Although it is a common cliché that a new sitting president will “unite” us, the idea of the “American people” falling in line behind a new administration is a fantasy. Presidential approval ratings have always been polarized along party lines—although the partisan gap has widened over the decades. Yet such rhetoric remains an integral part of the post-election political theater, helpful for relieving some of the partisan pressure built up over a frequently nasty campaign season.
The gaping chasm between Biden supporters and Trump voters, however, is not going to be narrowed by rhetorical olive branches. The pre-election belief that ousting Trump would restore political normalcy is rooted in the mistaken idea that his 2016 success was an aberration, a freak anomaly that would be soon forgotten after a more respectable statesman or woman took over the Oval Office. That story is nothing more than a flight of fancy, one that ignores the underlying causes for rampant polarization, “post-truth,” Trumpism, or however one diagnoses our political malaise. The problem is that Americans worship entirely different notions of Truth.
Many of my fellow leftist friends and colleagues desperately want to believe that Trumpism is little more than the last gasps of a dying racist culture. It is a convenient move, which allows them to think of Trump voters as the political equivalent of anti-vaxxers. Once diagnosed as hopelessly deluded and on the wrong side of history, there is no longer any need to understand Trump voters. They only need to be defeated.
Washington Monthly contributor David Atkins openly wondered how we could “deprogram” the 75 million or so people who voted for Trump, dismissing their electoral choice as due to belonging to “a conspiracy theory fueled belligerent death cult against reality & basic decency.” What a way to talk about an almost full quarter of the population! Only the most dyspeptic will admit to daydreaming about ideological reeducation drives, at least publicly. Optimists, on the other hand, allow themselves to believe that “truth and rationality” will inevitably win out, that the wave of popular support for politicians like Trump will naturally subside, ebbing away like the tide.
The desire to equate of Trumpism with white supremacy is understandable, even if it is probably political escapism. Trump’s company faced a 1973 federal lawsuit for racial discriminating against black tenants, and he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times in 1989 to call for the death of five black and Latino youth falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white jogger. His 2016 campaign rhetoric included insinuating that Mexican immigrants mostly brought drugs and crime to the United States, and promised tough-on-crime legislation that disproportionately burdens minority neighborhoods.
The “dying racist America” thesis is not merely propped up by a sober accounting of Trump’s panoply of racial misdeeds but by attacking the next plausible explanation: working class discontent. Adam Serwer’s review of the 2016 election statistics raises serious challenges to that argument. Clinton won a greater proportion of voters making less than $50,000. And neither did the opioid epidemic ripping through white rural America seem to tip the election toward Trump. White working-class citizens whose loved ones were coping with mental health problems, financial troubles, and substance abuse expressed less support for Trump, not more.
But then again Biden was most successful in the counties where the bulk of America’s economic activity occur. The 477 counties accounting for 70 percent of the US economy went to the former vice-president, while a greater proportion of counties that have faced weak job, population, and economic growth went to Trump. To top it off, Trump lost white votes in 2020 and made significant, albeit single-digit, gains among African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans. Although Trump’s base has traditionally been with white voters who railed against immigration and the perceived feminization of society, neither the “economically disenfranchised working class” nor the “white supremacy” theses seem to really explain the former president’s appeal.
Science vs. Common Sense
Political movements are rarely understood by focusing on members’ deficiencies. An especially misleading starting point is wherever those movements’ opponents think the deficits are. Political allies are more strongly bonded by their shared strengths than their flaws—however obvious and fatal the latter may be.
Data on the employment backgrounds of political donations are insightful here. The Democrats are increasingly of not just the party of the professional class, but the college-educated in general. Scientists, engineers, lawyers, teachers, and accountants dominated donations to Biden, whereas Trump’s support came from business owners, police officers, truckers, construction workers, pilots, stay-at-home mothers, and farmers. This split doesn’t map well onto to income-based conceptions of “working class.” Business owners and pilots often make a good living for their families, while well-educated social workers do not. Rather, the difference lies in which kind of knowledge defines their competency.
Today’s political divisions are only indirectly class and racially based, the more fundament divide is between formally schooled expertise and experience-based judgment. Office workers, service employees, and elite knowledge-sector analysts are on one side, whereas blue-collar manual laborers and business owners are on the other. Despite our culture’s tendency to equate intelligence with a talent for mathematical abstraction or the patience (or pretension) to read dense books by French authors, writers like Mike Rose and Matthew Crawford remind us of the discerning judgements necessary for competence in physical work. Blue collar workers and business owners don’t explicitly analyze symbols but have precisely tuned gut feelings that help them do their jobs well.
