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The Bloodsport of the Hive Mind: Common Knowledge in the Age of Many-to-Many Broadcast Networks

Common knowledge is that which I know and that which I know everyone else knows. That, at least, is the easiest way to put it for my purposes here, which is how a large number of people came to believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election—and subsequently constructed an intellectual edifice around this conviction that led to the January 6 Capitol riots.

It’s a commonplace now that we live in a fragmented age of filter bubbles in which everyone can locate a collection of online resources which will reinforce and support their views. That’s not enough, however, to get us to the point of gross norm-violating behavior. The news niches that provide reinforcing fodder to the left, right, and everywhere in between do so with an implicit antagonism toward other niches. Such conflict is their lifeblood. Readers are aware that as they embrace one point of view, there are others that, however erroneous and dangerous they may be, still coexist.

It’s only with the growth of communities of people interacting that most people gain such courage in their convictions to defy that which authoritative sources (media, political, corporate) deem to be acceptable narratives and acceptable norms. These communities generate more than validation of one’s preexisting beliefs. They generate the common knowledge that I know that many others feel the same as I do, others to whom I am joined in a community.

David Lewis gave the most well-known account of common knowledge in 1969:

Let us say that it is common knowledge in a population P that X if and only if some state of affairs A holds such that:

1. Everyone in P has reason to believe that A holds.
2. A indicates to everyone in P that everyone in P has reason to believe that A holds.
3. A indicates to everyone in P that X.

David Lewis, Convention (1969)

In other words, in an imagined group of people P, you get common knowledge of “Trump won the election” only if you have a situation in which every member of the group is not only given reason to believe that Trump won the election, but also that everyone else in the group has reason to believe (and likely the same reason to believe) that Trump won the election.

from Common knowledge, coordination, and strategic mentalizing in human social life (2019)

Gilbert Harman posed a simpler, self-referential version of self-knowledge that removes the more complex “state of affairs” variable:

Mutual knowledge might be explained as knowledge of a self-referential fact: A group of people have mutual knowledge of p if each knows p AND WE KNOW THIS, where the THIS refers to the whole fact known.

Gilbert Harman, Review of Linguistic Behavior (1977)

Historically in offline society, the second condition is the most difficult to attain. If there is consensus in the truth of some belief X in a community, that is likely a product of the ambient environment surrounding the community, attained through news, one-on-one discussions, and so on. But the knowledge that everyone else knows X is harder to glean. It can be asserted, but unless X is some fact/norm blatantly reflected in the behavioral cues of everyone one encounters (say, “You should always wear clothes in public”), the bar for X crossing into common knowledge is rather high.

Online social spaces, by their very structure and nature, lower the bar drastically by providing many-to-many broadcast channels. One rarely communicates to more than a handful of people at a time in offline, everyday life. Online, any space such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, a blog with comments, or a message board by default provides broadcast capabilities to every individual who contributes. To post X to an online community P on any of these networks is to communicate several things:

  1. I believe X.
  2. Everyone in P knows I believe X.
  3. Everyone in P knows everyone else in P knows I believe X.

In real life, everyday expressions of X only communicate (1) and provide a fraction of push on (2), and so no common knowledge is produced. In an online community, however, communications generate all three and provide far greater momentum toward common knowledge. Any person’s post can serve as a proxy for the unexpressed beliefs of any other person in that community. By observing how others react to someone else posting that they believe X, an observer can be implicitly validated (or rejected) within the community if they also believe X.

Many-to-many broadcasting allows, uniquely, for common knowledge to come into being far more easily in the absence of authoritative mediation and without a centralized locus of communication. Everyone in P is, by default, announcing their beliefs with a megaphone, and unlike in real life, the online community P can hear everyone’s megaphone. No one is conversing; everyone is broadcasting.

The result is discursive mob rule. For any significant belief X, momentum quickly builds up in a positive feedback loop to the point where X can reach common knowledge, and does so in the absence of any central authority. The much-vaunted moderation demanded by social network critics is not a sufficient impediment to this momentum, since moderation is very rarely invisible. If moderation removes statements of belief in X, that is tantamount to validating that many others believe that X. Moderation helps the push toward common knowledge of X along just as much as the posting of X does.

Many-to-many broadcast networks can even provide the illusion of greater unity of belief than actually exists, since not all members of a community use the megaphones. If a minority of members proclaim belief X, where X is something like “It would be a great idea to invade the Capitol building,” and there is little stated dissent, the silent votes of abstention or dissent do not get counted in the assessment of common knowledge. Where in real life there is a massive void of ignorance of what other members of one’s community think in one direction or another, in online communities the slant goes toward whoever is most aggressive with their megaphones.

