The Disinformation Age

When I was a child in the seventies, asking questions regarding what our future world would be like were some of the most stimulating exercises. The potential impact of technological progress was crystal-clear in those days – we had been to the moon, after all. I recall more than one magazine calling for the more fanciful among us to send in drawings of what life would look like, and an inevitable focal point for this was the magical sounding ‘year 2000’. Most of my generation’s dreams regarded flying cars, trips to Mars, lazy living, and the like. As 2000 drew near – and our fantasies remained just that – it was referred to in another, quite specific, manner which encapsulated perfectly the essence of the age we were entering. Because as people started referring to ‘Y2K,’ it was not in a neutral sense, but to mark a cloud which had been hanging over our heads the whole time but that we had not been ready to perceive. Now the disaster certain experts predicted then did not come to pass – no massive system breakdowns, factories, or entire cities coming to a standstill. Nonetheless, because of that demonstration of how our dependency on technology had almost imperceptibly developed, it was impossible not to realize we had entered into another stage, the information age.

To how pertinent the term itself, despite the age’s initial semblance, has proven, I intend to dedicate this essay. ‘The computation age’ may have seemed more suitable to me as a descriptor, as it so clearly renders the powerful simplicity of how automated computation can enhance what we have done for thousands of years. We only need to act, or think, once and the computer multiplies the effect. The computer has demonstrated its value in science first, and then in productive enterprises. Much more recently, with the introduction of the internet, it has transformed our communication-dependent activities as well, starting with commerce and services generally, and finally impacting social interaction, too. The dimension which has most recently been particularly impacted by the information revolution, as has become urgently apparent, is politics. And another symbolic annum has ominously come to denote, more than ever, our worries regarding the age we have slipped into. Long after Orwell we are becoming aware of the unexpected ways in which novel tools threaten to change the modes and the extent of control we have over political decision-making. Is it all simply culminating in 1984?

It is by no means the first time a new medium, a new means of communication, has transformed – or at least contributed to the transformation of – politics. We can talk about how JFK made Nixon look bad on TV, introducing a new ingredient in determining electoral choices. Now, clearly, that event has not been inscribed on the hard disk of our memory as a fateful event in modern political history – for the simple reason that we remember Nixon for Watergate and JFK for a tragically interrupted yet presumed potential. Someone else, still, could extrapolate from that particular moment and argue it was a preview of how the preponderant value of the visual was going to dominate many (more) of the choices we resolve – both minor and vital – in our lives today, the narcissistic selfie-age. But this was not my first thought, anyway. The introduction of the radio probably had more impact to begin with, alongside its visual contemporary of cinema.

There can be little dispute about the massive help radio and cinematography gave to the populist movements in the last century, primarily fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany. While the immediacy and the relative impact of ‘witnessing events’, as if personally, surely were important factors, there were aspects of these new media which thwarted the way society was organized per se. When we talk about the effectiveness of the theatre, we often refer to the concept of ‘suspension of disbelief’, as coined  200 years ago by Coleridge. Inasmuch as new media present to us an alternative means of consuming reality – that is, not as witnessed by you personally – this concept deriving from the dramatic arts is proving more than just relevant these days. ‘Fake’ – ‘real’ – ‘virtual’- each one of these describes the relation we may have with reality. 3,000 years ago, all information regarding events we hadn’t witnessed ourselves would have reached us by word of mouth. Then, as writing was invented and applied, another means became available, supposedly more dependable, as it left physical traces and was controllable. What was written, we refer to today as information, or rather as data in the present age. It is perhaps easy to overlook, that there were specific people – a particular class, if you want – that had this then-unique skill. To be a scribe among the ancient Sumerians or Egyptians meant you had a vital role vis-à-vis the king or the pharaoh, whether it regarded fiscal bookkeeping or veneration of the powers that were. Compare this to the veneration we tend to feel towards the ancient Greeks and Romans; had it ‘only’ been for the statues and architecture they have left for us, our feelings would not have had the depth they do now – if their thoughts on politics, on man, on life, on love had not been so eloquently communicated to us. Communicated to us through the Arabic scribes, for that matter, because those in Europe had different concerns in the Middle Ages.

