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Jan 25, 2021Liked by zeynep

Wonderful write-up. The 21st Century (or maybe post 1989) seems littered with movements that find themselves marching in the streets and positive change seems right around the corner, only for nothing to happen, or worse, a terrible backlash. Not sure any of these is quite as crushing as the Arab Spring as it seemed like a massive positive change was not only possible but becoming probable.

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Even in 1989 there was also a movement -- i.e., China -- that marched in the streets in which positive change seemed right around the corner that was met with a terrible (and crushing) backlash! But somehow we in the West convinced ourselves that "capitalism" and "markets" could do what student protestors could not...

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A great analysis - and I think you are on to the right territory for sure when you link the disintegration and demolition of the arab spring movements through to the roots of trumpism etc. One quibble I have with this though is the way that modern 'tribalism' is never unpacked any further than just innate human groupism + social media. I've very sceptical we are doing justice to the social psychology and related cultural shifts of the last couple of decades when we dont go any further into it than just saying humans like belonging and in groups and thats a sufficiently explained 'tendency' that is heightened by current tech. There much more nuance and detail to the specific ways that identity has been threatened and undermined by the specific characteristics of modern media, and how this expresses itself in different cultural environments - and only be digging more into this are we going to get a full understanding of the problem we are facing. Imho :)

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I don't disagree. The tribalism sounds like I'm talking about something primitive, but in fact it's a central fact of all human societies. We just manage–when we do it right—to turn it into a civilized form. It's also what gives us solidarity and belonging. But our balance—such as it was—depends on our institutions and traditions and culture matching the current moment, and that's what we're missing right now and playing catch up.

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I mostly agree - as I do with most of the article, and certainly your conclusions on what's needed. But Im still not totally happy that 'tribalism' isnt a bit of a catch all concept that like 'polarisation' that risks implying we understand more than is actually warranted about the specific dynamics that are at play here, at the intersection between psychology, culture and tech. Human identity has never before been put under the remarkable combinations of pressures it has encountered in the last 20 years, and while we can learn a certain amount from the concepts and studies that predate that, I fear we rely on them a bit too much in these sort of areas - and this could be fatal flaw as we try to design solutions potentially

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i'm not sure about this "central fact of all human societies", zeynep and Daniel Stanley.

human groups/tribes, outside of a modern (colonising) framework, did and still do not always have an exclusive, warring, defeat-our-neighbours-and-traitors-within sense of identity. (in my part of the world, that flavour has been defined and strengthened by colonisation, and then the adoption of exclusive concepts of territory and property and law...)

feels uncomfortably like we're neglecting the specific ways that identity has been threatened, undermined, and transformed by the recent colonial history of our planet – we, the groups we belong to, have been forcibly drawn into a violent contest – to return to zeynep's identity-as-fans-at-a-sporting-event – that is not at all a natural or necessary way to live out our political, economic or social lives.

it may not even be – if we look carefully – how we actually DO live our lives out; but is certainly the dominant way we are governed, the dominant narrative.

"How do we create centralizing institutions to counter the new decentralizing ones? How do we align belonging with facts?"

instead of – or maybe as well as – yearning for new centralising institutions, we might also need to recognise and strengthen and recreate identities and belonging that don't prioritise property, war, dominance. i really think in our ordinary lives, more of us – in more places – do also belong to groups in this way... "belonging" too comes from the wrong figure of speech, much like identity in the singular misses something important: we are, each of us many, people. when we think and talk about how technology and culture is operating, we would do well to keep an eye on the roots of the "threats to identity", the sustained global effort to enclose, to define and divide.

THAT feels like a central fact of the past 400 years...

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When I say "tribe" I don't mean the way we imagine what anthropologists are studying, but group identities that provide a sense of belonging. Those are both things that bring people together, but then make it easier to pit against the other. As for not prioritizing war or dominance: it soon comes back to the same problem, though, when the other identity would rather dominate? Then what?

