Living in a post-truth era

In attempting to define the sort of capitalist economies that grew after the industrial revolution, and especially in the post-post-WWII era, the idea of an information economy arose.  The 1980s and 1990s saw enormous gains in productivity from computerization, and there arose a need to understand what was going on.  How could the United States, which was declining as a manufacturer, have a growing economy?  And what does that mean, in today’s world, where terms like fake news are not just topical, but ubiquitous, and cover up the fact that essentially there is a whole disinformation economy, and it is flourishing.

People are always talking ya about truth. Everybody always knows what the truth is, like it was toilet paper or somethin’, and they got a supply in the closet. But what you learn, as you get older, is there ain’t no truth. All there is is bullshit, pardon my vulgarity here. Layers of it. One layer of bullshit on top of another. And what you do in life like when you get older is, you pick the layer of bullshit that you prefer and that’s your bullshit, so to speak.

-Hero, 1992

To better understand I think you have to go back, back before the industrial revolution.  Most economies were highly localized, with some non-essentials and luxury goods being exchanged long-range, but most economies are still operating on a variant of the palace economy, where the hinterlands of growing cities were places where large amounts of agricultural goods are exchanged with some finished and worked goods, but in general, most people are still engaged in agricultural pursuits, with a thin layer of cream (or scum) floating on top, living off the excess, and being either merchants or nobility or some skilled tradesman.

The industrial revolution rolls around, and specialization goes into overdrive.  The cost of shipping goods plummets, and labor is essentially de-skilled, where instead of a skilled craftsman who learns to make things (like pins) you separate the process of making a pin into a dozen, barely skilled, and easily replaceable jobs.  So one man pounds the heads of pins all day, another sharpens the tip, and each of these jobs can be trained quickly.  Ultimately it’s more efficient, but it also turns labor into a commodity, in the sense that it’s fungible and replaceable.  People are forced to work in dangerous, unsanitary conditions, because if they won’t, someone else will, or they will all starve.

World War II rolls around, and one of the major ways the US actually participates is by producing huge quantities of stuff.  Trucks, for example, were phenomenally important to the war effort.  The battle of the bulge is great, but the trucks we gave to the Soviet Union had far more impact than D-Day on the war against the Axis.  They enabled the Soviets to move men and equipment and fight the Nazis for years while the US quietly built crap.

The war ends, and most of the developed nations are in ruins.  Infrastructure in tatters, millions dead everywhere, unexploded munitions and mines, trade severely disrupted, wounded to be cared for.  The United States, virtually untouched, shelled by a Japanese boat and hit by a single explosive balloon, is in a prime position to expand dramatically as an industrial power, and through the lend-lease program essentially becomes the “leader of the free world” in the sense that the US is well primed to build a massive export economy because US factories are not all destroyed and the workforce is not half dead or maimed or in mourning.  There’s also the massive investment in intellectual capital that comes about through the GI Bill.  All this turns the US economy into a juggernaut for about a generation, while Japan tools up to out industrialize and out-export the US, which they do.

The 1980s see a rise of sino-panic and fear that Japan will take over the world and buy up the US, and meanwhile the completely paper tiger that is a highly leveraged country with massive demographic problems essentially collapses and faces 30 years of minuscule growth due to an overleveraged economy, xenophobic and racist policies, and a work ethic that can at best be described as “demoralizing”.

Meanwhile, computers show up everywhere, and the ability to use word processors and spreadsheets dramatically explodes the ability of people to be productive at work.  Foolishly the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency comes up with the ARPANET, the precursor to the internet, which may well be the end of humanity and is almost certainly the sorcerer’s apprentice.

Bill Gates was once questioned about what would happen on the internet if you didn’t tell the truth, and he said oh people won’t trust bad sources.  Like a lot of things he was wrong about, and continues to be wrong about, ol’ Bill seemed to have massively underestimated people’s desire to get accurate “truthful” information.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

It’s a bit puzzling since people have been wilfully believing absurd things for years and years, essentially throughout recorded history.  Even if you are a religious person, you have to acknowledge, that the vast majority of humanity, for most of history, have been believing things that are at odds with your “truth”, i.e. false truths, for almost all of time.  So why would people think that the truth would suddenly become of paramount importance when people have been happily believing things that are absurd for rather quite a long time?

