“Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man's very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with living things, and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.”
— Jacques Ellul, Technological Society (1954)
I’ve become fond of saying that in the digital age, all information is misinformation. Of course, that requires some qualification, but, when I can get away with it, I just leave it at that. Admirer of Marshall McLuhan that I am, I nonetheless have no facility with the kind of koan-like provocations he deployed as probes in order to elicit understanding from readers rather than simply convey information. This line about dis/information is about as close as I come. If I were to qualify it, I’d do it simply by saying that in the digital age, all information is potentially also misinformation. But, honestly, I think that rather weakens the point.
What I am trying to get at is the epistemic and affective consequences of information super-abundance created by digital media and the related collapse of trusted institutions/authorities that might serve as a guide through the overwhelming cacophony of information we are all flooded with at any moment on any given day. The consequences, I’d say, are persistent cognitive exhaustion yielding either epistemic nihilism or potentially violent sectarianism. Sure, in practice, most of us will end up somewhere in between, but those are the poles whose gravitational pull we will find ourselves resisting in the present digital media environment.
I first formulated the line “all information is disinformation” while thinking about the inadequacies of fact-checking is 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. 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. Media scholars have been making this case for some time now and have offered some strategies for how to mitigate the damage, but I’m not sure those will get us much further. They are measures of containment, which, sure, is better than nothing.
These discussions tend to arise in political contexts. But in the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about all of this in relation to the unfolding coronavirus situation. You may have already gotten a taste of the theories circulating widely, often disseminated by verified accounts on Twitter. Needless to say, the whole affair is disconcerting even apart from such speculations. It takes but a few moments of scrolling, however, to find oneself a bit panicky.
I raise that point to debut another provocation that’s been kicking around my mind for some time now: we’re all conspiracy theorists now.
Here’s the longer version. When we have a superabundance of information and a failure of trusted institutions, any effort to make sense of a situation, to connect the dots, will seem (and perhaps feel) not unlike conspiracy theorizing. The materials are there in 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, say the assertion that a baseball player was wearing a hidden buzzer to signal the pitchers next pitch. Within minutes, we’ve all got our dark-rimmed-Kevin-Costner-in-JFK glasses on. Or this …
It’s disconcerting, when you start noticing it, just how common the conspiratorial style has become. (Not that long ago while sitting at a local restaurant, I caught my first “Epstein didn’t kill himself” discussion in the wild.)
I suspect this trajectory has roots in the Kantian admonition to think for ourselves, to reject all authority, to reason everything from the ground up. If, like Kant, you could devote your days to intellectual labor under conditions of relative information scarcity, then maybe this makes sense.
Maybe this is why it still seems plausible for a certain class of twitter user, whose day is still taken up with “knowledge work.” But, for most people, I suspect this ideal is altogether implausible. Even if you had the moral resolve, who has the time to adjudicate every claim and counter-claim you encounter, even if limited to the sane and serious ones? (Consider too, along these lines, that we staked democratic governance on the ideal of the informed citizen.)
We’ve always needed to trust in order to know. The more there was to know, the more we’d need to trust. Unfortunately, at present, many are finding it increasingly difficult to trust, just as our need for genuine knowledge and judgment grows.
In this light, polarization and group loyalty may be understood as a psychic/epistemic defense mechanism, exacerbated by the architecture of social media platforms. So, too, apathy, indifference, and varieties of ironic detachment.
News and Resources
“There’s No Such Thing As ‘Ethical A.I.’” by Tom Chatfield: “This is the fact that there is no such thing as ethical A.I, any more than there’s a single set of instructions spelling how to be good — and that our current fascinated focus on the ‘inside’ of automated processes only takes us further away from the contested human contexts within which values and consequences actually exist.”
A lovely reflection from Colin Horgan on encountering images of deceased loved ones on Google Street View and the passing of his mother.
