On the internet, we are always famous

The fennec fox is the smallest fox in the world and is cute as a button. He has mischievous dark eyes, a small black nose, and mischievous six-inch ears, each several times larger than his head. The fennec is native to the Sahara, where its comically oversized auricles play two key roles: they keep the fox cool in the scorching sun (blood runs through the ears, releasing heat and circulates back through the now cooler body) and they give the fox fox astonishingly good hearing, allowing it to pick up the comings and goings of the insects and reptiles it hunts for food.

The children’s section of the Bronx Zoo features a pair of human-sized fennec fox ears that give an approximation of fox hearing. Generations of New Yorkers have photos of themselves with their chins resting on a bar between their two huge, statuesque ears, listening to the sounds around them. I was first introduced to ears as a child, in the 1980s. In my memory, inhabiting the fox’s ear is disturbing. The exhibit is not in the middle of the Sahara on a moonlit night. The soundscape is not deathly silence, dusted by the echoes of a lizard buzzing through the sand. The effect is instant sensory overload. Suddenly you hear everything at once: fragments of conversations, shouts, footsteps, all too much and too loud.

Imagine, for a moment, finding yourself equipped with fennec-fox-level hearing at a work function or cocktail party. It’s hard to focus amid the cacophony, but with a little effort you can hear every single conversation. At first you’re excited, because it’s exciting to peek into another person’s private world. Anyone who has glanced through a diary or spent a day in the archives going through personal documents knows this. Humans, as a rule, long to meddle in people’s affairs.

But something starts to happen. First, you hear something a bit exciting, gossip you didn’t know. A couple has separated, someone says. They have been keeping it a secret. But now Angie is dating Charles’s ex! Then you hear something terribly wrong. “The FDA hasn’t approved it, but there’s also a whole fertility issue. I read about a woman who had a miscarriage the day after the injection.” And then something offensive, and you feel like speaking up and offering a correction or objection before remembering that they have no idea you’re listening. They are not talking to you.

Then, inevitably, you hear someone say something about you. Someone thinks it’s weird that you’re always five minutes late for a staff meeting, or wonders if you’re working on that new project Brian started doing on the side, or what’s wrong with that half-dollar place. gray hair on the nape Injury? Some kind of condition?

Suddenly, and I’m speaking from a certain kind of experience on this, so stick with me, the emotion curdles. If you hear something nice about yourself, you feel a brief warm glow, but anything else will make your stomach clench. Knowledge is taboo; the power to hear, permanently cursed.

It would be best at this point to get rid of the fennec ears. Normal human socialization is impossible with them. But even if you leave the room, you can’t help but hear what you’ve heard.

This is what the Internet has become.

Now it seems far away, but once the Internet was going to save us from the threat of television. Since the late 1950s, television has had a special role, both as the country’s dominant medium, in audience and influence, and as the bête noire for a certain current of American intellectuals, who see it as the root of all evil. In “having fun to death”, 1985, Neil Postman argues that, for its first hundred and fifty years, America was a culture of readers and writers, and that the print medium, in the form of written pamphlets, newspapers, speeches and sermons, structured not only public discourse but also the modes of thought and the institutions of democracy itself. According to Postman, television destroyed all of that, replacing our print culture with a picture culture that, in a very literal sense, made no sense. “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain themselves,” he writes. “They don’t exchange ideas; exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities, and commercials.”

This repugnance against the tyranny of television seemed particularly acute in the early years of the George W. Bush administration. In 2007, george saunders wrote a test about the balladry idiocy of the American media in the post-9/11 era and the run-up to the Iraq war. In it, he offers a thought experiment that has stuck with me. Imagine, he says, being at a party, with the normal back-and-forth of a conversation between generally cool and knowledgeable people. And then “a guy walks in with a megaphone. He is not the smartest person at the party, nor the most experienced, nor the most eloquent. But he has that megaphone.