Much of America’s political malaise is due to the polarized veneration of these competing styles of knowledge. The idolization of science translates into support for technocracy, or rule by experts. The same worship but for common sense drives an attraction to populism. It is this division above all others that increasingly separates Democrats and Republicans. In his victory speech, Biden explicitly painted himself as a defender of science, promising to put properly credentialed experts in charge of pandemic planning.
In contrast, Trump and his allies have taken great lengths to champion how (some) lay people (fail to) understand public problems. Recall how Newt Gingrich dismissed FBI crime statistics as immaterial in the run-up to the 2016 election, stating that “the average American…does not think that crime is down.” He followed up with, “As a political candidate, I’ll go with what people feel.” Likewise, faced with polls and election numbers showing a Biden victory, Trump voters saw the occurrence of voter fraud as “common sense.” They reason that since Democratic politicians and media outlets despise Trump so much, why wouldn’t they collude with poll workers to spoil the election? As Democrats have portrayed themselves as defending “the facts,” the right has doubled down on gut feeling.
This same dynamic increasingly defines America’s racial politics as well. Armed with concepts and theories from academics such as Robin D’Angelo, people don’t end up having rich, empathy-evoking conversations about their experiences of race in America. Rather, the more militant members of the “woke” left play armchair psychologist, focusing on diagnosing fellow citizens’ racist personality dysfunctions and prescribing the appropriate therapeutic interventions. They demand that others learn to understand their lives through the vocabulary of critical race scholars, whose conclusions are presented as indisputable.
White people who struggle with some critical race theorists’ stark view that one is either racist or actively anti-racist are labeled as suffering from “white fragility,” an irrational and emotional response to having one’s own undeniable racism exposed. Regardless of whether one thinks this judgement is apt or not, it is difficult to deny that the prognosis comes off as arrogant and dismissive. How else would we expect participants to respond when hearing that some of their cherished ideas about valuing hard work, individualism, or the nuclear family is just part of an inherently racist “white culture”? But empathic understanding is often in short supply when antiracists find themselves in a rare teachable moment. As a New York City Education Councilwoman put it to her colleague in a now viral video, “Read a book. Read Ibram Kendi….It is not my job to educate you.”
Many conservative Americans have reacted to the inroads that critical race theory has made into the workplace and popular discourse by retreating to a similarly incurious form of “common sense.” Ideas from critical race theory become labeled as political correctness run amok, or even “cult indoctrination.” All this is somehow imposed on the rest of the nation by left-wing academic activists whose far-reaching powers somehow only disappear when it comes to concretely influencing policymaking or to getting their 18-year-old students to actually read for class.
Regardless of where one’s sympathies lie in this debate, it seems clear that productive conversations across party lines about the extent of America’s racial problems and what could be done about them are simply not happening.
The real tragedy of today’s political moment is that the elevation of “truth” over politics has locked us into a vicious cycle. Technocracy breeds popular distrust in experts. And the specter of populism spurs the professional class to further wrap themselves in the mantle of “the facts.” And no one budges on anything. Consider ongoing protests of pandemic protection measures. Resistance to state government’s social distancing and stay-at-home requirements has not been a rejection of science so much as the rejection of the inflexibility, strictness, and occasional arbitrariness of executive orders.
Yet many governors have reacted to the pandemic situation as if politics is no longer necessary, as if leaving any room for negotiation were dangerous. California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom stated that “health outcomes and science – not politics” would guide reopening plans. And Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer concurred, contending that her decision was a “data-driven approach based on facts, based on science, based on recommendations from experts.”
And much of the media repeats ad nauseum the facts of the matter. It is as if journalists believe that if they present just the right infographic on ICU beds or presentation of the size of one’s social “bubble”—along with a healthy dollop of social shaming—less risk averse Americans will immediately change their holiday plans and social lives to sequester at home. When that fails to happen, the talking points shift to the irrationality and immorality of a public that fails to respect facts.
The problem with the mantra “please just listen to the science!” is that science literacy doesn’t determine whether citizens listen or not. What matters is the perceived trustworthiness of experts and public officials. Expert guidance only gets legitimated through a kind of common sense. Citizens go “with their guts” on whether the elected officials and their science-based advice seems sensible and trustworthy.
One of the best ways to inadvertently sow distrust in experts is to portray them as an unquestionable authority. Anywhere where “post-truth” seems to be on the upswing—in the response to the pandemic or for childhood vaccinations—the determinations of experts are handed down as if divinely decreed, or as if citizens’ reservations need to be only “managed” or countered. The stakes are judged to be so high that ordinary people are deemed unworthy of being consulted regarding how exactly expert recommendations should be implemented. Health researchers and doctors don’t think to ask the vaccine hesitant how they might be made to feel more comfortable with the vaccination process; state governors never bothered to ask people how pandemic protections might be implemented in ways that are less disruptive to their lives.
