Monday, August 17, 2009

Is Twitter the New Case for the Philosopher King?

"And to men like him, I said, when perfected by years and education, and to these only you will entrust the State." Plato, "The Republic"

It seems to me that we are unable to have a conversation about healthcare in this country. Regardless of how you feel about the Obama plan, the dialouge surrounding it is flush with inaccuracies, flat-out lies, hysteria and frantic shouting, very little of which gets to the crux of the matter, that being whether or not the United States government should provide medical care to its citizens. Insurance is not medical care, nor is it a wormhole to medical care; in many instances, high insurance co-pays and premiums discourage people from seeking out medical services, to say nothing of the limitations of insurance and the fact that it is a business, and thus driven to a perpetual aim of cutting waste to lean down its expenses. It doesn't make insurance companies good or evil, it just makes them a business. If we adopt a plan that forces insurance coverage, it's really no change at all. The true discussion should be about whether or not a socialized plan is a good fit for the United States and where to go from there. Instead, we're hearing horror stories about the perceived failings of other nations' systems. First of all, the vast majority of these "the government will come to your grandmother's house with guns on her 85th birthday" claims are simply incorrect, as millions of elderly Britons, Canadians, Japanese, French people and Germans can attest. Even worse, all these hysteronics have sprung up while missing a crucial fact: we don't have to adopt an existing system. There is no Healthcare System Store in the basement of the United Nations. There are good things and bad things about all of these systems, and we have the unique opportunity to observe those systems in action and learn from their successes and failures in the process of building our own healthcare system.

(NB: For the record, I am pro-Socialized healthcare. I think that national healthcare ensures people's ability to pursue happiness and preserve their lives, allows businesses to regain losses from illness and chronic disease, removes the burden of insurance payments from said employers, allows people to pursue the healthcare they need regardless of cost and generally encourages a willingness to seek medical care that can stave off more problematic conditions down the road. Christopher Bird and "Strawberry" have summed up the reasons why far more eloquently than I could without getting too far afield. And before you get on me about Evil Socialism, a little socialism never hurt anyone as long as its parameters are well defined. See for reference: United States police, fire and public school systems. Also, Norway's #2 spot on the Human Development Index. I think what people are actually angry about is the ridiculously small return on investment their current taxes are currently seeing. I do not blame anyone who is pissed about this for a second, but that has nothing to do with the moral decision on national healthcare.)

But instead we are talking about death panels and wait times and all kinds of hugely dramatic "inevitabilities," and it's not just about healthcare. We just got clear of an extremely contentious election season that featured some of the most callous and vicious rhetoric in years. Why is this happening?

In the past few decades, our lives have become increasingly based in mass media and the Internet. Paper media are dying, and "mid-modern" media are splitting themselves obsessively to gain control of niche markets in a desperate attempt to preserve their financial and influential lives. There was once "the six o'clock news," and now we can watch dozens of news channels around the clock, all reporting from a different viewpoint. The new media - blogs, social networking sites, etc. - began their lives as archipelagoes and have only continued to split as their popularity rises. I could begin reading nothing but hyperliberal tripe this very moment and still have enough information that I could convince myself I was well and accurately informed about international and domestic policies. I could do the same with neo-con blather. I would be incorrect in either case, but I could do it. We have increasingly moved into a self-centered, self-selected reality and while variety is indeed the spice of life, how good an idea this is in the current context raises several serious questions.

Strangely, I believe that the desire to see news and information relayed in "our" preferred manner stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of political life. Not everything is necessarily liberal or conservative and even if something is of one stripe or the other, it may be passively so, the political leanings being wholly irrelevant to the thing itself. Moreover, our own weltanschaaung limits our understanding of political significance - what is daringly liberal in Tehran would hardly merited a batted eyelash from American conservatives. American media force active political context on every report and this leads us to similar thinking in our every day lives. Fox News, CNN, the Drudge Report, the Huffington Post, MSNBC...all of them spin all day long, and this perpetual state of abstract politics trains us all to think in these terms at all times and constantly try and pigeonhole all the events we observe or hear about into the same tightly and inaccurately defined terms. The "Liberal" and "Conservative" of today's media have little to do with classical liberal and conservative thought, but the usurpation of the terms have made it nearly impossible to discuss these classical politics without wild diversion.

The Internet, in particular, affords us extraordinary access into each others' lives and into the worldviews of those around us, but it is also singularly isolating. Every day, the number of people getting their news of the world from the Internet increases. On the Internet, the ability to pick and choose our sources and biases increases exponentially, and so does our ability to create our own images. If a person completely immerses himself in an environment of his own choosing, he lacks any shared context whence a viable debate can begin with another person from a different environment. How then can we discuss the challenges of our time...of any scope and scale? If my cocoon of information tells me dyeing my hair blonde is inherently bad and someone else has been told that dyeing hair blond is inherently good, there is no acknowledged gray area and a true debate cannot unfold. Hair dye is minor in the grand scheme of things; what havoc is loosed upon our discourse when the same concept is applied to say, healthcare?

