personality inventory, is strongly predictive of more egalitarian political orientations, as is uncertainty tolerance, whereas a psychological variable called needs for order, structure, and closure predicts a more hierarchical worldview (Jost et al. 2003).
Psychological constructs characteristically have the feel that these do: it seems clear that they are measuring something real, but also the way they are conceptualized is important and encompasses a wide range of possibilities. Scores on one psychometric have complex intercorrelations with others, and it is easy to see in the three traits described above—openness to new experience; uncertainty tolerance; and needs for order, structure, and closure—an obvious conceptual unity. This reflects the fact that the authors are surveying literature employing different theories and terminologies, but also that any given psychological framework measures interrelated and overlapping traits whose boundaries and meanings are not definitive.
A particularly fascinating case of this variation in how traits are described, which also provides another converging line of strong evidence in favor of right-wing meaning aversion to change and novelty (or conservativism, which is after all what the term literally means), comes from research into the personality of school children, which was correlated with their political orientation in adulthood. The personality evaluations performed in childhood were done with a set of metrics called the California Child Q-set, which contains a large number of trait descriptions. Some of those that correlated with egalitarian adult political outlook are: autonomous, curious, rebellious, and exploring. Some of those that correlated with hierarchical adult political outlook are: inhibited, constricted, and uncomfortable with uncertainty (Block and Block 2006).
We will examine a much more evidence that a central meaning of right-wing is aversion to change and novelty, and generally for a cross-species correlation between hierarchy and behavioral rigidity. For now, let us briefly note that behavioral rigidity reflects fear. That variation in fearfulness is fundamental to variation in worldview is another of the most central and durable of the findings of political psychology (Hibbing et al. 2014; Jost et al. 2003). For instance, those with more right-wing politics are more physiologically responsive to threatening pictures and loud noises (Oxley et al. 2008; Dodd et al. 2012), more likely to interpret facial expressions as threatening (Vigil 2010), show more amygdala activation when taking risk (Schreiber et al. 2013), and self-report a greater fear of death (Jost et al. 2003).
Authoritarian freak show
But a cursory glance at footage of one recent right-wing spectacle or another seems to defy this description, of one of the central meanings of right being rigid adherence to strict behavioral conventions. In fact, such spectacles these days very distinctly have the feel of a countercultural freak show: the January 6th riots at the US capitol felt like part authoritarian coup, part hyper-immersive internet role playing game spilling out into reality, and part self-expression free-for-all. If there is no more convention to adhere to or deviate from in this society, if a mainstream does not really exist, and people are awakening their Kundalini energy to the realization that the penalty for opposing Trump should be slavery in the tar sands, how does this change the meaning of left and right? In this rapidly reconfiguring world, does it retain meaning at all?
An interesting way to rephrase this might be this. When I was young and the internet was new, it was a terrain that freaks tread, where bomb making and credit card fraud tutorials mixed freely with descriptions of drug experiences and utopian speculations, and where the rhetorical styles that were associated with power in the physical world—styles which involved an overstated formality and the assumption of a moral and epistemological consensus throughout society—were abandoned, and power was instead associated with maximally differentiating oneself from others, with the extremes of self-expression. Despite that many of us on the early internet were capable of wild speculations about where this was all going, I think there was a general sense that as it became widespread, there might be a diminishing of its strangeness, that it might come to more resemble the world from which we were in exile. But the transformation was mutual at the very least, if not somewhat biased in favor of the internet and against the world—the world got a lot like the internet. Our mandate is to determine what happened, and what it means for politics.
The great flowering of right-wing self-exploration currently underway provides an interesting basis for evaluating a broader theory about the relationship between psychological variation and political outlook: namely, that the psychological variation is in thresholds, rather than in the absolute presence or absence of the various modes of perception that produce worldviews, including left-right political convictions. Meaning we all contain some version of the same stories—witness the significant rightward shift in our society after 9/11, when people's thresholds for threat (and thus aggression, the core of right-wing psychology) were crossed. The change can occur in either direction: one study achieved a significant leftward shift in participants' political views by simply asking them to imagine that they were invincible superheroes and to conceive their politics from this perspective (Napier et al. 2018).
What seems to be true is that there is a delay of about 50 years from when an egalitarian countercultural freakout first emerged in technological mass society and when a hierarchical countercultural freakout emerges. Which is to say: the 2020s are to authoritarianism what the 1960s was to egalitarianism, and it makes for a pretty bad time. (Arguably, the emergence of the great-authoritarian-mind-meld-drop-out-culture-war freak show actually began around 2016 or so, and showed its initial obscure indications in the 90s, but permit me my overarching thematic descriptions of decades, of which we are all so fond).
To understand why this is, we can turn to a seminal piece of social theory describing our trend towards a society of self-realization, noting that authoritarians are becoming more comfortable with exploration and expression in general, in any given aspect of their lives, but also that politics itself is increasingly becoming devoted to these ends. Political institutions are exhibiting truly remarkable inertia in this age of opposition, seeming intent on collapsing according to their own absurd internal logic, but society has grown more political—or more politics is happening—in the sense that more people are personally engaged in earnestly formulating, debating, and contesting for various political positions.
The meaning of politics as the pursuit of power to achieve concrete ends in the corporeal world still exists, but it has become confused with this other meaning of politics: a venue for self-differentiation and actualization, for the presentation of a unique synthesis of inner experience and analysis, with a motivational system, and corresponding set of behaviors, akin to that involved in making an experimental film or starting a blog. Or, the motivations, in some cases, are those involved in playing immersive games, such as so-called Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), the structures of which have been adapted to conspiracy theories such as Qanon (Berkowitz 2020) and its rapidly evolving descendant mythologies.
There is such a glut of social theory in this world, the vast majority of which has no predictive power of any kind, that we don't really have terminology for the massive distinction that exists between it and works like Ronald Inglehart's 1977 book The Silent Revolution: Changing Values among Western Publics. Written before the internet, Inglehart's analysis does a better job of predicting how it would affect society than liberals writing days before the January 6th right-wing riots at the US capitol. (Being absolutely shocked by social developments seems to border on a vocational obligation for liberal analysts—it must be noted that at a certain point, if everything that happens in the world is surprising, then one has very little claim to understanding it.)
Inglehart saw the countercultural explosion and the revolutionary politics of the 1960s as manifestations of a deeper, and often quieter, trend. The emphasis on revolutionary social transformation that gave way—so rapidly, after so little of what could really be called political struggle—to an emphasis on transcendental business meditation and the exploration of novel cosmologies were both manifestations of a general shift in society. This was of a dual nature, towards more unique, oppositional worldviews, but also towards the self-expression of those worldviews—rather than their instantiation in the world—as the primary pursuit.
Many notions of our current sociopolitical reality, and its possible futures, fail to really comprehend and incorporate the implications of what Inglehart called the post-materialist shift. It is an important element of understanding facts as superficially disparate as the lack of concrete political objectives in movements like Occupy (Smucker 2017) to people's growing need to have alternate narratives about literally everything, even the kinds of things that were previously never sources of contention, from mass shootings to catastrophic floods. In a world on fire, the post-materialist shift implies vast complications for collective mobilization.
