We're now a good 40 years into the computer revolution, and maybe the best way to understand what's happened would be to construct a scatter plot of the results. We need to graph everything onto a Cartesian plane, in other words, with a vertical axis for the personal effects computers have had and a horizontal axis for the social effects.
So, for example, the ability to perform extraordinarily detailed, second-by-second monitoring of patients in a hospital—that would score high on beneficial personal effect for the individual patients, and it has fairly benign social effects. Plot it in the upper-right quadrant.
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The computerized ability to monitor the behavior of everyone in a public setting, however—that has a generally positive score for individuals, protecting us from terror attacks and criminal assault. But it has a negative score for a society stripped of freedom by constant surveillance. Plot it in the upper-left quadrant.
The digitizing of criminal records, making it difficult to dodge the consequences of, say, multiple drunk-driving convictions in different states? Great for society, bad for individuals. Belongs in the lower-right quadrant. And the creation of electronic telephoning, allowing the solicitations of robo-calls? Negatives for both society and individuals. Goes in the lower-left quadrant.
And there we are. The computer revolution has some beneficial effects and some malignant—and a lot of consequences that force us to choose among irreconcilable, rival goods. Thus, for example, it was always the case that we could have a free culture or a safe culture, but not both. But prior ages saw this mostly as a theoretical worry, since we simply couldn't watch out for everyone. The computer revolution has ratcheted that problem into one of the central dilemmas of our age.
Or, to take an example from the news, what are we to make of social media? Examining this topic in a narrow but interesting way, Dale Beran has penned It Came From Something Awful, an expansion of a 2017 essay in which he claimed that the peculiar 4chan discussion board provides "the skeleton key" for understanding "the rise of Trump."
Of course, interesting is a two-edged word, and Beran's work is almost as nutty in its writing as it is in its thinking. But It Came From Something Awful is at least right to urge us to consider what the computer revolution enables and what price we pay for it. And it's timely, even in its fantastical thesis, since social media is in the news once again, thanks to Sen Josh Hawley's introduction of a new bill to fight "social-media addiction."
In some sense, It Came From Something Awful is simply a particular explication of a general truth we've known for some time: The glory of the Internet is that it allows like-minded people to find one another—and the horror of the Internet is that it allows like-minded people to find one another. Book lovers, stamp collectors, and model-airplane enthusiasts can all band together to share their hobbies. So can neo-Nazis and child molesters. Or in the case of 4chan and 8chan, Beran claims, a bunch of disaffected teenage boys began by "talking online about Japanese anime" on the "Something Awful" chatboard, and they gradually morphed into the alt-right.
The teenage nihilism of the 1990s "endured well into the 2000s, longer than most youth cultures," Beran argues. But "like wine turned into vinegar, it could decay no further." It started as trolling, saying bizarre and awful things for the comedy of saying the bizarre and awful. Eventually, according to Beran, the people doing the trolling came to believe their own messages, saying bizarre and awful things because they thought the bizarre and awful were true. Thus the alt-right was born. And thereby was Trump elected.
The reductionism is too much to bear for any not in the full throes of a Trump-equals-Hitler fantasy—a psychosis apparently shared by both the alt-right and the left. By the leftist Dale Beran, for that matter. Remember the claim that the OK hand gesture is a white-power symbol? It Came From Something Awful takes far too seriously 4chan's memes. In that, however, Beran is joined by far too many people. 4chan is significant because the media over-reports its invented and obnoxious memes, which then causes the actual alt-right to adopt them, which then confirms them as actual symbols of the alt-right. And round and round the circle goes.
The book jumps from topic to topic in dizzying fashion. We’'e treated to such successful 4chan memes as rickrolling and the campaign against Scientology. We get discussions of Tumblr and Japanese chatboards. All building to the impression that 4chan runs the world.
But if the reader can drop the idea that Trump is Hitler. Drop the idea that the alt-right is actually the cause of Trump's election. Drop the idea that 4chan was capable of swinging an election. Drop the reflexive left-is-good/right-is-evil rhetoric that Beran indulges. Then what remains in It Came From Something Awful is still something that should interest both sensible liberals and sensible conservatives. The book is, at its best, a psychological study of a set of people, mostly young men, who found themselves in the early 2000s off on the far edges of statistical distribution. They were underemployed and unfinanced, but clever in a morally unserious way. And they had all the time in the world to spend online.
So they started using their cleverness, creating nihilistically tinged comic memes for one another—memes that played against cultural norms. And since the only culture they knew was one of liberal triumph, they took anti-liberalism as their vehicle. They made fun of the culture's pieties, and they toyed with the things that culture had said was wrong, particularly sexism and racism.
Not that they actually embraced sexism and racism. They were too jaded, as Beran points out, to embrace anything. They chose to trumpet those evils for the simple reason that they got a larger rise out of people with sexism and racism. And getting a rise out of people was the point—and doing it in a way that let their fellow nihilists (and no one else) see the wink.
Fifty years before, they would have shaken it off, for the most part—loneliness and the need to make a living forcing them back into the ordinary world. But the glory and the horror of the internet is that it allows like-minded people to find one another. In the 2000s, they discovered that they were not alone. They learned that they could act as one another’s audience. And they created something vile.
Social media, in other words, should be plotted far down in the lower-left quadrant of our graph. It's awful for the individual, truly despicable. And it's even worse for society.