Epistemic Closure…For Nerds


Adam Sternbergh decries the rise of geek groupthink:

Once, a fanboy was defined by isolation: a taste for films, or comic books, or pulp novels, or TV shows that flourished in the shadowed cracks of the culture, ignored or dismissed by the mainstream. You loved what you loved, in part, because it spoke directly to you, and in part because most other people didn't feel the same way. That was the whole point. And while you enjoyed your Sandman comics or episodes of Red Dwarf, you imagined–you hoped–there were like-minded people out there. You might occasionally meet one at a local convention (perhaps while both in costume) or behind the counter of the local comic store.

Now, of course, fanboys all hang out on the Internet, and they are legion. And if there is one thing the Internet is good for, it's bringing together like-minded people, then convincing them that their opinion is the only valid one in existence. Psychologists call this "group polarization," a tendency for people who agree to gather and prod each other toward further extremism. This has long been evident on political blogs, but it's true in cultural criticism as well. If you are wild about Christopher Nolan films, you can easily find others who are nuts about Nolan, and soon you will wonder how anyone else could possibly feel any different. To use a fanboy-approved metaphor, the Internet is like the Tree of Souls in Avatar: a place to plug in and feel as one. But this polarization–along with the fanboy's newfound cultural clout–has led to a kind of groupthink. Once the outcast underdogs, fanboys have become the new bullies.

This seems myopic to me. Sternbergh writes as though fan cultures didn't exist before the World Wide Web, as though you couldn't find conformity in fan circles before, and as though that groupthink never led to fiery passions. He also writes as though the Internet hasn't made it just as easy for people with minority tastes within fandom to find one another. If anything, the isolated enthusiast in Sternbergh's scenario is now much more likely to encounter people who like science fiction but don't like Star Trek, who like comics but don't like superheroes, or who otherwise break with both the mainstream-mainstream and the alternative-mainstream. The discovery might delight her and it might rouse her to fury, but either way it suggests that more rather than fewer ideas are being exchanged.

In culture as in politics, groupthink is annoying. And right now we're both in the middle of the summer blockbuster season and just four months from an election, so there's no shortage of noisy conformists eager to bully anyone who deviates from their tribes. Try not to let it bother you. They only scream so loudly because their turf is shrinking.

(Bonus link: "Instead of a post about epistemic closure.")