The Silent Revolution illustrates the power of using a little bit of biology as a starting point for your social theory, based as it is on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Inglehart's contention was that the first two levels of this hierarchy consisted of needs that were largely being met in affluent societies after world war two, and that their continued accommodation was a reasonable assumption: basic physiological drives like hunger were no longer fundamental forces in people's lives, accounting for the first level of the hierarchy, and many people in such societies felt reasonable security that their country was not about to be invaded, accounting for the second.
… when at least minimal economic and physical security are present, the needs for love, belonging, and esteem become increasingly important; and later, a set of goals related to intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction looms large. There does not seem to be any clear hierarchy within the last set of needs, which Maslow called "self-actualization needs." But there is evidence that they became most salient only after an individual has satisfied the material needs and belonging needs. (Inglehart 1977)
Inglehart's methods were simple: he administered surveys to large numbers of people in multiple countries asking them to rank their priorities from a list. He coded the priorities materialist or post-materialist; the former were items like “grow the economy” and “fight crime” and the latter were items like “more beautiful cities” and “less impersonal society”. It may seem dubious that people who want to grow the economy and fight crime are oppressed, but in very broad terms these categories correspond to the formulation that some people involved in political struggle are fighting oppression while others are fighting alienation (Graeber 2009). The war on alienation tends to gather a lot more momentum when starvation isn't imminent.
Inglehart found a set of generational and geographic correlations to the answers he received. Those who had not lived through world war two, and who inhabited societies of greater affluence, were more likely to prioritize self-expression and self-actualization. Maybe this isn't shocking on its own terms, but his ability to see how this change in outlook would interact with communications technologies—which largely didn't exist at the time of his writing—is somewhat uncanny. Like McLuhan proclaiming that the medium is the message, he was able to anticipate how mass communication becoming more participatory would shift not just the form but the content of mass communication, and how in a society that emphasizes developing a unique perspective, this would ultimately imperil the existing power structure.
His work, therefore, has a troubled quality. It is as if he has similar values to the people churning out shocked and bewildered commentary about right-wing agitation for The Atlantic or CNN, but he's the one who isn't shocked, who sees it coming from very far away: “The future looks difficult for Western governments. If they do not solve current economic problems, they risk losing the support of the Materialist majority of their citizens. But renewed prosperity has its own dangers: it seems likely to evoke a new set of challenges and demands.”
This is a statement I believe warrants rephrasing in slightly stronger terms: according to Inglehart, governments of affluent nations could either starve people and risk revolution against misery and deprivation, or feed people and risk revolution against boredom and a loss of agency. As one author described his predictions of politics under post-materialism:
… people wouldn't participate in politics in the same old ways, Inglehart hypothesized. Instead of being "elite-directed," they would engage in "elite-challenging" activities. They would vote less but be more likely to join a boycott or sign a petition. People wouldn't become disengaged from politics, even though voting percentages would decline. Rather, they would adopt a politics of self-expression. Postmaterialists wouldn't settle for picking between two candidates. They would want to make decisions themselves, acting more directly on their political choices instead of following the orders of leaders. (Bishop 2008)
Inglehart referred to the cause of this “elite-challenging” mindset as cognitive mobilization (a truly remarkable statement about the society we live in, that this turn of phrase describes a threat to it). It can be effectively described as the acquisition of the ability to do politics. While such simplifications are always hazardous, we could perhaps describe human societies along the technological trajectory according to three phases. First, a small-scale phase, in which everyone had the means of contestation and participation within group decision making processes (one could argue about whether everyone exercised these means, but they existed—if you're physically present with everyone in your society, you have the ability to communicate with everyone). Second, a mass phase, in which most people didn't, and a relatively small cadre of people with concentrated wealth and a set of shared cultural affects and epistemological conventions made decisions, while everyone else just voted (or gave a proportion of the harvest to their feudal overlords, or whatever). Finally, a mass phase in which everyone has the same internet, and the means to assert their own version of reality, and tends to want to do so, regardless of who happens to believe themselves to be in charge or consider themselves an expert.
Western publics are developing an increasing potential for political participation. This change does not imply that mass publics will simply show higher rates of participation in traditional activities such as voting but that they may intervene in the political process on a qualitatively different level. Increasingly, they are likely to demand participation in making major decisions, not just a voice in selecting the decision-makers. (Inglehart 1977)
Inglehart related the overall shift in values he was studying to the protest movements of the 1960s, but also to the decline among the broader public in support for existing political institutions. In the former case, participation in protests was heavily predicted by youth, relative affluence, and college education. In the latter case, a similar, less dramatic process was occurring throughout the entire populations of industrialized societies: a slow but inexorable disaffection with the system, or whatever features of it happened to be salient to different people. This shift involved none of the spectacle and grand narrative associated with youth revolt, but was nonetheless extreme, rapid, and ultimately more consequential. “In the late 1950s, eight out of ten Americans said that they could trust government to do the right thing most of the time … The 80 percent of Americans who had approved of government in the late 1950s had dropped to 33 percent by 1976.” (Bishop 2008)
In other words, the reason that people grew more oppositional to the political system at this time was not because of anything in particular the system did, but because they had become temperamentally more prone to challenge authority (in case it isn't abundantly clear, I do not say this in defense of that system). There were, of course, resistance movements—like the American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers—that emerged in response to subordination, extermination, and trauma, but statistically speaking in the US, participation in protests at large was highly predicted by post-materialism and its socioeconomic corollaries, and outside of the US, protests developed around other issues than civil rights and the Vietnam war, but with the same demographic profile of participation.
Now, I have tread too closely to two rhetorical modes of contemporary liberalism not to address them directly: one is the aforementioned expression of shock and surprise that civilization seems to be undergoing a hasty collapse, and the other consists of admonishments to trust the experts. With respect to the former, the classic of the genre is undoubtedly David Roberts's “America Is Facing an Epistemic Crisis”, written for Vox in 2017. He tells us:
The US is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening.
The primary source of this breach, to make a long story short, is the US conservative movement’s rejection of the mainstream institutions devoted to gathering and disseminating knowledge (journalism, science, the academy) — the ones society has appointed as referees in matters of factual dispute.
It is absolutely true that technology is changing the nature of the many epistemic ruptures between us, but statements of this nature, so far as I can tell, reflect a deep ignorance of the nature of American society outside of liberalism's haunts. It is also an illustration of how liberalism has assimilated one of the core meanings (and indeed the only literal meaning) of conservativism, embracing a politics of recapitulating a golden era that is extremely hard to concretely identify. The notion that there was ever a phase of American history in which a widespread majority consensed on scientists and journalists as the final arbiters of factual dispute is the kind of perspective one only develops if one did not spend their childhood in trailers with guys smoking meth talking about aliens, or hanging out with people who didn't trust anyone born outside of Vermont.
Because this is precisely how I spent my childhood, I am not at all surprised by the wild proliferation of new cosmologies that has accompanied the ascendance of the internet. It isn't really a case of an epistemic breach so much as a case of people on the other side of the breach from The New York Times having access to an audience (admittedly, this process does feed back on itself and create new dynamics, but while beliefs may be rapidly evolving, the actual difference between them has always been there).
