The most interesting thing I saw online this week was Venkatesh Rao’s “Internet of Beefs” essay. I don’t agree with all of it. I’m not even sure I agree with most of it. But it’s a sharp, perceptive, well-argued piece which offers an explanation for why online public spaces have almost all become battlefields, or, as he puts it:
“are now being slowly taken over by beef-only thinkers … Anything that is not an expression of pure, unqualified support for whatever they are doing or saying is received as a mark of disrespect, and a provocation … as the global culture wars evolve into a stable, endemic, background societal condition of continuous conflict.” He goes on to taxonomizes the online knights and mooks who fight in this conflict, in incisive detail.
I agree this continuous conflict exists. (There exists another theory arguing that it’s really mostly bots and disinformation ops. Maybe, I guess, but that claim seems increasingly unconvincing.) I think this seething tire-fire conflict is part of something larger: the transition of the marketplace of ideas from a stock market into a weapons market.
Once, the idea was, there existed a “marketplace of ideas,” wherein people from across the political spectrum — generally the highly educated, but with some room for notions bubbling up from the grassroots — would introduce ideas for initiatives, actions, programs, and/or laws. These ideas would be considered, contrasted, debated, honed, amended, and weighed, and over time, in the same way stock markets identify the best companies, the the marketplace of ideas would identify the finest concepts. These in turn would then see actual implementation, courtesy of those in power — i.e. the rich and the elected — for the greater good of all.
This was the world of think tanks, of policy documents, of presentations at important conferences, of reporting breathlessly on major speeches, of trial-balloon op-eds, of congressional and parliamentary testimony, of councils and summits and studies that produced lavishly bound reports with the expectation that they would be seriously and judiciously considered by all sides of a debate. It was a world where new ideas might climb the hierarchy of the so-called great and good until they rose high enough that it was seen fit to actually implement them.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but if we ever lived in a world anything like that, well, we don’t any more. Some reject it on the (correct) grounds that this so-called marketplace of ideas, shockingly, always seemed to favor entrenching the interests of those “great and good,” the rich and the elected, the councilors and the presenters, rather than the larger population. Others simply want more for themselves and less for everyone else, rather than aiming for any kind of Pareto-optimal ideal outcome for all.
Nowadays the primary goal is to win the conflict, and other outcomes are at best secondary. Policy documents and statistical analyses are not taken for serious across-the-board consideration; they are simply weapons, or fig leaves, to serve as defenses or pretexts for decisions which have already been made.
This may seem so self-evident that it’s not even worth writing about — you probably need only consider your local national politics — but the strange thing is that so many of the participants in the whole apparatus, the policy analysts and think tankers and speechgivers and presenters, don’t seem to realize that nowadays their output is used as weapons and pretexts, rather than ideas to compete with other ideas in a rational marketplace.
Let’s pick a few relatively apolitical/acultural ones, to minimize the chance of your own ingrained conflict responses kicking in. Consider NIMBYism in Bay Area real estate: the opposition to building more housing on the grounds that this could not possibly lower housing prices. It’s a perfect object example of a low-level constant conflict in which all participants have long sine decided on their sides. There is no point in bringing conflicting data to a NIMBY (and, of course, they would say the same about a YIMBY like myself) as they will find a way to dismiss or ignore it. You can lead a horse to data, but you can’t make them think.
A couple more low-politics examples from my own online spaces: in the cryptocurrency world, most participants are so incentivized to believe in their One Truth that nearly every idea or proposal leads to an angry chorus denouncing all other truths. Or consider advocates of greater law enforcement “lawful access” to all encrypted messaging, vs. my own side, that of privacy advocates devoutly opposed to such. Neither side seems particularly interested in actually seriously considering any new data or new idea which might support the other side’s arguments. The dispute is more fundamental than that.
There exist a few remaining genuine marketplaces of ideas. Engineering standards and protocols, for one. (Yes, politics and personal hobbyhorses / vendettas get everywhere, even there, but relatively speaking.) The law, for another, albeit seemingly decreasingly so. But increasingly, academic papers, policy analyses, cross-sectional studies, closely argued op-eds, center-stage presentations, etc., are all artifacts of a world which no longer exists, if it ever really did. Nowadays these artifacts are largely just used to add a veneer of respectability to pre-existing tribal beliefs.
This isn’t true of every politician, CEO, billionaire, or other decisionmaker. And it’s certainly more true of one side than the other. But the increasingly irrelevant nature of our so-called marketplace of ideas seems hard to ignore. Perhaps, when it comes to the the tangible impact of these ceaseless online coal-fire conflicts, that old joke at the expense of academia applies: the discourse is so vicious because the stakes are so small.