On going along to get ahead

The interminable debates about blogging, journalism, A-Listers—everything adding to the noise of modern life—is missing the real problem with communication. It is seldom critical and constructive often enough to add value.

About 2,500 years ago, a group of great minds got together to eat and drink, a party recorded in Plato's Symposium. The subject was love, the god of love, and the pursuit of the beloved. For some time, Aristophanes, Agathon and their compatriots pay tribute to their particular idea of love while Socrates listens. What Socrates ultimately says, which deflates all Time to take a 2,500 year old clue and begin questioning everything.the tributes with a penetrating critique of the certainties spoken by the other revellers, could be applied to any voice in the debates of our day. I'll just quote part of the first passage of Socrates' speech, which get to the heart of the problem of celebrating our beliefs rather than examining them:

"...the truth, it seems, is the last thing the successful eulogist cares about; on the contrary, what he does is simply run through all the attributes of power and virtue, however irrelevant they may be, and the whole thing make be a pack of lies, for all its seems to matter.

"I take it then that what we undertook was to flatter, rather than to praise, the god of love, and that's why you're all prepared to say the first thing about him that comes into your heads, and to claim that he either is,or is the cause of, everything taht is the loveliest and best. And of course the uninitiated are impressed by the beauty and grandeur of your encomiums; yet those who know will not be taken in so easily."

There, from Socrates, is the state of communication today. So many opinions voiced well, voiced compellingly, yet barely thought through, to produce a sensation of resonance in the community. In blogging, this lack of effort is justified with the explanation that, for example, blogging is like sedimentary thought, piling up in tiny granules on different blogs to produce a truth.

All the recent ideas—emergence, wisdom of the crowds, tipping points, etc., etc.—about why the Net works seek to rationalize the product of networked thinking. They are often read as justifying any idea that emerges from network conversations, but they are each fleeting explanations of how, sometimes, smart results appear in human history. Socrates was the wisest man in all Greece, according to the Delphic oracle because (and only Socrates got the joke) he often insisted he didn't know anything at all. Instead, he examined ideas on their merits, moving beyond the fact that an idea was Greek or Sophist or was the product of a friend. He insisted on rigorous questioning. It pissed off some people and they tried and executed him for impiety.

We live in a time of branding of every little notion—because that's how "knolwedge workers" differentiate themselves—with most folks ignoring the vast reservoir of history that informs their thoughts. Branded notions defy rigorous questioning, which is why so much is just being rediscovered all over again rather than actually improved. Our egos often prevent us from coming into history as critical beings, because we are so strongly tempted to see our own brilliance in every trivial individual realization. Far from living in community, which exists only in an environment of plurality, many people today live in virtual sensoriums that reward them with the pleasurable childlike experience of living in virtual ignorance of everything that exists, their lives a process of "discovery" of the most mundane things.

We go along with others with whom we find agreement, feigning debate by setting up false dichotomies on which our existing absolute views will allow quick agreement. The evidence: We count up everything and proclaim those with the most winners, even when we know that being the outlier, apart from the crowd, is often the only noble position in contemporary debates. An earthworks of bullshit can hold back a torrent of truth if the purveyors of nonsense are sufficiently motivated to keep piling their partial truths on the dam.

The irony is that there are genuine "blink" events, "tipping points," and ideas that represent the wisdom of the occasional crowd, but we fail to recognize those because every little tick of the collective consciousness is treated like revelation, mostly because we've all become marketers rather than engaging in communication. It's not hard to understand why—the social and political atmosphere has become a long siege on the individual will that seeks to break down the differences that make markets less manageable, less cohesive.

Christopher Lasch, in his book, The Minimal Self, explains how the "pil[ing] up" of unresolved public crises causes people to "lose interest in the possibility that anything can be done about them." With the marketing-centric "crises" of this decade, in which so many irresolvable brand and values conflicts are created from trivial differences in consumer choice that supposedly speak volumes about who we are as people, we become disinterested not just in resolution of differences with others but in resolving the logical and emotional conflicts that rend our whole selves into pieces. Choosing between Fox News and CNN, open source and proprietary software, Mac or Windows, blogs or journalism, MySpace or Facebook, Google or Yahoo, Democrat™ or Republican®, YouTube or one of its thousand competitors, will not make you whole again. But the advocates of each option hold out the promise of authentic experience, a simple answer to complex questions. With so many points of access to you through the Web, they seek to make their answers ubiquitous so that they appear true.

This sameness of many minds can be accomplished by overwhelming relevant issues with immense amounts of trivia seeking to grab some mental hook we call "brand indentification," so that all these troublesome individual people give way to what too often is called "community," but only means a demographically consistent audience. Community is a product of a plurality coming together. Online communities too often are all about agreement, a progressive elimination of differences of opinion and the ownership of the agreement by a particular company that can sell its fragment of society to an acquiring media company.

When we seek to justify the blogosphere or journalism or any and all crowd- or swarm-produced conclusions we're falling prey to our desire for simple answers to complex questions. Those panaceas don't exist. We're not getting answers at all, only slogans wrapped in the fuzzy words we want to hear, such as "community" or "party" or "tribe." 

We're mistaking the flattery and praise of the eulogists Socrates warned against that attract us to visions with which we can agree for truth and meaning. Time to take a 2,500 year old clue and begin questioning everything, rather than trying to justify everything produced by our new avenues of communication.