The other way is for experts to get things wrong. When “the facts” are initially presented as unassailable, later corrections aren’t taken as the routine self-corrections of the scientific process but rather as evidence that the science has been tainted by politics. Early in the pandemic, health experts told the public that masks were ineffective at preventing a COVID-19 infection, but then turned around and recommended that they be mandatory in many states’ pandemic guidelines.
The minor inconveniences of mask wearing and reduced restaurant occupancy have blown up to become perceived as gross violations of freedom in the “common sense” of a substantial portion of Americans not because those citizens deny science but rather because expert opinion was arrogantly applied. Officials failed to be honest and admit that even the scientists were feeling their way through an uncertain situation and that they too make value judgements in light of what they don’t yet understand.
And governmental policies have been inconsistent and sometimes unfair. I can get ticketed in my own state if I walk around a deserted athletic field without a mask. In many states, bars and restaurants are open but outdoor playgrounds remain closed. It doesn’t take a scientist to know that these rules probably do not match the on-the-ground risks. But when leaders and experts overplay their hand, some portion of citizens just start taking expert guidance less seriously. Precious political capital is wasted to enforce compliance in ways that may be pure hygiene theater. Neither has it helped that governors such as Andrew Cuomo originally seemed content to waste vaccines, lest they go to someone who has been calculated by state bureaucrats to be less deserving.
Beyond Political Road Rage
Amidst the trench warfare between technocrats lobbying fact-laced truth bombs and populists laying “common sense” landmines, Americans have largely forgotten how to do politics. The underlying reasoning is understandable. If our collective problems are recast as completely solvable by straightforwardly applying science or something called common sense, what reason is there to debate, negotiate, or listen? Doing so would needlessly give ground to ignorant rubes and brainwashed ideologues.
Americans need not like the viewpoints of their compatriots, but they ought to at least try to understand them. But far too many people appear to put their faith in Truth with a capital T. If only their opponents could be led to see the light and recognize “the facts” or popular “common sense” that they would they quit arguing and toe the line. If only politics were so simple.
It is easy to imagine things getting much worse. A less dysfunctional public sphere feels like a utopian daydream. A good first step would be for Democrats to stop wrapping themselves in the mantle of science and learn to listen better to Americans who don’t have a college degree. Everywhere that populism has developed, it has been in reaction to the popular perception that the political establishment is increasingly elitist and distant. Is it any surprise that 64% of Americans now disagree with the idea that politicians “care what people like me think”? Appearing to hand important political decisions over to scientists in distant universities and governmental agencies is literally the worst thing that elected officials could do right now.
For their part, conservatives, libertarians, and others should lay off the polarizing rhetoric about universities and experts. Rather than attack expertise itself, it is far better to focus instead on efforts to intellectually diversify higher education or turn political conversations back toward the moral (rather than factual) divides that define them. The claim that institutions of higher education are “under attack” by an “insidious” woke ideology is needlessly melodramatic. It reinforces the image of the world as hopeless divided between incommensurable worldviews and further fuels polarization between credentialed expertise and practical common sense. Worst of all, it portrays wokeness is something to be excised from the body politic rather than faced up to as a legitimate political adversary. Hyperbolic handwringing about traitorous cultural Marxists is as antidemocratic as any of the more draconian proposals coming from the left.
Taking one’s political adversaries seriously means making a serious effort to persuade fence sitters—and not just through shaming. When a majority of Americans balked at the “Defund the Police” slogan over the summer, defenders doubled down on the phrase. The problem wasn’t with their poor choice of rhetoric, they seemed to imply, but that the public was misinformed about what the phrase really meant. I can’t think of a more potent example of willful political unawareness.
Whether it is woke-ism or Trumpism, fanatical political movements tell us that something is seriously amiss in our body politic, that an area of public discontent is in a need of serious attention. We must be willing to take those discontents seriously. Focusing on apparent deficits in factual understanding or commonsense reasoning prevents us from better addressing the underlying causes of popular frustration.
George Carlin once mused, “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” American political discourse is little different, having become the rhetorical equivalent of road rage. Citizens need more productive ways to talk about their collective problems. Unless people are willing to admit that people can hold a different political viewpoint without being either an idiot of a maniac, there is little hope for American democracy. Power will just continue to vacillate between aloof technocrats and populist buffoons.