Came across a months-old thread by sociologist Nathan Jurgenson in which, reflecting on responses to his book The Social Photo, he explains “my general take isnt that tech ‘accelerates’ or ‘amplifies’ social processes, as most seem to say. instead, i tend towards describing how tech make those things more obvious or ‘explicit.’”
This resonated with me. I’ve long been trying to articulate the significance of the hypertrophied self-awareness that is engendered by digital media, never quite satisfactorily. In an installment of the newsletter last November, I tried to get at this via Benjamin’s concept of the optical unconscious. Just as photography or film, as in the case of the freeze frame, made it possible to perceive optical realities that had previously escaped our conscious awareness, so to the apparatus of digital media makes it possible to perceive aspects of social life that would have passed unnoticed or only faintly perceived. My sense is that this persistent meta-awareness has serious and as of yet unaccounted personal and social consequences.
In an en masse violation of Amazon’s communications policy, over 300 employees posted critical comments on Medium highlighting various aspects of Amazon’s operations which they deemed unethical and unjust. I did not read through all of the comments. Many of them focused on well-known issues: climate change, enforcement of immigration policies, partnerships with oil and gas companies. But one lone comment on Amazon’s Ring cameras caught my attention:
“The deployment of connected home security cameras that allow footage to be queried centrally are simply not compatible with a free society. The privacy issues are not fixable with regulation and there is no balance that can be struck. Ring should be shut down immediately and not brought back.”
Two things stuck out here. First, the concern not merely with specific cases of nefarious uses but with the creation of general conditions that are inhospitable to our stated values. Second, the stark realization that regulation is not a sufficient response the problems generated by this technology. I welcome this admission. While regulation may often be a necessary and important tool, believing regulation can sufficiently address the challenges posed by new technologies may be misguided. It tends to assume that we can go on using the technology in question and mitigate its undesirable consequences if only we steer it appropriately. What we must consider is that, as this Amazon employee suggests, the best case scenario for certain technologies is simply that they not exist. Whatever goods they may secure do not outweigh the harms their use generates, even if they are regulated to the full extent possible.
Another underlying problem here tends to be that we have a difficult time recognizing and deliberating about unquantifiable harms and goods. How do you measure the sort of harm to a free society generated by the pervasive adoption of networked cameras, which then play a central role in mediating the experience of community for users? And if it cannot be measure, we find it difficult if not impossible to address because we have lost any public moral frameworks that do not proceed from technocratic assumptions.
Thoughtful piece by Aaron Lewis on alt accounts as identity R&D. It recalled Sherry Turkle’s work, which Lewis cites, on identity in the early ‘90s, when our use of the internet tended not to be tightly wedded to our legal name and identity. I’m admittedly conflicted about Lewis’s more sanguine take on the play of identity afforded by alt accounts, but I understand there appeal as a respite from the demands of an exhausting and demeaning experience of the self that characterizes social media as it is currently practiced by many of us. I suppose that my reservations amount to a suspicion that digitally mediated identity play/work will ultimately satisfy.
Lewis cites this paragraph from McLuhan, and I’ll include it here:
“The instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences. Particularly in countries where literate values are deeply institutionalized, this is a highly traumatic process, since the clash of old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity, a vacuum of the self, which generates tremendous violence — violence that is simply an identity quest, private or corporate, social or commercial.”
Ian Bogost on how the smartphone turned every place into any place. This is a good piece. It illustrates how digital media tends to offer freedom from certain constraints associated with time and space. This is offered to us in the name of flexibility and convenience, but, of course, there are costs.
I did, however, quibble with one element. Bogost writes, “Until the 20th century, one had to leave the house for almost anything: to work, to eat or shop, to entertain yourself, to see other people.” I think that a case could be made that the opposite is closer to the truth. Prior to industrialization, the home was the site of all manner of work, production, and entertainment. This point does not seem incidental. The pattern, it seems to me, goes like this: the home was a place of production, until we became chiefly consumers. Then we had to leave the home to consume. Now digital technology has just brought consumption into the home … or anywhere.
