The City and the Tower: the scattering of the internet
The story of the Tower of Babel, as told in the Bible, is a confusing one. Here’s the story as told in the King James Version:
1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
In this tale God occupies a physical realm, from which he comes down, that men could potentially reach. His omnipotence is not so far beyond us to pass all understanding, just a little way ahead of us. He’s nervous enough of us to feel the need to wreck our ambitions.
Indeed, God isn’t behaving very nicely here. He’s being destructive and malicious.
And who is God speaking to in this passage? Who are the “us”?
All of this suggests a God very different from the one that Christians are taught about in the New Testament or even the deity we see throughout the later parts of the Old Testament, who is neither as physically capable of location nor as competitive with his creations and this version appears to be remarkably accompanied for a monotheistic deity. Perhaps we are seeing the fragment of an earlier culture in this passage.
The idea of being separated by mutual incomprehension, however, is a compelling one — and a very modern one. The story of the internet is one of humanity breaking down into competing groups that do not speak with each other.
How has this happened?
Here’s how. I’ll concentrate on Twitter to make this easily understandable but all of this applies to Reddit, Telegram and Facebook too.
We form communications networks.
Information is disseminated on Twitter through networks. We choose who we follow and others in turn choose to follow us. Each of us, through this skein of connections, has a personal communication network. This simple point underlies everything else.
Inevitably, those communication networks form into tribes
We get information about what we are interested in and what we believe strongly about. Armenian nationalists are unlikely to spend much time following Breton linguists, and if they do they are unlikely to retweet them to their followers.
We tend to rate those who have ideas that conform with our prior thinking. That means we will tend to follow, and be followed by, those who are like-minded with us on at least some subjects. If we follow people we mostly disagree with, it is for “know your enemy” reasons.
All this means that we naturally tend to coalesce into networked tribes of like-minded people. Some explicitly encourage this (eg the #FBPE crowd).
Within such communications networks, we see mutually reinforcing messages
If you are on centrist dad Twitter, you are unlikely to read many full-throated defences of Boris Johnson or friendly support of Jeremy Corbyn. Your timeline will be replete with well-honed tweets condemning Boris Johnson’s duplicity and Jeremy Corbyn’s pro-Russian evasions. Tweets will show a measured enthusiasm for Sir Keir Starmer and a horror of crass anti-EU antics. It all resembles Jaroslav Hašek’s political party, the Party of Moderate Progress within the Bounds of the Law. All of this reinforces prior beliefs and in turn reinforces the strength of the tribe.
Similar reinforcement is seen in the networks of anti-vaxxers, isolationist Brexiters, fully luxury automated Communists and Liberal Democrats. And so the tribes form.
The more unusual the belief, the stronger the reinforcement
In years gone by, if you felt that today’s binmen were effete compared with their predecessors, you would (if you had ventured this opinion with friends) have been looked at strangely. Now you can find many others online who share your view, validating it.
Indeed, this is a particularly striking feature of social media. Communities of tiny minority beliefs that would otherwise not exist can grow up online as believers find each other and support each other. Wind truthers, trypophobics and Lloyd Cole fans can all share thoughts, opinions, theories and solidarity. As they do so, they gain confidence.
Since the only place where such opinions can be found is online, those with such beliefs will be disproportionately seen online. When you hear people say things like “Twitter is not Britain”, this is part of what they mean. If you have a commonplace view, you probably don’t feel compelled to express it online very often — it’s obvious, isn’t it? And anyway, you can express it in person to anyone you feel like without fear of repercussions. If you have an extreme minority view that is important to you, you might well feel the only place you can express it safely is online where you can meet like-thinkers, and then you will do so vociferously.
Note, this is not a negative (it has helped many members of minorities who were otherwise isolated), just a thing. It is a thing, however, that forms a big part in the formation of tribes.
And here’s what.
We are amused by simplistic punchiness, and pass simplistic punchy messages on
We like to think of ourselves as being virtuous and associating with virtuous people
Good sense isn’t interesting, so we don’t pass those messages on
Subtle messages inspire subtle disagreement and envy, so we don’t pass those messages on
Let’s illustrate these points with an example. Imagine if I tweeted: “The UK govt got very little right in 2020, resulting in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, but after the turn of that year it got very little wrong”. Leaving aside the truth or falsity of this, it would be little viewed, liked or retweeted. It’s too hostile to the government to get retweets or likes from government supporters and too sympathetic to the government to get retweets or likes from government opponents.
