It has become almost commonplace to declare modern politics consumed by a resurgence of nationalism—but that’s wrong. While there are compelling and important parallels between Brexit, MAGA, and the traditional Blut und Boden nationalism of the 20th century—we are living in an era defined by a new paradigm of personalization that is driving a tectonic shift in the way we imagine and identify with our larger communities. The stakes? A democratic world increasingly sacrificed to swaths of people who earnestly believe that governments are using chemicals to turn frogs gay, a version of reality where elections are determined by programmers, data-scientists, opportunist influencers, and Russian troll factories.
In the mid-15th century, there were still thousands of languages on our Earth—as many languages as there were stars in the sky. Unsurprisingly, these languages were not clearly demarcated between English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Arabic with clear dictionaries and grammar books defining very succinctly what is and is not each body of words. Within Europe, as you moved from city center to city center, there was no clear understanding of which languages each city spoke. Rather, if you were a nomad, you would find yourself roaming a gradient of sounds in a continual ebb and flow of dialects, picking up new words and tones as fast as you could walk.
Enter: the invention of mass literacy and the emergence of print-capitalism.
At the turn of the 17th century, print capitalism had become the dominant logic, laying the foundations for nationalism with a series of powerful economic incentives for publishers embodied by a simple equation: to reach the maximum number of people you must publish for the lowest common denominator.This wasn’t a sudden revelation. Rather, publishers realized, over time, that the best and most efficient way to reach your audience was for you to find the lowest common denominator of words, of utterances, and letter combinations that could resonate and be widely understood. And so, as literacy became more widespread through education, languages started to coagulate and clump together for newspapers and magazines, pamphlets, and propaganda. Gradually, the world witnessed the emergence of the modern demarcations of language—languages that would become inseparable from the identities, geographies, and demographics who spoke them. Language even became an object of ownership. My language is English. Their language is German.
This form of print-capitalism—the intersection of economics and information—proved to be a massive accelerant toward the creation of modern nations, our imagined communities organized around language and territory.
Language, as it turned out, was the central channel for stoking a sense of shared reality.
Every morning, whole populations began reading their daily newspaper—and the only thing connecting all of the disparate, bizarre, and fragmented events embodied on that front page was a timestamp and a place. January 4th, 1901—Los Angeles Times. October 12th, 1921—The Missoulian. These newspapers became, in a sense, the best-selling novel of every day for their communities, crafting a coherent narrative of the on-going events and hubbub of the people as characters living within them. As each person read the unfolding story of their community in the paper, they could imagine 250,000 other Montanans, or 100 million other Americans reading the very same paper at their own breakfast table, thinking their own Montanan, American thoughts with their own Montanan, American families. Even though most of those millions of Americans would never meet, they all played a pivotal role in each other’s imagination.
So, are these same mechanisms at play today?
At first, when the internet was created, you could have the New York Times in print and online. While the digital version was cheaper and eco-friendly, they were, largely, identical. But over the last two decades, another subterranean force was building momentum. The entire equation of print capitalism—to reach the maximum number of people by appealing to the lowest common denominator—was inverting.
Screen capitalism, marking the shift from print to digitally delivered media, follows an opposite incentive scheme: to reach the maximum number of people you have to appeal to the highest common denominators—limitless personalization. Suddenly the lowest common denominator represents all that is cliché, bland, and unappealing in a world defined by a wealth of information and a poverty of attention. If you’re able to deliver news to you that is personalized to you, that means algorithms are delivering the best-selling newspaper for each and every one of us, rather than whole communities.
I do not know who is reading what or when. As I sit at the dinner table, headlines simultaneously vibrate through the bricks in each our pockets—How Giuliani Might Take Down Trump … Google Moves to Address Wage Equity—but which other families are seeing the same? One? Ten? One million? Rather than Extra Extra! paper boys yelling a common substance for conservatives and democrats to chew on, debate, and uphold—our central funnels for information have shifted to the subterranean black boxes of the internet, where a street full of people can be nose down in their phones, where the paper boy’s shouts are drowned out by the reception of ten thousand different articles, from and to whom, no-one is quite sure.
Instead of the print-capitalistic forces that bred modern nation-states, screen-capitalism is now catalyzing a series of profound incentive mechanisms for the exact opposite—for the development of communities orbiting each of our own personal selves, for communities of one. Instead of the resurgence of nationalism, where people are tied together in a sort of common endeavor to self-create a unified nation around the state and territory, we are all individuals rising like raisins in raisin bread. As time moves forward, the space between us—representing our shared sense of reality, and with it a shared sense of what constitutes relevant facts—expands in a sort of cyber nation drift. Because part of personalization is a desire to be liked and with others, clumps of raisins emerge; our social milieu no longer created by chance or happenstance, but through algorithmic, scientific precision.
