It is fair to say that no matter what your politics, you have in mind some entity, organization, conspiracy, hierarchy, or bureaucracy that you believe, know, or suspect, is responsible for most of the problems of our time.
Today alone, I read essays blaming the media, the US government, various organizations within the US government, banks, corporations, liberals, the Catholic Church, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump, for everything that is going wrong.
For a long time, I attempted to explain my politics as primarily a meditation on individualism, where the individual (with whom I sympathize) is in constant conflict with a collective that attempts to subjugate and then exploit the individual.
Over the years, I came to understand that the collective was but one of many forces which routinely bring strife to the individual.
Because indeed, other individuals (e.g., bullies, criminals) and small groups (gangs and mobs) routinely pose a threat to the liberty, safety, and security of good individuals in their homes, workplaces, and cities, in a way no less oppressive than collectives do.
Even within the Marxist conception of history, feudalism (behind us, at least in the West) seems no less repellent to me than the collectivist one Marxists anticipate will be the final destination of human civilization. I have become no less hostile to the subjugation of the minds and bodies of individuals to the whims of the collective, but it is clear that collectivism is not the only antagonist.
Groups as well as individuals acting alone have harnessed the information age to corrupt and ultimately control – or destroy – the minds of individuals. This is always in pursuit of an end, and it is increasingly considered fair play.
The wealthy and powerful have exceptional access to media and messaging, and this includes not merely wealthy industrialists, cynical advertising, and government propagandists, but also pop culture celebrities with enormous soapboxes and even more enormous egos who subject us to their vacuous, sanctimonious pontifications with the help of mainstream and social media who for some reason consider what a rock star or actor says to be of importance enough to amplify and distribute. (I say “for some reason” but I know it is because what is said generally flatters the point of view of the publisher.)
The response to this has largely been a lot of people expressing concern that we’re not doing enough to screen, censor, and ultimately delete false information.
Major social networks are attempting to screen for bad information using algorithms and human intervention.
I think the effect will be minimal.
People who believe we can solve the problem of bad information via screening for and then censoring this information have little understanding of the Internet and the realities of the information age, and their solutions are as resource-intensive as they are ineffectual. The quixotic attempt to fix the information systems which influence and guide human consciousness utilizing censorship and information control are distractions from the real problem as well as the solution which presents itself once this problem is understood.
A quarter century ago I wrote a long essay called Information Ecology which was a response to Future Shock-related concerns about how humans were going to process the oncoming onslaught of information.
My argument was that we would adapt as a species to the realities of the information age. Where we could not adapt, we would employ technologies to help us. New generations would learn in school how to sort through large sets of information, separating signal from noise.
I was, in a word, optimistic.
I will admit that I was naive when it came to the scope of the problem, but I was also blindsided by some of the ramifications of so much bad data being published at such a rapid pace.
Most of the concern initially was, “People are fabricating data and presenting it as fact.” This was actually a small problem when compared to the bigger one we face which is:
When so much information is false, people can exploit this situation as an excuse to discredit and reject any information which doesn’t support their narrative, worldview, or reality tunnel.
In other words, we can choose to refuse to believe anything, and then pat ourselves on the back for being such shrewd skeptics, even when we are throwing out indisputable facts.
This is generally rationalized by a new take on the famous McLuhan concept, The medium is the message. McLuhan was thinking mainly of the form of the media – for example, television. Today, though, it’s the ideological slant of the (almost always electronic) media in question.
Water is wet seems most true if you publish it in Scientific American. The same statement seems less true or more in doubt if someone says it on Worldnet Daily (if you’re a progressive) or The Huffington Post (if you’re a conservative.)
In a less demented world, it would be equally true no matter who said it (including Jesus, Hitler, Mao, and Madonna).
Not so today.
This is far more dangerous than merely having to sort through information to find out what is accurate and what is not, or occasionally being taken in by a fabrication.
This sort of indulgent, phony, self-serving skepticism enables humanity’s greatest psychological vice: to write off and ultimately ignore information which causes us cognitive dissonance.
In light of this, the only possible solution to the current crisis of information is to raise the conscience of individuals, and then to turn that consciousness inward, with the battleground being one’s own mind — not public fora, at least, not until the internal battle over one’s individual mind is decisively won.
Any individual can very easily suss out hogwash which is engineered to bolster points of view he or she disagrees with (The Daily Show and shows like it feed on this fairly simple and effortless enterprise.)
What is difficult to learning to suss out hogwash which flatter’s one’s own reality tunnel. I have watched so many people who pride themselves on honesty, skepticism, and objectivity, routinely fall prey to the temptation to let their own side’s garbage facts and baseless arguments slide.
I am fairly certain I have done it, usually when I am engaged in a discussion pertaining to a small set of third rail issues which I cannot help to be emotional about. I am getting better in understanding and — with varying degrees of success — fighting this tendency as the years roll by.
Even where one is aware that one’s own side is publishing garbage, it seems as if people are tempted to be less than rigorous in their condemnation and critique of this information in the larger interest of winning the ideological (and, in fact, epistemological) wars which are shredding our society.
I find it difficult, for example, to believe that the number of people who forward Alex Jones rants around actually believe them.
Nor do I believe most people concern themselves with Jones’s access to a platform (he is being deplatformed as I write this) because they merely find him entertaining or outrageous and want to continue being entertained by his over-the-top theatrics.
I think this may have once been the case, but in recent years the motivation is to weaponize Alex Jones (and others like him) in pursuit of an ideological goal. I do not know whether people have suddenly begun to believe him, or whether they believe they can can corral armies of truly foolish people who do find Jones credible to push political projects through, or whether they simply enjoy the fact that he drives certain people utterly nuts. It is probably a combination of all three.
