20200
P
1
20100
R  E
2
2070
D   I   C
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2050
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2040
S   F   O   R   J
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2030
O  U  R  N  A  L
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2020
I  S  M  2  0  2  0
7

A time to question core beliefs

“Are the things we have always assumed to be true, true? Do the things we have always assumed to work, work? Have they ever, and for whom?”

A single-use plastic water bottle bobbing in the ocean is not the climate crisis. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t either.

The climate crisis isn’t one self-contained thing, or even a cluster of many self-contained things; the climate crisis is the cumulative effect of decades of individual choices, corporate policies, technological innovations, and regulatory ducking and weaving — and all the overlapping between each.

We need to do something about the environmental waste we have created, without question. But focusing exclusively on ad hoc solutions — fishing that water bottle out, collecting accumulated plastic one scoop at a time and transferring it out for recycling — won’t address the reasons the waste got there in the first place. And so it will keep flowing.

Similarly, a single conspiracy theory, hoax, or racist attack is not the network crisis. The most toxic, violent space online isn’t either.

The network crisis is the cumulative effect of decades of individual choices, corporate policies, technological innovations, and regulatory ducking and weaving — and all the overlapping between each.

We need to do something about the digital waste we have created, without question. But focusing exclusively on ad hoc solutions — suspending the harassing account, deplatforming the white supremacist group and watching as its members scurry to some other, less-regulated site — won’t address the reasons the waste got there in the first place. And so it will keep flowing.

The most obvious difference between the climate crisis and the network crisis is where each unfolds. The most obvious similarity is the threats they each represent. The ideas we share, the information we process, and the communities we build might not be as tangible as the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we cultivate — but when poisoned, they are equally perilous.

With so much at stake in 2020, more journalists (and more people generally) will be willing to approach networked spaces ecologically. They will do so heeding the words of botanist and member of the Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer, who notes in her poetic reflection Braiding Sweetgrass that we must reframe our relationship to the environment if we hope to make any lasting change. If we hope, more pressingly, to save ourselves and our children. Kimmerer is speaking of the natural world, but her argument is just as true of digital spaces: If we don’t begin to tell different stories about the digital landscape, if we don’t begin to shift our mindset to what Kimmerer describes as an ethics of responsibility, one that acknowledges the fundamental reciprocity between people, technologies, and institutions, we cannot begin to act differently.

Doing so won’t just be about embracing a new framework, one that situates all of us squarely within the environment as people whose tweets and articles and snark are fundamentally part of the story we’re covering. It will also mean challenging the assumptions that have been enshrined within journalism for generations and throughout Western thought for much longer than that.

The first is the two-pronged presumption that facts are enough to save us, and that, when confronted by hate and other malignancies, sunlight will disinfect them. The roots of these assumptions extend well beyond Louis Brandeis’ ubiquitous 1913 coinage. They are foundational to the political philosophies upon which the United States and other liberal democracies are built. Far beyond that, they reach back into the Enlightenment, whose entire project was to vanquish ignorance and superstition through the light of reason — light that was, itself, the inheritor of a centuries-old Judeo-Christian tradition (particularly the extreme dualism within Catholicism) linking virtue and truth to divine light. We are primed in the West to believe that light is, essentially, magic — whatever ails us, it will cure.

The cover engraving on Voltaire’s book on Newtonian philosophy; the figure emanating divine (scientific) light is Newton himself. Eighteen-century art often featured images of women, representing Truth, holding mirrors to best reflect that light and show the world as it really was (see Reichardt and Cohen 1998).

A host of related beliefs, each seemingly natural and necessary, have percolated out through this same Enlightenment-era root system. One is the belief that individual people are wholly autonomous, atomistic, independent subjects, encapsulated in the idea that it’s reporter’s job to publish the facts and the reader’s job to decide what to do with them. Always separate, always housed in our own discrete little bubbles. Another belief is that freedom is about remaining free from external restriction, including editorial restriction. (I can certainly attest to this presumption, given how many reporters have balked at the concept of strategic silence when covering hate groups.) Yet another is that the marketplace of ideas will filter all the news that’s fit to print, floating the best arguments and most relevant facts to the top of the pile. Rationality will prevail, as the bright light of truth shines down upon us.

