America is coming apart and falling apart before our eyes. The sense of chaos and confusion was already overwhelming by late 2019, during the first Trump impeachment trial. Over the next 14 months things got much worse as we experienced a pandemic that divided us, a string of police killings culminating in George Floyd’s death, the hurried embrace by many institutions of a new and untested form of antiracist politics, an election whose outcome was not accepted by a third of the country, and an attack on the US Capitol by American citizens sharing extraordinary mass delusions. The chaos and vertigo did not end with Trump’s departure. It continues on through mask and vaccine wars, and through endless battles over the curricula and names of K-12 schools.
Almost every thinking person is asking: what on earth is happening? Is there a pendulum that will swing back, or have we already gone over a cliff edge into free fall? Life After Babel will offer a comprehensive and integrative answer from the nonpartisan social science perspective that I developed in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.
I will tell the story of the social-psychological phase change that was initiated in 2009 but that was not visible until a few years later. It had its spectacular public debut on elite college campuses in 2015. Greg Lukianoff and I described it in our 2015 Atlantic essay The Coddling of the American Mind. Over the next few years it spread into journalism, media, the arts, non-profits, tech, and other politically progressive industries. By 2018 it had traveled to all of the other English speaking countries. It had a right-wing variant that burst forth in populist movements around the world––also beginning around 2015––and that converted the Republican party into sycophantic dysfunction under President Trump. On both sides, there was an explosion of performative emotion, cruelty, and stupidity as partisans embraced bizarre and obviously false beliefs and then tried to destroy the reputation or livelihood of anyone who dared to point to facts that contradicted those beliefs.
What on earth happened to us in the 2010s? The central metaphor of the book is that we are now in the second post-Babel era but most people don’t know it. In Genesis 11, God is offended by the hubris of humanity in building a walled city with a tower to reach heaven and he says:
Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.
God creates a plethora of new languages and condemns humanity to mutual incomprehension. The people abandon their grand project of the city and its tower. It is this sudden and crippling loss of the ability to understand each and work together that makes Babel such a good metaphor for our time.
Humanity rebuilt the tower over the next several thousand years as empires, trade routes, and technological progress created increasing mutual understanding, comprehension, prosperity, and cooperation. With the rise of the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the tower grew to an astonishing height, giving every person with a modem an omniscience approaching that of a god. Automatic translators even freed us from God’s curse of multiple languages.
But as in so many stories of human progress and hubris (e.g., Prometheus, Frankenstein), we went too far, too fast, and too carelessly. Connecting everyone to everyone has had unanticipated systemic effects. It’s not just the quantity of connections that matters, it’s the nature of the connectivity. Social media was not particularly polarizing or consensus-destroying before 2009, which I’ll call the pre-Babel era. Social media enabled people to share ideas with strangers and organize collective action as never before. There was broad optimism that social media would be good for democracy, as so many of us thought in the early days of the 2011 Arab Spring.
In 2009, however, the major platforms introduced several fateful innovations, as Tobias Rose Stockwell and I showed in our 2019 Atlantic essay, The Dark Psychology of Social Networks. 2009 is the year that Facebook introduced the Like button and Twitter introduced the Retweet button. Both platforms soon copied each other, and both switched from chronologically ordered news feeds to algorithms that maximized for “engagement,” which in practice meant “strong emotions.” One of the engineers who worked on the retweet button for Twitter said, after watching Twitter mobs in action: “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”
By 2012, social media had developed into an algorithmicized “outrage machine” (in a tight embrace with cable TV and other forms of journalism) which gave everyone the power to shame or attack everyone else, instantly. This new power was used only by a subset of the population––particularly very-online people at the political extremes––but it had transformative effects on everyone’s behavior.
Since 2015 we are living in the post-Babel era. Many of the old rules no longer apply but most people––especially the older ones who lead our institutions––don’t know it. We are increasingly cut off from all that came before, from objective reality, from reliable means of finding objective reality, and from each other. We have a weakened younger generation, an epistemic crisis, a trust crisis, a mental health crisis, a moralism crisis, and an institutional crisis. It feels like we are living in a hurricane within a hall of mirrors, and it might be this way for the rest of our lives. We can never go back to the pre-Babel era, so how can we adapt to our new world?
Life After Babel is a dark book. I want to shock readers, knock down their current mental frameworks, and then help them build new mental constructs appropriate for our shape-shifting time. But it is also a hopeful book. Humanity has overcome near-extinction multiple times in the last hundred thousand years, and I believe we will eventually find ways to adapt and even flourish. But first we must develop an accurate––and widely shared––understanding of our strange new world.
—Why the past 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid. This essay in the May 2022 issue of The Atlantic is a precis of the first half of the book.
—My page on social media: All of my essays, academic publications, and lectures on social media are here.