Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: information (page 1 of 1)

Reformation in the Church of Science — The New Atlantis:

Fake news is not a perversion of the information society but a logical outgrowth of it, a symptom of the decades-long devolution of the traditional authority for governing knowledge and communicating information. That authority has long been held by a small number of institutions. When that kind of monopoly is no longer possible, truth itself must become contested.

This is treacherous terrain. The urge to insist on the integrity of the old order is widespread: Truth is truth, lies are lies, and established authorities must see to it that nobody blurs the two. But we also know from history that what seemed to be stable regimes of truth may collapse, and be replaced. If that is what is happening now, then the challenge is to manage the transition, not to cling to the old order as it dissolves around us.

The authors don’t attempt to say how this transition should be managed, which is probably wise. Their point, and I fear that it’s quite correct, is that the transition is happening: What counts as scientific truth is now contested in many of the same ways that what counts as religious truth was contested in the Reformation period. 

Matt Yglesias:

A normal person can tell you lots of factual information about his life, his work, his neighborhood, and his hobbies but very little about the FDA clinical trial process or the moon landing. But do you know who knows a ton about the moon landing? Crazy people who think it’s fake. They don’t have crank opinions because they are misinformed, they have tons and tons of moon-related factual information because they’re cranks. If you can remember the number of the Kennedy administration executive order about reducing troop levels in Vietnam, then you’re probably a crank — that EO plays a big role in Kennedy-related conspiracy theories, so it’s conspiracy theorists who know all the details.

More generally, I think a lot of excessive worry about “misinformation” is driven by the erroneous belief that more factual information would resolve political disputes. Both David Neumark and Arin Dube know far more than you or I do about the empirical literature on minimum wage increases. Nonetheless, they disagree. It is simply a heavily contested question. Relative to Neumark, the typical progressive is wildly misinformed about this subject; relative to Dube, the typical conservative is wildly misinformed. And lots of political disputes have this quality — most people don’t know that much about it, but you can find super-informed people on both sides of the question. That’s why it’s a live debate.

The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.

Wendell Berry (2005)

on lost causes

There’s a scene early in Neal Stephenson’s new novel Fall: or, Dodge in Hell, in which a tech billionaire, sick of the way that misinformation spreads across the Internet like Western wildfires, decides to stage an intervention. He spends about a million bucks — he doesn’t need more — to create and distribute digital “evidence” of a tactical nuclear strike on the town of Moab, Utah. He hires actors, CGI experts, everything you need in order to fake a tragedy and make your creation go viral online. The idea is that once people see that completely made-up shit can utterly dominate the Internet, that there are no guard rails or boundaries to prevent that from happening, they will realize that they are continually being snookered and will grow a carapace of skepticism.

This is followed by a scene in which an master programmer creates highly advanced bots capable of relentlessly pushing petabytes of inconsistent and incoherent misinformation onto the internet, thus reinforcing the billionaire’s lesson on an unimaginably massive scale. The ENSU project starts by spewing its misinformation about one woman, who cheerfully cooperates:

If everything went according to plan, the Ethical Network Sabotage Undertaking would now issue a press release announcing its existence and explaining what it was doing. It would include a signed statement, as well as a video clip, from Maeve Braden, announcing that she was completely fine with all of this. Also included were links to servers where all of the code was available in the form of a carefully documented open-source code package, complete with sample projects that programmers could use to modify and extend it in various ways. Following up on an idea that had emerged during the conversation on the jet, ENSU also made public a list of several hundred completely imaginary, nonexistent people against whom campaigns of reckless slander and defamation could now be unleashed, as well as an easy-to-use tool that anyone could exploit to create new such fake persons and reasonably convincing social media shaming campaigns that would make those fake persons the object of real, genuine, sincere obloquy on the part of millions of social media users who were dumb enough to believe everything that scrolled across their screens.

You know the old Justice Brandeis line that the remedy for malicious and deceitful speech is more speech? A version of that is what’s happening here: the remedy for malicious and deceitful memes is more memes. So much malice and deceit and that people will give up believing any of it. Brilliant.

Now fast-forward fifteen years or so:

The Utah state legislature had been taken over by Moab truthers who insisted that Moab had been obliterated by nuclear terrorism twelve years ago. From which it followed that anyone claiming to actually live there was a troll, a crisis actor in the pay of, or a sad dupe in thrall to, global conspirators trying to foist a monstrous denial of the truth on decent folk.

In short, nothing changed. People kept believing whatever they saw online that they wanted to believe. They could actually go to Moab and see that it had not been damaged and was not radiation-riddled, but they didn’t.

Some elements of Stephenson’s anticipated future seem unlikely to me, but not this. This seems not just plausible but highly probable. (Cf. Alex Jones and Sandy Hook.)

Nobody is beyond hope. This is an article of faith for me. But if at this stage of the game, given what we know about how social media work and about the incentives of the people who make TV, you’re still getting your dopamine rush by recycling TV-news clips and shouting at people on the Internet, you’re about as close to beyond hope as a human being gets. There is no point talking to you, trying to reason with you, giving you facts and the sources of those facts. You have made yourself invulnerable to reason and evidence. You’re a Moab truther in the making. So, though I do not in theory write anyone off, in practice I do. It’s time to give you up as a lost cause and start figuring out how to prevent the next generation from becoming like you.

the tools to survive

I’m an edge case. I want an untangled web. I want everything I do to copy back to a single place, so I have one searchable log for each day’s thoughts, images, notes and activities. This is apparently Weird and Hermetic if not Hermitic.

I am building my monastery walls in preparation for the Collapse and the Dark Ages, damnit. Stop enabling networked lightbulbs and give me the tools to survive your zombie planet.

Warren Ellis. I think about this All. The. Time.

No deus ex machina waits in the wings; no man behind the curtain. We have no Maxwell’s demon to help us filter and search. “We want the Demon, you see,” wrote Stanislaw Lem, “to extract from the dance of atoms only information that is genuine, like mathematical theorems, fashion magazines, blueprints, historical chronicles, or a recipe for ion crumpets, or how to clean and iron a suit of asbestos, and poetry too, and scientific advice, and almanacs, and calendars, and secret documents, and everything that ever appeared in any newspaper in the Universe, and telephone books of the future.” As ever, it is the choice that informs us (in the original sense of that word). Selecting the genuine takes work; then forgetting takes even more work. This is the curse of omniscience: the answer to any question may arrive at the fingertips — via Google or Wikipedia or IMDb or YouTube or Epicurious or the National DNA Database or any of their natural heirs and successors — and still we wonder what we know.

— James Gleick, The Information