This is a good illustration of the general reality that sometimes what people claim to be fighting is exactly what they represent. The great liberal talking point of universal reasoning, the transcendence of local perspective in the race to global consensus—the political fulfillment of the premise of the Enlightenment, like we almost had back when the end of history was declared, only for it to be revealed that if history is ending it is not because of permanent stability but permanent fire—is obviously untrue. The liberal worldview is a profoundly tribal one, with many mythologies exactly no more insane, and exactly no less insane, than Qanon: mythologies like carbon offsets, nonviolence, superpredators, and the end of global poverty. This tribal worldview, because it is associated with so much power, is far more dangerous than many other crazy belief systems. There is no path to survival in western liberal democracy.
The other terrain into which I fear I might seem to tread is the exhortation to trust the experts, which has become so common as worldviews have proliferated and everyone decided to become an expert in everything. I've already cited a bunch of papers involving brain imaging during experimental games and things like that, so it is hopefully clear I'm an avid fan of science, but I do not trust the experts. I believe insisting one do so is antithetical to the scientific spirit. It is fundamentally authoritarian to insist one has exclusive access to truth by virtue of one's position. Everything a scientist, or anyone else describing themselves as an expert, claims should be subject to scrutiny—this is the essence of the scientific process, which is inherently anti-authoritarian.
It is also ridiculous to insist on trusting experts simply because they describe themselves as such, as experts have been wrong about an awful lot. Experts told people they were depressed because they had deficiencies of neurotransmitters. Experts said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that Trump could never be elected, and that wealth would flow freely to every corner of society if we just gave it all to rich people. In fact, it is the case with shocking frequency that experts are more wrong than anyone else. Think of all the anthropologists who don't believe in human nature. This is really not a common misunderstanding among people in general, but it afflicts experts in the study of humanity in epidemic proportions.
There's a lot of complex facets, but I believe one good way to understand the great blossoming of new belief systems currently underway is that it is what happens when people who have no power in their lives whatsoever, and who otherwise live in a society that is committed to inculcating stupidity, have the means of mass communication at their disposal. Good arguments have been made that living in a society which affords one actual participation in the political process tends to make people more articulate, reasonable, comfortable with complexity, and able to take multiple perspectives (Graeber and Wengrow 2021). It is an awful lot to ask that people maintain reasonable perspectives on situations in which they have no power (and an insight into the psychology of the powerful, and the way they are less able to comprehend the experience of others precisely because of their power, that they seem to genuinely not understand this).
In any case, the very worst response I can imagine to this great blossoming of worldviews is people—often in positions of power—telling everyone to shut up and trust the experts. I just want to be clear, as I make tongue-in-cheek references to insane belief systems, that I believe the scientific process is based on evolved modes of reasoning common to all humanity, that it belongs to everybody, and I am admonishing no one to trust the experts. One can find many arguments against science, but really none that manage to completely avoid some version of scientific argumentation. Science is a human universal. Trying to give people better tools of scientific reasoning, rather than insisting they simply submit to those who already possess them (or in any case claim to), seems much more cogent.
Technology-psychology feedback loop
And if one is able to transcend the horror of witnessing what the internet brings into this world, it has to be acknowledged that the process of all these new versions of reality coming into existence is pretty fascinating, in terms of what it reveals about brains and behavior. On some level, it has to be true that the internet is a map of the human mind. In other words, where people end up on it and what they do must reflect, to a considerable degree, innate psychological variation. There's some science of this variety in existence already, for instance relating social media behavior to Big 5 personality traits (Park et al. 2014), but one has to imagine that if science and mass technological society were to endure for a few more decades, there would be a truly exquisite mapping between the most esoterically refined corners of the internet and the unique nature of people's minds: brain imaging predicting which subreddit one haunts, strategies taken in experimental games predicting Instagram filter choices, that sort of thing.
In particular, because any path one takes on the internet is at the expense of every other—because we have to exclude most of the information that is available to assimilate any of it—the psychological predictors of simply what people choose to access would be fascinating to understand. Maps of the internet already show correlations of traffic, with greater proximity indicating greater likelihood of sites being visited by the same user, so we have a great deal of raw data. We must be able to learn something about people by the fact that (at least the last time I checked), the closest network compatriots of InfoWars were all investment websites so dubious they might be described as soft fraud, whereas the closest allies of Democracy Now! are cooking websites (Internet Map 2021). It is true that egalitarian political beliefs have been correlated with a stronger physiological responsiveness to photos of favorable, appealing stimulus in general—things like happy children and kittens and bowls of fruit—leading researchers to describe left-right psychology as fundamentally appetitive vs. aversive (Dodd et al. 2012), but there must be more to understand about the Democracy Now!-recipe connection, and so, so many other aspects of the internet.
But let us recall that the many idiosyncratic psychological differences that manifest as left-right political perceptions reflect differences in thresholds for the emergence of certain narratives, modes of reasoning, and general orientations to the world. The great epistemic fracture—the feedback loop between technology and psychological variation we are in—should be understood in terms of the general dynamics of specialization and compartmentalization which are so characteristic of the technological trajectory. Specifically, that specialization and compartmentalization are processes of acquiring hyper-competence in a few small domains at the expense of acquiring much competence, or any at all, in others. Or to put it more in terms of perception instead of skills, they are processes of knowing a few truths at the expense of many others.
To a degree I find somewhat disorienting, or in any case hard to effectively write about, the themes of fracture, of division and separation, are uncannily recurrent, overarching aspects of the trajectory we are on, appearing at all levels of description—from a lack of integration of psychological content within individuals, to the vast experiment in interpersonal disconnection that comprises modern society, to the fractured landscape of knowledge about what is happening in our world that requires synthesis for a coherent perspective to emerge, a synthesis which becomes difficult amidst a hyper-abundance of new knowledge. At some level of considerable abstraction—think a systems theory-style account, involving a totally generalized set of elements evolving together—technology must inherently induce fragmentation, or we wouldn't be seeing it in so many places, from human minds to whole landscapes.
It should be an uncontroversial claim that traditional societies are characterized by a greater cohesion of skill sets and competencies than modern ones. This is a logical corollary of there being a less complex set of competencies to acquire. As mentioned earlier, shamans have been called the first truly socially differentiated persons, and so we can see a recurrent cross-cultural pattern in some small-scale societies of a particular type of specialization in a particular type of individual. But such are cases of some people acquiring additional skills to the ones everyone else possesses, rather than pursuing a specialized vocation at the expense of the general skill set. In other words, shamans go hunting—they are not starving artists. Obviously there are other forms of differentiation. It is not as if everyone is equally inclined to sing or tell stories. But ultimately traditional societies, of a wide range of subsistence modes and forms of social organization, are characterized by distinctions in abilities mostly along the lines of age and gender.
It should be equally uncontroversial that traditional societies are also characterized by a greater cohesion of worldviews, with a similar set of qualifications as with skills. There might be a few people having visions, and it's not like there aren't meaningful disagreements about the nature of the world, but there is some very real sense in which everyone in a traditional society has the same map of the universe in their head. Interestingly, there's been a shift, in the journey from traditional to modern societies, in their domains of homogeneity and heterogeneity. Traditional societies are characterized by significant material differences, by truly unique modes of interaction with the environment, but within them there is a great deal of perceptual cohesion. Modern societies are characterized by significant material uniformity, by everywhere having the exact same Starbucks, but by an unprecedented perceptual fracturing, by two people sitting in the same Starbucks inhabiting utterly irreconcilable cosmologies.