What’s troubling today is the power of lies.  Part of what drove the protests about the Vietnam war was the vivid, graphic photos that journalists were allowed to take, showing the victims of napalm and agent orange, the actual damage done by war.  In a sense, the truth of that war was exposed.  Fast forward 40 years and the US military has become extremely adroit at embedding reporters into units and making them see and report “clean” “surgical” strikes, with limited civilian casualties and none of the “innocent victims” that were portrayed that helped drive a generation to protest.  Part of the result of this is that the United States has been in a war for almost 20 years now.  People have been born since the attack on 9/11, turned 18 and joined the military, and gone off to fight in that war.

Meanwhile in the last half a decade there have been tremendous advances in deep learning, algorithmic processes that are pseudo-intelligent.  These processes, able to utilize statistical information derived from enormous data sets essentially manipulate users of social media into staying hooked on forever, simply by using a-b testing and highly correlated behavior.  Imagine if you filled out a huge amount of survey questions, and then turned your tv on at night, and the tv kept track of what you did.  And what everyone else did.  Do you turn the channel?  Do you turn up the volume, turn down the volume, order more channels, pop in a blu-ray, order a pizza?  What if the TV wanted you to keep watching, all night long?  What if the tv had virtually every show and movie ever created in it’s library, and simply curated that content for you.  When you kept watching it recorded that.  When you changed the channel or turned off the tv it recorded that and didn’t want that to happen again, so it changed what shows you saw.

That is the nature of social media.  What is going to make it so much worse is that right now most of the algorithms are simply curating content, and trying to put intriguing or infuriating content on top, knowing that is what makes us click, keep clicking, clicking through.  But “deepfakes” are starting to arrive.  Processes through which these algorithms will start creating content.  And much like their content curation, this deepfake content will only have one goal: to keep people clicking, joining, obsessively checking in and checking out.  What’s particularly dangerous about synthetic content is that it will almost certainly be tailored to our worst impulses, just as much of today’s terrible headlines, clickbait, and other automatic curation tools are.  The verisimilitude of this content is astonishing.  The site  will generate a made-up photo of a seemingly real person each time you hit refresh.  I’ve hit F5, and only once did I question the image, because the person looked as though they were sort of wearing glasses and sort of not.  If you had no reason to question the image, you wouldn’t.  It’s well out of the uncanny valley and up onto the mountain of truth.  And this is only going to get worse, and more intense.

There’s obviously an immense appetite for content that caters to our worst impulses, that confirms our fears or our hatreds, and that paints those we disagree with in the worst light.  The rise of cable news has been driven largely by propaganda stations, which relentlessly lie and slander and hide behind “journalism” and other techniques to narrowly slide inside the protections of the law.  AM talk radio and a sense of grievance have left many demanding an explanation, and the explosion of laughable conspiracy theories such as flat-earthers and Q-anon should be huge red flags for what’s coming.  Because if people will believe truly ludicrous alternative explanations with flimsy or no evidence, how susceptible will they be when there is extremely good, persuasive, true seeming evidence?

Amusingly Bill’s idea about the internet may come to pass: if social media companies are willing, some of the tidal wave of nonsense and completely made up information could be stopped, simply by requiring some threshold of an organization to be passed for that information, or site, or article, to be shared.   Already sites like Twitter and Facebook have been in place blocks, that automatically stall content when it starts to “go viral”.  Unfortunately, without concerted government action, it’s unlikely the social media giants will limit their own profits on their own recognizance.  Limiting exactly the type of clickbait content that should go away will also eliminate the source of their ad revenue, as if only boring stodgy “true” content, to some level of truth, is allowed, people will be less likely to click and click endlessly.  Otherwise, we may end up in a further even more stratified society, where there are those who can afford the truth and those who are impoverished by their need to reject it.

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