If we refer to that period as the Dark Ages, it certainly is for the lack of those elements in their culture relative to that of the prior Age. Our Medieval, European scribes were not accountants, (with few exceptions) not assistants of the king, not politicians, poets, or scientists. They were clergy. Ministers of the Church of Rome. In the division of classes – which they themselves, of course, devised – they played one of three available roles. They did not fight, they did not toil, so they were the class that prayed – and wrote. We can refuse to take their word for it, but that also means disregarding the fact that it was others who did their fighting and others who did their toiling. While Roman (Ciceronian) thinking had been based on combining these roles, Christian society prescribed a particular specialization which although not eternal – as they would have described it themselves – was self-perpetuating, nevertheless. The fighting, aristocratic, class was born as such, after all, as was the great mass of laborers. Then the clergy selected their newly acquired brothers and sisters as it saw fit from either. Their role was intellectual, they gave society its ideas, purpose, (lack of) dreams and ambitions; the clergy prepared the narrative. Naturally, they were only able to perform this role, because the other classes permitted such, by abiding by their narrative.

The medieval order was challenged by a number of developments. The growth of cities and city-states, attributing citizen’s rights to its dwellers, allowing economic activities different from the desperate work in agriculture, and even the creation of an alternative microcosmos, which provided a tangible alternative to the divine order effective outside the walls. Another change threatening the arrangement sanctioned by the Church was the rediscovery of the arts as an illustration to life, not death. It is what we call the Renaissance, the rebirth of a classical perspective. Ironically, this new approach to the arts was sponsored not only by merchants and other successful representatives of city life as it was developing in Italy and other urbanizing regions such as Flanders, but most notably by the Popes in Rome. The single invention, however, which probably was most influential in bringing about the changes leading Europe away from the darkness was the printing press. Interestingly, a similar invention in China did not threaten the power of the Mandarins; in Europe, however, it was to overhaul the entire power structure.

Until that time, the written word had been jealously guarded by the clergy. We cannot assume that reading skills were limited to the servants of the Church, but writing was. The Church had full control of the production of written text, not in the sense that they were the only ones permitted to do so by the class of the sword, but in the very practical and banal sense of being the only class being able to afford the time to copy manuscripts. We all know how little a paperback costs now, in terms of the time we have to work to be able to afford it. Imagine the cost of a manually copied, carefully selected and sanctioned, manuscript. This is where the printing press carried a revolutionary potential, because – if only there were people interested to buy – the cost of reproducing any text dropped dramatically. And, of course, at that very historical stage (around 1440) there was a newly developing class of citizens,  interested, wealthy, and literate  enough to purchase.

Ironically, as we are describing the printing press as a vehicle of change, it was very much religion which was the vehicle instigating  it. Because the Reformation was never intended as a renewal of Christianity. It pretended to return to the Scriptures, and to do away with such novelties as the Church of Rome had been engaging in (including Renaissance art). A requisite of the intended audience of this religious pitch was not only reading skills – because those had been increasingly available – but also availability of the holy texts in the vernacular. Latin had been fine for the clergy. Now, as a less indirect and mediated communion with God was promoted, the printing of the Bible in local, and live, languages was to bring the flock closer to Him. Of course, we all know it did not work out that way. Once we start questioning accepted truth, it proves impossible to return to a uniform order – the many ‘undetected’ assumptions we share with everyone may be hard to shatter, but once they are, quite impossible to mend.

Naturally, printing was not limited to various versions of the Bible. Not even to books, as the advent of the (political) pamphlet foreshadowed the creation of what we still refer to as the newspaper, which became a factor in political information and organization from the 17th century. While the authority of the clergy had been challenged first, the sword-bearing class became the next target; the class of people formerly doomed to toil and maintain clergy and aristocracy was starting to acquire the skills and the will to challenge the hierarchy which had not been challenged for close to a thousand years . To be clear the ‘masses’ were still – and would be for several more centuries – preoccupied with their battle for subsistence and salvation. That is why we can refer to this phase as the birth of the middle class, a group of people neither as poor and unskilled as the day laborers, nor as privileged as the aristocracy, but possessing enough property and rights to be afraid to lose it all. And increasingly able financially to bear the costs of informing and of being informed.

