Packaged Opinion

I began my last post with a quote from Saul Bellow, and it was my intention to explore the final part of it(“ This is what makes packaged opinion so attractive.”), but I got sidetracked in self-indulgence.

So, here it is again:

There is simply too much to think about. It is hopeless — too many kinds of special preparation are required. in electronics, in economics, in social analysis, in history, in psychology, in international politics most of us are, given the oceanic proliferating complexity of things, paralyzed by the very suggestion that we assume responsibility for so much. This is what makes packaged opinion so attractive. Saul Bellow, 1992

On twitter celebrity and esteem are measured in followers, and the worth of opinions in retweets and favourites. These are simply the best tools we have to quantify influence. Whilst they might not be brilliant, and many, many good people are uncounted, I’d choose them over nothing.

Twitter — after studiously avoiding a corporate identity — has (via Ev Williams) effectively defined itself as a “news system”. That might be true, but at it’s heart it is an ideas mine and a repository for opinion and insight. Whether you are following financial giant or a sporting celebrity, the motivation is the same: you want to know what they really think. If you are more concerned about getting heard, then perhaps you are doing it all wrong. If you are bitter that your voice isn’t as loudly broadcast, well that’s just life and it is an unfair reality. Twitter can be an exercise in humility, and you should be restrained by modesty, or, at the very least, self-preservation.

Beyond the artifice of twitter personalities, there lies the danger of consensus achieved through popularity metrics. It is via Twitter’s value system, it’s mechanisms of ranking and endorsement, that opinion can be funneled, shaped, and widely appropriated. There is too much to think about, and this makes the output of widely-endorsed personalities or commercial voices very alluring. Hit retweet, and you now have a broadly-acceptable opinion on a matter that you might know very little about. Curate you followers carefully, and links can be retweeted without you even bothering to read what lies beyond the click. What happens, however, when established opinions run counter to our best interests? As David Hume identified, it is very difficult for men of the greatest judgement and understand to counter the reasoning of friends and companions.

No quality of human nature is more remarkable, both in itself and in its consequences, than that propensity we have to sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to our own. David Hume

As we pigeon-hole ourselves by virtue of who we follow and interact with, the freedom to be iconoclastic diminishes, not just for fear of rocking the boat, but because of a dangerous convergence of personal philosophies.

The Good are attracted by men’s perceptions, And think not for themselves. William Blake

Identity politics flourish because context is so easily defined by hashtags and profile bios. Confirmation bias is a natural outcome of who we follow, who we block, and who we mute or ignore. And these things are compounded by the relentless stream of information that users are subjected to. It does not sleep, it is a restless ocean, and each of us stands on a beach trying to make sense of the constant flux. Or perhaps we are hanging onto a piece of wreckage, looking for a life-raft. This might appear as @someone or @something that provides context and conclusions without the preparation — an outcome that seems like an opinion or an idea we could have if we did some independent thinking.

In this way we are conveniently identifiable and fashionably enlightened or outraged. Social media signaling is never not hanging out with the cool kids, yet the illusion of being informed is as bad as buying into the worst propaganda of the past. Twitter should be a jumping off point, a means to deeper understanding of a topic, not a shortcut to an agreeable conclusion. However, for too many of us it is a lifehack — we’re doing it wrong, and, what’s more, there are venal people and entities hoping you’ll never change. I’m sorry if this seems like a moral judgement, that’s not my intention. I am suggesting that it is an inevitable result of trying to assimilate too much of what is happening in public life. Our composite and unique identities are not enriched by seeking this much stimulus, they are crippled.