Media, Truth, and Community

On Shared Worlds

I was scrolling through some web page recently and saw an ad for the New York Times, which struck me as somewhat...interesting. Here it is:

I was immediately reminded of a concept I read about recently in Jens Beckert's Imagined Futures: Epistemic Participation. (He applies it to economics but the forces are present in various areas of life)

Put simply, we address and respond to the profound uncertainty of our world and the future by constructing and embracing narratives that we perceive as being reasonable and basing our decisions off of these narratives. Narratives acquire legitimacy/authority via multiple processes, one of which being its endorsement by figures within an "epistemic community" - a group of people who share a way of understanding and knowing. In other words, an epistemic community is a group of people who live in a Shared World.

I have talked extensively about our Maps of the World before:

Inside of our heads, we assimilate (or reject) information into our mental model of the world. Each one of us does this. We construct a mental map of how the World truly is, and we then judge further experiences based on that mental map.

Individuals embody a Shared World when their standards of knowledge, their priors, their Maps of the World, are sufficiently similar (or perhaps, in the most extreme cases, identical). Now remember, our Maps of the World are inextricably linked to our Values and Identity:

One might say that our map of the World interfaces with our map of moral space. We understand the world through narrative, motivation, values, and norms. But it would be unfair to say that our map of moral space is “superimposed” onto our map of the World. They are an irreducible union.

“To know who I am is to know where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose.”

(Taylor, Sources of the Self)

So, an epistemic community is, in some real sense, a moral community. Our way of understanding the World is tied inherently to our method of judging the World. You cannot understand one “independent” of the other.

And this is powerful: humans are social animals. We desire connection to others. But more than mere connection, we desire a deepness in our connection. We desire someone who gets us.

And in today's world, that depth of relationship, the rhythm and mutual interest that feeds it, seems altogether lacking from so much of life:

People "become" an individual in the eyes of another when they meaningfully interact with them and care about them. But what happens when people are not able to meaningfully interact with one another regularly? What happens when you switch apartment buildings or neighborhoods every couple years, never becoming embedded in a community? What happens when you move cities for jobs, and can only see your friends every 6 months (if that)? What happens when public spaces continue to be gradually closed off and when the Virtual Public Square is exclusionary? Alienation is a constant in today's world. Is it any surprise that 27% of millennials and ~20% of all Americans reported having zero close friends in a YouGov poll in 2019?

The networks we operate in have simultaneously become broader and shallower, and I believe this is deeply detrimental to our lives (and I think the data on friendships, suicides, and mental health all support that claim).

What the Media provides, which is so powerful in this more and more alienated society, is more than just a ready-made Map of the World: it provides the promise of a community of other believers, who will get you. Who will see the world through the same lenses as you. Who will affirm your understanding of the World, in the face of the profound modern anxiety that we misunderstand what the World is like.

We must understand the attractiveness of the Media as a response to the central existential crisis of modernity. The central existential crisis of our age is one of meaning. Not of possibly not measuring up to a social standard universally accepted but of not knowing which standard is legitimate in the first place (if any of them are even legitimate at all). It is a terror not of condemnation, but of meaninglessness. And in the face of this, epistemic-moral communities become all the more appealing. Our searches for meaning are, fundamentally, our attempts at making sense of the World. And that isn't going to go away any time soon.


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