The problems of the Internet as information source are compounded by its univeral volume. I'm sure almost everyone has declared that "Google can find anything" in some way, shape or form, and the problem is that this is true. There is a certain attitude that says any source is a good source - hello, Wikipedia - and this has permeated our lives more than we may realize. You can find something to back up any viewpoint on the Internet and people are increasingly willing to abandon the vetting of sources for the sake of shouting down opponents. The Internet also removes the reflexive politeness that accompanies face-to-face interaction, leaving us with little in the way of civility and a reckless approach to argument selection. Jason Calacanis explained a certain phenomenon he called "Internet Asperger's Syndrome" in a fascinating article here, and much of it rings true to me. People with Asperger's Syndrome traditionally have trouble identifying non-verbal cues from other people, including facial expressions, tone of voice, etc...all things that are removed from human interaction via the Internet. Those with Asperger's frequently have trouble with empathy, and you only need to check out the comments section on any newspaper's website to see the same effect online. We can be whoever we want to be online, but it may be at the expense of our ability to interact with other humans offline.

It is important to note that as so many of us pour our lives into the Internet, we risk abdication of our physical rights and powers. Many of those so invested have begun to equate online action with real world action. Nowhere is this more evident than in the various do-gooder applications on Facebook. I receive about five to ten invitations per week to join certain causes. I know that joining these makes certain types of people feel as though they have Done Something, but the opposite could not be more true. This is actually very similar to my problems with "legal" protests and protestors who do not follow up their appearances at rallies with letters to every representative they have. A "protest" for which permits have been pulled is not civil disobedience, it's a block party. If you don't write your representatives, you are just one face in a relatively well-behaved crowd. You must stand and be counted to make a difference, and clicking a button on your computer doesn't qualify, nor does showing up at an anti-war themed street fair. Decisionmakers will simply not be swayed by online petitions or neutered demonstrations. You have to make physical contact - a letter, a call, a meeting - and persist, on a personal level, for your voice to be heard. No wonder people feel betrayed by the government; the government and the polity behind it are free to do as they please while discounting the wishes of their constituents. If you knew the most opposition you would face would be People Being Angry On The Internet, would you care?

As we all shift into web-based lives, we move into the realm of pure theory and must begin relying on ethereal information to construct our understanding of the world. This is far more revolutionary than we give it credit for. We have all met people who we knew couldn't hack it in college and went anyway; he probably had something he excelled at, too, but going to college was what you did, so he went and did horribly. All paths are not made for all people. This new theoretical and customizable world is unlikely to fit everyone in much the same way. Some people simply do not care or do not know to vet their information and dig deeper beneath the headlines. Yet these people can begin a blog just as easily as I can and can tweet just as easily and I can, and their opinions will hold exactly the same weight. When paired with a decreasing regard for correct use of language, this creates an amorphous blob of competing words, all of equal weight and equal impact. Who should sort out all these conflicting views? Should anyone?

If we give ourselves completely over to the realm of the theoretical, some leading faction must inevitably rise to the top as a guiding influence. Humans naturally seek stability, so even if we take a brief plunge into what one could term informational anarchy, the odds are that we would see some modern form of the Social Contract emerge. It's hard to say how far the pervasiveness of the Internet would have to go before this could happen, or what form it would take. Most of the classical philosophers agree that in one way or the other, a leadership class will emerge. The nature of this class is always subject to both debate and context, but as we progress further into this ethereal state, the case for Plato's Philosopher King seems to rise anew. The dialogue in which this Philosopher King is discussed enumerates a variety of traits and qualities that such an individual must possess. It is understood that each human must pursue their own abilities to their greatest possible fulfillment; for the Philosopher Kings this means ruling the State with their increased faculty for superior perception of truth, justice and beauty, and for the Guardians of Plato's Republic, this means physical protection of these Kings and those they govern. Ultimately, all of us in these online worlds are seeking some form of truth; should not a Philosopher King emerge to guide us towards the ultimate truth, and pull us from the petty concerns with superficial and insignificant "truths" that are merely in the service of our own earthly desires? It is interesting to think that amidst a deconstruction of a centuries-old social order based on human-to-human interaction, the greatest opportunity for the rise of a true Philosopher King may emerge.

I'm not sure if an encroaching online reality demands a Philosopher King, nor if I or anyone else would want such a figure to emerge, but it's an interesting concept to ponder. Much ink has been spilled over the Internet's death sentence for true social interaction but if indeed our lives are to go all the way online and lead to the emergence of such a leader, could we not be on the verge of a chance to go back to the beginnings of society and determine the new face and course of our world? Neither idea is inherently positive or negative, but it is all worth thinking about.

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