Everything’s a cult now

Derek Thompson on what the end of monoculture could mean for American democracy.

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Is damn near everything a cult now?

That’s a glib distillation of an interesting idea I recently encountered. The basic thesis was that the internet has shattered the possibility of a monoculture and the result of that is a highly fragmented society that feels increasingly like a loose connection of cults stacked on top of each other.

To say that everything is a cult is a bit of an overstatement, but as a general framework for understanding the world at the moment, it is helpful. The way we consume content, the way fandom works, the ways we sort ourselves into tribes and camps online, even the way lots of industries work, including the news business — it all has shades of culthood. This is easier to see if you set aside the more extreme examples of cults, like the ones that end in mass suicide or shootouts with the ATF, and instead think of cults as movements or institutions that organize themselves around the belief that the mainstream is fundamentally broken.

Understood this way, there are lots of cults, or cult-adjacent groups, and not all of them are bad. But if society keeps drifting in this direction, what will that mean for our shared democratic culture? How much fragmentation can we sustain?

To think all of this through, I invited Derek Thompson to The Gray Area. He’s a staff writer at the Atlantic, the host of the podcast Plain English, and the person who originally floated this idea about the cultification of society. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen to and follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. New episodes drop every Monday.

Sean Illing

Tell me why you think everything’s become a cult.

Derek Thompson

I’ve always been very interested in culture, which I suppose is worth defining. Culture is the way that we think about the world and the way that we influence each other’s thoughts about the world. And that can be through entertainment, it can be through religion, it can be through fashion and clothes, but it’s the memes and ideas and ideologies that not only influence our own sense of reality but other people’s sense of reality. And I’ve always been interested in how people’s sense of reality comes to be.

So you can start with the late 19th century when the concept of a national reality was first possible, at least in America. You had technologies like the telephone and the telegraph that allowed newspapers to share information and report on information that truly was national. It allowed information to travel much faster than it had ever traveled before. And so suddenly in the late 19th century, we had the possibility of a national and even international real-time shared reality. And that shared reality might have come to its fullest expression in the middle of the 20th century with the rise of television technology. You had just a handful of channels that were reaching tens of millions of people.

At the same time, you also had the rise of national newspapers and maybe the apogee of national newspapers in terms of their ability to monopolize local advertising revenue and become enormous machines for getting tens of millions of Americans to read about a shared reality. And so you move from the 19th century with the birth of this possibility of a shared reality, to the 20th century, where you really have the rise of a kind of monoculture, which was never really possible for the vast majority of human history.

What I’m interested in is the possibility that the internet has forever shattered that reality, that we are in a way going back to the pre-20th century where culture is actually just a bunch of cults stacked on top of each other, a bunch of mini local realities stacked on top of each other.

Sean Illing

How do you define a cult?

Derek Thompson

I think of a cult as a nascent movement outside the mainstream that often criticizes the mainstream and organizes itself around the idea that the mainstream is bad or broken in some way. So I suppose when I think about a cult, I’m not just thinking about a small movement with a lot of people who believe something fiercely. I’m also interested in the modern idea of cults being oriented against the mainstream. They form as a criticism of what the people in that cult understand to be the mainstream. And cults, especially when we talk about them in religion, tend to be extreme, tend to be radical, tend to have really high social costs to belonging to them.

Today, especially in the media and entertainment space, we have this really interesting popularity of new influencers or new media makers adapting as their core personality the idea that the mainstream is broken, that news is broken, that mass institutions are broken, that the elite are in some way broken and elite institutions are broken. The fragmentation of media that we’re seeing and the rise of this anti-institutional, somewhat paranoid style of understanding reality, I see these things as rising together in a way that I find very interesting.

Sean Illing

You were talking about the phone and the telegraph earlier, but the thing about newer technologies like radio and TV, for instance, is that they helped create something like a mass culture. The public was more or less watching the same movie we call reality, and for all the downsides of that, and there were many, it did have the benefit of grounding society in a shared reality. Do you think of that loss as a genuine cultural and political crisis? Or is it possible that this is just another period of technological change, not that different from earlier periods and we’ll figure it out?

Derek Thompson

I do think that in so many ways, we’re just going back to the middle of the 19th century. We’re going back to the historical norm rather than being flung into the exosphere, into some unprecedented state of popular discombobulation.

The idea that a shared reality, a shared national reality in real time, is even possible is so historically young. Just one quick aside, I was doing some reporting for the book that I’m writing right now and saw in an Eric Hobsbawm book called The Age of Revolutions that when the Bastille fell in 1789, a Canton 30 minutes away from Paris didn’t realize the French Revolution had happened for a full month. That was the speed at which information used to travel. It was the speed at which a man could ride a horse or walk next to his horse.

