The platform ecosystem as a field of temptation and the virtues required to negotiate it

This is a lovely piece from L. M. Sacasas on the limitations of digital literacy initiatives, tending as they do to abstract the intellectual problem of reliable truth-seeking practices from the moral problem of being committed to seeking that truth under conditions which make it difficult. In this sense, he’s arguing that virtue is something which the platform ecosystem requires of it as we try and flourish within and through the field of temptation it presents us with:

It seems unrealistic, for example, to expect that someone, who is likely already swamped by the demands of living in a complex, fast-paced, and precarious social milieu, will have the leisure and resources to thoroughly “do their own research” about every dubious or contested claim they encounter online, or to adjudicate the competing claims made by those who are supposed to know what they are talking about. There’s a lot more to be said about this dynamic, of course. It raises questions about truth, certainty, trust, authority, expertise, and more, but here I simply want to highlight the moral demands, because searching for the truth, or a sufficient approximation, is more than a merely intellectual activity. It involves, for example, humility, courage, and patience. It presumes a willingness to break with one’s tribe or social network with all the risks that may entail. In short, you need to be not just clever but virtuous, and, depending on the degree to which you lived online, you would need to do this persistently over time, and, recently, of course, during a health crisis that has generated an exhausting amount of uncertainty and a host of contentious debates about private and public actions.

This is but one case, the one which initially led me to invert Eliot’s line. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to conjure up other similar examples of the kind of virtue our digital devices and networks tacitly demand of us. Consider the discipline required to responsibly direct one’s attention from moment to moment rather than responding with Pavlovian alacrity when our devices beckon us. Or the degree of restraint necessary to avoid the casual voyeurism that powers so much of our social media feeds. Or, how those same platforms can be justly described as machines for the inducement of petty vindictiveness and less-than-righteous indignation. Or, alternatively, as carefully calibrated engines of sloth, greed, envy, despair, and self-loathing. The point is not that our digital media environment necessarily generates vice, rather it’s that it constitutes an ever-present field of temptation, which can require, in turn, monastic degrees of self-discipline to manage

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