Are Americans losing their grip on reality? It is difficult not to think so in light of the spread of QANON conspiracy theories, which posit that a deep-state ring of Satanic pedophiles is plotting against President Trump. A recent poll found that some 56% of Republican voters believe that at least some of the QANON conspiracy theory is true. But conspiratorial thinking has been on the rise for some time. One 2017 Atlantic article claimed that America had “lost its mind” in its growing acceptance of post-truth. Robert Harris has more recently argued that the world had moved into an “age of irrationality.” Legitimate politics is threatened by a rising tide of unreasonableness, or so we are told. But the urge to divide people in rational and irrational is the real threat to democracy. And the antidote is more inclusion, more democracy—no matter how outrageous the things our fellow citizens seem willing to believe.
Despite recent panic over the apparent upswing in political conspiracy thinking, salacious rumor and outright falsehoods has been an ever-present feature of politics. Today’s lurid and largely evidence-free theories about left-wing child abuse rings have plenty of historical analogues. Consider tales of Catherine the Great’s equestrian dalliances and claims that Marie Antoinette found lovers in both court servants and within her own family. Absurd stories about political elites seems to have been anything but rare. Some of my older relatives believed in the 1990s that the government was storing weapons and spare body parts underneath Denver International Airport in preparation for a war against common American citizens—and that was well before the Internet was a thing.
There seems to be little disagreement that conspiratorial thinking threatens democracy. Allusions to Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay on the “paranoid style of American politics” have become cliché. Hofstadter’s targets included 1950s conservatives that saw Communist treachery around every corner, 1890s populists railing against the growing power of the financial class, and widespread worries about the machinations of the Illuminati. He diagnosed their politics paranoid in light of their shared belief that the world was being persecuted by a vast cabal of morally corrupt elites.
Regardless of their specific claims, conspiracy theories’ harms come from their role in “disorienting” the public, leading citizens to have grossly divergent understandings of reality. And widespread conspiratorial thinking drives the delegitimation of traditional democratic institutions like the press and the electoral system. Journalists are seen as pushing “fake news.” The voting booths become “rigged.”
Such developments are no doubt concerning, but we should think carefully about how we react to conspiracism. Too often the response is to endlessly lament the apparent end of rational thought and wonder aloud if democracy can survive while being gripped by a form of collective madness. But focusing on citizens' perceived cognitive deficiencies presents its own risks. Historian Ted Steinberg called this the “diagnostic style” of American political discourse, which transforms “opposition to the cultural mainstream into a form of mental illness.” The diagnostic style leads us to view QANONers, and increasingly political opponents in general, as not merely wrong but cognitively broken. They become the anti-vaxxers of politics.
While QANON believers certainly seem to be deluding themselves, isn’t the tendency by leftists to blame Trump’s popular support on conservative’s faculty brains and an uneducated or uninformed populace equally delusional? The extent to which such cognitive deficiencies are actually at play is beside the point as far as democracy is concerned. You can’t fix stupid, as the well-worn saying has it. Diagnosing chronic mental lapses actually leaves us very few options for resolving conflicts. Even worse, it prevents an honest effort to understand and respond to the motivations of people with strange beliefs. Calling people idiots will only cause them to dig in further.
Responses to the anti-vaxxer movement show as much. Financial penalties and other compulsory measures tend to only anger vaccine hesitant parents, leading them to more often refuse voluntary vaccines and become more committed in their opposition. But it does not take a social scientific study to know this. Who has ever changed their mind in response to the charge of stupidity or ignorance?
Dismissing people with conspiratorial views blinds us to something important. While the claims themselves might be far-fetched, people often have legitimate reasons for believing them. African Americans, for instance, disproportionately believe conspiracy theories regarding the origin of HIV, such as that it was man-made in a laboratory or that the cure was being withheld, and are more hesitant of vaccines. But they also rate higher in distrust of medical institutions, often pointing to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and ongoing racial disparities as evidence. And from British sheepfarmers’ suspicion of state nuclear regulators in the aftermath of Chernobyl to mask skeptics’ current jeremiads against the CDC, governmental mistrust has often developed after officials’ overconfident claims about the risks turned out to be inaccurate. What might appear to an “irrational” rejection of the facts is often a rational response to a power structure that feels distant, unresponsive, and untrustworthy.