As far as understanding the nature of the feedback loop between biology and technology we are in, between psychological variation and the internet, it is helpful to incorporate a seminal but, so far as I can tell, largely discarded or latent piece of anthropological theory: that of the culture and personality school, best represented by Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture. Benedict's claim is that culture is 'personality writ large', that a wide range of temperamental, behavioral, and perceptual potentials exist within our species, with some potentials more pronounced in some individuals than others, and that particularly effective individuals exert influence on cultures, shaping the behavior of others according to their particular personalities, such that semi-stable configurations of collective behavior emerge (semi-stable because cultures may well appear very stable on massive, intergenerational timescales, but can always be perturbed into some other semi-stable state).
One interesting aspect of this scenario is that only a given range of personality variation is being expressed within any given culture, and indeed other aspects of personality may be actively suppressed. And for this reason, as Benedict emphasizes, some cultures will work better for some people, be more accommodating of some natures and furthering of some potentials. This should make some intuitive sense to anyone who has spent time imagining being magically dropped from the sky into various phases of various cultures—say, Viking age Scandinavia vs. paleolithic Australia vs. Sparta—and realizing some scenarios are thrilling while some are decidedly other than thrilling.
This notion of personalities shaping cultures is congruent with cross-species evidence, most notably the famous case of the garbage dump baboons. In a seminal 2004 paper, Sapolsky and Share describe a troop of baboons in which, because doing so required a willingness to fight a neighboring baboon troop, aggressive males, but only aggressive males, all fed at a garbage dump. These males all contracted a disease from the garbage and died, leaving only subordinate males. The subordinate males, it turned out, were simply non-participants, to the extent possible, in the group's hierarchies, rather than losers in it per se. And they exhibited behaviors that would make one guess this were the case: they were more prone to affiliative behaviors, more tolerant and friendly.
Instead of claiming the dominant status of the group's dead males, the remaining males continued to behave in their customary manner, thus eliminating a great deal of the group's hierarchical structure. This on its own terms is perfectly fascinating, because it reveals the extent of significant personality variation between baboons, and the notion that the baboon culture we would describe as species-typical isn't necessarily congruent with that entire range of variation. But the truly remarkable finding was that, because olive baboon males leave their birth groups to wander until they join a new troop, this new peaceful culture patterned the behavior of other, immigrant baboons, who presumably encompassed the entire range of potential baboon personalities: the newcomers adopted the egalitarian culture (Sapolsky and Share 2004).
On some level, it is probably not even valid to describe the process of fragmentation as a result of technology—it ultimately might better be described as a signature of complexity in general. Biology contains plenty of illustrations, like the difference between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells. Prokaryotes are the bacteria and other single-celled organisms that got life started, and eukaryotes are everything else. That the former are less complex is largely equivalent to them being less differentiated: DNA is distributed throughout the cell's cytoplasm rather than bound within a nucleus, as are all other components of the cell, lacking as it does the compartmentalized architecture of membrane-bound organelles that subdivide functions in more complex organisms.
The evolution of cultural complexity proceeds along the same path as cells developing greater and greater functional segregation. At a certain point in the evolution of cultural complexity, it stopped being true that one particular personality could be said to pattern a culture, and it started being true that cultures developed multiple roles with different likelihoods of inhabitation by different types of people (if baboons evolved a complex technological society, we know who would be the police and who would be the protestors).
Note that this process of differentiation is far more complex than various social roles simply appealing to various people. Direct psychological appeal is certainly an aspect of why some teach the archeology of neolithic Britain while others torture for the CIA, but it's easy to see how a whole range of dynamics other than voluntary self-segregation into one social echelon or another quickly get invoked in the evolution of complexity. For instance, it might be true that two psychologies would both like to live on the top floor of a condominium, but only one is actually possessed of the incredibly narrow frame of awareness and lack of empathy which, in this society, is so useful for making enough money to do so.
The process of differentiation has been under way for a very long time. We seem awfully fond of sweeping narratives in which decisive thresholds are crossed which completely change everything—hence our story of the human journey is described in terms of technologies, in ages of stone and bronze, and in revolutions, agricultural and urban—but cultures develop a cumulative complexity outside of these stages. There is good evidence of craft specialization and other types of social differentiation in the upper paleolithic (Formicola 2007), before any of the thresholds are crossed, like the development of agriculture or cities, that are usually used to designate the beginning of the trajectory toward technological mass civilization.
Whatever the process was like, we self-evidently progressed from societies in which everyone knew how to go hunting, and tell the same stories, to one in which some of us dig trenches, while others make falafel, and still others optimize social media strategies; where one can, in academic departments on the same college campus, specialize in whole genome scans or in the expansion of language families or in literary experiments in opposition to the notion of truth. At every level of description—from the profound variation in physical environments two people can experience on the same city block, one sleeping in an apartment and one sleeping on the sidewalk; to the radically disjunct information ecosystems those two people can inhabit on their respective smartphones; to the set of relational modes one will invoke in a diversity and equity training while the other navigates the race politics of prison—we have created niches.
These niches involve positive and negative feedback. There is an acquisition of hyper-competence in the limited domains where experience occurs. One gains a certain type of strength digging trenches, and becomes fluent in a certain type of gibberish optimizing social media strategies. One also loses the ability to dig trenches if muscles are never exercised, and to deploy the correct forms of gibberish if one never speaks. Biology equips us with potentials for developing competencies that, if never exercised, simply atrophy.
Think of all the experiences, skills, and patterns of behavior (and its psychological corollaries) we all know have been fundamental to the human experience until very recently, where you will find a great number of people who have no exposure to them whatsoever. Many of us have never made a consequential decision with a group, where we had a real ability to make our perspective known and a real responsibility to truly consider the perspectives of others. Many of us have never been in a fight, or constructed our own shelter, or danced all night with friends, or gone through some process, whether a formal initiation or otherwise, where we are separated from our familiar contexts and forced to undergo the psychological transformations associated with extreme self-reliance.
By diminishing our range of experiences, we not only diminish which truths we can accordingly know, but we also even lose our sense of the basic reality that truth does, in fact, emerge from experience. One of the most problematic aspects of the human mind is that language and abstract thought, useful as they may be, are very easy to become enamored of on their own terms, whereby we become convinced that we come to all knowledge through these means. If you've ever carefully reasoned your way to utterly fatalistic conclusions about the nature of humanity and existence, only to have these seemingly rigorous processes of reasoning completely undone by a night's sleep or a cup of coffee or the smile of an attractive stranger, you know what I'm talking about.
To make the generalizations concrete, let's examine a few specific feedback loops. The first is that geography and personality have become highly correlated in places like the United States. In his book The Big Sort: How the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, Bill Bishop describes how geographic areas are becoming politically homogenous not, primarily, because people are moving to areas that favor their politics, but because personality and political perception are so deeply interrelated, people are moving to areas that appeal to any number of other sensibilities, where it simply turns out everyone shares their politics.
He describes the process of increasingly niche refinements of social groupings in the US, from the specialized occupational landscape that accompanied industrialization to the emergence of college dorms devoted to increasingly specific worldviews. In a particularly haunting passage, he describes the process of social segmentation at the scale of a single housing development:
There is a market demand now for "lifestyle" communities. Before developers built the Ladera Ranch subdivision in Orange County, California, they surveyed likely residents about their beliefs and values. The surveys asked how strongly people agreed with statements such as "We need to treat the planet as a living system" and "I have been born again in Jesus Christ." People fell into distinct groups—and that's the way the development was built. There is "Covenant Hills" for the faithful (big family rooms and traditional suburban architecture) and "Terramor" for what the developers call the "cultural creatives" (bamboo floors and instead of a family room, a "culture room") … More than 16,000 people live in the subdivision now, and what's vaguely creepy (well, maybe not so vaguely) is that people drive in the same entrance and then split off into neighborhoods designed for different lifestyles and values—the twenty-first-century version of nineteenth-century "island communities.”
