In his book The Square and the Tower and subsequent talks, Niall Ferguson argues that the internet age disrupts our knowledge system to a degree comparable only to the invention of the printing press. He wonders what social and political disruption could become the internet version of the Wars of Religion in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries – because that’s what the printing press led to. He then makes conclusions about the role of the Tech Giants in the future of democracy and liberalism.
Here’s an additional thought. This is not just about democracy, but about the future of rationalism and the way society negotiates knowledge.
Why is that? The pinting press led to a viral spread of books. And through books it led to the spread of ideas that did not otherwise circulate in the existing, curated channels of society. The two best-selling books of the early era of the press were Martin Luther’s sermons and the Malleus Maleficorum, a bestselling book that was an important cause to the increase in witch-hunting. Both were in fact alternative narratives that questioned the canonical belief – Catholicism – and the Church’s centralised monopoly of authority.
So what are, in analogy, today’s big canonical beliefs and authorities? That science speaks the current version of the truth – and we don’t have to repeat their experiments ourselves, we don’t even have to understand their theories, in order to believe the findings of science to be true. That traditional media outlets, while sometimes representing partisan views, maintain certain standards of reporting – and we don’t need to go and check their investigations for ourselves. That the police, while not perfect, are very careful with their monopoly of power – and we don’t need to witness every single move they make. That politicians, although narcissist and partisan, put the interest of the nation above the interest of their party – and we don’t have to put them to a lie detector all the time. That conspiracy theories are wrong – and we don’t have to go and disqualify every single claim they make.
As a society, we need these common canonic beliefs because we simply don’t have the capacity to distrust, and consequently check them all.
In this established world with its shared canonic beliefs, you can end a debate with an apt reference to the canon. “Here are the studies that show that…” does not provoke an answer like “Yeah, but they are just studies, they’d publish anything just to help their career, what do you expect?” “Several newspapers report that…” does nto provoke a reply like “Yeah, but they are journalists, they’d write anything as long as it sells more newspapers, what do you expect?” “A police spokesperson has confirmed that…” does not get a retort like “Yeah, but they are the police, they get paid to cover up anything, what do you expect?”
But in the new emerging world, the acceptance of such statements diminishes continuously, especially if they come from outside our own filter bubble. According to a YouGov study quoted by Rob Picheta for CNN, one of 6 Americans is not entirely sure the Earth is round. In 2000, a poll commissioned by People for the American Way found that 16% of Americans believed that schools should not teach evolution according to Darwin, but creation only. Vaccine hesitancy, or anti-vax, is listed by the WHO as one of the top ten global health threats in 2019.
I just quoted two studies and the WHO to make my point. If my readers are in the habit of questioning these kinds of arguments from the outset, it falls back on me to prove they are correct. How can I still make my point successfully in such a situation? How are debates ended successfully when there are no accepted authorities on content?
Well, the answer to this is already before our eyes. We can observe both in public and private debates, on social media and face-to-face, that it is more effective to end a debate by showing your indignation, hurt, or outrage, and by cancel culture.
As political scientist Ann Appelbaum pointed out recently, what we are witnessing today is the erosion of some of our fundamental canonic beliefs. Those that made public debate work the way it did. Democracy as a system needs a working public debate. If it does not work anymore, the number increases of those who call for a replacement of our system with something that does not need the messyness of debate. A system that replaces it with clarity. A system that rewards loaylty over backbone. A more authoritarian system.
So what can we do in order to avoid a modern version of the terrible violence and destruction that the Wars of Religion brought the last time our fundamental canonic beliefs were shaken to this extent?