What An Echo Chamber Is For
“We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” So everyone says these days, quoting a character no one remembers from a movie no one has seen — repeatedly, incessantly, droningly, ad nauseam. Our performative riling up, on cue and at the cracked whip of our preferred “news sources,” is not a call to action, let alone to serious reflection, but rather an end in itself. Not our end, of course, since we have no authority in the process of forming these opinions whatsoever, having ceded that luxury of adulthood to the marketing geniuses and mass psychology experts who feed us what we imagine we want to hear, as though, were we to simply repeat the prescribed mantra often enough, we might somehow accomplish something. In other words, we’re mad as hell but we’re going to take it forever.
Elon Musk is thrilling the populist throngs these days with his big revelations about the hidden agenda at Twitter prior to his takeover of the company, which the energized sheep glom onto with all the excitement of Unveiled Truth. And what is this truth they are so excited about? That the most ubiquitous social media company was being exploited as an elaborate mass manipulation scheme?
But who — apart from the hundreds of millions whose souls were sucked into this festering sore of “social communication” years ago — has not known all along that social media is at base a psy-ops scheme? Whether it worked too closely with this or that specific government agency or agenda during this or that election cycle may be of some relevance to the political wranglings of a specific moment, but it is ultimately beside the point. In fact, this Musk- and Fox News-led thrill ride over Twitter’s role in affecting the 2020 election will prove, in the end, to be a dangerous distraction from the much wider, non-partisan issue, one affecting all sides of every political or moral argument today, namely the way the (intentionally) addictive properties of social media have effectively reduced public discourse about the most important matters to sloganeering moral screeds and unreasoned political exhibitionism.
Modern liberal society and its forms of representative government absolutely depend, for their survival as anything but precursors to tyranny, on humans being habituated to moderation and circumspection, and educated to rely on their rational faculty as their guide in personal and public decisions. Social media has killed even the secret shame men once felt at not having good reasons for their opinions. For who needs reasons today, when “likes” are the new measure of the value of a statement? Who cares about knowledge when anonymous “followers” determine a voice’s worth? Who knows what one actually thinks at all, when all that matters is knowing which troll mob one belongs to this week, and faithfully adhering, with all the mind-numbing cacophony of cannon-fodder activism, to that tribe’s rile-up rant of the moment?
The purpose of social media, much like its parent tranquilizer, the “mainstream media,” and its grandparent and genetic master, public school, is to shrink the range of available thought and awareness, to lop off the tall poppies and then replace them with propped up plastic things on wire stems, and above all to reduce public discourse to the endless repetition of the latest catechism from on high, or rather a synoptic version of the catechism, drained of all concrete detail and critical understanding, which can be regurgitated on demand in a style that inherently conflates comforting familiarity with pithiness.
Elon Musk will allow more populist nonsense to appear on Twitter, along with, perhaps, an occasional bit of principled conservatism that was previously banned, framed with a warning, or blocked from being recommended under the old regime. But he will not change what Twitter fundamentally is, for no one can do that. And what it fundamentally is, was, and will be, holds risks and terrifyingly tangible results that extend far beyond anything one may hope to correct by firing a few corrupt moderators or re-coding an algorithm. Social media, at its core, is the constant hum of self-satisfied lassitude, the cathartic outlet for energies that might have moved nations or elevated souls, but which, by being spent in the worthless wash cycle of universal social communication, will amount to nothing of significance. It is the true “echo chamber” — a popular phrase that we always apply to others, never ourselves — in which one’s spirit is forever trapped, shouting all the while, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore,” while taking it, and taking it, and taking it, to the end of life, and beyond if necessary.