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It's good to be the asshole in the room
Three trends we’ve overcorrected on
You probably missed it: Last week I was so enraged by the New Statesman’s ‘Waterstones Man’ piece, I wrote a very grumpy response. I didn’t send it out to the mailing list, as I thought it was a bit off-brand1, but you can read it here.
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It will not surprise you to learn that I do not understand fashion.
Like a cartoon character, my choice of wardrobe has remained static since I was a teenager, with essentially the only change being that t-shirts have regrettably upgraded in size from XL to, well, I’m too embarrassed to say.
So the idea that the clothes I own could somehow go “out of date” seems bizarre to me – at least in the absence of any technology progress to drive such a change.
The same goes for other domains too. My partner watches a lot of DIY YouTubers, who often talk about how certain styles of furniture or colours have become more or less trendy. But there isn’t an intuitive reason why all-grey decors are now passé or why the “farmhouse” aesthetic is overrated2.
So as far as I can tell, all that really seems to drive trends isn’t something we can objectively measure, but novelty. Things are cool and new, right up until the moment they reach critical mass and become yesterday’s news. Just like how now your parents are on Facebook, it is no longer cool. And now that Matt Hancock is posting on TikTok, it won’t be long until it too is considered similarly lame.
Anyway, I mention this because the same dynamic exists in ‘the discourse’ too.
If you participate in the noble sport of arguing-about-politics-on-the-internet for long enough, you’ll start to see the peaks and troughs as new ideas become increasingly popular, and then eventually incredibly boring. New ideas emerge, as a reaction to the old ideas. Then they become old, and more new ideas sweep in and replace them, such is the circle of life.
And though this can be a good thing – it is obviously good to inject new ideas into the body politic, sometimes we risk losing something too. With our clicks and our likes, we’re all implicitly selecting for novelty, even though many old and boring opinions sometimes contain pretty timeless wisdom3.
So in this post I want to look back in order to look forward – and offer up three big ideas that I think the discourse has over-corrected on, and that we should bring back.
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Three big ideas to bring back
Birthed in the aftermath of 9/11, the “New Atheist” movement emerged partially as a reaction to the twin threats of Islamist terrorism and fundamentalist Christianity. With figureheads like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the movement’s schtick was essentially to take a cold-hearted, rational approach to life’s biggest questions – and sometimes its smallest too.
It will not surprise you to learn that in my younger years, I fell into this scene, and the broader “skeptics” movement, which drew in humanists, James Randi-style debunkers of psychics and alternative therapies, and other assorted science nerds. Basically think the sorts of people who refer to things like “evidence-based policy” and say things like “the plural of anecdote is not data”.
Around 2010-ish, the movement was regularly receiving media coverage, and even the occasional policy win, and it was something that progressive celebrities and lefty thinkers would align themselves with (there was a time that it felt like every comedian had a “I’m an atheist” bit).
At the time, “skeptics” obviously received criticism, mostly for being annoying. But this was a downstream consequence of perhaps the most valuable thing they often literally brought to the table: They were happy being the asshole who didn’t read the room, and was happy to pipe up and say, “That’s not quite true, is it?”4
Fast-forward to today, the intellectual terrain is very different. The movement no longer exists as a coherent whole5, as it schismed along predictable ‘woke’ vs ‘anti-woke’ lines – with about half of the movement turning into privilege-checking social justice warriors, and the other half flirting with alt-right skull-measuring6.
And though the movement had its flaws and its blindspots, from the vantage of today I sometimes miss its cultural cachet.
Today we live in an era where somewhat illiberal ideas and norms are dominant in many progressive spaces. While these new ideas can be valuable intellectual tools, without an explicit ideological commitment to critical thinking and rigorous expectations of evidence when making empirical claims7, we have lost some of our antibiotic resistance to sloppy thinking.
And I think sometimes the current intellectual climate makes it feel difficult to ask questions of our own side, particularly on controversial topics8. This is a bad sign of the intellectual health of any movement – as by asking difficult questions to our own side, we make it stronger.
So I think we need to recapture some of the good the skeptics popularised, and apply those useful values to modern questions. We perhaps don’t need to start a debate over the existence of God again – but I think we’d have a much healthier discourse if we were to relearn the spirit of being the asshole in the room.
Something that makes me pretty smug is that I was worried about the power of major tech corporations before most other people were. Almost a decade ago, I was writing about how it’s pretty scary that Apple and Amazon can decide what content we’re allowed to see on our devices, and how it is weird that we’ve handed an enormous amount of power over what happens in the public square over to Google and Facebook.
