I’m currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s superb book, “Sapiens,” which continues to impress me with mind-altering insights that seem familiar and sensible even as they deliver body blows to our collective conceits and modern pride.
One of the central arguments/insights of the book is that Homo sapiens succeeded largely by their ability to create fictions and stories capable of unifying hundreds, if not hundreds of millions of people in both general and specific ways. There is no record of similar capabilities with the counterparts we displaced, such as Homo neanderthalensis or Homo erectus, and there are clear tactical advantages this ability creates which likely allowed us to outcompete the others.
The fictions we create feel so natural that we barely notice them — the fiction that there is such a thing as “human rights” or that there is such a thing as “Europe,” neither of which are fixed by biology or natural conditions. After all, human rights are a recent invention that we did well enough in nature without for thousands of years, and Europe is a construct that is currently being looked at again (as seems to be the case every decade or so). These and other fictions can be revised fairly peacefully (changing the laws around gay marriage) or harshly (the US Civil War to end slavery), but no matter where you look, we are spinning fictions of one sort or another.
The coherence and agreement around cultural stories has been a key aspect of human success, which suggests that incoherence and disagreements that last too long or go unresolved may lead to chaos and strife, even severe setbacks.
At last week’s SSP Annual Meeting, some of the incoherence in our industry was on display, as summarized by a tweet from Phill Jones:
This angst seems to stem from an increasingly fragmented media landscape, which is a source of cultural incoherence. Forty years ago, the news landscape in America was known for broadcasts ending in a phrase that suggested one story — “And that’s the way it is” — and newspapers trusted to hold “all the news that’s fit to print.” Each of those signatures suggested a unified cultural story. Now, the only source of agreement seems to be about the time of day as journalists sign off with a tepid “good night” or “good afternoon” while the newspaper industry itself is in tatters. Gone are the days in which the news was telling a set of stories that we would accept as our common update. This dissipation of effect — and the related economic vulnerability within journalism — has made it harder for journalists to bring power to heel while also eroding the sense of common purpose humans have used repeatedly to gain an advantage.
As the media have fragmented, the resulting shards have sprouted labels. There is a channel for everything, a blog for every viewpoint. Such labels travel well and are a source of local unity that simultaneously reinforces the wider fragmentation. You are either a “conservative” or a “progressive” or a “liberal” or a “socialist” in the political realm, or a “foodie” or a “hipster” or a “vegan” in the social realm. This same media landscape — virtual, removed, asynchronous — insulates purveyors of labels from the downsides of stereotyping and pigeonholing, perpetuating the separation by creating barriers to unification.
A recent article in the New Yorker does an excellent job portraying some messiness around these trends and their effects on academia by profiling Oberlin College in Ohio. Oberlin has encouraged diversity via labels so heavily, it now has many “n of 1” situations, where a particular student feels she or he must represent all the gender, racial, cultural, or socioeconomic labels they possess, even to the point of undermining the university’s role of resolving differences and moving them toward a level of common educational achievement. Instead of diversity being resolved, differences have become something to embellish and emphasize. From custom degrees to protests and outrage, it’s a can of worms that’s not easily closed.
Peace and prosperity may have something to do with the situation. Nathan Heller, the author of the piece, quotes Alexis de Tocqueville in an especially compelling section of the article:
Tocqueville thought [the French Revolution occurring in a time of prosperity] wasn’t a coincidence. “Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable, become intolerable when once the idea of escape from them is suggested,” he wrote. His claim helped give rise to the idea of the revolution of rising expectations: an observation that radical movements appear not when expectations are low but when they’re high, and vulnerable to disappointment.
In the case of Oberlin’s identity politics, adding diversity has driven a lack of tolerance among the diverse — some feel that unless their worldview is completely honored and respected, they have been done a disservice by the college and society in general. Some loud voices are unwilling or unable to accept that diversity and compromise can co-exist. They also find themselves trapped by their own identity politics. As one student activist says:
As a person who plans on returning to my community, I don’t want to assimilate into middle-class values. I’m going home, back to the ‘hood of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin.
The fragmentation of experience and identification is clear — there is nothing larger defining this person’s world than her own differences, which she clings to in a cycle of self-absorption, which is reinforced by a media landscape that allows her to avoid broader cultural mainstreaming. She can make up a smaller story all her own, and live within that.
Recently, a story with some similarities emerged at one of my alma maters. A renowned environmental humanities professor at the University of Utah, Terry Tempest Williams, resigned after administrators apparently caved to student complaints about the travel requirements of her capstone course, which took students to the Southern Utah desert. As the student newspaper wrote:
As a school, we should worry a little less about . . . student approval and a little more about education.