This is where it gets weird. This is the only way to explain why there are people who genuinely believe lizards are the leaders of the free world, people who believe the earth is flat, people that believe Australians are actually actors, people that earnestly believe the Clintons and the Obamas are raping kids in pizzerias. The ‘other side’ is not one coherent, monolithic mass. The algorithms driving publishing and advertising aren’t programmed to siphon us into a liberal or conservative box, they’re programmed to mirror our preferences, in their infinite (and sometimes disturbing) variety; news is no longer consumed and debated, it is instantly judged by its comparative ability to seize your attention. We have optimized our worlds for something—the ‘self’—that scientists have told us might not even exist. Echo chambers are an insufficient and misleading explanation for this phenomenon: the premise of an echo chamber is that, because of algorithmic personalization, we never experience the other side of ‘an issue.’ Logically, the remedy would be to merely expose everyone to more perspectives and viewpoints. But this contact-theory laden argument is flawed—we aren’t siphoned from the other perspective. We are constantly exposed to the other side—and how stupid they are, even when reading their own words. Rather, when we see the ostensible other side, our relevant-fact-bases have so far drifted apart that seeing the other side only confirms a single, cumulative truth: they’re insane—divorced from reality. Climate change is man-made. Climate change is a Chinese hoax. Vaccines are good for public health. Vaccines cause autism.
The internet is a cesspool for the proliferation of dog-whistling—where language evolves, like hashtags for conspiracies, a secret-handshake to confirm you’ve tuned into are particular channel of truth, a particular web of relevant facts. (((John))). 56%. Alt-left.
What kind of politician succeeds in this dynamic? Make America Great Again. Trump never says what this means. He just says it: Make America Great Again, allowing the recycled Reagan phrase to echo around the chamber of your raisin reality: ratifying your fears of public institutions still enveloped in systemic racism, or inspiring your dreams of a return to the glorious 1960s—because that’s the whole point. Lizards didn’t rule the world in the 1960s. What concrete actions are proposed? Build a wall. Cheap talk: words that are so inflammatory, so incredibly frustrating that he mobilizes, and therefore fatigues, countless heroes to take action against the unpredictable lottery of the credibility of his statements.
Why is it that, at a time of seemingly unprecedented evil and horror, the devil incarnate! democrats can’t seem to muster a unity, a candidate, or a solid platter of candidates? Neither can Republicans.
Trump talks like a horoscope—miraculously weaving a commonality between a profound number of raisins drifting further and further apart. Beneath his vapid and empty covfefe phrases, he transcends the traditional glib-speak of politicians standing on well-established virtues by transforming himself into a mirror. A circus mirror that seizes your increasingly scarce attention by amplifying your dreams and fears, making you fat or thin depending on the incidence of your angle. The only deal he’s made is to master the art of the horoscope, a mirror anyone can read into—deployed with pernicious efficiency in a world ruled by personalized engagement.
While it is easy to berate Trump’s absurdity, scold Facebook for creating these algorithms, or pray for a statute to outlaw fake news—all are gross underestimations of the seismic forces rumbling our lives.
Nationalism is evolving.
The tectonic plates of reality are shifting because of screen-capitalism—and we must urgently update our seismographs to grapple with the actual forces increasingly changing the cognitive realities of people everywhere. It’s not that one set of facts is correct and one set of facts is incorrect; that this party is right and this party is wrong; that this group is uneducated and this group is educated; or, that this group is poor and this group is rich. The question is, how do we resolve this fundamental tension: multiple sets of cognitive, raisin realities drifting away from each other without sliding into the false assumption that one set of facts is true and everything else is false or nothing can ever be true. That your raisin represents the true raisin.
The Un-united Raisins of America.
Nationalism itself—as a concept—is but a weaning child in the nursery of history. Prior to the 17th century, order and meaning in the world were undergirded by religious and dynastic conceptions of space and time, where kings ruled by divine right and families prayed that they might receive salvation at the end of times. When these institutions crumbled, people contorted in fits of meaninglessness as they grasped for new institutions that could fill the void—an innate drive for purpose, remembrance, and communities to love them back.
Today, nationalism grows its adolescent legs into the next chapter of history. We find ourselves in similarly turbulent times. Our guts are wrenched by the searing unease of uncertainty at who or what to trust in the oceans of data and information we drown in. As the traditional institutions of certainty waver, people are choosing to sip from a miraculous and sometimes disturbing array of meaning-making fountains—individuals, organizations, or whole countries who were lucky or quick enough to leverage new technology to ride the screen-capitalist wave. People seem to accept institutions of meaning-making over institutions of truth, when forced to choose.
Beyond just knowing truth, it is our job—as citizens, scientists, journalists, farmers, lawyers, bakers, plebeians, doctors, fishers to step outside of the obviousness of our raisins and align meaning with truth. That’s ‘cyber-security for democracy.’
I woke up to these headlines this morning: Senate Has Voted to Overturn Trump’s Emergency Declaration. And: Crazy Wisconsin Candidate Claims Racist Text Messages Were Sent by Imaginary Friend. Headlines sent to me because of me, because of the zeros and ones that represent me held by servers somewhere, because of an algorithm that decided they were perfect matches for me—who knows who else received them.
If they’re not true, what am I?
About the author: Jacksón Smith is Senior Contributing Editor and Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of the Learning Economy.