Nick Carr on the problem not of context collapse but of content collapse: “Many of the qualities of social media that make people uneasy stem from content collapse. First, by leveling everything, social media also trivializes everything — freed of barriers, information, like water, pools at the lowest possible level. A presidential candidate’s policy announcement is given equal weight to a snapshot of your niece’s hamster and a video of the latest Kardashian contouring.”
— If you’ve been reading my stuff for a long time, this paragraph may ring a bell. I’ve cited it a time or two over the years. It is taken from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence. In it Fermor recounts his stays at various monasteries during his travels throughout Europe and Turkey in the early 20th century. This is his description of his initial encounter with the rhythms and silence of the monastery. What has struck me in reading this is the notion that we are all carrying about a “tremendous accumulation of tiredness,” simply as a matter of living in the modern world. Naturally, I suspect that presently the situation has only been aggravated. Tiredness, exhaustion, burnout—these are our most characteristic states.
“The most remarkable preliminary symptoms were the variations of my need of sleep. After initial spells of insomnia, nightmare and falling asleep by day, I found that my capacity for sleep was becoming more and more remarkable: till the hours I spent in or on my bed vastly outnumbered the hours I spent awake; and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug. For two days, meals and the offices in the church — Mass, Vespers and Compline — were almost my only lucid moments. Then began an extraordinary transformation: this extreme lassitude dwindled to nothing; night shrank to five hours of light, dreamless and perfect sleep, followed by awakenings full of energy and limpid freshness. The explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movements and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away into some distant limbo and not only failed to emerge in the small hours as tormentors but appeared to have lost their dragonish validity.”
— Relatedly, in the last newsletter I passed along Jonathan Malesic’s more recent reflections on work and rest also grounded in monastic experience. Unfortunately, I failed to include a link, so here it is: “Taming the Demon.”
I’ve finally submitted a revised version of a talk I gave in November to the fine folks at The New Atlantis. After the excellent editors there whip it into shape, it should be out in their next issue. I’ll pass along a link when its available.
This past week, as some of you know, I sent out the first of what I’m calling Dispatches, shorter occasional reflections sent to paying subscribers. If you’re interested in receiving those and in joining the discussion through comments or if you’d just like to support this work, then consider subscribing. If not, please continue enjoying the newsletter guilt-free.
“Information ecology” is a term I heard recently to explain why “all information is disinformation” as you say. Game theory predicts its inexorable pollution in a presumed rivalry— players can profit from withholding truth or flatly misinforming, so the niche guarantees that behavior. And even true information can mislead if other contextual facts are not profitable enough to surface.
So I think you're right, our current environment precludes our ability to trust, which makes it impossible to make sense of our complex world. Kerby Ferguson has an interesting thesis on how conspiracy theories arose from this— from our irresistible urge to attribute the behaviors of our complex systems to human actors. Though a preponderance of information without a compass of trust can lead us in any direction.
In the Q&A portion of your recent talk in DC, you said you “don't despair, but only for theological reasons.” I wanted to point you to something I'm currently (warily) hopeful for: a growing interest in researching what a “post-game theoretic” society could look like: to create a cultural shift toward more coherence, to grow a healthy information ecology, to help us solve our complex problems. Its hypothetical shape, not to be overprescribed, is called Game~B, a new game to be planted into our current broken one, to win on its own terms, over generations. Just a heads-up on that, if pulling on that thread yields any fruits for your own research.
Michael, so good to hear your voice of lyrical logic in the cacophony of technological buzzing under cold fluorescent lights. It's a time of feeling human as hurting and alien, fragmented "in this world of stone." Teaching a class of 2nd graders today, I wanted to hit the computer enforced now between them and I, barrier to true emotionally intelligent teaching that I know they so desperately need to learn their own true hearts and mind. Something the machine can NEVER teach. I feel the touch of sanity within the warm humanity of your questioning voice in the "mad-ness" that is engendered in a formerly more grounded world. Thanks.