Oral Culture = OS1 Literate Culture = OS2 Networked Culture = OS3
The rise of Donald Trump can be usefully understood as a product of the disruptive collision of oral, literate and digital cultures, or what I call OS1, OS2 and OS3, aka the Operating Systems (OS) of human civilization. That collision is the defining phenomenon of our time, playing out in every field of human endeavor along the same specific lines and for the same specific reasons, with marginalized OS1 culture and emerging OS3 culture in direct conflict with the hegemony of OS2 culture, the rule of paper power, paper thinking, paper people.
And what’s interesting is not just that Trump’s disruptive presidential bid is the first major political candidacy to be the nearly exclusive product of OS3 culture, though it is certainly that. What is more revealing still about his candidacy is how it exposes the fault lines between operating systems, between the three great technological cultures of human history.
Take Trump’s utter disregard for facts, for example, which is baffling to those raised to be loyal to OS2, that is to say literate culture, in which fixed facts are prized over all else. (Marks on a page being the definitive epistemological threshold of literate meaning.) To these literate loyalists, lying about inscribed facts is self-evidently immoral and they cannot understand how it is that Trump’s willingness to say things that are ‘not true’ fails to alienate his followers.
What these baffled critics do not get is that ‘lying’ only matters to those who believe in objective truth in the first place. And members of OS3 culture do not.
To Trump’s followers, socialized by the tribal and contingent epistemology of the internet, all knowledge is subjective. You can only fudge facts if you believe facts exist. And to members of OS3 culture, they don’t.
In OS3 culture, truth is fluid and can always be remixed (as in OS3 music, which sees all sound as simply a source of assets for the latest mashup.) From their perspective all knowledge is mere opinion. From their tribal perspective, relationships define truth, not appeals to supra-individual authority, nor even what can be ‘supposedly’ proven to have been said or done in the past.
To members of OS3 culture, The New York Times is no less biased a source of information than a blowhard blogger in his basement. If you trust the blowhard more, then de facto he is right and the New York Times is wrong. He is telling the truth, and the New York Times – aka the biased liberal media – is lying.
This phenomenon of giving more weight to the opinions of people you know as opposed to deferring to the abstract collective authority of ‘experts’, is a defining characteristic of OS3 tribalism. In this respect, as in so many others, OS3 values align perfectly with those of OS1 cultures, for they are both based on a dialogical technology that defines social paradigms.
For in oral cultures too, where there is no such thing as fixed facts because nothing can be written down, the relationship one has with the source of any statement is the greatest clue to the veracity of that statement. You don’t go running to a book to ‘fact check’ because no books exist.
In oral cultures, reality is always renegotiated in the moment, for there is no fixed record of the past. Truth is merely what a given group of people make of a situation amongst themselves. The truth they come to is the only truth there is. Should they choose to deny a previously accepted version of reality, there is no lie, there is simply a collective choice to live a different reality. As the great poet Kenneth Rexroth once wrote:
“You think you can make me live the past that you want me to have lived. You are wrong.”
And this is why Trump’s lying is meaningless to so many of his supporters. They have been trained by a distributed network to protect the tribe at all costs, to realign their perception of reality to coincide with the statements of their ‘friend’ (facebook friend, anyway) at the expense of journalists they do not know or trust, whose appeals to the authority of objective fact explicitly place them in the camp of the ‘other’, the insider, the privileged mainstream, the corrupt upper class.
And oddly, they are largely right in this condemnation. OS2 has exploited the poor, the brown, the ‘uneducated’ and ‘uncertified’ oral people of the world, using paper armies to keep them in check. And the kings of OS2, the multi-national monoliths and the currency traders and the patent lawyers and the crooked banks and the cautious policy makers and the rest are directly responsible for this mess. Because they have cheated the system. They have broken their own literate laws, failed to promote an educated literate population, sucker-punched the electorate with systemic racism and illegal opportunism, sucking the wealth and strength of community after community out like a plague and leaving it without the wisdom or moral strength to resist the desperate delusional desire to be brainwashed by a bloviating pseudo-savior.
This combination, the failure of literate leaders to police their own greed and the rise of a populist post-literate OS3 culture, has left all of us vulnerable to a profound political sickness, a sickness named Trump.
In tribal oral cultures that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, the selfish, self-aggrandizing tendencies of individuals like Trump were mitigated through public and private rituals, through rigorous tests of ability and self-discipline, and through harsh yet fair punishments doled out by the community when social norms were breached.
Yet in our tribal OS3 culture, which has evolved erratically in a mere generation, these mitigating mechanisms do not exist at all at a macro level (though if you ask any teenager in high school you can find out how effectively they work at the micro level.) And so, lacking the means to channel their personal feelings into constructive collective actions that are mature and purposeful, the disenfranchised, justifiably angry Americans who rightly feel abandoned by the ruling literate elites, instead default to impulsive, infantile irrationalism.
As always, the only way forward, as I see it, is through the building of bridges across the three operating systems of civilization. Bridges from OS1 to OS3 and back again. Bridges that adapt rigorous and mature OS1 models for generating and managing social harmony to the scalable, global, digital sphere, so that the anger of the excluded majority can yield meaningful opposition and disruptive alternatives to oligarchy that are not also blindly suicidal.
We need bridges that will teach us all to value listening more than speaking, empathy over anger and wisdom over rage.
Without them we risk losing everything.