Gideon Lewis-Kraus has written a really excellent short essay on the forgotten lessons of David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, a book that is often characterized as a jeremiad against conformity, yet which is in fact better understand as “a discussion of the emotional life of information.” His distinction between inner-direction and other-direction — both ideal types — wasn’t mean to contrast nonconformists against conformists, but rather to contrast different modes of conformity:
It’s not that the inner-directed person consults some deep, subjective, romantically sui generis oracle. It’s that the inner-directed person consults the internalized voices of a mostly dead lineage, while her other-directed counterpart heeds the external voices of her living contemporaries. As Riesman put it, “the gyroscopic mechanism allows the inner-directed person to appear far more independent than he really is: he is no less a conformist to others than the other-directed person, but the voices to which he listens are more distant, of an older generation, their cues internalized in his childhood.” The inner-directed person is, simply, “somewhat less concerned than the other-directed person with continuously obtaining from contemporaries (or their stand-ins: the mass media) a flow of guidance, expectation, and approbation.” You can imagine how the Internet intensifies things.
Riesman drew no moral from the transition from a community of primarily inner-directed people to a community of the other-directed. Instead, he saw that each ideal type had different advantages and faced different problems. As Riesman understood it, the primary disciplining emotion under tradition direction is shame, the threat of ostracism and exile that enforces traditional action. Inner-directed people experience not shame but guilt, or the fear that one’s behavior won’t be commensurate with the imago within. And, finally, other-directed folks experience not guilt but a “contagious, highly diffuse” anxiety—the possibility that, now that authority itself is diffuse and ambiguous, we might be doing the wrong thing all the time.
And Riesman observed that other-direction had a number of positive aspects, e.g., greater openness and interest in the values, experiences, and opinions of others. Lewis-Kraus builds his mini-essay around a critique of Lee Siegel and an effort to capture what really sucks about Yelp, an online review site. Yet he also gives us reason to be optimistic about other aspects of contemporary culture.