Combined with the low barrier of community creation and the balkanization of online communities into self-selecting and self-reinforcing belief networks, the positive feedback becomes overwhelming, but only after many-to-many broadcasting is in play. A steady diet of clickbait and red meat can provide preoccupied partisans, but do not by themselves ensure radicalization because the concepts being promoted remain at the fairly simplistic level of soundbites. The achievement of QAnon was something beyond that which Fox News or Rush Limbaugh could ever have accomplished, because the actors playing Q only provided the barest of breadcrumbs around which the many-to-many broadcast dynamics forged a common knowledge belief system. This belief system possessed (and still possesses) a coherence, complexity, and sheer resistance to outside intrusion that could not have been possible without a far lower barrier to its constituent beliefs passing into common knowledge than was even possible until recently.

The hive mind is here, and its workings are a bloodsport.

We’re All Bozos on this Bus: Hegel’s Beautiful Soul

In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the Lordship and Bondage (aka Master/Slave) passage frequently receives the most attention, but the sequence that has weighed most heavily on my mind in recent years has been the later discussion of the beautiful soul (schöne Seele).

Hegel’s portrait of the purity-obsessed moralist for whom words speak louder than actions and condemnation louder than solidarity, seems to hold particular relevance for our time, in which action and judgment have blurred in virtual space.

Passages

Here are some resonant passages, followed by H. S. Harris’s paraphrases of them from Hegel’s Ladder. I’ve always been struck here by the duel between Hegel’s leaden verbiage and his sarcasm:

The self’s immediate knowing that is certain of itself is law and duty. Its intention, through being its own intention, is what is right; -all that is required is that it should know this, and should state its conviction that its knowing and willing are right.

[Conscience is what it says it is. It is not legitimate to doubt its “truthfulness.” That everyone should define himself thus, is the essence of the right. (Harris)]

Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit §§654

The spirit and substance of their association are the reciprocal assurance of their conscientiousness and good intentions, rejoicing over this mutual purity, and basking in the glory of knowing, declaring, cherishing, and fostering such an excellent state of affairs.

[This lonely service is at the same time a communal one. What the voice says is “objective,” and has universal force. To express it is to set oneself up as a pure, hence a universal, self. Everyone respects it and we all feel good for being conscientious. (Harris)]

Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit §§656

It lives in dread of besmirching the splendour of its inner being by action and an existence; and, in order to preserve the purity of its heart, it flees from contact with the actual world, and persists in its self-willed impotence to renounce its self which is reduced to the extreme of ultimate abstraction.

[It is a creative experience that loses everything, a speech that hears only its own fleeting echo. The echo cannot be identified as a return to self, because this self never leaves itself at all; it refuses to let Nature be, or to accept being for itself. It flies from the world and has its own emptiness for object; this beautiful soul is a lost soul. (Harris)]

Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit §§658

The ‘beautiful soul’, lacking an actual existence, entangled in the contradiction between its pure self and the necessity of that self to externalize itself and change itself into an actual existence, and dwelling in the immediacy of this firmly held antithesis—an immediacy which alone is the middle term reconciling the antithesis, which has been intensified to its pure abstraction, and is pure being or empty nothingness—this ‘beautiful soul’, then, being conscious of this contradiction in its unreconciled immediacy, is disordered to the point of madness, wastes itself in yearning and pines away in consumption.

[This “beautiful soul” is now stuck in its negative certainty. It must be actual, but it cannot. It can only go mad, or pine away in spiritual consumption. (Harris)]

Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit §§668

Commentary

As a summary, I’m not sure if one can do better than Jean Hyppolite’s assessment:

Above all, these beautiful souls are concerned with perceiving their inner purity and with being able to state it. Concern for them­selves never completely leaves them, as true action would re­quire.

Jean Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

And here is some commentary on the “beautiful soul” concept (as well as the closely related acting vs. judging consciousness), beginning with Judith Shklar’s incisive portrait of the beautiful soul’s hypocrisy, and ending with Robert Brandom quoting the Firesign Theatre.

The language of ethical men is that of law and convention. Pure moralism is reduced to silence in its purity and inactivity. Kantian moralism is at least not talkative. The language of conscience is that of self-worship, but it need not remain solitary. Conscience that must speak can always find some mutual admiration society whose members accept each other’s professions of good intentions and purity of purpose and this gives much pleasure to all. They share ‘the glorious privilege of knowing and expressing, of fostering and cherishing, a state altogether admirable.’ The ironist here clearly is Hegel, and not for the last time.