Even those who are open to assessing the government’s record on a case-by-case basis (a small number) would probably disagree with the detail, so would not like or retweet it, for fear of being seen to endorse the bits they don’t agree with. A very few people might agree with it fully, but might well regret not having said it first. The chances of them retweeting it are not especially high.
Now let’s consider two different partial versions of this tweet.
a) “The UK govt’s performance in the pandemic in 2021 was faultless. Balancing health security and economic security is thankless but so vital. Instead of virtue-signalling, the govt does virtue.”
b) “The UK govt has the avoidable deaths of 75,000 people in 2020 on their consciences. I don’t know how they sleep at night.”
I can pretty well guarantee you that each of these, within the appropriately connected network, would get good numbers. Each has a simple message, each claims moral superiority. Neither requires a tribe member to feel uncomfortable.
No need to presume good faith in those with different views. It’s far more fun to work on the basis that we are virtuous as well as right. When you stop and think about it, there’s no particular reason why morally commendable people should have particularly insightful views, particularly on matters which have no particular moral dimension, but it’s an assumption that most of us make most of the time.
All of this is self-reinforcing. We see our own simplistic punchy tweets gain wide circulation while our subtle, balanced tweets fizzle unappreciated. You have to be very disciplined indeed not to seek the adrenalin rush that public approbation from others gives.
Confirming the truth of messages is not a high priority for many
People take a lot of their Twitter feed timelines pretty uncritically. That’s not to say that they don’t scrutinise tweets for credibility, but mainly only the ones that don’t fit their preconceptions (and then they’re all over them like Perry Mason). If a tweet confirms their prior beliefs and it’s superficially plausible, most people will just assume it’s true. If it’s interesting as well as confirming their prior beliefs, they’ll probably retweet it too. Here’s a fairly innocuous example. (It’s not true.)
Simplistic tweets aren’t the only sort of tweets to get wide circulation. Another sort is very important.
We highlight stupidity, and pass stupid messages on
If we see a tweet that is obvious nonsense, we feel superior to the tweeter. If that person is in a rival tribe, how cathartic — how much fun! — it is to draw that to the world’s attention.
More usually, you see members of one tribe hate-tweet idiocies by members of another tribe.
And so we have developed an online economy with a Gresham’s Law of Information: the bad opinions drive out the good.
All of this is very vulnerable to exploitation. There’s been a lot said about the security flaws in the internet of things, but there are even more severe inherent flaws in the internet of people.
Malign actors can exploit the communications networks. Imagine if you wanted to weaken Britain. How might you use these features? You would insinuate yourself into several of the tribes, gain followers through transmitting mainstream (within those tribes) opinions, then use that place in each network to drive home divisive views, pushing different groups apart still further.
Ideally, you want to be pushing as many of these different groups as possible. Leavers, Remainers, Scots nationalists, English nationalists, socialists, one nation Tories, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists. The more mistrustful each of these groups are of each other, the better. Enemies of the people? Quislings? Traitors? Of course.
This seems to have been happening and it seems to have been pretty effective. Russia has been able to invade Ukraine in part because it has divided the West and created the space within which it now seeks to rule.
But that isn’t even the most insidious bit. No malign actors are necessary for the damage to be done. Fame and money lie in visibility, so anyone motivated by such considerations will do what is necessary to get the maximum possible visibility
That means that those willing to send simple messages that make the reader feel primal emotions or stupid or inflammatory messages will gain the attention that they seek.
Some have made careers out of it. If you’re a washed-up actor without many job offers in prospect, a mediocre political commentator with a poor track record but a big gob or a fifth-rate radio presenter, it is a way of keeping in the public eye, even if undignified. That it is highly corrosive to the fabric of society in the long term is neither here nor there. You can shrug off accusations of shilling or grifting or being an attention whore, just so long as the shill and the grift pay or you get the attention.
A big problem is that it is in the short and medium term interests of groups to have a strong identity, and reinforcing and strengthening divisions does just that. How do you get people to act against their short and medium term interests to bolster a much more nebulous long-term interest?
I don’t have answers. The first bit of the answer, however, is to recognise what is happening. There is no need for an interventionist God to confound our language that we may not understand one another’s speech. We have created a communications network and we are not yet wise enough to use it without damaging ourselves. We need to get wiser.