Author: Alan Jacobs
Publisher: Currency (October 17, 2017)
Price: $15.00 (Hardcover)
Thanks for your thoughts, Myles. I echo your praise of Alan Jacobs’ excellent book How to Think.
I’m most interested in the points you bring up about social media. Like you’ve mentioned, many of our worst pathologies are exacerbated by our digital habits. The utopia of connected minds that the Internet promised becomes instead, as Jaron Lanier put it, the place where everyone’s inner troll is unleashed.
I’ve definitely felt myself turning troll in cyberspace and have also experimented with practices to moderate my media consumption. There are certainly times when it seems that whatever is happening on social media, it’s not the thick, intentional version of “thinking” that Jacobs has in mind.
But I think Myles is right to problematize the prescription of strategic withdrawal from social media. Even when we “unplug,” we still find ourselves organized in affinity groups rather than organically engaged with those who espouse different habits of thought. So, how might diverse communities of thought be cultivated, if we naturally gravitate towards those who are likeminded?
What’s interesting on this note is that studies like this one have suggested that the Internet is not the echo chamber that it seems. Online spaces are less ideologically segregated than almost all of our normal environments (homes, neighborhoods, work places), exposing us to a wider range of views than we would otherwise encounter. Our social media networks are filled with “weak social connections” the sorts of people that we probably wouldn’t take out for coffee but whose thoughts regularly show up on our newsfeeds.
Mere diversity of thought doesn’t entail thicker thinking, of course. But what if social media is one of the only places where we actually encounter the RCO (“repugnant cultural other”)? Perhaps this means that non-engagement is not an option, and we should think of social media in terms of strategic entanglement rather than strategic withdrawal. This seems to be what Jacobs has done with his twitter account. After an online altercation that had his hands shaking with rage, he strategically curated an ideologically diverse group of around 100 thoughtful tweeters with whom to think.
That sounds quite idyllic to me. When I think of Jacobs’ “think tank,” I imagine an elegant, eloquent, and eclectic group that Jacobs has access to by virtue of his status as a public intellectual. But, is this image realistic for the rest of us? Or must we learn to work with what we have? That might not mean engaging the clickbait from that crazy high school acquaintance. But surely, there are less crazy “weak social connections” with whom we ought to entangle ourselves. It would certainly seem a shame to neglect the one space we frequent populated by ideological diversity.
What if the frustration we feel online is an invitation to engage rather than unplug? To plunge in rather than remain above the fray? Equipped with Jacobs’ prescriptions for thought, how can we do better online?