Words Under Siege

How Big Tech’s intrusion into public and private life undermines the promise of democracy

Photo of two hands holding an iPhone

Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything

Benjamen Walker is terrified about the way large technology platforms distort reality and with it human relationships. It only takes a few episodes of Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything to start sharing his anxiety and become, if not existentially unnerved by the inner machinery of the digital age, at least convinced that it is time to reevaluate our social media activity.

But Walker, a journalist who has taught at The New School, draws on interviews with leading critics, technologists, and artists to do more than just stoke concerns about data mining, targeted advertising, and invasion of privacy. His podcast describes a more subversive process at work: how seemingly mild tech-driven intrusions into public and private life undermine the promise of democracy. Never before have a Facebook click and dystopian plutocracy seemed so intimately connected.

If that sounds crankish, think again. Walker’s ambitions are best revealed in an episode from January called “The People Have Spoken.” He interviews Astra Taylor, the director of the documentary What Is Democracy?, and excerpts a conversation she had with political philosopher Wendy Brown in the film. “For us to say we’re going to engage in a democratic process,” Brown says, “we have to decide who’s in and who’s out of that process—democracy always has exclusions.” Walker’s reaction is unequivocal. “It is,” he says in a quivering voice, “extremely difficult for me to listen to people like Wendy Brown.”

Walker instead casts his lot with the likes of philosopher Cornel West, also featured in Taylor’s documentary. Insisting (with irresistible panache) that all “our brothers and sisters” fall within democracy’s scope, West concedes how “there is a sense in which we look foolish—anybody who goes against the dominant tendencies of human history.” He adds: “Count me in the crowd of the holy fools.” Idealistic? Yes—but hardly the vision of a crank.

When idealism meets technology, dark themes arise. Nearly every Theory of Everything episode advances a single, somber mission: unmasking the technological tools that tribalize human relations. Walker demonizes corporate entities that, thanks to their unprecedented access to ungodly amounts of data, can brand themselves as technological harbingers of democracy, when instead they are fragmenting humanity into isolated cells of enraged conspiracy theorists turning hyperbolized rants into clickbait.

An episode called “Bad Recommendations” delivers this message with the dramatic power unique to podcasting. Walker opens by quoting New York Times Magazine media reporter John Herrman’s analysis of YouTube’s secret algorithm: “it’s important to their business that no one knows how this works.” Then, through reporting done by frequent contributor Andrew Callaway, he explores what YouTube’s secrecy has inadvertently wrought, such as the unlikely rise of controversial Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson, who now has millions of young men seeking his counsel.

At this point, things get personal. One of those seekers was Callaway’s best friend, a man named Mark. Callaway watched with dismay as Mark, whom he had known since the age of 12, succumbed to Peterson’s rhetorical lambasting of “social justice warriors” and “man-hating feminists.” Then something tragic happens, and Callaway’s account of his friend’s breakdown turns this episode from interesting to profound.

“I couldn’t stop thinking,” Callaway says, “that I’d lost my friend to Jordan Peterson.” Critics of the psychologist argue that he uses an ostensibly innocent ethic of self-help as a “Trojan horse” for a reactionary political ideology. Callaway agrees with this assessment. But he also thinks there’s a more urgent threat: the sidebar video recommendations on YouTube, which Callaway considers the most dangerous stretch of screen space on the Internet.

Theory of Everything connects the dots in ways many of us never think to. When Callaway, who is audibly upset while telling Mark’s story, demonstrates that, thanks to YouTube’s algorithm, it only requires three clicks through his own recommended video sidebar to travel from a Jordan Peterson video critiquing the Islamic understanding of church and state to videos endorsing the New Zealand mosque massacre, Mark’s troubling spiral starts to make more sense.

At least one truth becomes evident about the big tech platforms that govern our lives. YouTube might be the ideal place to learn how to make the perfect hardboiled egg, but when it comes to the essential public discourse required for a healthy democracy, the platform produces, in Herrman’s words, “something really fucked up.” And West, Walker, Callaway, and the marching minority of technology critics—those Holy Fools—begin to look even more appealing.


Ben Thompson and James Allworth, co-hosts of the podcast Exponent, do not share Benjamen Walker’s catastrophic vision of our tech-driven future. They generally view big tech platforms as a boon to human progress, and praise them for their deep insight into the nature of human communication and consumer demand. They marvel at the way Google and Facebook give people what they want with frictionless efficiency. One imagines Walker would be about as pleased with these guys as he was with Wendy Brown.

Thompson, who founded Stratechery, a blog about the technology business, and Allworth, a writer for the Harvard Business Review, broadcast their considerable expertise by talking regularly on the phone about recent tech news.

What makes this podcast useful for the layperson is that, even though the conversations run long (usually an hour) and Thompson tends to dominate them, the hosts elucidate the lingua franca and animating concepts of the tech world. If I were a reporter suddenly assigned to Silicon Valley, this is what I’d binge listen.

Given the hosts’ bullish stance on big tech, it is especially worth noting their take on regulating the powerhouse platforms, a theme that rightly preoccupies the podcast. In Episode 168, Thompson and Allworth develop an insightful parallel between digital and environmental pollution as a model for how to clean up the mess that technology can create.

Thompson argues that when it comes to problematic content, the “cost on the output that would be borne by society” should be “born by the companies that are incurring that cost.” Their discussion about how to undertake this is intricate, and they, too, use YouTube’s recommended content as an example. That they’re even having this discussion, with YouTube only 14 years old, reminds us that we’re living with technology platforms that have exploded out of the gate and knocked us into oblivion. Exponent is the kind of educational podcast that can help us recover, dust ourselves off, and start regaining modest control of our digitized lives.

The Kenyon Review Podcast

When she completed a novel, Iris Murdoch made a cup of tea and started writing the next one. Colm Tóibín can’t do research before writing; he must undertake both simultaneously because otherwise he’ll “bury [himself] in research forever and not start the book.” Ann Patchett chooses to “write it wrong,” before going back to her text and doing just enough research to get it right. Hilary Mantel wrote Wolf Hall in the present tense because that’s how the novel’s first sentence came to her in a dream.

Such are the gem-like secrets that The Kenyon Review Podcast effortlessly offers. Hosted by writers affiliated with the Kenyon Review or its literary workshops, the episodes adhere to a conversational mode based on the premise that writers tend to ask other writers the most revealing questions. Consider Natalie Shapero, a Kenyon Review editor at large, interviewing Patchett, whose novel State of Wonder explores the ethical dilemmas faced by researchers working deep in the Amazon rainforest. When Shapero asks Patchett about the personal experiences that informed her novel, we learn that Patchett had the fortitude to witness an almost botched Cesarean section in the name of research, even as she confesses that her jungle lodge did not measure up to her highbrow standards of comfort. Her novelistic insight is underscored by her humanity.

A podcast like this one makes us reflect on how we interact with the world. There are a million rabbit holes to descend into on YouTube. We’ll likely always go down them. But as the American poet Kimiko Hahn reminds us on The Kenyon Review Podcast, words are another kind of rabbit hole. As this podcast assures us, though our autonomy is under siege, we can always seek shelter in words.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

James McWilliams is an historian at Texas State University. He's currently at work on a book on the art and literature of the American South. He lives in Austin, Texas.


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