Welcome back to the Convivial Society. Given the usually more deliberate pacing of this newsletter, sending out two installments within 72 hours makes me feel like I’m starting to spam you. This is a relatively short installment, however, written to bring together in one place a few strands of analysis about the nature of our information environment, which I first presented in a series of essays back in 2020. Most of the material beyond the introductory paragraphs is drawn from those essays. I’ve assembled them here in this way because I think the approach remains helpful.
“What is going on?”
Depending on the particular shape of your digital media ecosystem, you have likely seen or heard some version of that question being asked quite a bit in the last week or two. I found the question raised most often, and understandably so, in connection with the Chinese spy balloon fiasco and the three subsequent incidents in which an unidentified object was shot down by the American military. The question was also asked in connection with the train derailment and chemical fire in East Palestine, Ohio and a series of smaller scale incidents of a similar sort in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Florida.
Sometimes all of these incidents where connected by those asking “What is going on?” The purported link between the aerial incidents and those on the ground has been expressed as a matter of the former being a government-contrived distraction from the latter. And, of course, there are many other interesting and diverse combinations of all of the above on offer.
Naturally, at some point along the way certain outlets began to report on how these incidents were generating a flood of online disinformation. One headline described the train derailment as a “disaster of misinformation,” which, I don’t know, struck me as a touch too clever given the circumstances.
Obviously there is a great deal of misinformation/disinformation floating around. And, of course, there are those, as there have always been, who set out to maliciously distort the information ecosystem to their advantage. But I’m not sure the disinformation frame is the most helpful way of understanding the phenomena in question. In my view, it mostly misses the underlying conditions and consequently becomes far too blunt as an analytical instrument. Within this perspective, there tend to be only two principle actors: the malicious agents sowing disinformation and the unfortunate rubes who fall for it. That there are those who fit into those two categories is not in doubt. What is in doubt, as far as I’m concerned, is whether that is an adequate account of the experience of most people. It is telling, I think, that no one ever imagines themselves fitting into those categories, suggesting a rather impressive but also dubious degree of immunity from the dynamics of the media environment to which we are all subject, albeit to varying degrees.
So, you may be wondering, what would I propose instead?
In a series of essays around 2020, I arrived at a way of thinking about the these dynamics—the experience of a digital media environment of information superabundance—that some have found helpful, so I thought it might be worthwhile to briefly restate this approach in five statements.
The first is the more straightforward, although it takes some unpacking. The next three flow from the first and, as you will clearly see, are stated a bit less circumspectly. I’ve tried to keep the elaboration brief in each case, and I’ve deliberately lifted and adapted paragraphs from previous essays. I’ll provide links to those posts at the conclusion.
“When you give people too much information, they instantly resort to pattern recognition."
1. The Database has displaced the Narrative.
Narrative is our primordial tool for sense-making, but in digital information environments narratives are framed by a more immediate experience of the Database. I’m using the term Database loosely to capture how, especially when an event is unfolding, we confront a cacophony of data points (videos, statements, claims, images, etc.) before we encounter anything like a compelling narrative of the event from a source with broad cultural authority.
It’s not that we are literally presented with a relational database, but that we are confronted with what amounts to a loosely arranged set of data points, whose significance and meaning has not been baked into the form itself (as is the case with information encased in narrative). One effect of our digital media environment, then, is to immerse us in searchable databases of information rather than present us with comprehensive, integrated, and broadly compelling narratives.
It is impossible to overstate the speed with which any phenomena, however slight it may seem, gets entered, irrevocably, into the Database for the generation of narratives, which is to say for the curation of competing realities. The “realtime” nature of this dynamic is critical as is the easily manipulable nature of digital media.
And consider that this is not merely a function of willful ignorance or intentional deceit. Under these conditions, it is entirely possible for serious, educated people to arrive at disparate understandings of reality. The grifters and manipulators don’t help mind you, but I think it’s too facile, and falsely comforting, to say that they alone are the source of the problem.
In a previous essay, I enumerated 15 provisional consequences of this development. Here are the first three, you can click through to read the rest:
The Database tolerates, indeed encourages small-n narratives, but it cannot sustain and actively discourages [broadly compelling and comprehensive] Narratives.
All narratives generated from the Database are tenuous and subject to constant revision. They are but one possible path through the database. Everyone knows alternative paths are possible. We are all just pinning red string on the board to connect the data points.
Narratives seek closure (the story must end). The Database is open-ended (it assimilates new data indefinitely). The Database resists the Narrative impulse to control and stabilize meaning.
2. All information is disinformation.
The point here is that the problem isn’t the circulation of certain discrete bits of false or misleading information. The problem is that under conditions of information superabundance, any bit of data, even if it is reasonable and accurate (perhaps especially if it is so), can be incorporated into wildly disparate and competing runs through the Database. It’s the total effect that matters most. The sum of our daily bombardment with information is to overwhelm and deplete our cognitive resources.
I first formulated the line “all information is disinformation” while thinking about the inadequacies of fact-checking as an antidote to mis/disinformation online. It’s a tactic best suited for another age. In the context of digital media it may simply make the problem worse. The fact check, like the narrative, is already framed by the Database. It cannot rise above it. As is the case with many of the issues arising in digital contexts, the underlying dynamic is abundance rather than scarcity. Under those circumstances, simply adding more information compounds the problem.
3. We are all conspiracy theorists now.
When we have a superabundance of information and/consequently a failure of trusted institutions, any effort to make sense of a situation, to connect the dots, will seem to others making a different run through the Database (and perhaps even feel to us) not unlike conspiracy theorizing. The materials are there in the Database, which is to say the massive digital archives we all dip into constantly. The urge to make sense of things is more or less a given. All we need is a provocation and within minutes, we’ve all got our dark-rimmed-Kevin-Costner-in-JFK glasses on.