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"Some differences are playful; some are poles of world historical systems of domination." (Haraway)

we can do identities, groups, belonging without domination. i think we are particularly bad at this right now in part because we have culture and tech that both enables and rewards contestation and makes it a 24-hour undertaking via cellphones, but equally importantly

we are bad at "belonging gently" now because the whole spectrum of group identities is strongly affected by colonising logic: broadly, we are today more weakly able to feel part of multiple groups, and to live out multiple identities because we are doing so in context of governance and economies that define, divide, enclose. exclude from benefits.

i'm thinking out loud, but do we, in FACT, achieve social life as "us vs them"?

contest is only one (ever-present?) factor in our sense of identities – perhaps we have culture and tech in place now that makes us feel like we're (screaming fans) at the game all the time, but we actually spend most of our time cooperating, exchanging, learning; moving between teams/identities to get different things done, to enjoy different things. (at least in my worlds, Nigeria, South Africa, that's true – you?)

and i'm saying centralising institutions don't seem like a promising way to quiet the bad tribal identities you're concerned about here. building better decentralised sites of power and knowledge and organising is more likely to return us to facts – which i'm thinking of here as an interdependent understanding of the complex social and physical bases of our society, how do we really get food, clothing, shelter, dance in a globally-connected world. (and without destroying every other living thing?)

sorry, that took a lot of words and i'll stop talking now.

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I appreciate your articulating this so clearly. I think a lot about identity and how people feel their identities threatened, especially as I live in a very conservative area and am constantly hearing arguments from self-identified conservatives that "liberals" are threatening them in certain ways--with communism, socialism, or other -isms that feel like they threaten their freedom and/or way of life. It doesn't matter whether these perceptions are something real or not; their preferred media tells them it is and their feeling of threat becomes real.

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thankyou. Ironically I think the one thing that everyone seems to have in common at the moment is that they feel their identity is under threat - either consciously and avowedly, or that they behave in a defensive way that heavily suggests that mechanism is at play. The problem is that in most of of our explanations for this (i.e. 'polarisation'), we rely heavily on some very basic psychology that hasnt really progressed since the 50s, and doesnt feel sufficient to me to deal with the very new conditions we are encountering. Part of it is that a lot of media tells them they are threatened, but I think theres a supply and demand aspect - in that everyone feels threatened, and they find simple stories that tell them why (and offer an escape) attractive and comforting.

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This long essay on epistemic bubbles versus echo chambers is one that I have shared and referenced probably more than any other over the past couple of years: https://aeon.co/essays/why-its-as-hard-to-escape-an-echo-chamber-as-it-is-to-flee-a-cult

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yes that's a great article. The fact we are struggling to still carve out the basic terminology for what is going on I think is clear evidence theres plenty to do before we can properly explain whats happening

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That's a great point.

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I would love to learn more about this--I hadn't realized how little the psychology research had progressed. It definitely doesn't feel sufficient. You've pinpointed a very specific effect, which is that when you're having a conversation with someone--or maybe I shouldn't generalize and say when I am having a conversation--there is often clearly a lot of reaction to something I haven't said or intended to imply. But we all come pre-weighted with conception about what we think other people think of us, and it hinders an ability to connect. It can take a long time to even figure out what kind of identity threat a person is carrying around with them, in order to hold it in mind when attempting dialogue.

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I don't think its necessarily any worse than other academic field - there are paradigms, they take time to shift, and we are relatively early in the new conditions probably. But it does seem a quite evident issue to me - I read 3 books on polarisation earlier this year, and each one relied massively on the Robbers cave experiments from the 50s as their explanation of relevant human psychology and then just moved on. And theres a long history of mad crowd/tribe/group vs rational individual theory going back even further that is still influential. Definitely interested to discuss this more anyway - have signed up for your newsletter and will see if I can locate a social profile :)

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That's kind of you! It's definitely more freewheeling and less rigorous than Zeynep's ;). I don't have social media anymore, gave up my last account in September, so I just have the newsletter and my website: https://antoniamalchik.com/book-a-walking-life/

I'm unfamiliar with the Robbers cave experiment, but for the mad crowd vs. rational individual are you referring to Gustave Le Bon? Despite all the evidence against his ideas, there is that tiny speck of knowledge that an impassioned crowd can give a person a sense of solidarity--of belonging, as Zeynep pointed out. It might help us if we understood that speck of real feeling without all the attendant assumptions.

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This was so beautiful to read. It took me back to paging through all the passages I have marked in Twitter and Tear Gas, which was an incredible resource when researching my own book, but was also an example of wonderful, clear-headed writing about subjects that clearly matter to the author personally while being approached analytically. And it feels hopeful. It reminds me of when you wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, work, and how much deep community organizing and time they put in before starting other actions.

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Forgot to say I particularly liked the point about the social media effect being more about belonging that anything else. That makes a lot of sense.

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This is excellent! Thank you.

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