The influence of psychologists has harmed more than it has helped in this regard. Carefully designed studies purport to show that believers in conspiracy theories lack the ability to think analytically or claim that they suffer from obscure cognitive biases like “hypersensitive agency detection.” Recent opinion pieces exaggerate the “illusory truth effect,” a phenomenon discovered in psych labs that repeated exposure to false messages leads to a relatively slight increase in the number subjects rating them as true or plausible. The smallness of this, albeit statistically significant, effect doesn’t stop commentators from presenting social media users as if they were passive dupes, who only need to be told about QANON so many times before they start believing it. Self-appointed champions of rationality have spared no effort to avoid thinking about the deeper explanations for conspiratorial thinking.
Banging the drum over losses in rationality will not get us out of our present situation. Underneath our seeming inability to find more productive political pastures is a profound misunderstanding of what makes democracy work. Hand Wringing over “post-truth” or conspiratorial beliefs is founded on the idea that the point of politics is to establish and legislate truths. Once that is your conception of politics, the trouble with democracy starts to look like citizens with dysfunctional brains.
When our fellow Americans are recast as cognitively broken, it becomes all too easy to believe that it would be best to exclude or diminish the influence of people who believe outrageous things. Increased gatekeeping within the media or by party elites and scientific experts begins to look really attractive. Some, like philosopher Jason Brennan, go even further. His 2016 book, Against Democracy, contends that the ability to rule should be limited to those capable of discerning and “correctly” reasoning about the facts, while largely sidestepping the question of who decides what the right facts are and how to know when we are correctly reasoning about them.
But it is misguided to think that making our democracy only more elitist will throttle the wildfire spread of conspiratorial thinking. If anything, doing so will only temporarily contain populist ferment, letting pressure build until it eventually explodes or (if we are lucky) economic growth leads it to fizzle out. Political gatekeeping, by mistaking supposed deficits in truth and rationality for the source of democratic discord, fails to address the underlying cause of our political dysfunction: the lack of trust.
Signs of our political system’s declining legitimacy are not difficult to find. A staggering 71 percent of the Americans believe that elected officials don’t care about the average citizen or what they think. Trust in our government has never been lower, with only 17 percent of citizens expressing confidence about Washington most or all the time. By diagnosing rather than understanding, we cannot see that conspiratorial thinking is the symptom rather than the disease.
The spread of bizarre theories about COVID-19 being a “planned” epidemic or child-abuse rings is a response to real feelings of helplessness, isolation, and mistrust as numerous natural and manmade disasters unfold before our eyes—epochal crises that governments seem increasingly incapable of getting a handle on. Many of Hofstadter’s listed examples of conspiratorial thought came during similar moments: at the height of the Red Scare and Cold War nuclear brinkmanship, during the 1890s depression, or in the midst of pre-Civil War political fracturing. Conspiracy theories offer a simplified world of bad guys and heroes. A battle between good and evil is a more satisfying answer than the banality of ineffectual government and flawed electoral systems when one is facing wicked problems.
Perhaps social media adds fuel to the fire, accelerating the spread of outlandish proposals about what ails the nation. But it does so not because it short-circuits our neural pathways to crash our brains’ rational thinking modules. Conspiracy theories are passed by word of mouth (or Facebook likes) by people we already trust. It is no surprise that they gain traction in a world where satisfying solutions to our chronic, festering crises are hard to find, and where most citizens are neither afforded a legible glimpse into the workings of the vast political machinery that determines much of their lives nor the chance to actually substantially influence it.
Will we be able to reverse course before it is too late? If mistrust and unresponsiveness is the cause, the cure should be the effort to reacquaint Americans with the exercise of democracy on a broad-scale. Hofstadter himself noted that, because the political process generally affords more extreme sects little influence, public decisions only seemed to confirm conspiracy theorists’ belief that they are a persecuted minority. The urge to completely exclude “irrational” movements forgets that finding ways to partially accommodate their demands is often the more effective strategy. Allowing for conscientious objections to vaccination effectively ended the anti-vax movement in early 20th century Britain. Just as interpersonal conflicts are more easily resolved by acknowledging and responding to people’s feelings, our seemingly intractable political divides will only become productive by allowing opponents to have some influence on policy. That is not to say that we should give into all their demands. Rather it is only that we need to find small but important ways for them to feel heard and responded to, with policies that do not place unreasonable burdens on the rest of us.
While some might pooh-pooh this suggestion, pointing to conspiratorial thinking as evidence of how ill-suited Americans are for any degree of political influence, this gets the relationship backwards. Wisdom isn’t a prerequisite to practicing democracy, but an outcome of it. If our political opponents are to become more reasonable it will only be by being afforded more opportunities to sit down at the table with us to wrestle with just how complex our mutually shared problems are. They aren’t going anywhere, so we might as well learn how to coexist.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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