As countries in Europe transformed, socio-economically, culturally, along these lines, the ancien régime was replaced by more civic and secular models of governance. At the same time, we typically project those developments against what we commonly regard as their culmination point, the institution of modern democracy and, more specifically, the introduction of universal suffrage. In the West the latter came about around a hundred years ago, shortly before populist, totalitarian movements took the West by storm. We can look at this from the point of view of strict political philosophy – without which, doubtlessly, things would not have gone as they have. But that does not fully explain how such profound transformations came about – in particular, what conditions had to be met to permit them. In classical terms, the farmer/citizen/soldier united all functions seen as vital for the political health of society in all (qualified) persons. But economically, the transforming societal developments we have referred to were only at the bare start in the early modern age. The development of cities requires some rudimentary specialization – the division of tasks, arguably inherent in the invention of agriculture itself, over the course of many centuries culminating in the physical separation of the production of food, outside the city, and all tasks which are favored by a higher population density inside it. But the division of labor, which is one of the distinguishing characteristics of modern society, took off in earnest only with the Industrial Revolution, in Great Britain in the 18th century when the Western world was already preparing for the next couple of revolutions, mainly the one in America and the one in France.

This process resulted not only in the creation of a smorgasbord of professions and jobs, but also in the developments of institutions that many of us perceive as the (non-governmental) pillars on which society rests. One example is the press, which I have hinted at in the preceding, but others include academia , or the many sectorial organizations uniting professionals in bodies serving the individual members to make their case vis-à-vis other entities, such as the Chamber of Commerce, or even the Royal Society. Many of these had their origins in the Medieval order, sure enough, basing themselves on clerical education, on the medieval guilds, or at least royal blessing. But it is rather tempting to compare these organizations to the manner in which the nobility organized itself to counter the omnipotence of the monarchy, as occurred with Magna Carta, or during the foundation of the Dutch Republic. In any event, this development was an expression of an emerging division of powers, the medieval hierarchy ceding space to civil organizations. What also changed over the course of these centuries – because that is the relevant measure of time – was the hierarchy of knowledge and the information such was built upon. In 1633 Galileo Galilei was forced to defend his heretical challenges to mainstream opinion before a clerical tribunal, insisting that the Earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around.

The easiest option would be to dismiss some of the current phenomena as having the same importance as a fickle shower or other unwelcome meteorological phenomena. The fulminations against fake news and treacherous media, no-vax, gilet jaunes, anti-globalism, the anti-industrial – a defining, unifying characteristic may be not so much the populism the opposing forces recognize in many of current (a-)political developments, but the fact that many of these diffuse movements pride themselves on their ‘anti-elitism’. So, anyone belonging  to – or, in newspeak, identifying as – any ‘elite’ may want to ask themselves in what sense they are being challenged. This is where matters become more complicated. Passing from extrospection to introspection means crossing a big barrier in any event. If we look at the two-fold meaning of the term authority, however, we may get to the beginning of an answer.

Authority, after all, refers not only to the investiture with power, but also to the level of credence we are accustomed to give an individual or group of individuals. At times, this is purely a reflection of the value we attribute to years of study, to someone’s curriculum, or even to the persuasiveness with which one makes his case. It does not demand too much from our imagination to understand how both aspects went together during most of history. Information – including both knowledge and narrative – was a means for whomever exercised power over a group of people. Today, power has become a contaminated term, while emancipation – the unshackling of people – has come to represent so much of what we hope to realize for the future as well as what we appreciate about the past. But perhaps there is so much unspoken assumption in either of these sweeping terms that it prevents us from distinguishing between knowledge on the one hand, and narrative on the other, between power and organization, or even between function, in society, and business model.

Now it seems these distinct aspects have been blending in a manner which puts at risk more than individual careers and single institutions. Take academia, specifically in the United States, and you can observe how it has become less a place of learning, and more a political battleground. This can be seen in the way its members are on the forefront of certain ideological agendas, but also in how it has become a means of saddling young people with huge loads of debt because, ironically, it has become public policy to send as many to college as possible. Both are examples of emancipation gone awry, of narrative expanding its role so much that it has begun to constrain knowledge. Certainly, there is a business model promoted in the process, if only that of admissions offices and credit providers, but the prospects for many graduates seem worsening, veering towards enslavement. Even the ‘pure’ sciences have fallen within the scope of politics. I may as well have written ‘grasp’, but it is not clear who is controlling whom, is it?

