Open Thinkering


The more powerful the class, the more it claims not to exist

There are many views that one can have of the world. Some of these are entirely original; some are niche. Some form the default, unquestioned operating system that forms the bedrock of our collective understanding.

One way of thinking about views we hold individually and collectively is what W.V. Quine described as as a ‘web of beliefs’ That is to say, we hold some beliefs as more central to who we are and how we understand the world. That your spouse loves you, for example, would for most people be a more central belief than believing that Tirana is the capital of Albania. We have some beliefs that we hold lightly, and some that we would do battle over.

One’s repertoire of beliefs changes in nearly every waking moment. The merest chirp of a bird or chug of a passing motor, when recognized as such, adds a belief to our fluctuating store. These are trivial beliefs, quickly acquired and as quickly dropped, crowded out, forgotten. Other beliefs endure: the belief that Hannibal crossed the Alps, the belief that Neptune is a planet. Some of one’s beliefs are at length surrendered not through just being crowded out and forgotten, but through being found to conflict with other beliefs, new ones perhaps, whose credentials seem superior.

(W.V. Quine)

Some beliefs are handed down to us by parents or guardians. Some are in the air and form part of the milieu of a society at particular times in their history. There are some things that everyone does, and therefore we believe that it is the right thing for us to do as well. Sometimes we do not challenge these beliefs because to do so would set us up for conflict.

Choosing to eat differently to other people, for example by not eating meat, is an example of this. Refusing to recognise the monarchy as a legitimate institution is another example. Preferring to use Free Software tools rather than corporate apps, yet another.

But there are some practices that are seen as uncontroversial, encoded as ‘common sense’, as harmless, and are unthinkingly replicated without question. The problem is that, if we scratch the surface, some of these practices do not perhaps support the beliefs we think they do.

As long as a belief whose causes are undetected is not challenged by other persons, and engenders no conflict that would prompt us to wonder about it ourselves, we are apt to go on holding it without thought of evidence. This practice is often reasonable, time being limited. But it remains important to keep in mind that cause is commonly quite another thing than evidence. One obvious test of evidence is this: would it still be taken to support the belief if we stripped away all motives for wanting the belief to be true?

(W.V. Quine)

Let’s say that you’re told that being on LinkedIn is an important thing to do for your career. There appears to be evidence to suggest that this is the case. It’s certainly a ‘professional network’ compared to other social networks around. People are talking about work-related things. It seems ‘Serious’ (with a capital ‘S’).

However, I don’t think having a LinkedIn account does what people think it does. I don’t get particularly useful information from there, the ‘opportunities’ I’ve had could just have easily have come via email, and the endless stream of people LARPing their bullshit jobs for ersatz, meaningless awards is cringe-inducing. So yes, in an extreme case of burying the lede, I have deactivated my LinkedIn account.

What I find particularly insidious is the version of capitalism LinkedIn presents. It’s the face of a seemingly-benign way of structuring the world which venerates (to appropriate Feuerbach) the sign rather than the thing signified, the copy over the original, representation over reality, and appearance over essence. What matters is the performance rather than the work. Just like other algorithm-fuelled networks, this self-replicating pattern then spawns what Guy Debord called ‘the spectacle’, capturing everyone’s attention only for its own purposes.

So, while there’s a lot more I could say on this topic, having titled this post using a quotation from Debord, I’ll end with another from him:

The spectacle erases the dividing line between self and world, in that the self- under siege by the presence/absence of the world, is eventually overwhelmed; it likewise erases the dividing line between true and false, repressing all directly lived truth beneath the real presence of the falsehood maintained by the organization of appearances. The individual, though condemned to the passive acceptance of an alien everyday reality, is thus driven into a form of madness in which, by resorting to magical devices, he entertains the illusion that he is reacting to this fate.

(Guy Debord)

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