Like any complex functional system, human society involves distinctions, hierarchies, and lasting connections.
The Internet, and electronic media generally, disrupt all that. They make everything equally present to everything else, and put all things on the same footing. Relationships become fluid, and sounds and images can be chopped up and reassembled, so that anything can be presented as anything else. The resulting liberation of experience from concrete connections and realities turns the world into a riot of self-indulgent fantasy. If you want to believe that the earth is flat, or run by shape-shifting alien reptilians, you can find a community on the Internet that supports you.
Other features of modern life push in the same direction. Technology, industrialism, modern concepts of expertise, and modern bureaucratic management reject nature, history, and tradition as guides. They want to cut things apart so the pieces can be reassembled to fit the purpose at hand.
The Internet and electronics cause this tendency to pervade all social life and understandings. The result is that the world, our connections to others, and even other human beings disappear as stable knowable realities. People come to inhabit a narcissistic world in which nothing seems more real than feeling and fantasy. They confuse their hatreds, resentments, and personal dramas with reality.
The effects can be appalling. Consider what electronics and the Internet did to the Covington Catholic High School students. Activists found it easy to produce a defamatory video and pass it on to networks of influential “haters,” who used it to turn inoffensive schoolboys into publicly accepted symbols of evil. Their own bishop and school principal—obviously without serious inquiry—denounced them to the whole world. Other Catholic clergy joined the pile-on.
Electronics also made it possible to debunk the story. But stories people want to believe are never effectively discredited, and a week later the people who set the tone and agenda of mainstream public discussion were once again using technology to spread a narcissistic actor’s ridiculous claims about an invented hate crime.
The 2016 election, the nonstop attempts to reverse its results, the Kavanaugh hearings, and other recent events demonstrate that such an environment turns politics into a theater for shameless demagoguery and mindless self-dramatization. In such an environment republican institutions find it very hard to function.
Since that is so, these institutions will inevitably have less and less influence on the course of events. Instead, power will continue to flow to people who know what they want and are in a position to pursue it effectively: bureaucrats (sometimes referred to as the “deep state” or “permanent government”) and billionaires. The two groups have overlapping interests, and each needs the other; notwithstanding talk of “socialism” we can expect them to continue the close working relationship they have long maintained.
Social disruption driven by technology has thus had important benefits for our rulers. The institutions they dominate depend less than others on trust and common understandings and more on formal definitions and grants of authority. This makes them the last public authorities left standing in a period of cultural chaos. Even the disappearance of objective truth has helped the powerful, since it means that those with resources and the ability to impose sanctions are better able to propagate their claims and make them stick. Consider, for example, how quickly transgenderism—an absolute denial of nature, tradition, and ordinary common sense—became legally-enforced public dogma.
Our rulers nonetheless worry that the disintegrative features of modern life, including the Internet, will end in loosening their own hold on power. After all, who can ultimately control mobs inspired by random or manipulated fantasies? And didn’t the Internet help create confusion by debunking the Covington and Smollet stories, which from a progressive standpoint were true in principle if not in fact?
Therefore, they want to tame and control it. The chief means they have at hand are official and corporate censorship, along with mob action against people who seem to violate the dominant social understandings.
But these create their own problems. They may retard particular disruptive tendencies but they exacerbate irrationalism. To maintain its power, a ruling class needs a grip on reality, but shutting down commentary because it offends sensibilities that are privileged in an inclusivist society makes realistic discussion impossible even among those in power. This leads to stupidity and alienation from reality at the very highest levels. This will not end well.
So now what?
Modern technology isn’t likely to go away, and cultural disintegration means people will continue to follow the line of least resistance. This means the Internet and mass media aren’t going to disappear or get better.
Further, we live in a mass industrial society in which people are dependent on the shifting opinions of others. In this situation, tendencies that are supported by endlessly expansible and unquestioned principles—such as equality and lifestyle liberalism—are likely to keep going as long as they possibly can. People in influential positions have spent their whole lives getting along by going along, which means there are no wise elders or even responsible adults to step back, ask what is real, and keep things sane.
So it seems likely that we’ll get more and more irrationality and social disintegration until the system stops functioning. The great material success of our society is likely to delay this until things have gone very far indeed. What happens then is unpredictable, but people will most likely fall back on more basic or cruder forms of order, such as family connections, tribalism, and military or mafia rule. Think of post-communist Russia and the Balkans—only more so, because the accumulated cultural disruption will be greater.
This outcome is not anything to favor. But what can we do to avert it, mitigate it, or lay the ground for a speedier recovery?
That’s a big question. A first step would be to extricate ourselves from electronic virtual realities and other sources of dissipation and confusion. In a world of disruption we need concentration, coherence, and a higher and more grounded understanding of the world.
The way to achieve this is to have a clear idea of what sort of life we want to lead, why that life makes sense, and how to go about leading it. Since we are social and rational creatures, who can’t simply make up a way of life or choose it arbitrarily, this will require acceptance of a tradition and community based on the fundamental truths about human life.
Once again we Catholics are back to the positive side of the ideas suggested by the phrase “Benedict Option”—the need to maintain a distinct outlook and way of life through local community and more intense dedication. This can be done, since others have done it, and achieving it will be the great task of the Church in the years to come. May our pastors and laity be ready for the task.
Editor’s note: Above, supporters of Tommy Robinson arrive for their rally on February 23, 2019, in Manchester, England. A few days later, a demonstration took place in London against a BBC anti-Robinson Panorama documentary. Almost immediately after, Robinson was banned from Facebook and Instagram. (Photo credit: Guy Smallman/Getty Images)