A growing number of journalists in 2020 — and critics, and everyday folks — will begin asking a series of simple yet devastating questions in response to these assumptions. Are the things we have always assumed to be true, true? Do the things we have always assumed to work, work? Have they ever, and for whom?

As they ask these questions, these journalists and critics and everyday folks will consider, for instance, the failures of the marketplace of ideas — how it cannot even begin to function in the face of algorithmic amplification, media manipulation, and economic systems that reward and incentivize the loudest, most abusive, most misleading voices. (Shireen Mitchell speaks to this point here.) They’ll ask how free speech can be when those loudest, most abusive, most misleading voices are able to snatch the microphone away from everyone else. They’ll ask how reliable an ally the truth really is. And then they’ll ask what we do next, given the flipside of Kimmerer’s claim that all flourishing is mutual. It is — and so is all harm. So is all pollution.

What now, they will ask. What do we do? And there will be no answer, not yet.

As a counterbalance, there will be people who resist all this in 2020, who defend status quo action and status quo thinking. The marketplace of ideas works fine, they’ll say; the problem is that we don’t have enough facts. The freest possible speech and freest possible spread of information makes society stronger — incidentally, a position held by corporate executives and white supremacist hotbeds alike. In other words: But it’s served me well. But I am comfortable. But I am profiting.

For those who are well and comfortable and profiting, let’s walk together. Let’s explore the polluted shores. Let’s survey the burned-out houses and harvest the poisoned fruit and bear witness to the anguished bodies. Then look me in the eye. How well is your way going?

Whether or not the change we need is enacted — nothing short of a Green New Deal for network pollution will do — will depend entirely on the ratio between those who refuse to relinquish their ideological comforts and those are willing to reimagine their relationship to the landscape, for better and for worse, and who are prepared to work through the resulting anxiety and grief. What happens next is unknowable. But 2020 will help seal the outcome.

Whitney Phillips is an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University.

A single-use plastic water bottle bobbing in the ocean is not the climate crisis. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t either.

The climate crisis isn’t one self-contained thing, or even a cluster of many self-contained things; the climate crisis is the cumulative effect of decades of individual choices, corporate policies, technological innovations, and regulatory ducking and weaving — and all the overlapping between each.

We need to do something about the environmental waste we have created, without question. But focusing exclusively on ad hoc solutions — fishing that water bottle out, collecting accumulated plastic one scoop at a time and transferring it out for recycling — won’t address the reasons the waste got there in the first place. And so it will keep flowing.

Similarly, a single conspiracy theory, hoax, or racist attack is not the network crisis. The most toxic, violent space online isn’t either.

The network crisis is the cumulative effect of decades of individual choices, corporate policies, technological innovations, and regulatory ducking and weaving — and all the overlapping between each.

We need to do something about the digital waste we have created, without question. But focusing exclusively on ad hoc solutions — suspending the harassing account, deplatforming the white supremacist group and watching as its members scurry to some other, less-regulated site — won’t address the reasons the waste got there in the first place. And so it will keep flowing.

The most obvious difference between the climate crisis and the network crisis is where each unfolds. The most obvious similarity is the threats they each represent. The ideas we share, the information we process, and the communities we build might not be as tangible as the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we cultivate — but when poisoned, they are equally perilous.

With so much at stake in 2020, more journalists (and more people generally) will be willing to approach networked spaces ecologically. They will do so heeding the words of botanist and member of the Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer, who notes in her poetic reflection Braiding Sweetgrass that we must reframe our relationship to the environment if we hope to make any lasting change. If we hope, more pressingly, to save ourselves and our children. Kimmerer is speaking of the natural world, but her argument is just as true of digital spaces: If we don’t begin to tell different stories about the digital landscape, if we don’t begin to shift our mindset to what Kimmerer describes as an ethics of responsibility, one that acknowledges the fundamental reciprocity between people, technologies, and institutions, we cannot begin to act differently.

