Not too long ago I wrote a post about how the Internet may be subtly changing our brain function and creating anxiety in the process. Recently, however, it occurred to me that there’s another, much more obvious factor at work in producing the edginess and unease that characterize modern society – an unease that makes little sense when you consider the unprecedented safety, affluence, and comfort that most people in developed nations enjoy.
When the Internet made its debut, it was hailed as a revolutionary communications technology that would allow us to get in touch with people from all parts of the world and to be exposed to all points of view, thus leading to greater international understanding. This was a wonderfully idealistic way of looking at things, and like so many idealistic dreams, it has foundered on the sharp rocks of reality. While undoubtedly the Internet has fostered some degree of global understanding, it has probably done more to introduce us to points of view that we would be better off not encountering. The egalitarian nature of the Internet, where anybody’s comment counts as much as anyone else’s, has led to a peculiar situation in which all too often we find ourselves hemmed in by idiocy.
Think of it as the “drunk in the bar” syndrome. Everyone is familiar with the movie trope of a drunken bar patron spouting off a bunch of nonsense while the guy on the barstool next to him listens uncomfortably. In real life, nobody takes the drunk at the bar seriously, for two reasons. First, since we are up close and personal with him, we can see that he is just an inebriated slosh whose slurred ramblings can be safely disregarded. Second, we encounter him in a social context, surrounded by other bar patrons who are presumably better grounded than the drunk and able to see him for what he is. Our own skepticism is thus reinforced by the healthy skepticism of those around us.
But on the Internet, everything is different. The crank, the loon, the angry drunk, the mentally disturbed loner is not always immediately identifiable as such. He can seem pretty rational. All we have to go on is his typewritten words and his avatar. We are seeing only what he wants us to see. We aren’t seeing the whole person. We aren’t reading body language. We aren’t hearing tone of voice. One set of typewritten words is very much like another. As long as the errors of grammar, spelling, punctuation are not too egregious, we are inclined to assume that whoever produced them is a basically reasonable person – by which we mean, of course, a person like us.
In addition, we read this Internet comments alone. Though there may be other participants in the online discussion, they are distant from us. We don’t have the advantage of a crowd of essentially rational bystanders who are able to instantly back up our own intuitive assessment. Each other person is at just as much of a loss as we are, and each one is dealing with the drunk at the bar in isolation.
None of this would matter if there weren’t so damn many drunks at the bar. One of the unsettling things about the Internet is that it has exposed just how many disturbed people there are. They were probably always out there, but in the pre-Internet age, we rarely noticed them. Most of them were never very social; their letters to the editor were probably not printed; their tirades against the TV news or the Illuminati probably went unheard. They existed apart from the rest of society, largely unknown, without a voice.
The Internet has given them their voice. That may be good for them, but it’s not so good for the rest of us.
It’s not so good, in part, because encounters with these people on a daily basis can become extremely trying. Dealing with craziness is hard. Just ask any psychiatrist. The rate of burnout in those parts of the medical profession that deal primarily with the mentally ill is extremely high. Not only is it frustrating, even exasperating, to try to handle crazy people, but it can also be mentally and emotionally destabilizing. The well-known “gaslighting” phenomenon comes to mind. If enough people try to convince you that your perceptions are wrong and your grasp of reality is shaky, you may start to believe them. Paradoxically, the crazy people can make you question your own sanity. Trained professionals at least have some idea of how to deal with this problem. The ordinary layman does not.
But there’s a larger reason why it’s not so good to give the drunk at the bar a megaphone. As more extreme and bizarre ideas flood our intellectual space, they tend to crowd out more sane and rational positions. In economics, there’s a rule called Gresham’s Law, which holds that bad money drives out good. On the Internet, it seems that bad ideas drive out the good ones, at least in many cases.
The exponents of crazy theories are not restricted by logic, facts, moderation, common sense, or consideration of other people’s feelings. They are not restricted by anything. This makes them annoying, but it can also make them effective. They simply shout down any objection, sweeping aside factual criticisms with wild inventions, and deflecting logical objections with personal attacks. Internet arguers are much like the people in Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming.”
The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.
The unrestrained, ruthless proponents of nutty ideas have a built-in advantage over anyone pleading for sanity. Sanity is boring. Sanity speaks with a quiet voice. Sanity is polite, self-effacing, willing to admit to self-doubt, open to criticism, and aware that its judgments may be wrong. In online debate, all of this comes across as weakness, while the ranting bluster of the drunk at the bar comes across – at least to many people – as strength. And so the crazy positions gain adherents, while the sane positions, humdrum and uninspiring as they are, slowly retreat.
The foregoing is not, of course, an original observation. It’s just something I probably should have included in my earlier discussion of Internet. The sheer power of this new technology to shape our culture and our national discussions is actually rather frightening and very poorly understood.
By the way, I don’t exempt myself entirely from the above criticism. I’m sure I’ve had my own “drunk at the bar” moments, both here and on social media. The very nature of posting opinions online seems to encourage shoot-from-the-hip punditry, which can often backfire. Blogs and social media mean that none of our thoughts, no matter how fleeting, need to go unexpressed. But many thoughts are probably better off unexpressed. And unfortunately, those with the self-restraint to stay quiet are probably the more reasonable and rational ones, while those who pop off at any opportunity are the more excitable and crazy ones. This is another way in which they dominate the conversation and seize more territory in our intellectual space.
I don’t see a way out of this situation. Barring some massive solar flare that wipes out electromagnetic communications for the next generation, the Internet is here to stay. And truly, I wouldn’t want to be without it. But there are times when I almost wish that it would go away.
Or at least that the drunk at the bar would finally shut up.