Last week, I linked Jon Askonas and Ari Schulman’s essay in National Affairs arguing that the incentive structure of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook rewards the most “noxious versions of ourselves.” Askonas and Shulman argue that global social media companies must die: “If we are to preserve freedom of online speech in the fullest sense—both legitimate freedom from the censorship whims of massive central powers, and genuine freedom for robust exchange and intellectual generation—the global town square must die. Our age is marked by a return to our given condition: tribalism. So be it. Rather than hoping for the restoration of a universalized intellectual culture, we would do better to ratify and manage the reversion to separate communities, to build institutions that encourage tribalism’s more fruitful expressions. Rather than shoving all our debates into a single, hellish town square, let each town have its own, and let us work to make each a place of fruitful exchange.”
The executive editor of The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance, arrives at the same conclusion in an article published today: “Anyone who is serious about mitigating the damage done to humankind by the social web should, of course, consider quitting Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and any other algorithmically distorted informational environments that manipulate people. But we need to adopt a broader view of what it will take to fix the brokenness of the social web. That will require challenging the logic of today’s platforms—and first and foremost challenging the very concept of megascale as a way that humans gather. If megascale is what gives Facebook its power, and what makes it dangerous, collective action against the web as it is today is necessary for change. The web’s existing logic tells us that social platforms are free in exchange for a feast of user data; that major networks are necessarily global and centralized; that moderators make the rules. None of that need be the case. We need people who dismantle these notions by building alternatives. And we need enough people to care about these other alternatives to break the spell of venture capital and mass attention that fuels megascale and creates fatalism about the web as it is now.”
In other news: Jeremy Black writes about the Athenæum: “There are those clubs you want to join and those you can get into. That is the great divide in Clubland, and the Athenæum, in London, is clearly and proudly among the former (though I somehow managed it). Founded in 1824, it broke the mold, with members chosen on the basis of their achievements rather than their background or political affiliation. That had been an ideal in eighteenth-century Britain, and notably so for a major source and focus of clubbability, Freemasonry, which was launched in London in 1717. But the Athenæum clothed the concept with magnificent surroundings, continuity, and a public role to match its private sociability.”
The early life of Pope Benedict: Rupert Shortt reviews the first volume of Peter Seewald’s Benedict XVI: A Life: “A common but flawed assumption about Joseph Ratzinger is that he is simply an ardent conservative. That’s the figure we see in Netflix’s The Two Popes. Anthony Hopkins’s performance may be a visual feast, but the script leaves no cliché unaired. Better informed observers note that the Vatican’s former doctrinal guardian is a poacher turned gamekeeper who once supported major reform of the Catholic Church but then performed a somersault, partly because of worry about threats including Marxism and moral relativism. Among the truest verdicts is that he has always been torn between different versions of himself. The cultural warrior who could urge Catholics not to practice yoga and to avoid the Harry Potter books has insisted at other moments that there are as many paths to God as there are people.”
Henry Edmondson reviews Scott Peeples’s The Man of the Crowd: Edgar Allan Poe and the City: “The Man of the Crowd, then, as the author explains, is a ‘compact biography of Poe that reconsiders his work and career in light of his itinerancy and his relationship to the principle cities where he lived,’ namely Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City. The urban environment of Poe’s time, Peeples explains, lent itself to the mood of many of his stories since ‘cities were dangerous, mysterious places: they were constantly changing, easy to get lost in, and hard to comprehend’—not unlike Poe’s stories. Where possible, Peeples’ narrative of Poe’s peregrinations is illustrated by photographs of those locales, taken by his colleague Michelle Van Parys. Both Peeples and Parys are faculty at the College of Charleston in which vicinity Poe both briefly lived and set at least one of his stories. An annoying habit in literary scholarship occurs when the author’s personal life or circumstances are presumed to explain more of the author’s work than is warranted. Scholars strain to claim causation in every instance of correlation. Some, for example, have assumed that Flannery O’Connor must have endured a dysfunctional relationship with her widowed mother because of all the single matrons in her stories who are the ‘victims’ of the author’s violent grace; when, by contrast, O’Connor was devoted to her mother and the two enjoyed a close daily friendship. O’Connor was once asked by a high school English class the meaning of the black hat that her protagonist, Haze Motes, wore in the author’s first novel, Wise Blood. O’Connor explained that the purpose of the hat was ‘to cover his head.’ Peeples then, expertly tacks a course between Poe’s various locales and the way in which they might reflect his stories, or may have influenced them.
The wisdom of Milan Kundera: “‘Those no longer able to see reality with their own eyes are equally unable to hear correctly,’ writes Josef Pieper. ‘It is specifically the man thus impoverished who inevitably falls prey to the demagogical spells of the powers that be.’ Pieper wrote these lines aboard a ship bound from New York to Rotterdam. Many of the other passengers, he observed, exchanged generalities gleaned from travel guides, having failed to notice during their visit ‘those frequent small signs in the streets of New York that indicate fallout shelters’ or ‘those stone-hewn chess tables … placed in Washington Square by Italian chess enthusiasts.’ They had lost their eye for the specific, tangible detail, ‘the intensity of observation required simply to say, “The girl’s eyes were gleaming like wet currants” (Tolstoy).’ In Pieper’s essay, a great novelist’s grasp of reality provides an antidote to our dulled perception and weakened resistance to ideological seductions. The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera has argued something similar.”
The weather and the imagination: “Samuel Johnson famously remarked, ‘It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know.’ Virginia Woolf politely added that Englishwomen also talk about the weather but thought there should be strict rules attached to all such discussions. A hostess or a novelist might talk about the weather to settle a guest or a reader, but they should move swiftly on to more interesting themes. A novel that considers nothing but the weather was most probably written by Arnold Bennett (I paraphrase). Mark Twain took this further, promising in the opening of The American Claimant that ‘no weather will be found in this book’ as ‘it is plain that persistent intrusions of weather are bad for both reader and author’. Yet we cannot escape the weather and people constantly write and speak about it, defying Twain and Woolf. This pandemic is like the weather, an implacable force that we can’t avoid; it’s abysmal, and the weather can be abysmal as well. Certainly it’s plotless, despite our best efforts, and this emerges in both the form and the content of this excellent anthology. The editors, Alice Oswald and Paul Keegan, note that ‘weather … is all mutability and vicissitude’ and has an ‘immediate and disturbing effect on the imagination’.”