Trust Fall

When I graduated from NYU, the keynote speaker for the Tisch School of the Arts was Clay Shirky, a new media professor. At first, I was disappointed — who is this guy? Why aren’t we hearing from one of our many prestigious alumni? Heck, I’d even take Billy Crudup (class of ’94). But once he started speaking, it quickly became clear why he was the ideal speaker to address a room of future “content creators” in the cultural moment we were arcing through, and a lot of what he said has remained lodged in my brain ever since (I also highly recommend his book “Here Comes Everybody.”)

While I was walking to work yesterday, listening to an episode of NPR’s “On the Media” about the influence of “fake news” on the election earlier this month, I was reminded of something that Shirky said in the opening of his speech. He said that for hundreds of years, the dissemination of media has been done through a process of filter, then distribute. Meaning, media entities (scribes, news organizations, etc.) would take in the wall of noise that is our collective cultural experience, and then, using their expertise and insight, they would whittle it down to what they deemed to be “newsworthy.” But now, since the invention of the internet, that dynamic has become distribute, then filter. The “trusted brands” of the mainstream still exist and are still doing their thing, but they often end up being nothing more than slightly brighter stars in an increasingly uniform starry sky of information, and it is up to us to “filter” for ourselves.

At the time, this was quite a revelation to me and many of my co-graduates. Nowadays, you will find that nothing is more fashionable among my generation of creative people than raising a toast to the internet age and the demise of the “gatekeepers.” Finally, the jungle can be entered without paying for a guided tour. The playing field has been leveled. Every voice can be heard. Terms like “democratization” get thrown around, and I will admit I have thrown it around myself. But yesterday, reflecting on this, I could not help but see the more complex implications of a loss of trusted authority, in our media and in our culture widely.

Throughout human history, faith in authority has not only been essential for a functional media environment, it has been essential to survival. At the earliest stages of our society, we needed to specialize, to divide and conquer, in order to thrive. There simply wasn’t the bandwidth for all of us to understand and master every available skill or craft — we needed to trust each other. Of course, trust in authority is always a precarious balancing act, and while it still remains an inevitable aspect of daily life, many sources of authority have seen their trust eroded in unprecedented ways in the last one hundred years. There are many people much more knowledgeable on these things than me that have written about how Vietnam, Watergate, and misuse of American power in the 20th century severely undermined our ability to put faith in our leaders in this country. In addition, modern science has done significant damage to the validity of traditional religious beliefs, one of the oldest sources of authority and guidance in existence. Don’t get me wrong, I know that many, many people still put their full faith in their religion, but studies have shown that irreligiousity is on the rise in United States, and that even many people who self-identity as a member of a major religion do not trust it as an arbiter of their day to day ethics or turn to it for philosophical guidance. 

But what’s wrong with questioning the authority of our politicians and our priests? Shouldn’t we hold them to account if they are corrupt, or push lies? Of course. But this dismantling of our faith in our leaders has gone much farther than simply fostering better accountability. At record levels, people say they do not trust our government to solve problems, at all, no matter who is in charge. Even our scientists can’t seem to break through, as major issues like global warming and vaccinations get distorted and lost amongst the wall of noise. People are desperate for leadership, for meaningful guidance, but our options are dwindling. Like a kid who has seen their parents become humanized, cut down from their flawless parental pedestal, we are searching for the safety and comfort that their inhuman pedestal-based existence once gave us. So, where can we possibly turn? For many of us, we turn to the aggregate quasi-authority of our friends and family. Others turn to celebrities or radio hosts or stand up comedians. For me, yesterday, it was NPR. 

This brings me back to distribute, then filter. I agree with Shirky that this is the paradigm that we are now moving towards, but when we are driven by fear, our ability to filter is so greatly diminished and we still end up turning to whoever is yelling the loudest within our cultural bubble to fill the authority void. In a sense, we are somewhere in transition from filter/distribute to distribute/filter, in a no man’s land, in a world with fewer and fewer trusted filters but with no ability to effectively filter for ourselves. Filtering is a luxury, and it is on all of us who can indulge in such a privilege to take it seriously and help others find the bandwidth to do so as well. And, on the other side of things, maybe we need to embrace that authority is never going to be as infallible as it once was. Instead of shuffling undercooked idols into the limelight and onto the pedestal, we need to put our faith in the process and the scientific method, letting our fantasies of superhuman parents that have all the answers fade into our past. No matter how terrifying it is, we might need to accept a full recalibration of how we filter, why we filter, and what is worth listening to. And then, hopefully, we can begin to drive our culture away from strongman authoritarianism and simple answers and towards true analysis and collaboration. Away from ideologues and belief echo chambers and towards humility and a healthy debate of ideas. This is what we must demand of our next generation of leaders. “Trust me” isn’t going to work anymore — you need to prove it.