Jan 27, 2023·edited Jan 27, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

When our communities don't overlap our governments, do we lose government accountability?

Church groups and civic clubs used to provide a natural check on local governments, an alternate axis if the mayors and selectmen got too corrupt or partisan. Martin Luther King and the network of Black church leaders is the famous modern case; the importance of Masonic lodges in Colonial America is an earlier one.

Now, those alternative organizations are weaker. If your local mayor is a problem, there's no network to rally against him short of abandoning his party - which nationalized "vertical" politics also makes harder.

With the right Twitter story, you can be a nobody and hold a big corporation to account; with online publications, ordinary folk can get government files directly and not wait for newspapers to muckrake for them. So it's not like the Internet is bad for accountability.

But I wonder if some of our present political dysfunction comes from the loss of the check created by influential church and club groups that overlapped, rather than cross-cut, the borders of elections.

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There seems to be a fundamental shift from real world communities where we value action to online communities where we simply value what is being said or just reacting to what is being said.

The true community is where people come together to take action for the better of society. If we are stuck to our devices and screens we simply become transactional beings all vying for a little bit of the global attention span.

I worry this shift cannot be good for the brain.

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Jan 27, 2023·edited Jan 27, 2023

Gwern wrote an essay on the topic: https://gwern.net/The-Melancholy-of-Subculture-Society

> Internet links small groups, helping dissolve big groups; good, bad? But a bit sad.


> Life is short and a zero-sum game. You lose a third of the day to sleep, another third to making a living, and now you’ve little left. To be really productive, you can’t divide your energies across multiple cultures—you can’t be truly successful in mainstream culture, and at the same time be able to devote enough effort in the field of, say, mechanical models⁠, to be called an Otaking⁠.

> The otaku & hikikomori recognizes this dilemma and he chooses—to reject normal life! He rejects life in the larger culture for his subculture⁠⁠⁠. It’s a simple matter of comparative advantage⁠; it’s easier to be a big fish in a small pond than in a large one.⁠

> As ever more opt out, the larger culture is damaged.⁠⁠ The culture begins to fragment back into pieces. The disconnect can be profound; an American anime geek has more in common with a Japanese anime geek (who is of a different ethnicity, a different culture, a different religion, a different language…) than he does with an American involved in the evangelical Christian subculture. There is essentially no common ground—our 2 countrymen probably can’t even agree on objective matters like governance or evolution!

> With enough of these gaps, where is ‘American’ or ‘French’ culture? The long nightmare of nationalism falls like a weight from the minds of the living, as the nation becomes some lines on a map, some laws you follow. No one particularly cares. The geek thinks, ‘Meh: here, Canada, London, Japan, Singapore—as long as FedEx can reach me and there’s a good Internet connection, what’s the difference?’

> Large homogeneous cultures are accomplished only with great effort, and much bloodshed of body and mind. Their benefits are unclear, and the justifications transparently self-serving. Perhaps we should accept gracefully the inevitable sundering of ‘national’ cultures, and learn to operate within a truly multicultural world. Each of us with a niche of our own, on respectful (if uncomprehending) terms with all the other subcultures.

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This is a GREAT article, Noah! I'm very familiar with Putnam and the literature on falling community cohesion, and there's lots of insight here in that field.

"Horizontal communities can often be stifling and repressive, because they impose community norms on people with a diverse array of occupations, temperaments, and backgrounds."

This trait is hardly specific to horizontal communities. Do all members of the LGBT community really believe that "men can get pregnant"? Or all evangelical Christians think the Earth is 6600 years old? And yet a member of either would hesitate to say so (I know examples of both.) Whether horizontal or vertical, dissent on what a community views as sacred is never tolerated. The difference is that since the vertical communities are online (mostly), we can leave them without having to physically relocate. But as more and more of our lives go online, leaving your community is increasingly costly, especially for the knowledge/creative/laptop class.

"At the same time, horizontal communities didn’t completely vanish. We have to go to city planning meetings and school board meetings and various other community forums to hash out our differences with people who don’t share our interests or our identities."

Except we don't. You said it yourself in the beginning of your article: most people can't name local leaders. So our horizontal communities (which you seem to agree matter much more in our day-to-day life) are suffering in proportion to our focus on vertical communities. In fact, very often horizontal engagement is really just a vertical community that steps into the horizontal world for a while, whether it's a BLM protest at a city council or anti-vaxers at a school board meeting. This isn't "coming together to solve problems", it's an invasion of the horizontal by the vertical. Your funeral example is a good one: the attendees are only half-present, and who they interact with will be largely driven by who shares their vertical community. The vertical makes the horizontal harder.

"Economics views public goods as perhaps the core reason that large human organizations exist in the first place."

And this is where you and I part ways. :-) Nation states don't exist to provide public goods. They exist to enforce shared culture -- a horizontal community. Sebastian Junger's great book Tribe talks about this extensively. Nations are the physical manifestation of "a people group" and when that ceases to be true, they tend to fall apart. Economics is secondary.

"So I’m worried about the future of our public goods. I’m worried that the online space will fragment and degrade horizontal communities, but will never manage to fully replace them either."

The latter is already well underway. I'm worried about a lot more than the future of public goods. But I suppose for an economist, that's a good start. :-) Again, great article. Thank you.