The man begins to offer his opinions and soon creates his own conversational gravity: everyone reacts to what he says. This, Saunders maintains, quickly ruins the party. And if you have a particularly empty-minded megaphone guy, you get a speech that’s not only stupid, but also makes everyone in the room stupider:

Let’s say you haven’t carefully considered the things you’re saying. It’s basically letting go of things. And even with the megaphone, he has to yell a bit to be heard, which limits the complexity of what he can say. Feeling that it has to be entertaining, it jumps from one topic to another, favoring the conceptual-general (“We’re eating more cheese cubes, and we love it!”), which provokes anxiety or controversy (“The wine is running out? Because of a dark conspiracy?”), the gossip (“Quickie is rumored to be in the south bathroom!”), and the trivial (“Which quarter of the nightclub do you prefer?”).

Yes, he wrote it in 2007, and yes, the degree to which he anticipates the heartbreaking stupidity of donald trump‘s pronouncements are amazing. Trump is the brain-dead megaphone come true: the dumbest, most obnoxious guy in the room on the biggest platform. And our national experiment in putting a D-level cable news pundit in charge of the nuclear arsenal was every bit as horrible as Saunders could have predicted.

But Saunders’s critique goes beyond the insidious platitude and volume of mainstream television news, both before and after 9/11. She is arguing that the forms of discourse shape our conceptual architecture, that the sophistication of our thinking is largely determined by the sophistication of the language we hear to describe our world.

This, of course, is not a new claim: the idea that dumb media makes us all dumber echoes from the earliest critiques of newspapers, pamphlets, and tabloids in America, in the late 18th century, to the speech from 1961 to then. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newt Minow, in which he told National Broadcasters of America that his product basically sucked and that television amounted to a “vast wasteland.”

I thought, and many of us thought, that the Internet was going to solve this problem. The rise of liberal blogging, in the run-up to the election of Barack Obama, brought us the most heady days of Internet Discourse Triumphalism. We were going to remake the world through radically democratized global conversations.

That’s not what happened. To oversimplify, this is where we end. The Internet truly brought new voices to a national discourse that had been controlled by too small a group for too long. But it did not return our democratic culture and ways of thinking to the pre-television logocentrism. The short-lived renaissance of long blog arguments was short-lived (and, honestly, a bit insufferable while it was happening). Writing became shorter and images and videos more abundant until the Internet gave birth to a new form of discourse that was a combination of word and image: meme culture. A meme can be witty, even revealing, but it’s not speech in the way Postman hoped.

As for the guy with the megaphone blabbering about the cheese cubes? Well, instead of taking the bullhorn away from that chump, we added a bunch of bullhorns to the party. And guess what: that didn’t make things much better! Everyone had to shout to be heard, and the conversation turned into a game of telephone, everyone shouting variations of the same bits of language, phrases, slogans: an endless hall of sound mirrors. The effect is so disorienting that after a long period of browsing social media, you are likely to feel a deep sense of vertigo.

Not only that: the people who scream the loudest still get the most attention, in part because they stand out against the backdrop of a swaying wall of sound that is now the tone of the room in our collective mental lives. Suffice it to say: the end result was not really a better party, nor the peer-to-peer conversation that many of us expected.

Which, I think, brings us back to fox ears.

The most radical change in our shared social lives is not who speaks, but what we can listen to. Sure, everyone has access to their own little megaphone, and there’s endless debate about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the vast majority of people don’t reach a large audience. And yet, at any given time, almost anyone with a smartphone has the ability to keep an eye on millions of people around the world.

Surveillance capacity was, for years, almost exclusively the province of governments. In US legal tradition, it was seen as an awesome power, subject to restrictions such as injunctions and due process (although those restrictions were often more honored in the offence). And not only that, freedom from ubiquitous surveillance, we were taught in the West, was a defining characteristic of the Free Society. In totalitarian states, someone or something was always listening, and the weight of that overwhelmed every moment of life, suffocating the soul.

Well guess what? Now we have all been granted a power that was previously reserved for totalitarian governments. A fourteen-year-old who isn’t particularly hard-working can learn more about a person in less time than a team of KGB agents could have sixty years ago. The teen could see who you know, where you’ve been, what TV shows you like and don’t like; the gossip you spread and your political views and bad jokes and fights; the names of your pets, the faces of your cousins, your crushes and their favorite places. With a little more work, that teen could get his home address and current employer. But it’s the ability to access the texture of everyday life that makes this power so amazing. It’s possible to get inside the head of just about anyone with a social web presence, because chances are they’re broadcasting their emotional states in real time to the world.

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