Hegel was very much aware of how satisfying these associations of the high-minded can be, but he could not yet guess how effectively they reinforce the self-assurance of their members and how secure a basis they offer for every conceivable bit of moralistic casuistry. He was more impressed by their instability, and to be sure, the tendency of moralizing parties and sects to disintegrate is proverbial.

There are no principles or words of unity among self- admiring consciences, even if they all approve of each other and this way of talking. ‘This general equality breaks up into the inequality of each individual existing for himself,’ because there is no way of overcoming the opposition of these individuals to other individuals or to society in general. Each one demands that he be respected, but for what? Unless there is a common standard, even if it be only common humanity, to judge actions, there is no ground for respect. The sovereignty of personal conviction renders such a yardstick impossible. Its language is therefore just an act of self-assertion. Assurances of inner righteousness, without any references to actions, are not automatically convincing. Not deeds, only inner states are offered up to be recognized. Here duty is merely a matter of words. It is a situation that has only two possibilities, evil or hypocrisy. Evil is honest and declares, ‘I do as I like.’ Hypocrisy behaves the same ways but proclaims loudly, ‘I act out of deep, inner conviction.’ Evil expects to be condemned. Hypocrisy insists on admiration. That is how conscience becomes simple selfishness…

By carefully analyzing the motives of those who act the hypocrite can easily find some selfishness lying at the root of their works. This moralistic reductionism is not only mean-spirited, it is also paralyzing. Its final success would bring a reign of pure verbiage upon us all…

Judith Shklar, Freedom and Independence

What now counts is the language in which one expresses one’s convictions. Each can say, “I assure you, I am convinced that I am doing what is right” (§§653). There is no way of gainsaying that, of determining whether the “assurance” of the “conviction” is true; each one’s “intention” is a right intention, simply because it is his own (§§654). Because there is no disputing convictions, everyone is right, and because there can be no universally valid judgment regarding either conscience or action, the only universality involved is the universal intelligibility of the language one uses in assuring others that he acts according to the conviction of his conscience (§§654)…

“Conscience” has turned into a travesty of “moral consciousness”; “good intention” has been substituted for moral goodness.

Quentin Lauer, A Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

The world may be a messy place, but one can always have a beautiful soul. The problem with beautiful souls, of course, is that they, too, substitute an aesthetic solution for a real one, and they end up in various forms of moral fanaticism. At one end of the spectrum, they are people so intent on keeping their hands clean that they never do anything; the demands of the moral life leads them to a life, paradoxically enough, of inaction. Or they can become fierce moralistic judges, ready to condemn, never ready to act themselves; or moralists who are willing to admit they make mistakes but never willing to compromise on the purity of their motives.

However, if ‘‘beautiful souls’’ are not to remain mute and simply ‘‘evaporate,’’ they must act, which means that their internal beauty and the prosaic nature of the world around them (including their own embedded selves) exists in an ineliminable tension with each other. Inevitably one form this takes is that of the judgmental moral fanatic, quick to condemn while being glacially slow to act, so worried about dirtying his hands that he can never bring them into contact with anything in the world but equally quick to point out and denounce what he sees as the stain on others’ hands. The other form it can take is that of the hyper-ironic actor, the man behind the mask, who can never be pinned down to any particular identity or action, the ‘‘free spirit’’ who is never to be identified with any action.

Terry Pinkard, in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: A Critical Guide (ed. Moyar and Quante)

The individual who acts from conscience will look evil to others who abide by the established moral order, because he refuses to act in accordance with the duties laid down by that order; the individual will also be accused of hypocrisy, because he claims to be interested in acting morally while at the same time flouting the moral rules:

In condemning the individual conscience, the dutiful majority show themselves to be more interested in criticizing others than in acting themselves, while their accusation of hypocrisy betrays a mean-minded spirit, blind to the moral integrity of the moral individualist: ‘No man is a hero to his valet; not, however, because the man is not a hero, but because the valet – is a valet’ (PS: §665, p. 404). The moral individualist thus comes to see that its critic has much in common with itself, and that both are equally fallible: it therefore ‘confesses’ to the other, expecting the other to reciprocate. However, at first the other does not do so, remaining ‘hard hearted’: it thus itself becomes a ‘beautiful soul’, taking up a position of deranged sanctimoniousness (PS: §§668–69, pp. 406–7).