When those sorts of pieces were published back in the day, I actually remember feeling nervous that my professional peers would laugh at me for writing them, as likening a tech corporation’s power to that of a nationstate was an eccentric thing to do.
Needless to say, by 2016, most of the world had caught up with me. And as a lot of tech coverage today makes clear, Big Tech is not to be trusted.
And obviously on one level it is absolutely correct to treat some of the biggest companies on Earth with scepticism, given the enormous power they wield and the torrent of nonsense that their founders and CEOs tweet. I still stand by the scepticism in my ancient takes, linked above.
But scrolling through my timeline, it really feels as though the default mode for many people when confronted with a new technology is cynicism and hostility.
In part, this is obviously motivated by (often justified) dislike of the tech-bros. Their often panglossian view that a few lines of code can untangle intractable political or social problems can be very annoying.
But assuming everything new is bad is a faulty heuristic, and leads to faulty pattern recognition, like that which made people desperate to conclude SpaceX’s new rocket is bad. Not because the rocket was flawed, but just because they don’t like the owner.
And at it’s most pernicious, techno-pessimism means that when a genuinely world changing new technology does arise, like generative AI, or when a new technology shows promise, like driverless buses, the default reaction is to dismiss it out of hand.
So I don’t think we need to start taking what our Big Tech overlords say at face value – often what they say is about as valuable an NFT. But I do think it would serve us well to be a little more optimistic about what new technology can do, even if we find the people behind it annoying.
3) Assumptions of Good Faith
Thanks to the internet, there are no longer media gate-keepers between us and whatever information – or bullshit – we wish to consume.
This is obviously in some respects a very good thing. Contrary to what many people say, I broadly agree with Matt Yglesias that the internet has made people better informed, as information is more readily accessible to an extent that would have been unimaginable in the 90s.
But I think it is also true that as part of the (good!) broadening of the boundaries of political discourse, it has also geared many discourse participants towards a conspiracy mindset.
You don’t have to look far to see it, whether it is people left thinking every single government procurement contract is a corrupt stitch up, or people on the right believing that the most dangerous thing in the world is traffic congestion pricing in Oxford city centre.
My personal least favourite form of conspiracy thinking can be seen in literally every single local newspaper’s Facebook comments section on stories about proposed planning applications.
Without fail, you will find people speculating that councillors must have received “brown envelopes” from property developers, and that there can be no other explanation. Despite Britain having long been one of the least corrupt places in the world.
It’s probably unsurprising that we so easily fall into this mindset, as a downstream consequence of the internet is that it has destroyed trust in virtually every major institution, including our politicians9.
But I also think there’s a psychological aspect to this too. After all, in a sense it is a much easier story to tell yourself that your political opponents are corrupt or otherwise compromised, and are only saying or doing what they do, out of an obligation to a shadowy paymaster.
Because the alternative is almost too scary to contemplate: They might not be disagreeing with you because they’ve been paid off, but because they have looked at the same evidence or data as you and drawn a different conclusion. Hell, that bad thing they think might be their actual sincere opinion.
And though there are obviously bad faith actors out there, I think we’ve perhaps gone too far in assuming the worst of the people. Perhaps it is time for us to re-think how we engage, and try to more often assume good faith and argue about the actually stated ideas, not the conspiracy that you’re imagining in your head.
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Not enough postcode content.
And the same goes for trends in music, especially given that we reached an “End of History” moment in 1994, with the release of …And Out Come The Wolves, Smash, Dookie, and Stranger Than Fiction.
This is an attitude that I’m trying to lean into on this very Substack.
There are still some activists doing some good work under the ‘skeptics’ banner, but what I find frustrating (but honestly a bit understandable) is that while that you can still find ‘skeptics’ who debunk psychics and the like, they seem to duck many of the bigger scientific controversies and public policy questions that dominate the discourse today (I’ll give you exactly one guess which one I’m alluding to).
I think the most depressing sign that the counter-reformation has swung the pendulum back the other way is the inexplicable and baffling resurgence of astrology.
And yes, before someone else points it out – obviously ‘skeptics’ did not always live up to these professed values. But at least they were the stated aspiration, which means that these values were very much what was being aimed for.
Another thing that skepticism gets right that the broader intellectual culture gets wrong is that the worst possible thing you can do on Twitter is admit to your own ignorance, or having only just learned something. I prefer, and imperfectly try to practice, the XKCD approach instead.
And though I am obviously a very strong supporter of transparency and open data, I think one inadvertent downside is that it gives the cranks more data-points to use when drawing spurious connections.