You need a whiz-bang technology that can somehow transmit at something like the speed of light, certainly one would hope the speed of sound, information across vast distances. You only had that with the invention of the telegram and the telephone, and then later radio.

So if you want to know where we’re going, look where we came from. In the 19th century, of course, we had lots of chaos, but we also had an American democracy for decades and decades. So it’s not obvious to me that the erosion of the monoculture or the erosion of the news mainstream is anathema to American democracy.

Sean Illing

I don’t think it’s incompatible with American democracy as such, but it might be incompatible with the model of liberal democracy we’ve become accustomed to since mid-20th century or so, which is also a historical aberration.

Derek Thompson

You might be totally be right. This is one place where the bridge goes too far for me to have a ready-made answer. I’m not exactly sure why a more riotously antagonistic and fragmented news ecosystem would be perilous to liberal democracy. It’s possible that it would be, but what’s the causal mechanism by which a wildly fragmented media leads to a backlash in liberal democracy?

Sean Illing

I guess I’m thinking about how this environment creates a collective action problem that makes dealing with the sorts of challenges we’re dealing with today almost insoluble. Martin Gurri had a useful metaphor in his 2018 book The Revolt of the Public. The way he put it was to say that for a long time we looked into the same mirror of mass culture and the internet shattered that mirror into a billion little pieces, which meant that governments could no longer dictate the stories societies were telling about themselves, which is a great thing in lots of ways, but it also produced a lot social turbulence.

Derek Thompson

I agree with the idea that we’re all looking into fewer mirrors, but it’s not obvious to me that the mirrors we were looking into were reflecting reality. They were reflecting a version of reality that left out a lot. The news of the 20th century did not report on racial justice at anything like the level of quality that we now expect reports in racial justice to do. The mirrors of the 20th century and news reports of the 20th century did not, I think, uncover all sorts of problems of governance that took years to understand. Didn’t report on the environmental degradation of industrial America in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Protests had to fill the void of media that was under-representing minorities in urban America.

None of this is to accuse you personally of overlooking those problems because I’m sure you would agree with all of them, but it’s to remind all of us that when we feel nostalgia for the media environment of the 1940s and 1950s, we are feeling nostalgia for a news media ecosystem that in many ways was inferior to and even blind to the problems that we know to pay attention to today. And I do think that in many ways, the fragmentation of the media can sometimes create competition that allows us to see behind corners and understand things, root out problems that we didn’t see before.

I’m a capitalist overall, and I think that more competition in most markets is good. I just think it’s important to understand, as we do in some markets, that there can be negative externalities. A huge gaping negative externality of abundance in media is that superabundant media creates a scenario where news entrants feel like they have to be antagonistic. A news environment like that is going to create a lot of distrust, it’s going to create a lot of disharmony, it’s going to confuse a lot of people, and it will replace a world with a small number of flawed mirrors with a riotous and unthinkable number of mirrors, some of which are absolute bullshit mirrors and some of which are quite good.

Sean Illing

The problem of “distrust” is what I was getting at. I never liked the phrase “post-truth” because it implied there was a golden age in which we lived in truth. That’s bullshit. So I’m not nostalgic in that way and I’m not making the case that we understood our world better, or that society was more just, when everyone was watching the same handful of networks or reading the same handful of newspapers. I’m just saying that was a period where there was more trust in authority, in part because of this near-monopoly on information at the top. And when that near-monopoly shattered, people could see and hear more and that eroded trust in authority, trust in experts, trust in information. Is that a good thing in the long term? Probably. I don’t know. But I don’t think our institutions were equipped to manage the transition from that world to this one.

Derek Thompson

I think I agree with a lot of that. What I most want to hold down on is the idea that almost all nostalgia for a past golden age is nostalgia for a world that did not exist or a world that we would find inexcusably terrible today. If someone believes that the world of 1950s or ’60s was better in this way, then why didn’t that shared reality lead to a world where we fixed our problems faster? Why didn’t a shared reality more expeditiously reveal the injustice of Jim Crow and voting laws before the 1965 Act? Why didn’t it help us see the terrible things that we were doing to leaded gasoline and the air and the water? Why, essentially, was the world of monocultural news so flawed if monocultural news is so useful for showing the electorate what’s important in the world? That’s the question that I feel like is never answered when people start waxing nostalgic about the middle of the 20th century.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sourse: vox.com

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