Partly, this is a self-propelled process. The world is demonstrably safer to live in, today, but that is the result of our increasing capacity to identify risks. And as the sciences rush to provide us with better methods of eliminating those – and with the level of complexity of a technologically developing and shrinking world – experts are recruited to formulate policy. This mechanism is in place in the field of product-approval, as it is in epidemiological and other matters regarding (public) healthcare, such as vaccination programs. Another issue which would not have existed if it had not been for the role scientists in the relevant field have carved out for themselves, is that of climate change. Again, this swapping of roles involves a transformation of the business model as well, as it pulls the sciences, the business of knowing, into the realm of the normative, the ideological narrative sustaining policy, also because public funding sustains these activities. Who pays, decides.

I saved for last the most obvious institutional pillar of Western society which is being shaken up violently: the press. So much has already been said about the impact of the internet and especially social media on the transmission of information in the field of news. But as the call from almost all corners of the political playing field for governmental control of online platforms is intensifying, I have not read an interpretation from a historical perspective, nor one which properly identifies the relevance of populism within that framework. I certainly do not pretend to have solutions at hand for the issues many of us are worried about concerning the totalitarian hints springing up throughout the political landscape these days. However, without understanding certain preconditions fomenting these changes, we can only stand by and watch. So untangling the various aspects of the clichés about social media, populism, and fake news we throw around these days, is an absolute minimum.

To start off with the most concrete transformation in the field of media, we would be wise to acknowledge that the threats more traditional news media face are first of all economic in nature. Whereas at the initial stages of the internet boom, the hunt for content was the main point of focus for all businesses developing their virtual presence, by now content has become the cheapest, most disposable element in the equation. And while in the entertainment sector, the battle against illegal downloading has had its effect, social media have opened the floodgates to not a single, but a whole series of genres of virtual postings which may not be journalistic in substance or intent, but by sheer multiplicative effect have started to compete with what we customarily call the press, now also pejoratively referred to as ‘mainstream media’. What we easily conflate as a single phenomenon, really is a variety of unprecedented conditions deriving from the application of individually targeted information-distribution through the internet.

Yes, we have all become (potential) publishers of information – newsworthy, political, socially engaged, revolutionary, interesting, or not – but at the same time all the transmitting we do is interesting politically only because it renders us identifiable as a target to powerful players on the world wide web. To continue to distinguish between actors and factors: we may be targeted by big business or by big brother, foreign or domestic. A substantial rift still exists between the American and the European ways of assessing their respective threats – as the American constitution is primarily a safeguard against government intrusion and in the European perspective, protection is generally understood as something the government offers against private parties – which makes cross-Atlantic discussions sometimes a minefield of misunderstandings. In the matter of the perceived threat from the information tech-giants, however, both sides seem to be approaching each other. What the exact threat is that lawmakers everywhere purport to want to address, is really a combination of quite different, even if all worrying, ramifications of actions taken by entities bigger than us, the individual users. But is a coordinated campaign by a foreign state, with the aid of thousands of bots, aimed at influencing democratic decision-making really the same as a tech- or other company collecting information about you for the purpose of proposing products or services in which you might be interested? Or as a scientific institution creating psychological profiles of persons logging in to web-platforms? Clearly, in criminal law, nobody would confound the respective intents and actors. Our unease may be similar in all cases, because the means used are new, virtual, and impossible to perceive by the eye. In the case of Cambridge Analytica, we saw how a collection of actors – some of them more unwittingly than others – conspired to make optimal use of us, mere users. And yet most of the attention, and prosecutorial promises, have subsequently been accorded to Facebook, the technological facilitator.

The same technological facilitator has fallen prey to massive criticism regarding its more recently assumed role as an arbitrator. That was not the activity it had chosen, of course, but what do you do if your platform is used for activities you had never planned for? Or if certain reactions follow those activities? Other IT service providers and platforms have been confronted with similar issues, but none more than Facebook regarding its technical facilitation of unwanted elements of expression such as hate speech, fake profiles, and fake news. Some tech companies have been more proactive in acting upon complaints than others, but whenever they do, the accusation of ‘censorship’ is never too far around the corner. This leaves IT businesses open to attack from either side of any issue. The political momentum building up as a consequence – across the aisle, because these businesses are ‘too powerful’ or simply ‘too big’ – is that some sort of political control over these companies is justified. At the same time, Google’s rumored plans for China are vehemently criticized for – intending – to provide the same type of tool to the Chinese government.

