The Missing Jury

I disabled my Facebook account yesterday. Don’t worry, this isn’t quitlit: I’m sure I will return to Facebook sometime in the future, and I’m not going to go off on some long self-righteous rant that I will have to walk back in a month.

But the reason I disabled Facebook, roughly, was because in this Democratic primary season it was:

  1. Making me dumber, and
  2. Making my friends dumber

It sucks to become dumber, but it’s also relatively painless, as the condition is in fact its own analgesic. It’s more painful to watch people you respect acting like idiots.

(And no, I’m not referring to the commentators on my “free college” Facebook post, since some of them read me here and may be wondering – you were all great. I’m talking about the never-ending streams of others).

Ultimately Facebook began to remind me of that moment where a Thanksgiving dinner starts to go wrong and if you’re smart you just disengage before you do any permanent damage.

There’s plenty of people in the Democratic Party who have good reasons for supporting Hillary Clinton as the nominee. I’d say, broadly, that people who support Clinton have a “coalition” view of politics, and believe that (for the moment) our best chance at doing good will come from incremental actions from a broad body of people with differing opinions and aims.

On the Sanders side, the theory of change is best described as “populist”. Here the idea is that there already exists a silent majority that has been ill-served by the current regime, and that — if properly educated — would all desire and fight for the same set of solutions. You don’t need a coalition in this model, you just need to break through the media bubble and have everyone see that our different problems and concerns stem from a few fundamental factors, normally imposed by an elite.

The populist/coalition dichotomy is a fascinating one with a rich history, and we could all learn a lot by talking to one another about it. We could become better people, more effective-problem solvers,  with increased self-awareness about our own motivations and beliefs.

But of course that is not what happens on Facebook. On that platform it is currently just an endless parade of outrage — people sharing articles that prove the point that their opponents are the most-awfulest-people-in-the-world, did you see this new outrage or article that proves we’re the victims, you’re the oppressors, and we’re actually even 10% more right than we *initially* thought (for a grand total of 163% right!).

To what extent do the current tools we use promote this sort of thing? It’s a thorny question. If you’re familiar with the research, you know we suck at this stuff even without these tools. We crave certainty to a fault. Confirmation bias is the rule, not the exception. Once we’ve made a decision and acted on it, explaining it to others makes us more cognitively rigid, not less. In fact, a major cognitive theory of the moment proposes that most of what we call reasoning was not developed for problem solving at all, but for persuasion.

Honestly, I could fill this page up with links on this. It’s depressing. My daughter even recently told me about a paper she read where birds (birds!) outperformed humans on a pattern-recognition task that involved confirmation bias.  Ultimately your brain is designed to convince people to get a seed for you, and so is configured to present certainty to the outside world. The bird’s brain just wants to figure out the best method to get the damn seed.

At the same time I keep coming back to the social media we have and thinking there is something very unique here. On Facebook people are taking positions on events that happened minutes ago multiple times a day. Most information that comes in (outside of the kitten-stuck-in-boxes videos) is immediately routed through the personal spin machine, pumped out and committed to. Reactions by others sink their own stakes in the ground. The entire day is spent boundary-making.

In an ideal world, maybe this produces a good result — a prosecutor puts forward the best possible case for their side, the defender for theirs, the jury contemplates and decides, benefiting from the work of both. But just as the traditional reader has disappeared in the new media ecosystem (replaced by a reader/writer), so has the jury. There is no jury anymore — we’re all committed, doubled-down on whatever we wrote five minutes after we read something.

When I look at the structure of social media now, this is the big thing I see — it’s a future where every story and incoming piece of information is immediately tagged according to its usefulness to our ongoing argument and narrative and is then pumped out to a jury of our peers as evidence of our correctness. But the jury box is empty; the jurors all became lawyers long ago. They are off arguing their own cases, to other people on their legal team, a never-ending stream of self-righteousness streaming out to empty courtrooms for eternity.

Things will hopefully get better as the primary resolves — we’ll still be hopelessly fractured between right and left, but at least there might be some productive discussion on the left. Maybe. I’ll check back into Facebook in a month or two to find out. As I said, this is not quitlit, but it maybe is an argument for a pause.


You might be interested in some related thoughts from Jon Udell back in January on David Gray’s Liminal Thinking work.




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