The Global Sycophant

by rsbakker

Definition of the Day – Facebook: a clever distraction for the masses designed to secure the invisibility of the poor, the anti-social, and the technologically retarded.

Just a note to those who were surprised by my take on sanitizing Huck Finn: this site and my project are dedicated to walking the tightrope between actual difficulty and actual accessibility. Terms like ‘selling out’ and ‘dumbing down’ are cornerstones of our indoctrination into literary culture, the fig-leaves we use to avoid mingling with our intellectual and aesthetic ‘lessers.’ To continue writing for ourselves (the easiest thing to do) under the pretence of writing for eternity (the most difficult thing to do).

Over and over again we’re told that altering literary expression for commercial or ideological reasons is an essential aesthetic evil, something that devalues works no matter what the contexts. The most immediate counter-example I can think of would be Underground Man, an originally Christian tract that was thankfully secularized by the Tsar’s censors.

If we had the luxury of a long, stable future, then maybe I would be more inclined to sanctify Twain’s intention (or my interpretation of it), but as it stands… Is Twain’s purity more important than his popularity? If you think so, then you have a much more sanguine view of the future than I do.

I watched The Social Network last night, and it got me thinking how strange it is to live in a time when five years ago counts as history. It also got me thinking about social compartmentalization.

It’s not that the world is flat or small: both of these metaphors emphasize the global availability provided by information technology. Framed in these terms, things like the internet seem unambiguously good. Information technology renders the world more transparent to desire.

The crazy thing is that this global availability was almost immediately identified as the primary problem. When everything is equally available, everything obscures everything else. People want certain things, not everything, and thus was the industry of web intermediaries born, companies that specialize in fetching what we want from the global information warehouse. Google. Facebook. WordPress. LexusNexis.

Each of these intermediaries turn on specialized programs that use all the data you have explicitly or inadvertently provided them to pluck things out of the stochastic soup of information. These algorithms are often their most closely guarded secrets.

Enter human nature, and the darker implications of our information future. So long as you leave human nature out of the picture, the kinds of specialized programs these companies use seem unambiguously good. Hell, I even appreciate the spam Amazon sends me. Why? Because my interests are the most interesting (and important) interests going, so the more Amazon feeds those interests, the better!

The problem is that human nature is adapted to environments where the access to information was geographically indexed, where its accumulation exacted a significant caloric toll. We don’t call private investigators ‘gumshoes’ for no reason. We are adapted to environments where the info-gathering workload continually forced us to ‘settle,’ which is to say, make due with something other than what we originally desired, when it comes to information.

This is what makes the ‘global village’ such a deceptive misnomer. In the preindustrial village, where everyone depended upon one another, our cognitive selfishness made quite a bit of adaptive sense: in environments where scarcity and interdependency force cognitive compromise, you can see how cognitive selfishness–finding ways to justify oneself while impugning potential competitors–might pay real dividends in terms of in-group prestige. Where the circumstantial leash is tight, it pays to pull and pull, and perhaps reach those morsels that escape others.

In the industrial village, however, the leash is far longer. But even still, if you want pursue your views, geographical constraints force you to engage individuals who do not share them. Who knows what Bob across the road believes? (My Bob was an evangelical Christian, and I count myself lucky for having endlessly argued with him).

In the information village the leash is cut altogether. The likeminded can effortlessly congregate in innumerable echo chambers. Of course, they can effortlessly congregate with those they disagree with as well, but… The tendency, by and large, is not only to seek confirmation, but to confuse it with intelligence and truth–which is why right-wingers tend to watch more Fox than PBS.

Now, enter all these specialized programs, which are bent on moulding your information environment into something as pleasing as possible. Don’t like the N-word? Well, we can make sure you never need to encounter it again–ever.

The world is sycophantic, and it’s becoming more so all the time. This, I think, is a far better cartoon generalization than ‘flat,’ insofar as it references the user, the intermediary, as well as the information environment.

The contemporary (post-posterity) writer has to incorporate this radically different social context into their practice (if that practice is to be considered even remotely self-critical). If you want to produce literary effects, then you have to write for a sycophantic world, find ways not simply to subvert the ideological defences of readers, but to trick the inhuman, algorithmic gate-keepers as well.

This means being strategically sycophantic. To give people what they want, sure, but with something more as well.