Ep. 71: Vance Crowe on culture, narrative engineering, and the future of social media.

January 30, 2022
Trent Fowler

Watch our interview with Vance on Youtube.

Kerry Vaughan is the Program Manager for Early Stage Science at Leverage Research. He studies the history of successful attempts at generating scientific knowledge in nascent fields, the characteristics these attempts share, and the historical relationship between failures in scientific ethics and slowdowns in scientific advance.


Show notes

  • Vance has a fascinating background. From an early age he wanted to escape the small town in Illinois he grew up in. He went to college for communications, realized he didn't know what to do with that, and wound up spending a few years as a deckhand traveling all over the world. After that he got a graduate degree in diplomacy, worked at the World Bank, left, took a job at Monsanto working to rehabilitate its image, and then eventually set up his own consultancy targeted at communications and brand strategy.
  • Vance originally interviewed at Monsanto because he thought he'd get a good blog post out of it. He wound up taking the job when he realized they were going to let him run around the company interviewing anyone he wanted to.
  • After all, it was one of the most hated companies in the world, so if nothing else he could write an excellent tell-all book about Monsanto's malfeasance.
  • And if the company wound up being benevolent, rehabilitating its image would be one of the greatest communication challenges in the modern world.
  • Trent asks about how narratives work in the social media age. It seems increasingly like different groups of people can not only disagree about the implications of basic facts but can actually disagree on what the basic facts are.
  • Vance says he used to believe that people arrive at conclusions by going out to and taking stock of the facts. Now he believes that most people arrive at conclusions by adopting the conclusions of their group.
  • This isn't automatically a bad thing; there's far too much information to process for any one person to arrive at their own conclusions first-hand, so it's natural that there would be an intellectual division of labor. But when this devolves into outright tribalism and a failure of critical thinking, that's problematic.
  • Vance maintains that more often than not, it's important to arrive at an answer that allows you to get along with your ingroup. The number of people who actually need to know the truth about a given issue (scientists, engineers) is relatively small.
  • Though this has always been true of human beings, in the social media age this dynamic has been exacerbated. More or less every aspect of a person's life can be seen as a tribal signal and therefore is grounds for attack and dismissal.
  • Trent asks Vance whether he thinks that there's a way to get people to be less tribal and more reality-oriented, and his answer was mixed. In his more optimistic moods he thinks humanity will be able to arrive at better norms to manage interactions over the internet, but in his more pessimistic moods he's less sure.
  • The conversation then turned to a discussion of institutions, like churches and Rotary Clubs, which are made up of individuals who share one or two common beliefs but who otherwise might be radically different.
  • What these institutions offer is a kind of de-facto social training in how to interact with people who are very different from you.
  • Today, it's far easier to carefully moderate a friend's list so as to not be exposed to anyone who rubs you the wrong way. While this has its advantages, it also tends to insulate people and stunt their ability to form connections and coalitions across ideological boundaries.
  • What these institutions do is congregate people along an axis (such as a shared belief in God) which has little correlation to other axes (like net worth), thus affording a nexus around which fairly different people can mix.
  • Thomas asks a natural follow-up: could the metaverse conceivably perform some of these roles.
  • With the start of Covid Vance became seriously interested in virtual reality, augmented reality, and the potential applications to community-building.
  • He believes that that there is real potential in virtual or online communities cutting across social strata in the way that e.g. church does, but that it will take a while for both the technology and the culture to begin making serious strides in that direction.
  • Trent asks Vance what the future of social media will be, and he thinks there will be a proliferation of private networks aimed at niche communities and interests.
  • Trent pointed him to episode 9 with Galen Wolfe-Pauly, who is attempting to build a platform that allows for people to do exactly that.
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