THE MOST consequential aspect of the hyperconnected world that has emerged over the last two decades is the growing interlacing of formerly private beliefs into new public global networks. The dissolution of informational friction brought about by recent information and communication technologies (ICTs) has knitted together the billions of private micro-narratives that our lives used to be, creating a veritable global digital village. What until very recently were no more than fairly isolated systems of belief contained within our private heads or relatively uniform communities has become an interconnected and ever-expanding global public. This process of exponential interweaving of human horizons is dramatically altering the perimeter of what counts as private, a phenomenon with profound practical consequences that I intend to explore here and in upcoming posts.
From Private Individuals to Public Netizens:
In plain english, when a private undertaking has side effects for third parties it ceases to be private and becomes a public issue—with the public in question being all of those involved and affected.
The American philosopher John Dewey once argued that a ‘public’ emerges when individual actions have unintended consequences on the well-being of others. In his own words, “The public consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for.”* In plain english, when a private undertaking has side effects for third parties it ceases to be private and becomes a public issue—with the public in question being all of those involved and affected. Dewey saw glimpses in his own day and age of how new technologies were connecting anonymous people in ways that turned formerly private matters into public affairs. Emerging technologies in production and commerce in distant lands were conditioning the lives of local communities elsewhere. The machine age was enormously expanding, intensifying and complicating the scope of the indirect consequences of private activities, turning them increasingly into public matters that needed caring and control. Dewey understood the radical importance of being able to identify an emerging public as a prerequisite for caring and regulating its consequences on individuals. But if the interconnection brought about by the machine age had deep consequences for the demarcation between private undertakings and public issues, the advent of the digitally interwoven global village has accelerated that process in ways that we are only beginning to appreciate.
As Jonathan Sachs recently argued in his book Not in God’s name, “when there is a change in the way we record and transmit information, the repercussions are systemic, transforming institutions, cultures and even the way people think. (…) What printing was to the Reformation, the Internet is to radical political Islam, turning it into a global force capable of inciting terror and winning recruits throughout the world.” The example of the evil pairing between the internet and radical political Islam is indeed the most salient illustration of how what many of us consider to be private undertakings—such as religious belief and practices—has become a public issue affecting us all at a global scale. If any belief can be instantaneously disseminated to all corners of the world—directly impacting the behavior of those who accept its truthfulness—can we in any realistic manner still distinguish between private and public beliefs? Can we still argue with a straight face that our choice of moral and religious outcomes remains a strictly private matter as required by our secular culture? When the Victorian philosopher and mathematician William Kingdon Clifford argued a century and a half ago that “no belief held by one man, however seemingly trivial the belief, and however obscure the believer, is ever actually insignificant or without its effect on the fate of mankind”** it really felt as a case of philosophical hyperbole. But is this still the case in our digitally-interwoven day and age? Reality, it seems to me, as caught up with the Cliffordian vision where every single belief is, in fact, common property. This fact, as I will argue, is a game changer affecting everyone’s epistemic responsibility.
What we are experiencing today is in fact the greatest deprivatization of belief in the history of humanity.
Today, the far reaching impact that private beliefs are having on our public well-being—as they flow instantaneously through the digital pumps of the latest generation of ICTs—makes it very clear that a new global public has indeed emerged. In this brand new reality, a set of tweets in the Levante can mobilize disenfranchised youngsters in Europe to join the Caliphate, a viral video or hashtag can rally millions around specific distant struggles, a misinformed celebrity can challenge established scientific facts on vaccines or a single blog post unearthed on Google can lend credence to one’s prejudices. We are now witnessing a new era in which private belief, digitally broadcasted, can come to influence the actions of vast portions of humanity in a matter of instants. If, going back to Dewey, the line of demarcation between private and public depends on the extent and scope of consequences which are so important as to need restraining, then what we are experiencing today is in fact the greatest deprivatization of belief in the history of humanity. We are now, to give it a name, in a ‘Cliffordian age’ in which claiming that “no one man’s belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone” is no longer hyperbole.
Beliefs have always mattered, but today, the formerly private beliefs of citizens have become the public cache of netizens.
The social impact of beliefs and to what extent some should be considered private while some should be cared for has always been a delicate political subject. Finding the right balance between individual autonomy and justified political coercion has been precisely Liberalism’s core project from the get go. But the scope and consequences of belief in an age that has made global dissemination of truth-claims an effortless activity are unprecedented. Beliefs have always mattered, but today, the formerly private beliefs of citizens have become the public cache of netizens. Taking an optimist longview, we can say that this phenomenon of deprivatization of belief offers enormous promise as in time it should foster an amplified sense of empathy by expanding our awareness of alien worldviews and sharpening our capacity to appreciate our shared humanity—in spite of our multiple doxastic horizons. If empathy is a human aptitude fostered by proximity and ongoing exchange, then a globalized and interconnected epistemic public should be ideal for empathy’s development. But as I will argue over the coming posts, despite its promising potential, the short term drawbacks of the deprivatization of belief are enormous and ultimately threaten the survival of our secular sociopolitical organization.
* John Dewey, The Public and its Problems
** William K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief