Politics & Media
Jun 10, 2024, 06:24AM

Facing Divided Reality

Curiosity’s a key to navigating a polarized environment.

James burke  historian .jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

“The great algorithmic division of reality is underway,” posted science communicator and ex–poker pro Liv Boeree on Instagram. “The news you consume, the opinions you see; it’s all tailored to keep your brain scrolling. Profit is dancing on the grave of objective truth.” I scrolled to her next screen (of course), where she added: “So be patient with those who disagree with you; they likely now live in an entirely different reality, just as you do to them. And it’s neither of your fault. Best you can do is ask how the view is from their side of the chasm.”

Boeree’s got a point, as she does in tracking the demon Moloch as a personification of negative-sum social dynamics amplified by technology. Still, culture wars aren’t new, but rather flare up from time to time, even if social media has exacerbated current social conflicts. Paul Johnson, who died last year and whose books were a formative (and not always positive) influence on me, in his sweeping history Modern Times wrote about culture war in the Weimar Republic, quoting a passage in which a right-wing journalist named Friedrich Hussong celebrated the disappearance of prominent liberal and left-wing figures shortly after the Nazis took power:

“A miracle has taken place. They are no longer here… They claimed they were the German Geist, German culture, the German present and future… They ‘made’ themselves and others. Whoever served them was sure to succeed. He appeared on their stages, wrote in their journals, was advertised all over the world; his commodity was recommended whether it was cheese or relativity, powder or Zeittheater, patent medicines or human rights, democracy or bolshevism, propaganda for abortion or against the legal system, rotten Negro music or dancing in the nude. In brief, there never was a more impudent dictatorship than that of the democratic intelligentsia and the Zivilisations-literaten.”

That last term (“Civilization’s literary people”) evokes what was then a divide between “Civilization” and “Culture,” with Zivilisation a label embraced on the left, and Kultur a rallying point of the right. Hussong wasn’t a member of the Nazi Party, but part of the nationalist camp that abetted the Nazis’ rise, and, like other allies, the journalist was eclipsed in importance as the Nazis consolidated power. Still, when he died of a heart condition in 1943, he got kudos from the regime, including a funeral wreath from the Führer. Hussong’s virtually forgotten, but his free-floating resentment has a familiar ring today.

As a Republican-turned-Democrat who lives in a mostly Republican town, and who’s bounced around between science journalism, political journalism and financial journalism, I’ve friends and acquaintances with a broad range of political views. I’m generally willing to talk about politics with people who disagree with me, though going out of my way to bring up politics has admittedly lost some appeal.

Curiosity’s a key to navigating the polarized, algorithm-driven information environment Boeree describes. If you’re spending a lot of time on social media scoring points on behalf of a partisan or ideological agenda, you may not be convincing any other human beings, but you’re training an algorithm to feed you more of the stuff you’re already reacting to. Boeree wisely emphasizes looking for “win-win” situations, sketched out in principles that include not taking yourself—or her—too seriously. One of her rules is to not expect some final victory for your world-view: “Permanence is a fool’s errand. A living universe is increasingly complex and dynamic. Be adaptive, not boring.”

In the late-1970s, I was fascinated by Connections, a documentary TV series hosted by James Burke, examining little-known links in the history of technology. Burke recently made a follow-up series for Curiosity Stream with a similar bent for the obscure: “James connects the dots between Napoleon’s toothpick and the Nielsen TV ratings to see how scientists have built the quantum computer.” I was reminded of Burke by an X post of a well-timed scene where the host spoke at a rocket launch, which in turn reminded me of a 1997 Commentary article where physicist Jeremy Bernstein mocked a Burke column while trashing Scientific American for progressive leanings that right-wingers periodically discover in the magazine (as they claim it suddenly lurched left from an apolitical, unopinionated past).

Burke’s attitude, like Boeree’s, strikes me as conducive to breaking out of the mindset of chasms and polarized alternative realities. Tracking odd twists of history and obscure pieces of information entails not knowing what you’ll find or how it might change your view of some topic; it’s a sign of intellectual vitality, like hosting a TV show when you’re about to turn 87.

—Follow Kenneth Silber on X: @kennethsilber


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