The only solution to this problem – since people routinely point out bad information published by the opposing side – is for people to temporarily forego the ideological war and turn toward propagandists on their own side and engage in self-analysis and criticism: criticism not only of bad information which seems to bolster one’s own position, but criticism of one’s own opinions to be flattered by such information.
This is an uphill battle, because it would, among other things, require people to speak, type, and retweet less. And that is asking a lot in these times.
The political pundit, editorial writer, or YouTube talking head is popular less because he or she publishes well-considered, logical critiques of culture and politics, but because he or she publishes opinions which are a pleasure to agree with. Fans of professional opiners are always ready to heap praise upon people more erudite than themselves, provided the commentator flatters their own position, helping to lessen their cognitive dissonance while strengthening the walls of their reality tunnel by lending credibility to a specific opinion or attitude.
This is, of course, all based in fear and insecurity. One position which doesn’t attract views or sell ad space is “I don’t know, and I am confused, and there are nuances and unknown facts which make having a firm opinion on this difficult.”
Because it is the fear of chaos – the fear of not knowing or comprehending reality in its entirety — the fear that one might be wrong — that works at direct cross-purposes to apprehending even a small slice of reality as it truly is: to truly know something, rather than merely to believe it or to seriously hope something is true.
Steve Hassan, a popular writer on cults described a similar psychological process in his book Combatting Cult Mind Control: thought-stopping. This is a psychological habit wherein one distracts himself by learned reflex (that is, a reflex one develops through practice or indoctrination) to stop thinking thoughts which entail doubt or skepticism about the leader of, of tenets of, a particular cult one finds himself in.
Facebook could therefore (I believe) remove all of the propaganda articles planted by the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians, without solving the central problem. Where there is a point of view someone wants to believe, there will be someone willing to present for them in a way which is immediately gratifying to agree with.
Not only has Twitter removed many of these state-sponsored distortions, but has alerted its users that they were following accounts (or liking or retweeting stories) linked to Russian agents. I am skeptical that those who were alerted of this have become any wiser. They did not like or retweet those stories because they thought they were true – but because they wanted them to be.
This approach, therefore, will not solve the problem.
Progress can be made when people acknowledge how little they grasp reality and all of its complexities, how much this scares them, and how susceptible they are to only allowing ideas in which flatter their preconceptions.
These preconceptions are not only dangerous if they contain fallacies. They also have a nasty habit of causing people to think in stereotypes, project false motivations and characteristics on their opposition (already in the proverbial dog house for publishing facts which threaten their reality tunnel), and ultimately destroy discourse and truly free thought.
We are used to the conservative cartoon of progressives, but I have watched progressive after progressive engage in character assassination and strawmen arguments which could give the most hateful right wing pundit a run for their money.
I have seen people who really ought to know better and be above all of this engage in it, often for the applause of onlookers.
If you’re nodding along with all of this and thinking of other people, you’re missing the point.
I’m talking about you.
I’m talking about me.
And I’m saying that we must start with ourselves before we attempt to bring this consciousness to others, because so long as we ourselves are susceptible to this, our words will ring hollow in others.
Do you have the courage to wake up tomorrow and acknowledge to yourself that your political opinion might be wrong or inadequate or based on distortion, half-truths, misconceptions, or outright fallacies?
How about your thoughts on religion?
Think for a moment about a political or religious opinion you once had that you later rejected: a subject you’ve changed your mind on.
Perhaps it was an idea you had when you were more foolish in your youth, or an idea you developed as a result of the influence of others.
Maybe it was something your parents inculcated you with, and something you rejected as soon as you had occasion or courage to really question it.
Now consider your present politics and your current ideas about the world and how and why it is as it is.
How likely is it that you are as wrong now about something – right this minute – as you were about that old opinion you changed your mind on? What are the chances that 20 years from now you will look on you in the present moment and ask:
What the hell was I thinking?
If it’s likely – and if you’re honest, you know it is – why are you so strident when it comes to advocating for your politics? Why are you to hell-bent on getting people to agree with you about something deep down you know you might be completely wrong about?
Who is it you’re really trying to convince?
We need to work on ourselves: this is simply thinking locally before acting globally. We must dive deeper into our own consciousness to find out the truths about ourselves and especially our weaknesses, because the temptation to seek out sustenance from lies which bolster our confidence in our ability to understand the world is stronger than any algorithm or censorship team a social media company can hope to assemble.
We must visit the interior of the earth and rectify.
Having done that, we will have completely neutralized the ability of people who traffic in lies and distortion to influence our behavior. We will learn to be suspicious of “news” stories which confirm our opinion of reality, rather than to forward or like them with smug satisfaction.
Imagine a world in which you could count on the opposition (whoever you conceive that to be) to call out its own spin doctors, propagandists, and liars?
The map of reality you carry in your mind and use to navigate the world is not the same as the territory. Details are missing, coastlines are distorted, and parts of it are the product of dreams, delusions, hallucinations, insecurities, and things other people have programmed in there that you’re not even aware of.
This mental map is all we’ve got; the universe is inscrutably large and complex and we make the best of it that we can, because we need it.
But let’s start looking at our own maps with some well-deserved skepticism. We ought to expend more effort being better cartographers of reality.
We need to stop mindlessly importing data which is satisfying merely because it confirms our map.
And we must stop falling victim to the sunk cost fallacy when it comes to political or religious advocacy, but that is the subject for another essay.