Robert Stern, Routledge Guide to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

What is behind the common interpretation of Hegel’s concept of the beautiful soul – it is necessary to say – is a very shopworn and stereotypical account of Romanticism, which scarcely fits historical reality. Since Hegel himself traded in these stereotypes, it is still possible that he had the Romantics in mind after all. But if that is the case, it is necessary to admit that his critique misfires entirely, directed against little more than a monster of his own making.

We need not make this assumption, however, if we consider other more likely sources for Hegel’s reflections. One of these is Book VI of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, “The Confessions of a Beautiful Soul.” Goethe’s treatment and diagnosis of the beautiful soul anticipates Hegel’s chapter in many respects: in its suspicions about moral purity, in its criticisms of withdrawal from the world, and in its belief in the necessity of self-limitation (cf. PR §13Z). Another plausible source is Rousseau’s account of the life of the beautiful soul in Julie, or the New Heloise. There is a remarkable similarity between Hegel’s account of the beautiful soul and the main characters in Rousseau’s novel, Wolmar, Julie, and Saint-Preux. They are guided entirely by their moral feelings; they believe utterly in their moral purity; they attempt to seclude themselves from society by forming their own moral community where complete honesty and openness prevail. Last but not least, their community fails for reasons very like those Hegel discusses in the Phenomenology: they are all victims of hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is indeed the fatal flaw of the beautiful soul. The beautiful soul retreats from the world into the life of his small community because he does not want to compromise and corrupt himself. Rousseau recommended such an experiment in living because natural sentiments, the source of all virtue, are corrupted by general society. But the problem is that, even in this small community, the beautiful soul has to compromise his moral principles. The beautiful soul wants to lead a life that is completely honest, open, and authentic, and he wants to do away with all the dishonesty, repression, and conformity of society. For this reason he chooses to live only among his friends in a secluded community. But Wolmar, Julie, and Saint-Preux constantly find that, even among themselves, they have to conceal their convictions, repress their feelings, and embellish their opinions, if they are not to offend one another or embarrass themselves. They still claim to follow principles of openness, honesty, and authenticity; but they do not comply with them in their everyday life. In other words, they are hypocrites. Thus the beautiful soul fails by its own standards. It demands honesty, openness, and authenticity; yet its hypocrisy is nothing less than self-deception.

Frederick Beiser, in Blackwell Guide to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (ed. Westphal)

The hard-hearted judge is doing what he originally indicted the other for. He is letting particularity affect his application of universals: applying different normative standards to doings just because they happen to be his doings…What is normatively called for—in the sense that it would be the explicit acknowledgment (what things are for the judge) of what is implicitly (in itself) going on—is a reciprocal confession. That would be the judge’s recognition of himself in the one who confessed. (As the Firesign Theatre puts it: “We’re all bozos on this bus.”)

Robert Brandom, A Spirit of Trust

David Auerbach’s Books of the Year 2018

To be a true reader or writer today is to exist primarily in a state of longing and loneliness (sehnsucht, in the German term), because the vast majority of one’s closest associates are dead. Over the course of the 20th century the world of letters separated rather violently from the world of consequence, and so loving writing as writing requires either myopic self-delusion or an absurd appreciation for the spiritual residue of artistic impact. I don’t have the former in me, so it is the latter that drives me.

A remarkable amount of excellent archival issues came out this year, particularly in fiction and literature. The two placed in the pole position are not necessarily more deserving than many others. Rather, I chose them because they seemed to be most resonant with this year, despite being written decades ago. Both are very unorthodox Cold War retrospectives, both vaguely “documentary”-like, and yet animated by almost opposite sensibilities.

Ironically, I found Anniversaries to be a gloomier tale than Kolyma Stories, in the same way that gray is a gloomier color than black, or Faith is more enervating than Closer. Likewise, Johnson’s self-appearance in Anniversaries is more despairing than Shalamov’s varied appearances in Kolyma, because there is a certain abdication of moral authority Johnson took on in writing Anniversaries that is either disingenuous or terrifying. I think it’s the latter.

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BITWISE Q&A with David Auerbach

I’m proud to announce that today, Pantheon Books is publishing BITWISE: A LIFE IN CODE. The New York Times Book Review kindly says, ““[Auerbach] writes well about databases and servers, but what’s really distinctive about this book is his ability to dissect Joyce and Wittgenstein as easily as C++ code.” I’m grateful that the book has been so well-received.

I did a Knopf Q&A around what inspired me to write it, as well as my thoughts on technology more generally.