The political life of Americans is similarly affected by a fragmented media, with some speculating that the media’s inability to confront the worrisome candidacy of Donald Trump comes from their co-dependence on him — that is, the media is so weak and fragmented that few outlets have the power or resources to ignore, upset, or attack him. Those that do are fighting for time in a confetti storm of other media. Many feel so vulnerable that any slip in ratings or ceding of ground to a competitor may be a fatal misstep. Sensing fragmentation provides cover, Trump works the phones to keep his media vassals dependent on him and to spread his appearances across so many outlets that he is hard to pin down.
The fragmentation seems to go deeper, as David Frum speculated recently in the Atlantic, in a piece entitled, “The Seven Broken Guardrails of Democracy.” Frum states a key question early on:
It’s often said that a good con is based upon the victim’s weaknesses. Why were conservatives and Republicans so vulnerable?
Taking us back to Harari’s book, the weakness may be a lack of a coherent cultural story of America and American civics and ideals. The power of a unifying story is seen in a 2006 lecture by Robert Putnam:
In the short run, however, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer. In the long run, however, successful immigrant societies have overcome such fragmentation by creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities. Illustrations of becoming comfortable with diversity are drawn from the US military, religious institutions, and earlier waves of American immigration.
Again, those places with strong, unifying stories of purpose — the military, the church — have the advantage by smoothing over differences. Even the “earlier waves of American immigration” fit here, as those immigrating largely wanted to mainstream into American culture. As Frum writes:
The generation that bore arms in World War II returned home with a strong — arguably unprecedentedly strong — loyalty to the nation as a whole. Never before or after did so many civilians move across state lines as in the decade of the 1940s. . . . which in turn discovered new affinities for each other in a common creed of “Americanism.”
Reductions in social solidarity are now also fragmenting a major political party beyond recognition. As Frum writes using his “guardrail” analogy:
The ideology guardrail snapped because so much of the ideology itself had long since ceased to be relevant to the lives of so many Republican primary voters. Instead of a political program, conservatism had become an individual identity. What this meant, for politicians, was that the measure of your “conservatism” stopped being the measures you passed in office — and became much more a matter of style, affect, and manner.
This is an interesting tangent to our own scholarly communication world of ideologically-driven discontents and drift. I’ve often wondered why we started to become factionalized at about the same time as the general culture, and I feel as if this perspective — broken stories, fragmented media, and a loss of coherence — provides some plausible answers.
First, we turn to prosperity and expectations. By 1995, when the web started to become part of scholarly and scientific publishing in a big way, journals were robust, well-functioning, and well-funded. There were few worries about their finances in general, and the societies producing many of them were also doing well for the same reasons. In short, it was a prosperous time — and prosperity can lead to dissipation if handled poorly.
Second, we turn to the expectations, which were very high initially when the Internet came to information businesses. “Disruption” was expected. The possible extent of this was best represented in the incomplete and often-purposely truncated rallying cry, “Information wants to be free.” The expectation which formed was one of unfettered access, and this soon came to mean unpaid access.
Finally, we turn to fragmentation, labels, and identity politics. Over the past 15 years, there has been a protracted campaign to find a way to make free access come to pass. This has led to a major fragmentation in our system between “pro-OA” and “anti-OA” voices, which created many echo chambers that persist to this day (this blog is portrayed by some as one of these, another tactic of fragmentation). Our profession has become so fragmented in purpose that some groups pursue certain goals while ignoring authors, laws, and economic sense.
Have priority and attention become a matter of “style, affect, and manner” more than a measure of effectiveness and competence? Perhaps. For example, the founder of Sci-Hub’s recent appearance via satellite at an OA meeting was described by one person as, “I disagree with what she’s doing, but I like her style.” Whether this person will put style over substance in action remains unclear, but the fact that it’s even a question is informative.
We seem to have lost track of the importance of a unifying story, a unifying purpose — why publishers, editors, and reviewers exist; their purpose and role in academic research and knowledge work; and the benefits they deliver very consistently at very low costs to the system. Is our goal now:
- to increase public access?
- to improve the rate of reproducibility?
- to decrease the rate of retraction?
- to eliminate fraud and over-interpretation?
- to increase the rate of disruption?
- to deliver answers to practitioners?
- to make data more available?
We no longer seem to agree on the story of our profession, yet unifying stories are exactly what allow us to make progress, allowing us to understand which issues are primary, which are secondary. Reiterating an important phrase from something cited above, “. . . societies have overcome such fragmentation by creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities.”
Our fragmentation of purpose is obvious, and the larger media environment supports it, even encourages it. To put it another way, the emperor has clothes, but in the midst of some saying pants are gloves and shoes are hats, he has forgotten how to dress himself.
Continuing to cultivate disruption for disruption’s sake is damaging. It feels like it’s time to start coming together around common goals and purpose once again.
Fragmentation’s damage can be seen in the major media. No longer do the networks sign off with unifying taglines like, “And that’s the way it is.” Tellingly, the mood is moribund to the point of the ultimate sign-off coming in the form of CNN’s infamous “apocalypse video” — in which the network was shown to be preparing for the end of the world.
Is fatalism all we can agree on now?