To describe some of the negative and positive feedback, it's worth noting that segmenting ourselves geographically by personality, income, and other such factors not only reinforces the way we experience the world by placing us in contact with those who experience it similarly, but it also atrophies fundamental human capacities to understand, or in any case simply be in proximity to, people with different perspectives. (Also, if we never actually encounter a type of person, it leaves us free to believe whatever ridiculous thing we have read about them on the internet.)
Another such feedback loop is that between personality, academic trajectory, and profession. We'll have much more to say about specific academic/psychological tendencies in other chapters, but suffice it for now to say that there are significant ideological skews in many academic disciplines, which is to say that they comprise clusters of personality traits and fundamental perceptual frameworks. As people self-select into these academic—and later in life, professional—echelons, it amplifies the tendencies that brought them there in the first place. One of the truly bizarre outcomes of this scenario is that certain varieties of political violence have been massively biased towards certain academic disciplines, with a huge number of Islamic jihadists being engineers (Gambetta and Hertog 2016).
Again, we can see positive and negative feedback. I would argue (and I will do so far more convincingly and in far greater detail in another chapter) that, in addition to the simple fact that engineers bias heavily toward the right-wing, a primary way to understand how their worldviews might translate into a bombing campaign is by application of the metaphor of a machine to society and the world. In such thinking, society is seen as a highly reductive schematic, which the engineer believes he (I say he because Jihadist engineers are all men) has the technical proficiency to modify for optimal functioning. What obviously gets excluded from this way of engaging the world is empathy, or a sense of the actual human relational dynamics that shape societies.
We can see how the experience of acquiring an engineering degree produces the positive feedback of encouraging someone to spend a lot of time reducing everything to schema for purposes of modification. And we can observe the negative feedback, in the fact that one can go to class and otherwise live in a tiny box, utterly disconnected from anyone else, and that graduate school creates pressure to minimize human connection (Schmidt 2000), which might otherwise ground one's perspective on societies in the actual humans that comprise them.
Behold the catastrophic fallout of the Enlightenment, with its absurd stories of an undifferentiated, rational humanity, racing through history towards global consensus. The assumption that everyone is born with the same map of the universe in their heads, or rather with no map at all, meant that the architects of mass society could not anticipate the runaway process of mutual incomprehension they would engender. Now there is no particularly obvious point of intervention. It is not clear that anyone could create a unified perception of anything, no matter how absolutely fundamental its significance to everyone.
To relate this general framework, of feedback loops between traits and the social niches we have constructed, to the specific trait variations of propensity for self-expression and exploration—differences which used to be so politically predictive—we can examine the famous experiments in fox domestication of Russian geneticist Dmitri Belyaev. We'll have much more to say about this research later, but for now it will suffice to say that Belyaev bred an experimental population of low-aggression animals, from the existing range of variation exhibited by silver foxes on a fur farm. The increasingly tame animals were such because of differences from the control population in the duration and timing of the emergence of ontogenic stages, specifically those of the fear response. A corollary of the reduced fear the experimental animals exhibited was an increase in exploratory behavior and a seeking of novel stimuli.
The sensitive period of adaptation (or primary socialization) is known to begin in the early postnatal development by functional maturation of sensory systems and locomotion. Owing to that, the animals can perceive the environment and respond to it. The development of the fearful response is regarded as a factor that substantially complicates (if not altogether blocks) the processes of their exploration of the social environment and adaptation to it, which is true for all animals regardless of their level of social organization. (Trut et al. 2004)
Again, we find the difference is in thresholds rather than the absolute presence or absence of potentials. The control animals had the capacity for exploratory behavior, but only for a limited time. The mechanism underlying these experimental results was variation in the rate of development of the fear response, with a prolongation of the exploratory phase mapping to an overall reduction in the adult lifetime expression of fear.
The difference between the young people in the 1960s who embraced a vague, but definitively egalitarian, revolutionary politics (and then just as hastily abandoned those politics to look at the pretty colors), and their elder counterparts who did not, is the same difference that is seen between the experimental foxes and the control population. It is my argument that these differences are not analogous, but homologous: that variation in the same systems mediating behavior and perception—like serotonin, which mediates social tolerance and friendliness, and cortisol, which mediates stress (Hare and Woods 2020)—are at work in producing these variations in foxes and humans alike.
Youth and egalitarianism are correlated (Wilson 1973), for reasons we have just strongly hinted at in our examination of the relationship between fear and developmental stages, and youth and exploration are popularly understood to be virtually equivalent, but it was still those youth who came from backgrounds of greatest security and abundance who, statistically speaking, felt most free to engage in exploration, self-expression, and oppositional politics. The threshold for exploratory behavior in this demographic was low enough that the conditions they experienced 50 years ago were sufficient to induce it, whereas the people wandering around the US capitol on January 6th 2021, so willing to defy authority but so lost in a chaos of self-expression that their very serious conflict also has the distinctive feel of a psychedelic-laden music festival, got there much more recently.
This fundamental continuity of experience, this difference in thresholds rather than absolute potentials, provides a clear set of responses to all those bewildered commentaries on recent sociopolitical developments of another variety, those expressing surprise that right wingers and new agers can be the same people. The countercultural freakouts of the 1960s and the 2020s don't just resemble one another if one carefully constructs the right metaphors, they literally consist of the same bizarre combination of revolutionary politics in conjunction with an incomprehensible panoply of self-improvement and wellness paradigms, freely coevolving and appropriating one another, and with new cosmologies and forms of magical thinking that seem to exist largely to exhaust as much of the potential variation in belief systems as possible, rather than for any particular intrinsic merit.
Again, I am incredulous of the incredulity. For a particularly formative six years of my childhood, I grew up in a hyper-authoritarian New Age cult called the Alive Polarity Fellowship, that combined energy work with child torture, and a general prohibition on ever leaving the property alone (for fear of the negativity beyond the proverbial walls) with a mandate that every adult risk the bad vibes to vote for Reagan. I simply do not understand where the notion came from that believing in insane nonsense is somehow incompatible with authoritarianism—I would argue that, on the contrary, it is an indispensable precondition of it. The first power the authoritarian claims is the power to make you believe what is manifestly untrue, and only once this essential process of perceptual coercion is complete does the physical coercion begin.
Moreover, the shock at the ostensible descent into epistemic chaos seems to be one more expression of the growing liberal propensity for lamenting the decline of a golden era that simply never existed. After all, the dominant force driving right wing politics before Qanon and conspiracy theories about space lasers causing wildfires, a force which has not exactly gone away, was christianity. This is a worldview which is impossible to distinguish from more recent ones in terms of its degree of divergence from reality, but which is distinct in terms of having a much longer history of actual atrocity. For some reason, we are supposed to feel like a nation united in a common value system when people thought god created the earth 6,000 years ago, but when those same people decide Hillary Clinton personally murders children, we are supposed to be horrified.