What is it that governments want to exert control over so much? In the past pages I tried to describe how a change in the ‘distribution of information’ historically accompanied profound (socio-)political changes. I believe the current revival of populism cannot be understood separately from the way the internet is revolutionizing the distribution of ideas. From one standpoint this change can objectively be seen as an instance of emancipation, where ‘unofficial’, non-institutional, or even whistleblowers’ information can be published without being censored by the powerful trying to protect their position. The traditional news media find themselves in a serious bind in this respect, because the proliferation of information in this way has also reduced their sales and traditional sources of income. It is also inevitable that pushing ‘alternative’ content, contrasting oneself with traditional, ‘mainstream’, media reinforces the idea that whatever it is one is publishing from his garage or attic must somehow be ‘intrinsically’ more reliable and true. This is the same type of logic which fuels conspiracy theories, as some weird new theory one is trying to introduce must necessarily have been hidden by those in control of power and their messengers. The fact that news media, almost without exception, also show political bias in their reporting can only reinforce this division of roles between ‘institutional’ and ‘revolutionary’. Unfortunately, journalism also requires real skills, including: the gathering of information, checking of sources, corroboration of hypotheses, or even the presentation of facts in such a manner that the reader can weigh the evidence himself. It goes without saying that many professional journalists may not possess all of these, but to conclude that ‘therefore’ we may as well have the important task of selecting and presenting news carried out by unidentified amateurs is not so rational, perhaps, though there are impressive examples of open-source investigations conducted by ‘amateurs’ through platforms such as Bellingcat. To return to the ambiguous meaning of authority: it may be wise not to take anyone’s word for anything just because they are the boss, but this does not mean trusting anyone who is not will take us closer to home.

So many more thoughts and angles can be added to the subject. One is the fact that search engines, whether those of social media or others, need to attract attention in the midst of the proliferating quantity of information, for which they use click-baiting, and that – to ensure the greatest possible customer satisfaction – they will tweak  their algorithms in such a way as to find the exact content you were looking for, ideally avoid contrasting suggestions, and overall confirm your bias, and keep your information bubble intact. The introduction of revolutionary technology is bound to create unease as we are forced to alter long-consolidated habits.

What I see as the real threat is what kind of response we  might choose to deal with phenomena we are not familiar with. Is the continued, world-wide establishment of democratic rule not the main pillar of our most widely held political beliefs? So what are we afraid of? One man, one vote, one account? The real peril for the coming period is that, as people have gotten a taste of the great impact of the information revolution, they have come to associate it with the exercise of governing power. As a result, what ought to be a step towards complete freedom of information might instead be subject to the worst controlling instincts of any and all factions wanting to impose their vision for the future on the rest of us. It should make us wonder how much totalitarianism is in the soup already, if this is the way even the more liberal-minded of us propose to save the rule of fair laws. Certainly, the fact that there are (foreign) state actors taking advantage of this new mode of generating and distributing information does not help to counter this tendency to look for legislative solutions for issues which concern our liberty to think freely and express ourselves. But if we understand anything at all about populism, it is that it revolves far less around the will of the people – conceding that the “will of the people” can be even more dictatorial and oppressive as that of any single member of it – and far more around the abusive desires of a particular individual who craves power and is good at manipulating the lower common denominators.

So much of today’s political activism culminates in sloganism and calls to ‘take action’. But what if the only true hope for improvement lies in recognizing that knowledge is one thing, narrative another, and that the exercise of political power over the distribution of information, even if motivated as an attempt to get the populist genie back in the bottle, ultimately can do nothing but mark the defeat of our belief in the emancipatory role of free thought? The ball, I believe, is once again in the middle class’s court. Maybe for the dignity of your profession, maybe for the value you attribute to your vocation, but most of all because you have learned enough to know the nature of liberty and it is far too enjoyable to risk losing it all.

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