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This topic is explored (not enough to my satisfaction) In The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. In the book, vertical communities can decide to live in a completely different political system or even a different age. They are able to do so by isolating their local chapters in common areas where vertical rules apply and it's partially enabled by home available atomic fabricators that can build anything. The book takes place in China and to a certain extent Chinese laws take precedence, but there are international communities which act as virtual states (Victorian folks in the case of the main characters). There are also tribal communities, socialists, traditional Chinese, and so on. Pretty interesting take on how this would look taken to an extreme. The institutions still suffer though. Although if I remember correctly the interaction between communities happened mostly at the higher echelons so everyone got along and horizontal interaction was rather limited.

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That you quote Vonnegut without mentioning Vonnegut puts you in my community.

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What’s missing: Relationships.

Do you have relationships with people in these digital “vertical” communities? Do you actually know each other, look out for each other, think about each other, support each other, etc.? Or are these vertical communities just identify or interest networks which disappear the moment you log off the platform where it lives?

That is the difference. It’s not the physical space that makes horizontal communities different. Proximity is a proxy for layered relationships. If all we have are uni-modal connections to our affinity groups, we are deeply alone.

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Humans are complicated beasts. Integrating horizontal and vertical communities is one of our many struggles. Like many people, I separated from my horizontal community when I went to college halfway across the country. The people with whom I relate most easily are my college cohort, yet I returned home to our family farm. I commuted to a large city and eventually worked remotely. I have been active in my horizontal community by volunteering and serving on the board of our county library system. I remotely attend church a hundred miles distant, but close to the office I worked at when I commuted.

I may be an outlier, but not an exception. Computer networks have made it easier to lead the complex lives that human intelligence and diversity demand. There's catching up to do, but integration is getting easier, not harder, as we become more adept at remote communication.

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Online subcultures are pretty niche aren’t they? I’ve been online half my life and I’ve never even come close to finding a real community. I just posted stuff that random people may or may not see and vise versa. It’s the same with dating sites. It all seems pretty incohesive to me.

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Over the last 30 years the internet has had a pretty profound effect upon my own social experience, as you describe, a shift from local connections to Internet based "community". The reason is pretty clear, the Net gives me what I want when I want it, something local connections can never do.

The price tag is that connections on the net are typically extremely temporary. Were I to die while writing this, just about nobody on the net will wonder where I went. I'll be forgotten forever about ten minutes after I stop typing.

Coming advances in technology are going to suck us ever deeper down this rabbit hole. As example, my fellow typists in threads like this will be replaced by AI bots who will learn my particular very nerdy interests, learn everything there is to know about such subjects, and then accommodate exactly what I want to talk about it exactly when I want to talk, something none of you can provide.

Also, the AI bot will be a gorgeous redhead who thinks I'm the most brilliant and deeply insightful writer she has ever met. You guys refuse to do that. So you're outta here! :-)

Well, this won't happen to me, as I'll be dead by then. But if you're under 40 or so, sooner or later you'll be spending all your time talking to bots.

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Your spot on with this. Two more things I'd add. 1) Remote work collapses an entire segment of horizontal communities (ie work) meaning there is a huge double void for most millennials: No faith. No physical work place (and going in 1 day a week doesn't count!). 2) My optimistic take: the internet is a super power to help FIND your vertical communities, and once they organize the best ones will facilitate local chapters with IRL meetups. This is a less "nazi" like version of the network state the Balaji proposes where you have to take over a piece of land with your own laws. A crude example are cycling clubs, running clubs, use these things to meet up and do things together LOCALLY. I expect these online/offline type vertical IRL meetup clubs to proliferate. Also, imo, contrary to the popular belief, the value will NOT be the online community, we thank the internet for matchmaking but that's it. Large online group chats like discord suck, because they all are subject to diseconomies of scale (Product gets worse as more joins). The offline meetup is where the real value is. Ps. if you are ever in London, let me know. Lot more to discuss IRL about this over a pint :)

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“My friend Balaji Srinivasan wrote a book in which he imagines countries being replaced by human networks linked together by the internet and cryptocurrency”

Jesus can we get over the crypto stuff. I have crypto, it’s an investment in the greater fool theory. It’s not going to replace real money at any large extent expect in failed states (where anything can replace the failed currency).

Nothing very interesting about blockchain either. It’s the kind of futuristic technology that can only be considered disruptive in an era of stagnation.

Horizontal communities haven’t gone away you know, from localities, to cities, to nations. The “vertical communities” are weak alliances, outside of religion. The internet isn’t going to create communities that replace national or regional alliances. The war in the Ukraine isn’t between Russians and Ukrainians on the one side who are very into crypto, and Russians and Ukrainians on the other side who think crypto is a fools game.

(Replace the crypto community with fans of BTS, goths, DND, economics professors, what have you).

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National Identity is still very strong across the globe (see for example World Values Surveys) and this acts as a glue to keep communities together - my guess is that this is strengthened by war because it reinforces national cohesion against a common enemy. Putin may be helping the developement of social capital and a reduction of polarization in the United States

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Twenty plus years ago and longer, boys committed suicide at the rate of four times what girls did.

Today, thanks to social media, and the vertical society, while boys rates of suicide have not increased, girls have double. The vertical society is not all sweetness, light, and opportunity.

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The metaverse is a weak attempt to simulate the horizontal communities. And because we are physical beings, it will never work. We still need to live in reality. Eat, breath, move, touch, feel, etc.

It's a similar reason why cryptocurrencies will never supplant national currencies. The physicality of states are what imparts some of the value in our national currencies, on top of the strength of our institutions (even if they appear to be faltering due to this fracturing).

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Thanks for writing this article. This really helped crystalize, and give me the vocabulary to think about, the vague concerns I had about how the Internet changed our relationships with our communities in the last couple decades.

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