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Why Social Construction Is True

The term “social construction” and its cousin “cultural construction” get casually tossed around a lot these days. Sometimes it’s used negatively, as a pejorative way of referring to those damn relativistic lefties. Sometimes it’s used approvingly, as a potted rejection of someone else’s position by saying, “Oh, that’s just your truth.” Either way, there’s almost always a sloppiness that tends to equate belief in social construction with relativism–especially the dreaded moral relativism. And that’s simply not the case. What follows are cribnotes on why truth is indeed socially constructed, but why relativism does not follow from it.

The real meaning of social construction is linguistic. What it means, in a nutshell, is that we could all agree tomorrow to call the sky red instead of blue, and that would not cause any problem for us. Now, this wouldn’t change in isolation. Lots of other adjustments would have to be made in order to start calling blue things red and red things blue (or some third color, in which case lather rinse repeat). So while this would be a logistical nightmare, it is still potentially possible. Adjust language in the right way by shifting enough terms, and we can go on as we did before without anyone being the wiser. By consensus, we have now changed the truth from “The sky is blue” to “The sky is red.” That is social construction.

But, you may say, the real truth hasn’t changed at all! What real truth? “The sky is still blue!” you say. No, it’s not. The sky was blue yesterday, and today it isn’t. Truths can only be expressed in mutually intelligible terms, and if you want to be left behind still calling the sky blue, you can, but now it’s you who is wrong. Social construction is not about reality, it’s about words. We don’t choose our reality, but we do choose our words–collectively.

The tricky part comes when people don’t agree on the truth. If some people say the sky is blue and some people say the sky is red, now you have to do the work of figuring out why they disagree. Maybe they just have different words for the same color. Maybe one group of people has different cones in their eyes that actually make the sky look like a different color. All of these things can be experimentally tested, because truths have to fit together with one another. If both groups agree that the wavelength of blue/red light is 475nm, then clearly it’s the same color, and there’s just terminological confusion (unless they don’t agree on numbers either, but you get the idea). If one group says the sky is blue and 475nm, and the other group says the sky is red and 730nm, then science has got some work to do in order to decide which of them is totally wrong. Naturally, the two groups have to agree to the rules of science and agree to abide by the results and agree on what abiding by the results means…but at the end of the day, cultural construction is not some free-for-all. It’s just the contract we make in order to be able to agree on anything.

On the other hand, it also means that there’s very little meaning in being right by yourself. If you think the sky’s wavelength is about 475nm (which it is), and everyone else thinks it’s 730nm (which it isn’t), you have two options. You can try to convince people that you’re right, marshaling the evidence and arguments to do so, or you can sit quietly and wait for vindication beyond the grave when someone else figures out how wrong everyone has been. But what if they never do? I’m afraid you’re stuck. You can’t be said to have been right because no one will be around to say it. Truth is linguistic, which means that unless there later comes to be a consensus that you were right, you weren’t. That’s not relativism, that’s just how the game is played.

Contrariwise, even if the entire world believes that the sky’s wavelength is about 475nm, there’s nothing to say that at some point in the distant future we won’t be proven oh so wrong and people will look back on us and say, “What fools they were!” In exchange for the pain of truth requiring some kind of social consensus, you get the pleasure of being able to doubt anything anyone says due to the possibility, however distant, of it being overturned in the future. And so the lumbering human process of truthseeking rolls along.

I began with the most objective and “scientific” examples because things get far muddier when it comes to morality and valuation in general. If there is no scientific fact to discover, as people generally assume when it comes to ethics, does that mean that morality really is relativistic? You don’t really need to answer that question, because it comes out in the wash. Social practices will inevitably spit out moral systems, which will argue with one another and end up settling on some set of values. We don’t know for sure whether a particular moral system is correct–but how is this different from science? Because, you might say, the methodology is totally different! You don’t conduct experiments to test moral hypotheses! (Unless you’re one of those analytic philosophers, that is.) That’s true. But just because there’s a different adjudication process doesn’t mean that it’s somehow more relativistic. Rather, it means that morality is only as morally relativistic as we say it is. If everyone in the world were to agree that morality is absolute, then it might as well be, because who’s going to disagree?

Admittedly, that’s not a very satisfying answer when it comes to morality, but it gives some hint of how empty absolute relativism is. At the bottom, you have to agree on some purported absolutes just to get along in the world. Most of them won’t be moral laws, but there’s no intrinsic prohibition on them being absolutes–at least, not according to social construction. All social construction dictates, rather, is that the limits of what we term the “absolute” stop at what we collectively agree to be true, because how could we possibly get more absolute than that?

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