But the luxurious blossoming of new right-wing mythologies from the verdant terrain of decade upon decade of material hyper-abundance, while not nearly as surprising as many claim, does radically change politics. Tolerance of individuality, exploration, and self-expression were, historically, fundamental to egalitarian political and cultural strategies. If one wants to be properly slapped in the face by the extent to which the (potentially very different) realms of equality of political power, on the one hand, and freedom of self-expression and stimulation seeking, on the other, were often hugely conflated into one system of meaning, one could do much worse than to read The Situationist International Anthology. There are a few core themes, but one message of these mid-20th century radical theorists is particularly clear: we refuse to live in your amusement park, because we want to live in one we build ourselves.
In one of the more striking cases of how systems of power often seem to manage a total assimilation and neutralization of the worldviews that oppose them, this demand has been entirely accommodated by consumer civilization. Not just accommodated by it, but central to it, such that it becomes clear that the politics of self-expression and the essential qualities of consumerism are manifestations of the same psychobiological changes, wrought by abundance and technology.
Be yourself, consumerism tells us. No one else has your unique perspective on the world, or knows exactly the flavor of gourmet ice cream you want to pair with your highly personalized playlists, or knows exactly what arcane spiritual urges or psychological dispositions compel you to drive to the edge of the Grand Canyon in your customized SUV, like we're showing someone do in this advertisement—only you can figure that out because only you are you. Being lost in niche self-expression is to do what this society expects of you (to invoke forces of social cohesion and collective responsibility is to be a deviant), and everybody gets to say whatever feels the most true.
Unless, of course, you're worried about upsetting someone. It is apparent that at this strange point in history, where language and oppression have become conflated to a degree that Foucault himself would find disorienting, many on the right feel more free to express themselves than many on the left. Research has confirmed the intuitively fairly obvious fact that those who go through higher education (who tend towards liberalism and sometimes even leftism), are more likely to self-censor (Gibson and Sutherland 2020). Even if one is not one of those kind of people, who does that kind of politics, a reliable association exists for many between egalitarian political objectives and constraints on expression, and that fact in itself radically shifts the nature and meaning of political conflict.
I know assessments of our hasty descent into language policing and claims of harm through language is one of the most overabundant cultural forms in existence, but because we have tread precisely into this terrain, its worth pointing out how the frame of postmaterialism also predicts and explains this trend. In the postmaterialist assessment, we would see the proliferation of concern with identity—with elaborating on it and developing new niche categories of it, but also with claiming decisive epistemic ruptures between these niche categories—as fundamentally reflective of the same dynamics that give birth to an ever-growing wilderness of Netflix shows designed to induce childhood nostalgia in very specific demographics. The salient facts of the great social justice freakout would be the retreat of politics from reality into symbols, and the use of those symbols to express a growing sense of difference between people—with the claim, so central to self-expression in this mode, of not being understood reflecting the same motivational system as it used to in weirdo artists, back when they existed.
For example, we would expect an anti-racist politics that seems exceptionally disinterested in opening up any actual cages in which people of color are disproportionately confined, in navigating the difficult and complex realities of power that currently prevent us from doing so, which might require sacrifice on many levels, including the sacrifice of some degree of individual expression and agency for the sake of a collective strategy. We would expect, instead, an anti-racist politics that is obsessed with the contingencies of perspective, that is engaged in an incessant refinement of its protocols for acknowledging different types of experience, that above all seeks to differentiate people on the symbolic plane rather than unite them in the physical world.
The process of fracture is, of course, the result of a psychological need for differentiation at the individual level, but interestingly, group psychology also functions to widen epistemic chasms. In their sprawling assessment of human history The Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow describe the process of schismogenesis, or group differentiation that is self-consciously intended to distinguish one group from another, as driving cultural change even before the advent of agriculture. It is well documented that there are evolved psychological mechanisms for group participation, heavily mediated by oxytocin (Carter 2014), with features like: a tendency to accept group judgements even if they are contrary to the evidence of the senses (Aydogen 2017; Stallen et al. 2012), heightened empathy towards ingroup members (De Dreu and Kret 2015), and diminished empathy towards outgroup members (De Dreu et al. 2011; Sheng et al. 2013).
Group psychology also produces a tendency towards the adoption of idiosyncratic behaviors and beliefs, for precisely the reason that maximum differentiation from outgroups promotes a maximum sense of ingroup cohesion. In other words, the motivation for epistemic differentiation exists independently of any particular value a belief system might have, or need it might meet. This helps to explain why cults, back before the internet killed them, combined truly extraordinary levels of social cohesion with truly extraordinary levels of bizarre belief. Extraordinary, at least, for the time. Arguably we have entered a phase where cult dynamics have become fairly ubiquitous, as the internet did not so much kill them as replace their mode of operation, with a vast flourishing of popularity in the process.
While this group psychology undoubtedly first functioned, in the journey of our species, at the scale of groups that people actually lived in, and shared a collective fate in terms of subsistence and security with, it is clear that, much like newly hatched geese that imprint whoever they happen to see first as 'mother' and proceed to follow them around (Lorenz 1950), our profound psychological impetus for group identification is unfettered by any particular, evolutionarily inherited criteria for what meaningfully distinguishes groups. Sapolsky begins his chapter on group dynamics in Behave with the anecdote that people playing the roles of different kinds of primates during the filming of the original Planet of the Apes ate lunch separately.
A consequence of the technological trajectory is that psychological mechanisms for group identification have become unmoored from anything physical, such as one's geography, or class interests, or the plausible threats of annihilation one is facing. Instead, united in a material culture of Amazon deliveries and coal-fired power plants, which everyone prefers to ignore as a predicate of identity, the psychology of group participation is now being invoked at increasingly niche levels of identification with purely symbolic realities—that is to say, with whatever corner of the internet one inhabits.
With respect to individual psychological variation, group dynamics have thus entered an unprecedented phase where they amplify, rather than subdue, innate differences. In the past, particularly effective individual personalities may have shaped cultures, but ultimately the fundamental realities of shared subsistence and survival muted the degree to which any given individual psychology expressed itself. Because group dynamics tend to cohere perceptions and behavior, and because groups were formerly based on factors like geography, and thus fairly random in terms of the distribution of individual traits found within them, inter-group uniformity was greater.
We don't need to do much speculating about the distant human past to observe this reality. Most of us have experienced, somewhere along the way, the basic solidarity that emerges between people who share an immediate material condition (say, working in a kitchen, or being in a hurricane). And most of us have experienced how people, even those who share obscure worldviews, go out of their way to epistemically differentiate themselves from one another when inhabiting the abstract forms of group identity that occur on the internet.
Groups don't just converge on uniform perceptions, their decisions and assessments tend to be more extreme than the average of the group's members (Bishop 2008). For instance, if, on average, the individuals in a Facebook group rate their confidence as 7 out of 10 that Obama practiced child sacrifice while in office (in the sense of chanting in Latin, dagger hovering over terrified child, as opposed to the sense of indiscriminate bombings, deportations, and oil drilling), the group itself will tend to produce a collective confidence estimate of, say, 9.
