Neo-Pentecostal gangs in Brazil, driving out other faiths at gunpoint. A mob of 100 lawyers attacking a hospital in Pakistan to revenge themselves on violent doctors there. Anti-vaxxers, neo-Nazis and red-pillers. Sometimes it seems like the world has fragmented into a jagged kaleidoscope of countless mobs and subcultures, each more disconcerting than the last.
Much of this is selection bias: if it bleeds, it leads, in both mass media and social-media algorithms. But it does seem plausible that the internet is contributing to this kaleidoscope, to this growth in worrisome fringe subcultures, in three separate ways: complexity, information and connectivity.
Connectivity is the most obvious avenue. The internet empowers everyone to find their like-minded people, and this is as true of the hateful and vengeful as it is of the dispossessed and downtrodden. Furthermore, the power of a group increases nonlinearly with its size. The hateful views of one man in a community of 100 people are unlikely to make a huge collective difference; worst case, they become a fabled missing stair. But 1% of a nation of 100 million? That’s a million people. That’s a movement ready to join, to march, to pay tithes, to reinforce one another.
Information is more subtle. There’s a fascinating quote from the recent New Yorker profile of William Gibson: “Gibson noticed that people with access to unlimited information could develop illusions of omniscience.” You can get any kind of information you want on the internet. You can find what appear at first glance to be closely argued and well-supported claims that global warming will kill off all but half a billion people by the end of this century, and also, if you prefer, that global warming is an authoritarian hoax.
No wonder people increasingly act as if the truth is something you choose from a buffet rather than a fact that will eventually bite you, hard, if you refuse to believe in it. As Philip K. Dick put it, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” But if all your information comes from the internet, and is never testable, you never have to stop believing in it … until it’s far too late.
Complexity is, I think, the saddest. It has nothing to do with being led astray by evil companions or disinformation. It’s just that our modern world has become so complicated, such an endless buzz of noise and events and obligations, that lashing back against it, fixating on a simple solution to all the world’s problems, makes people feel strong. This delightful article about schisms among believers in a flat Earth includes the telling quote: “When you find out the Earth is flat … then you become empowered.”
Is the world going to get weirder yet, with new and more bizarre and inexplicable subcultures erupting from the internet with every passing year? Have we hit the plateau of an S-curve? Or are we in a local minimum, and as we get better at dealing with connectivity and complexity, will we look back on these as the crazy years? My money’s on door number two … but I’ve been outweirded before.