Doing so won’t just be about embracing a new framework, one that situates all of us squarely within the environment as people whose tweets and articles and snark are fundamentally part of the story we’re covering. It will also mean challenging the assumptions that have been enshrined within journalism for generations and throughout Western thought for much longer than that.

The first is the two-pronged presumption that facts are enough to save us, and that, when confronted by hate and other malignancies, sunlight will disinfect them. The roots of these assumptions extend well beyond Louis Brandeis’ ubiquitous 1913 coinage. They are foundational to the political philosophies upon which the United States and other liberal democracies are built. Far beyond that, they reach back into the Enlightenment, whose entire project was to vanquish ignorance and superstition through the light of reason — light that was, itself, the inheritor of a centuries-old Judeo-Christian tradition (particularly the extreme dualism within Catholicism) linking virtue and truth to divine light. We are primed in the West to believe that light is, essentially, magic — whatever ails us, it will cure.

The cover engraving on Voltaire’s book on Newtonian philosophy; the figure emanating divine (scientific) light is Newton himself. Eighteen-century art often featured images of women, representing Truth, holding mirrors to best reflect that light and show the world as it really was (see Reichardt and Cohen 1998).

A host of related beliefs, each seemingly natural and necessary, have percolated out through this same Enlightenment-era root system. One is the belief that individual people are wholly autonomous, atomistic, independent subjects, encapsulated in the idea that it’s reporter’s job to publish the facts and the reader’s job to decide what to do with them. Always separate, always housed in our own discrete little bubbles. Another belief is that freedom is about remaining free from external restriction, including editorial restriction. (I can certainly attest to this presumption, given how many reporters have balked at the concept of strategic silence when covering hate groups.) Yet another is that the marketplace of ideas will filter all the news that’s fit to print, floating the best arguments and most relevant facts to the top of the pile. Rationality will prevail, as the bright light of truth shines down upon us.

A growing number of journalists in 2020 — and critics, and everyday folks — will begin asking a series of simple yet devastating questions in response to these assumptions. Are the things we have always assumed to be true, true? Do the things we have always assumed to work, work? Have they ever, and for whom?

As they ask these questions, these journalists and critics and everyday folks will consider, for instance, the failures of the marketplace of ideas — how it cannot even begin to function in the face of algorithmic amplification, media manipulation, and economic systems that reward and incentivize the loudest, most abusive, most misleading voices. (Shireen Mitchell speaks to this point here.) They’ll ask how free speech can be when those loudest, most abusive, most misleading voices are able to snatch the microphone away from everyone else. They’ll ask how reliable an ally the truth really is. And then they’ll ask what we do next, given the flipside of Kimmerer’s claim that all flourishing is mutual. It is — and so is all harm. So is all pollution.

What now, they will ask. What do we do? And there will be no answer, not yet.

As a counterbalance, there will be people who resist all this in 2020, who defend status quo action and status quo thinking. The marketplace of ideas works fine, they’ll say; the problem is that we don’t have enough facts. The freest possible speech and freest possible spread of information makes society stronger — incidentally, a position held by corporate executives and white supremacist hotbeds alike. In other words: But it’s served me well. But I am comfortable. But I am profiting.

For those who are well and comfortable and profiting, let’s walk together. Let’s explore the polluted shores. Let’s survey the burned-out houses and harvest the poisoned fruit and bear witness to the anguished bodies. Then look me in the eye. How well is your way going?

Whether or not the change we need is enacted — nothing short of a Green New Deal for network pollution will do — will depend entirely on the ratio between those who refuse to relinquish their ideological comforts and those are willing to reimagine their relationship to the landscape, for better and for worse, and who are prepared to work through the resulting anxiety and grief. What happens next is unknowable. But 2020 will help seal the outcome.

Whitney Phillips is an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University.

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