This can be fun, perhaps even euphoric, when the internet allows you to find the one other person in the world who seems to love The Stooges as much as you do, creating a collective rush of certainty that The Stooges are the greatest fucking band ever! The process takes on a different quality when people suffering from the same states of paranoia get together and start exchanging technical notes, confirming that they must both have government mind control chips in their brains, as in the case of the Targeted Individuals (TI) community (Vice 2020).
This decoupling of group identification from much of anything happening in physical reality orients us to another profound change in the meanings of left and right, considering that left politics are predicted on creating a sense of group identity out of fundamental material realities. Here, we have to acknowledge that, as much as liberals may express perpetual shock at the great epistemic fracture, there is a corresponding species of shock among radicals, at the fact that people repeatedly support politicians whose policies are directly antagonistic to their interests. This has always been true to some extent, largely because of underappreciated psychological tendencies, but the current degree of the decoupling reflects the post-materialist shift.
Between the time of the great depression and the late 1960s, the statistical predictor of participation in US protest movements shifted from material precarity to material security (Ingelhart 1977), but a good deal of left strategy seems to neglect this change. The conflicts and contradictions of the various meanings of leftism engendered by postmaterialism (and the usually unarticulated psychological dimensions of political conviction) are illustrated by tensions that pervaded the 1968 uprisings in Paris:
To the extent that it was based on different underlying values, the alliance between student activists and striking workers was doomed—the more so because the student leaders tended to confuse rhetoric with reality. "The consumer society deserves to die a violent death," said Daniel Cohn-Bendit; "we refuse a world where the certainty of not dying of hunger is gained at the risk of dying of boredom." But to the striking workers, especially the older ones, it was not so certain that the risk of hunger had been forever eliminated. The consumer society was a world they had just entered, and it seemed very attractive indeed. (Inglehart 1977)
In other words, if, as the political psychologists claim, left-right describes variation along two dimensions, perceptions of hierarchy and perceptions of change, it is worth noting that in practical terms, for a very significant proportion of the population, these meanings have evaporated: self-expression and novelty seeking are ubiquitous, and politics isn't concretely related to material realities of any kind, including this society's utterly intransigent ones. The psychological differences that historically oriented people to one set of perceptions or another of these nexuses of political conflict are clearly still with us, but those psychological differences are being expressed in new ways (which are perhaps increasingly difficult to concisely characterize).
An objection to all of this, that I have perhaps waited too long to mention, is that, for a people who are so comfortable and secure that material conditions no longer affect our politics, an awful lot of us are looking pretty miserable and precarious. I believe the empirical realities of the last few decades—with post-materialist predictions proving so uncannily accurate while the core predicates of post-materialism vanish before our eyes—require a fundamental revision of the theory.
To understand what we are experiencing, we need to invoke the psychology of the starving artist. When I was young and this psychology was not semi-ubiquitous, individual variation played a huge role. Those who found the impetus to self-expression and stimulation seeking so potent as to warrant disregarding pretty much every other aspect of wellbeing, in the technological milieu that existed just a few decades ago, were unusually prone to self-expression and stimulation seeking. But the current technoscape provides a much more potent stimulus, and people find exploring their niche on the internet as fascinating and compelling as, historically, a smaller segment of the population found starting bands and writing novels.
I believe the way the potent reward stimuli of technology distracts us from our misery extends way beyond the realm of communications technology and self-expression. I call it the deep fryer paradox because I first started musing about this reality while, as a person with no house and no real hope of making rent, I found myself going to Walmart in the middle of the night with a friend to buy a deep fryer to use in her kitchen, and reflecting on how the joyful occasion diminished my overall sense of crisis and misery. It is different to live in a society where you can't make rent than to live in a society where you can't make rent but you can buy a deep fryer for $25 at 2am. The reward stimulus consumer civilization has to offer—from infinite varieties of nondairy milk that create different foamy latte textures to hundreds of hours of streaming videos about whether ancient societies were contacted by aliens—seems to significantly thwart, or at least vastly complicate, human potentials for political action.
Thus, to really understand the dynamics of the post-materialist shift (and granting this refinement of understanding would argue for a different name), I think we need to invoke a different type of biology from that of Maslow's hierarchy. While the hierarchy of needs will always be a significant factor in one's obsession with getting YouTube followers, we should think of YouTube followers, and a host of other technological realities, as supernormal stimulus.
Supernormal stimuli are those that directly relate to evolutionary imperatives but exceed evolutionary expectations. Lorenz (1950) described experiments with models of things like eggs that were bigger than a species of goose ever lay, or fins that were bigger than a species of fish ever possessed, and noted the correspondingly greater level of caring behavior toward the model egg, and aggression toward the model fish, than was ever observed when the animals were confronted with the normal range of stimulus variation. That they are supernormal stimulus is frequently invoked in discussions of junk food and pornography, but there is always a somewhat circumscribed quality to these discussions—ultimately, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that all of consumer civilization comprises a vast network of supernormal stimuli, radically altering our reward circuitry, and research bears this out (Maté 2010; Shulkin and Sterling 2019).
One can easily see how the changes wrought in us by technology extend well beyond the meanings of right and left. They have a direct bearing on our capacity to meaningfully engage any collective action problem. If one were hoping to mobilize enough people into some kind of shared strategy for, say, preventing the annihilation of the world, one confronts the reality that the legacy political strategies which are still primary in places like the climate movement, based as they are on shared identity derived from material reality, are overlooking significant layers of complexity.
Absolutely and unremittingly bleak as it may be to contemplate the fact that we perhaps could've prevented a mass extinction if people hadn't been quite so enamored of chili cheese fries and season whatever of who-knows-what, there are some other aspects of these changes that warrant strategic examination, aspects which aren't necessarily quite so dire.
If one were to add a dimension to the meanings of left and right that have historically prevailed, in addition to variation in perceptions of hierarchy and change, one could do worse than to include variation in perceptions of international aggression. There are times and places where this might overlap with perceptions of hierarchy, but the psychology is clearly different, and while those in power may start wars to extract wealth and sharpen hierarchies, historically people have been motivated to support their nation's wars because of a very ancient species of fear, a fear we share with other species, and presumably with our common ancestors.
In chimpanzees, the degree of intergroup aggression predicts the degree of ingroup cohesion, hierarchical intensification, and support for existing leaders. Threat produces higher levels of oxytocin in the members of chimpanzee groups (Samuni et al. 2016). Females are capable of forming coalitions that determine power dynamics in captivity (De Waal 2007), just like bonobos do in the wild (Hare et al. 2012), but they are constrained in doing so because dominant males within the group also provide protection from the aggression of neighboring chimpanzees. When frightened by intergroup contact, chimpanzees will rush to briefly embrace dominant males and thus assuage their fear (Goodall 1986), and the same psychology, and the same core behaviors, are observable in humans in mass societies, affecting greater conformity and group cohesion, and rushing to support their leaders, after terrorist attacks occur and wars are declared.
Or in any case, these dynamics were observable until very recently. As I write this in late February 2022, Russia has recently invaded Ukraine, engendering profound geopolitical tension, and for all the very apocalyptic connotations this may bear, what's notable, in the US, is that this has been assimilated as yet another item of the culture wars, rather than provoking a sense of national unity and support for president Biden. At the risk of being the sort of person who quotes Twitter, this entry into that epochal whirlwind of confusion, by an elected member of none other than the House of Representatives of the greatest nation on earth, is illustrative: “You millennial leftists who never lived one day under nuclear threat can now reflect upon your woke sky. You made quite a non-binary fuss to save the world from intercontinental ballistic tweets.”