It’s not just that there is widespread disagreement about how to interpret the meaning of an event. It is also that there can be widespread disagreement about the basic facts of the event in question. It is one thing to argue the meaning of the moon landing for human affairs, it is another to incessantly debate whether the moon landing happened. Which is why, from someone’s perspective, we are all conspiracy theorizers now. We are all in the position of holding beliefs, however sure we may be of them, that some non-trivial portion of the population considers not just mistaken but preposterous and paranoid.
4. Actually, we’re all cultists now.
The conspiracy theorist is ordinarily imagined as a lone, troubled individual convinced of things hardly anyone else believes. Under the conditions of digitized relations within the Database, this is no longer the case. We can readily find others that share our view of the world, which is to say that they have run through the Database and discovered the same patterns. This naturally reinforces what might otherwise have been a tenuously held belief or suspicion. We are not alone, there are others. So rather than saying that we are all conspiracy theorizers now, I should say that we are all, from someone’s perspective, cult members now.
In this light, polarization and group loyalty may also be understood as a psychic/epistemic defense mechanism, demanded by the experience of the Database. So, too, apathy, indifference, and varieties of ironic detachment.
5. The answer is not more information.
Although, of course, one always does need some baseline of good information. That said … maybe you and I don’t need more information. And, if we think that the key to navigating uncertainty and mitigating anxiety is simply more information, then we may very well make matters worse for ourselves.
Believing that everything will be better if only we gather more information commits us to endless searching and casting about, to one more swipe of the screen in the hope that the elusive bit of data, which will make everything clear, will suddenly present itself. In this mode, what we need seems always to lie just beyond the realm of the actual, hidden beyond the horizon of the possible. The paradoxical effect is to sink us ever deeper into indecision and anxiety because the abundance of information, especially if it is encountered as discrete bits of under-interpreted data, will only generate more uncertainty and frustration.
Even in cases where more information might be genuinely helpful, it may not be forthcoming when we need it. More importantly, some matters cannot be adequately adjudicated simply by gathering more information and plugging it into some sort of value-neutral formula. Indeed, we might even say that what we need to make is not a merely a decision but more like a commitment with all the risk, responsibility, and promise that this entails. What we might truly need, then, is not information but something else altogether: courage, patience, practical wisdom, and, perhaps most importantly, friendship. Of course, these can be harder to come by than mere information, however valuable it may be.
Sources and Further Reading
“Narrative Collapse” ← This is the key text. Read this one and some of my claims above may seem a bit less intemperate.
In The New Atlantis: “The Analog City and the Digital City.”
Of interest possibly only to myself, it seems that this way of thinking was taking nascent form as early as 2011 on the old blog.
Also in The New Atlantis, Jon Askonas has been working on a complimentary line of analysis: “Reality Is Just a Game Now.”
People on the ground at the organizations who actually publish and curate information have a shop-floor sense of this risk. Consider: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/data-dead-why-data-driven-enterprise-doa-wouter-van-aerle
But somehow, while I was reading these posts, I kept thinking of the King and the Duke in Huckleberry Finn, amoral shysters who eventually get tarred and feathered as they can’t outrun the information that catches up with their scams. Likewise Bernie Madoff. In Twain’s remembered world, they were physically accessible, dishing their misinformation and their entertaining rhetoric from town to town. So maybe that agragrian pace helped keep them honest? I’m not so sure…
We might think that the digital world has, or soon will, outrun that plodding, analog, storytelling pace, and that digital information in conspiracies will connect the dots in such a way as to ruin everything with their horror narratives that take root without a care for who, or where, or why.
We might think that about the January 6 events, for example. But the race is not to the swift. And somehow I turn to Heraclitus. Everything flows.
Too vague? Back to Twain, who, as Samuel Clemens, learned from a stern and kindly master how to read the river.
That chapter from life on the Mississippi is well worth reading. We are still learning how to read new rivers. We want to be good people as we do so, and the virtues are never to be neglected as we face each other every day in our communities. But the flow of data won’t stop. We are just getting better at reading it. We might be sadder for the paradise lost, but we can and will concoct narratives that render the loss beautifully, as Twain does here: (“ ‘Now don’t you see the difference? It wasn’t anything but a wind reef. The wind does that.’
‘So I see. But it is exactly like a bluff reef. How am I ever going to tell them apart?’
‘I can’t tell you. It is an instinct. By and by you will just naturally know one from the other, but you never will be able to explain why or how you know them apart.’
It turned out to be true. The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice.”)
This is a wonderful post, Michael, thank you. The question that seems to make a difference in whether we are able to focus on the cultivation of virtues such as you point us toward--courage, patience, practical wisdom, and friendship--is whether we are able to glimpse and participate in a narrative which frames the Database. Our inadequacy to negotiate narrative constructions if we see the Database as the ultimate frame seems to me to have its roots in reaching for the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil prior to it being given, ill-equipped to adjudicate the world we thus brought upon ourselves. It is a world of death. But when that greater story is the frame for the Database, then the means of grace and hope of glory which are part of the great climax of that story points us toward the faithful Shepherd who ever lives to make intercession for us. Worship of the Lord of the database frees us from its enslavement. Jeremiah 6:16ff makes for fruitful meditation. The invitation is still before us, to walk in the ancient paths of wisdom, as you outline, but if we refuse, the judgment that will come is none other than the fruit of our devices. God bless your good work!