Climate Etc.

The radically fragmented and decentralized age of information

by Judith Curry

Why real nobodies are more powerful than repressed somebodies.

The U.S. first tweeting President has upended our perceptions on the appropriate method for a President communicate. Millions of people are perplexed and horrified by President Trump’s tweets. Stepping back, Trump is the first President who has grasped the power and possibilities of the internet.  I suspect that the end result of this will be a ‘rewiring of the power circuits’ in the Age of the Internet.

The internet is having a comparable impact on academia, scholars and the definition and behavior of individuals aspiring to be influential in academia, in the policy world and in the world of public intellectuals.

This post was triggered by a superb essay written by Justin Murphy, entitled The affective politics of keeping it real.  Justin Murphy seems like a pretty interesting character:

Why is there not more rebellion against status quo institutions? How have economic and political processes pacified our capacity for radical collective action? As a political scientist, I am interested in the roles played by information, communication, and ideology in the pacification of political resistance and conflict.

Extensive excerpts from his essay:

It once made sense for professional intellectuals to bite their tongue in exchange for the influence they could gain by conforming to the dominant language. For a while, this was arguably rational and defensible—perhaps even a game-theoretic necessity for anyone sincerely interested in cultivating a genuinely public and political intellectual project. While it’s obvious the internet has changed the game, old stereotypes die hard and continue to constrain human potential well after their objective basis has disappeared. In particular, the contemporary stereotype of the public intellectual as a self-possessed professional who regularly appears in “the media” to speak on public affairs in the royal language, is a contingent product of the postwar rise of mass broadcasting (one-to-many) media. In much of the postwar period, the classic “mass media”—newspapers, radio, television—had extremely large, mass audiences and where characterized by high costs of entry. This technical and economic environment offered huge rewards for speaking the dominant language within the paramaters of respectable opinion. It was probably with cable television that a centrifugal tendency began the processes of fragmentation, polarization, and decentralization that would eventually bring us to where we are today.

Today, there is no longer any mass audience to speak to through dominant channels, overwhelming majorities do not trust mass media, and even the cognitively fragmented semi-mass audiences that remain will only listen to what they already think. Not to mention the masses probably have less power today than anytime in the twentieth century, so why bother even trying to speak to the masses? As a young academic, if I play by the rules for the next 10 years so that I might be respected by influential academics or gain access to regularly speaking on BBC or something like that, I would have sacrificed all of my creative energy for quite nearly nothing. As far as I can tell, today, the idea of biding your time as a young and respectable intellectual, to one day earn a platform of political significance, appears finally and fully obsolete. In one sense, this is already obvious to the millions who long ago stopped following mainstream media and long ago lost all respect for academic credentials; but in another sense, an overwhelming number of human beings continue to think, speak, and behave as if we are still operating in this old world, as if there is some reason to not say everything one feels like saying, as if there is some social or political or economic reward that will come toward the end of a respectable career of professional self-restraint. [T]he really striking and politically significant puzzle [is] that an extraordinary degree of human power remains voluntarily repressed for rewards and punishments that no longer exist.

Just as the self-restrained professional intellectual is shaped by the rewards of a media environment long dead, so too are they shaped by punishments which are little more than paranoid fears. Many academics and professionals believe that for the sake of their careers they must exercise the utmost discretion in what they put online, and they confidently tell young people to exercise the same discretion for the sake of their own futures. But the reality is almost the exact opposite. In my now slightly above-average history of recklessly posting to the internet, before and after getting a competitive professional job, the worst that has ever happened is that nobody cares (and that’s most of the time). But the best that has happened, here and there, is that a lot of people care and appreciate it and new friends are made and all kinds of new paths appear, individually and collectively.

The self-restraining, strategic professional intellectual is not only operating on incorrect beliefs but beliefs which are almost exactly inverse to the truth: today, playing by rules of respectability is perhaps the straightest path to unemployment and impotent resentment, while simply cultivating the capacity to say or do something real (by definition prohibited by respectability), is a necessary (and sometimes even sufficient) condition for being genuinely valued by anyone, anywhere. [T]he conventional wisdom still drastically overestimates the punishments and underestimates the rewards of doing so.

I believe there exist objective, micro-political mechanisms whereby being real generates real power; that many people under-estimate or mistrust the objective reality of this mechanism; that many people live under compliant resentment because of incorrect beliefs about how the macro-social institutional environment will respond to their idiosyncratic deviations.

I dream of what would happen if thousands of highly capable intellects currently toiling under institutional respectability suddenly realized they have no reason to self-censor and everything to gain from simply disarming their objectively miscalibrated expression calculators.

JC reflections

While I found this essay insightful and rather exhilarating, sober reflection on the state of academic climate discourse concludes that there remains substantial punishments for even the most modest divergence from the IPCC consensus.  Public dialogue that does not sound the alarm and support particular emissions reductions policies gets ‘punished’ by the climate police.  Even Jim Hansen has been called a denier by he-who-must-not-be-named owing to his support of nuclear energy.

However, if it weren’t for the internet and particularly the blogosphere, dissenting perspectives (from climate scientists and other individuals with a technical background) would have no audience.  As such, the few of us climate scientists who disagree with alarm narrative and have ventured into the public debate actually have an outsized influence on the public debate relative to our numbers.   Myself, Pielke Jr, Pat Michaels and others with perspectives that diverge from the alarm narrative have paid a heavy academic price.  We have all found alternative paths and landed on our feet, but I’m sure that their are individuals that have paid a heavier price.

Trump’s tweeting and his administration more generally are acting to ‘rewire the power circuits’ in the political sphere.  Owing to the intense politicization of the climate debate and climate science itself, perhaps we can look forward in the near term to a similar rewiring of  the academic climate community and the public debate on climate change to include a much broader range of perspectives.

I love this phrase from Murphy’s essay:

I have been able to cultivate and maintain an energetic, autonomous, creative intellectual life that feels to me on the right track intellectually and politically.

This perfectly articulates how I feel, but I had to resign my academic position to reach this point.  Right now, the politically correct world of academia seems stifling to efforts to ‘cultivate an energetic, autonomous, creative intellectual life.’  Sure, there are ‘enforcers’ of political correctness (notably he-who-must-not-be-named), but a lot of this problem relates to paranoia from within the academy. Efforts such as heterodoxacademy.org are on the right track.

I also like the ‘being real’ theme.  Cultivating your own unique voice (actually having something to say that others are interested in listening to) requires reflection, synthesis and assessment of diverse threads of research, and understanding the broader contexts of research in the socio-economic realm.  The rewards to everyone of academics cultivating their own unique voice would be huge, in terms of raising the level of scientific and public discourse.