While it must be acknowledged that this statement means absolutely nothing, or something very close to it, from a strictly grammatical and syntactical perspective, it's easy enough to make certain inferences, most importantly that it's a message of hostility directed at cultural opponents within the US rather than to any international enemies. While the obsession with culture war aspect is just vaguely funny or vaguely depressing, depending on one's mood, the lack of national cohesion, the lack of mobilization of intergroup threat psychology, that typically constrains politics along repetitive and appalling paths, is interesting.
This change reflects a prolonged sequence of historical developments that began when, if my personal observations can be generalized, too-racist-to-eat-Chinese-food guy first went into decline: the 1990s. My perceptions of the 90s are clouded by youth, to be certain, but my overwhelming impression is that they were a time of less fear than during the protracted global wars, one cold and one on terror, that surrounded it—a time of demobilization of intergroup threat psychology. Correspondingly, the end of the cold war marked a threshold, into a greater cultural propensity towards exploration, self-expression, and stimulation seeking.
This psychological change turned out not to be amenable to the extant power structures on either side of the ostensible historic divide. Putin and his cold war security apparatus reconsolidated power in 1999 through a series of horrific bombings in Russia, attributed by him to Chechen separatists but attributed by most others to Putin (Gessen 2013), while the cold war security apparatus in the US reasserted its hegemony in response to 9/11 (or with 9/11, depending on who you ask—the distinction is only so material).
Looking at the responses to the invasion of Ukraine, it is difficult to contemplate the panoply of responses 9/11 would receive now. The process of disengagement from broad material identities, like US citizen, in favor of niche symbolic identities, like critic of the excesses of woke culture, was already well underway in September 2001, but not so far along that the shock of the towers falling didn't have a significant unifying effect (tragically, uniting people into something far uglier than they were before). But the internet seems to provide the supernormal stimulus necessary to cross that threshold, beyond which the old forms of group identity that promote international aggression are no longer particularly salient.
This shift has produced a sort of right-wing international. As suspicions and hostilities between national identities have lessened, as everyone can see perfectly well there's the same types of people to be found in all societies (which means there's some people from everywhere to be found on your preferred corners of the internet), right-wingers have consolidated into groupings which transcend national identity. This might make them more equipped to fight culture wars, but one can see how this is a paradoxical kind of success. Much like those who rap about how it is on the street, only to find themselves in mansions from doing so and thus with little of interest to rap about, this decline in the potency of intergroup fear and hostility ultimately deprives the right of one of its core strategies, just as surely as tolerance of self-expression deprives the left.
Which points us to a final set of observations about the strange ways politics has shifted, out of the realm of material realities and into the dreamlike spectacle it is today. One way to think of the politics of self-expression is that they simultaneously become more oppositional but also less consequential. Inglehart offered dire prognoses about the ability of the existing order to withstand post-materialism, which I think we should call supernormal post-materialism. But on some level the changes he described are actually of a dual nature, such that a strange equilibrium may prevail.
People's politics may become more oppositional, in the sense that they have increasingly fundamental critiques of the existing system and increasingly dramatic alternatives, but they also may become more acquiescent, in the sense that pursuing actual strategies for overthrowing the system requires behavioral cohesion and subordination, on some level, of individual preferences and expression to a collective purpose. Relatedly, the decline in potential for a certain kind of political conflict may reflect one of the ways in which the process of civilization is homologous with the process of domestication. An environment of reduced threat and constant comfort (or in any case a whole lot of supernormal stimulus that helps us forget the threat and discomfort) produces less aggressive foxes and humans alike, with less of what we might simply call toughness (or stress-mediated resilience, if we wanted to sound like that).
When we consider these two facts in conjunction—a lack of serious capacity to engage in group-level strategies in pursuit of concrete ends, and a decline in willingness to suffer in pursuit of those group-level objectives—we might have something approaching an explanation for why it feels like we are living in the midst of a civil war that never really explodes into the full-scale horror we know it could.
What me might expect, in such a world, is an endless succession of spectacular political conflicts, where it seems like whatever feeble bonds were holding together a precarious illusion of social consensus have broken entirely, and a set of profound antagonisms have erupted screaming and bloody into the world to have their final reckoning, only for those conflicts to diffuse, confused and exhausted, into an improbable nothingness. And we might expect the existing system, to much astonishment, to endure another challenge, and to continue to wearily tread along, oblivious and sleeping, towards a different apocalypse, one of its own making. And if this is what we were to expect, then spectacles like the January 6th riots would not be, as they are for so many liberals, much of a surprise.
Of course, that this is so far what we have experienced, under supernormal post-materialist politics, does not guarantee the strange equilibrium will last forever. There are differences between the counterculture freakout of the 60s, with its improbable attempt at revolution, and the right-wing countercultural freakout happening now. Right-left differences are characterized by an asymmetry of aggression, such that we would expect more right-wing violence, an expectation born out by experience (Anti-Defamation League 2019). And the right has the active collaboration of ideological cohorts within the power structure, whereas the left has the active antagonism of liberals, a political tribe with no real counterpart on the right.
But whatever their chances of instituting an authoritarian Caligula state celebrating the worst excesses of American self-indulgence and stupidity, it is likely, owing to the nature of supernormal post-materialism, that witnessing the right's attempts to do so will involve a strange combination of horror at atrocity and contempt for the undisciplined frivolity of aimless self-expression, the rage one feels watching police brutalize crowds combined with the scorn one feels watching devotees of the Bhagwan writhe around naked on the floor, grunting and screaming.
Likewise, any attempts at meaningful sociopolitical transformation will have to account for the radical ways in which identities and priorities have shifted as we have progressed along the technological trajectory. We have to ask ourselves whether and in what ways old frames and terminologies are still useful, and what adventures present themselves when we consider a wholesale reconceptualization of politics.
In conclusion, let's restate some of the key theses presented in this chapter, each one as a single concise statement.
Technology and psychology are a feedback loop, amplifying innate difference.
The psychological variation that produces different political convictions is in thresholds for a given narrative, rather than absolute potentials.
Behavioral and perceptual rigidity is correlated with hierarchical worldview.
Security and abundance engender openness and exploration, a change described in technological mass societies as the post-materialist shift.
The post-materialist shift is proceeding despite deprivation, indicating that inducements to self-expression exceed evolutionary expectations: supernormal post-materialism.
Variation in individual fear thresholds implies a range of time for exploration and openness to manifest in response to abundance and security.
Correlated attitudes towards hierarchy and novelty have historically been central meanings of left and right.
Historical meanings of left-right are shifting, as exploratory self-expression becomes the default mode of society under the post-materialist shift.
The internet is a map of psychological variation in a feedback loop with technology and complexity.
A powerful evolutionary impetus exists for group identification, but we have no innate schema for the basis of groups.
Both individual self-expression needs and group psychology promote epistemic differentiation for its own sake.
Group psychology formerly diminished perceptual divergence as group members had random distributions of traits.
Group psychology now amplifies perceptual difference because group members have non-random distributions of traits.
Responses to collective action problems are significantly complicated by the impetus to establish unique worldviews.
Left strategies of tolerance for self-expression are losing their salience.
Right strategies of mobilization of intergroup threat psychology, via conflicts between nations, are losing their salience.
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