How can so many people be so wrong?

Is this a representative sample?

I came across an interesting and disturbing poll yesterday: a post on The Daily Beast reports the results of a new Harris poll that finds staggering levels of disconnection from reality among Republicans: 67% think Obama is a socialist, 57% think he’s Muslim, and 24% think he might be the Antichrist.

I dented (like tweeting, but with a free network service) my initial reaction:

57% of Republicans think Obama is Muslim, 24% think he may be the Antichrist? Really? I just can’t wrap my head around it.

American public political discourse has gotten bad, but is it really that bad?  As a friend reminded me, you should always be skeptical of “scientific” data presented in unscientific ways.  I’ve been to a Tea Party; there really are a lot of people who believe that stuff, even in Connecticut.  But 57% of Republicans, and 32% of all Americans, think Obama is Muslim?  It just doesn’t compute that in an age of such powerful and ubiquitous media, so many people could be so wrong.

Fortunately, it looks like unreason and willful ignorance aren’t so widespread as this poll indicates.  In short, the poll is surely crap.  Pew polls in October 2008 and March 2009 found that a stable 17% of Republicans and 11% of all Americans thought Obama was Muslim.  It’s still depressing that there was no decline in misinformation between the campaign and the early months of Obama’s presidency, but 17% is a far cry from 57%.  And it’s just not believable that it could have gone from 17% to 57% in the last year.

The ABC polling blog has a helpful analysis of the methodological flaws in the Harris poll:

The purpose seems to have been to see how many people the pollsters could get to agree to pejorative statements about Obama.

It’s still astounding (and depressing) that poll wording and plausible-sounding but biased methodology can so distort public opinion.  Not to mention that so many people are happy to run with it.

silly videos and obscure post-structuralist terms

Evgeny Morozov has a new review of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, and he spends a fair bit talking about Wikipedia, the touchstone for how the Internet is changing culture.  (Wikipedia researcher Ed Chi offered to review it for the Signpost, but Knopf publicity has so far ignored my every attempt to request a review copy.)  As I understand it, the book is in part an extension of Lanier’s Wikipedia-centered 2006 essay “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism“.  I haven’t read the book, but I trust Morozov’s assessment.  His central point is this:

Technology has penetrated our lives so deeply and so quickly that the only way to make sense of what is happening today requires not only drinking from the anecdotal fire hose that is Twitter, but also being able to contextualise these anecdotes in broader social, historical and cultural settings. But that’s not the kind of analysis that is spitting out of Silicon Valley blogs.

So who should be doing all of this thinking? Unfortunately, Lanier only tells us who should not be doing it: “Technology criticism should not be left to the Luddites”. Statements like this establish Lanier’s own bona fides – as a Silicon Valley maverick unafraid to confront the cyber-utopian establishment from the inside – but they fail to articulate any kind of vision for how to improve our way of discussing technology and its increasingly massive impact on society.

Morozov says that our understanding of the legal dimensions of the Internet have been elucidated by the likes of Zittrain, Lessig and Benkler.  But humanist and social scientists, he says, have let us down in their duty to explore the cultural dimensions of the rise of the networked society, by either ignoring it or relying “obscure post-structuralist terms” that occlude whatever insights they might or might not have.

The overall point, that the academy hasn’t done enough to make itself relevant to ongoing techno-cultural changes, is right on target.  But I think Morozov’s glib dismissal of work in media studies, sociology, anthropology, etc., is unfair to both the main ideas of post-structuralism and the writing skills of the better scholars who do work on technology and culture (Henry Jenkins and Jason Mittell come to mind, but I’m sure there are plenty of others).  Lanier’s epithet of “digital Maoism” is crude red-baiting; I’m not sure whether Morozov’s jargon jibe is red-baiting (post-structuralism being the province of the so-called academic left), he genuinely doesn’t think much of how humanists have analyzed the Internet, or he is just being contrary.

Post-structuralism is complicated (and I don’t pretend to be an expert) but what’s relevant in this context, I think, is (as the Wikipedia article obtusely puts it) the idea of “the signifier and signified as inseparable but not united; meaning itself inheres to the play of difference.”  Put another way, culture (that is, a work of culture) is valuable in whatever ways culture (that is, a culture, a group of people) values it; what matters is not the work itself (and its inherent or intended meaning) but the relationship between a work an its audience.  Related to this is a value judgment about what kinds of culture are better or more worthy of attention: “writerly” works that leave more opportunity for an audience to create its own meanings vs. “readerly” works that are less flexible and open to reinterpretation.  The relevance of these ideas for the Internet’s effects on culture should be obvious: audiences now have ways collaborating in the creation of new meanings and the reinterpretation of cultural works, and can often interact not only with authors work, but with the authors themselves (thereby influencing later works).

So when Lanier sneers at ‘silly videos’ and Morozov complains that Lessig doesn’t address “whether the shift to the remix culture as a primary form of cultural production would be good for society”, I can’t help but see it as the crux of a straw man argument.  You would have us give up our current system that creates such wonderful culture (left helpfully unspecified, since there’s no accounting for taste) in exchange for remixed YouTube tripe? But humanists are starting to place more value in the capital intensive products of the culture industry precisely because of the way that audiences can remix them and reuse them and create meanings from them.