Many, including me, have cited parallels between Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and the internet. As with blogs and Facebook posts, the printing press meant written thought and communication, and its wide distribution, was no longer the exclusive province of an anointed clergy. The voiceless gained a voice, sparking the violent and centuries-long turmoil of the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the Thirty Years’ War, the sort of existential fractures we seem to be teetering on the verge of ourselves.
But how did 17th- and 18th-century Europeans manage to muddle through such disruptive change? How did something so potentially dangerous give birth to the Enlightenment and all its trappings of democracy and human rights? That required a centuries-long elaboration of norms around editorship, the protocols of scholarly and journalistic truth, and a publishing industry of gatekeepers. The New York Times and HarperCollins (and dare we say WIRED) of our day are the contemporary remnants of that coping mechanism.
Antonio García Martínez (@antoniogm) is an Ideas contributor for WIRED. Before turning to writing he headed Facebook’s early ad-targeting efforts. His 2016 memoir, Chaos Monkeys, was a New York Times best seller.
When it comes to the internet, the technologists’ response is very different: They collectively swear by the algorithm, fancy talk for a recipe of logical steps and maybe some math. Our brains can’t parse the jumble of content—part art, part trash—our friends generate on Facebook or the wider web, so an algorithm sorts it for us. Mark Zuckerberg, or really, his News Feed algorithm, is now editor-in-chief of the world’s content (for better or worse).
For a consumer, the difference between Gutenbergian editorial curation and Facebook’s algorithm is that between idealistic prescription and amoral prediction. An editor tells you to eat your vegetables and presents you with an expansive piece on the convoluted political and ethnic logic of the Yemen war. That piece will also be (relatively) balanced—within the self-awareness envelope of the media outlet—and probably fact-checked for objective truths like names, places and quotes.
Conversely, the algorithm will deliver as much sugar and fat as you like, offering up daily doses of french fries like Kim Kardashian’s posterior and the latest contretemps in the Trump telenovela, plus whatever viral, unsubstantiated BS emerged from the internet ooze that day.
In many ways, we are rushing forward to the past. To understand why, consider life before books and mass literacy. There was no notion of “looking something up”—the only knowledge resided in collective memory, or maybe in the head of an elder or shaman. There was no recorded, linear timeline of events beyond nature’s cycles of seasons or lunar phases; society lived in an eternal present. Mediated experience was a swirl of word-of-mouth ephemera and tribal mythology that persisted through unfaithful oral repetition. This was every human’s world until a few centuries ago, nothing on an evolutionary timescale.
How does our brave, new smartphone world compare?
What we politely call “fake news”—a formulation that presupposes some antecedent credible truth called “news” that we’re now abandoning—is just the tribal folklore of a certain (and usually opposing) tribe. Our exhausting and constant absorption in a transitory but completely overwhelming media cycle is our own preliterate eternal present. Who thinks now of Cecil the Lion and the villainous dentist who shot him, whose practice was promptly ruined by an online mob? We’re too busy dealing with the third huge Trump scandal this week, which we’ll forget in due course thanks to next week’s school shooting. Could any of us, if pressed, even construct a chronological ordering of Trump media cycles, or would we have only episodic memories of highlights, as we do when trying to reconstruct some long-ago period of life from memory? Twitter’s Moments product is a constant stream of just such transitory and disordered reactions to context-free events. A history-less forgetfulness is the overarching product vision for Snapchat, whose posts—atomized and textless morsels of personal experience—are designed to disappear and never be consulted or searched.
Future historians will be no help in making sense of our era. There’ll be no authoritative history that more than one faction will trust; a dozen factions will each have their own history. Given the persistence and ubiquity of digital media, it will be the best-documented period in American history, but nobody will agree on what happened.
As always, some prophetic academics have seen this coming, titling this new media medievalism “the Gutenberg Parenthesis” (or in Marshall McLuhan’s coinage “the Gutenberg Galaxy”). The idea here is that Gutenberg opened a parenthesis of textual, literate society, and Zuckerberg (and others) effectively closed it by promoting atomized experiences online. How then does the open debate of democratic societies work in such a post-textual “oral” culture (where the “orality” is not the in-person oral tradition of storytellers and shamans, but an intermediated one of Snapchat stories and viral Facebook videos)?
By and large, it doesn’t.
Let’s step back again from our (soon-to-be former) reality to illustrate the past we’re rushing toward. In the textual Enlightenment world, someone making a good-faith argument musters unique or interesting data, or performs an experiment; in the bad-faith case, they cherry-pick data that proves their point. Either way, there’s some intellectual common ground, both in facts and methodologies, that leads to the hypothesis-thesis-synthesis dialectic of Socrates or Hegel.
In our new media reality, everything is in a Rashomon effect, and real discourse becomes impossible. For those not into artsy film, Rashomon was a 1950 Akira Kurosawa movie whose narrative premise is showing the same criminal act—a murder in a forest—from four contradictory points of view that cast doubt on any underlying reality.
Let’s take a very real and recent criminal act as an example: the Santa Fe, Texas, school shooting. The anti-gun left sees the event as yet more evidence of the need for stronger gun-control legislation. The pro-gun right sees the exact same event as evidence of the contrary, of the utter futility of gun laws in preventing such tragedies. Same crime, same event, but they occupy completely different mental realities that are irreconcilable in practice. Pick any polarizing event on a hot-button issue and you’ll see the same divergent takes on a single event, two incommensurate sets of tribal values that live in distinct ideological worlds yet cohabit the same legacy polity. It’s this Rashomon reality that disallows even the rudiments of the rational discourse required of democracy or science, and which will spell the end of the intellectual experiment that started with a Mainz printer in the late 15th century.
So what will happen?
The post-internet generation, weaned almost since birth on touchscreens and fractious digital media, navigates this raucous world with an equanimity that we dinosaurs beholden to a dead-tree age find impossible to muster. It is a different world, one where the universally acclaimed expert or editor has been replaced by internet-enabled rumor and hearsay arbitrated only by algorithms. There are some dominant media outlets with a claim to primacy, just as every village has a particularly well-informed local gossip, but the capital-T Truth, so beloved by the French encyclopedists, will no longer exist across a broad spectrum of society.
At the end of Rashomon, it becomes clear that no single person’s account of the crime can be trusted. Kurosawa deploys his directorial power to privilege one point of view as the closing one, but there’s no reason to think that one was special. As with the film, we’ll all chose the version we find most appealing. As to what actually happened in that forest (or at Santa Fe High School, or whatever the next national crisis is), we’ll never have a definitive account of it. We won’t even think that possible.