Jack Butler writes an article The Myth of the Red Pill in the National Review. I won’t go into all the nuances and various meanings attached to being redpilled, blue- or blackpilled, but want to reblog his discussion about how cyberspace is now awash with tweets from people, left and right, who believe they and they alone are “woke” in either the progressive, post-modern sense, or the opposite. Excerpts in italics with my bolds.
Adherents believe that their apparent online numbers, purportedly sophisticated ideas, and supposed influence in real-world politics point both to their being correct and the emerging conservative paradigm. All of these things are hard to measure, not just because of the amorphous quality of online interaction, but also because of the many layers of irony and memery in which believers conceal themselves. Still, it is undoubtedly true that none of this would have happened at all without the Internet. This fact is often interpreted favorably: The nature of physical reality, it is claimed, makes the kind of conversation they want to have ever harder, so anything worth saying is now being said digitally.
But the Internet is at least as much of a constrictor of thought for the redpilled as it is a facilitator, if not more so.
Many of the redpilled think of themselves as possessing a kind of unique energy, unavailable to the rest of the Right. It is quite easy to convince yourself of that if you spend all day marinating in carefully curated digital environments, associating mostly with people who agree with you, and letting your real-world interactions, such as they are, be flavored either actively or passively by your experiences online. Insularity is an ancient human temptation, one the Internet has, surprisingly, exacerbated.
The Internet may have begun with the promise of freewheeling sharing of information and interaction, but in the realm of the redpilled, Twitter is a place for collectivized, digital mass action. Believing that tweets are a serious and desirable form of political activism, they glory in the dopamine rush of likes and retweets, call for ratios of opinions they deem unacceptable, and take all of these things as signs that they are advancing their cause instead of adding tiny bits of ember to a fiery digital hellscape.
There are some things worth remembering about Twitter.
According to a 2019 Pew Research survey, 22 percent of Americans use Twitter daily. In 2021, Twitter itself measured 199 million daily active users on the site. This sounds like a lot, but only 38 million of those users are in the U.S. (11 percent of our population). By this measure, Twitter’s total active user base is about 2.5 percent of the world’s population. Pew’s 2019 estimate also says that 80 percent of tweets come from 10 percent of users. One study estimates that anywhere from 9 to 15 percent of Twitter users are bots; 66 percent of all links on Twitter come from bots. All of this speaks to a world that is not merely self-referential but also self-reinforcing. It sucks people in, convinces them that it is normal, and then brings out the worst in them as they engage in futile conversations that are hopelessly skewed by unrepresentative samples of human beings and disguised machines.
Like much of modern media, Twitter shrinks our attention spans while bombarding us with things we might not otherwise have ever known or cared about and on which we have no influence. This is to say nothing of the political slant of Twitter. As Brian Riedl put it (in a tweet; Twitter has its uses), “Twitter users are D+15 — which would tie HI & VT for the most liberal state . . . the 10% of Twitter users who post 92% of all tweets are D+43 — which would make it America’s 2nd most liberal House district.”
This skew can breed, in those who believe it to be representative, a highly agitated and combative posture.
It can make them think that America is already lost; this is called a “black pill” (the pill boxes of the redpilled are overflowing). It can make them believe that persuasion and workaday politics are inadequate to the moment, that only desperate action, often involving a departure from the constitutional order necessitated by the one already undertaken by opposing political forces, can bring any hope of salvation. It can make them believe that the political sphere is or should be a source of salvation — if only their enemies can be crushed. And so it can make them believe that only a countervailing force, similarly drawing strength from the online world and sharing many of its opponents’ attributes, can possibly contest it. In this way, the hyperpolarization and acute antagonisms of Twitter feed off each other, require each other, and may in fact reflect each other. Some of what happens on Twitter may be somewhat indicative of the real world. But there’s also the fact that Tay, Microsoft’s AI Twitter account whose personality was formed from Twitter interactions, within a day became a suicidal, sex-crazed, Nazi teenage girl. So much for reflecting reality.
The point of the original red pill in The Matrix was to escape an artificially created digital world. But now, redpilling is a phenomenon that depends on digital interactions. It also deceives its adherents about reality itself, discoloring or even discouraging their existence in the physical world. It is from this key inconsistency that so many of their fallacies flow — not least of which is their compulsive use of online platforms that they deem so pernicious they need to be regulated differently, broken up, or destroyed. Many of us nowadays struggle to restrain our use of technology. But that problem will not be solved by pretending that digital oversaturation is a virtue rather than a vice. Those who have trouble regulating themselves in this sphere make a curious authority for how to regulate it in society.
There is nothing magical about the online world. Like tools throughout mankind’s history, it can be used for good or evil ends. Facilitating communication, simplifying access to information — such things have their uses. But the test of something’s verity is not whether it goes viral. And as a digital form of gnosticism, redpilling has plenty of other defects that have weakened its utility. For one thing, as Shullenberger notes, it now exists in a kind of knowing game with its opponents: “The bluepilled regard the redpilled as deluded by misinformation, while the redpilled regard the bluepilled as dupes of the establishment.” Clearly, viewing the world as trapped in a digital binary is a dead end.
Whatever usefulness the red pill may once have had as a metaphor, it has now become a cliché at the same time that it has become a kind of twisted faith. It does not liberate its believers but rather constrains them, trapping them in digital worlds of their own creation. There are superior forms of conservatism, ones that appeal to reason and to more reliable forms of knowledge and authority. Curious minds would be better served letting the redpilled send themselves down endless rabbit holes, and instead pursue forms of learning and action that have a bit more to do with the world above the ground.