OPINION

From Amplification to Celebration: A Brief History of Tech-Enabled Ignorance

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Growing up, I don’t recall the words “disinformation” and “misinformation” being in common usage.  While deception has been with us since the Garden of Eden, it took the advance of information technology to fully weaponize it.  Yes, we had “modified limited hangouts”, misdirection and conspiracy theories, but by modern standards these were clumsy and easily seen through.  Moreover, they were typically applied to limited ends; on the theater of political and cultural warfare, they were tactical, not strategic, weapons.

The advent of the internet, smartphones and social media changed all of that.  The ability to traffic in falsehoods is no longer limited to one’s own circle, or to media outlets which once had an incentive to moderate fallacious and disprovable content, and malefactors can now flood the zone with a narrative before any counterattack (the martial metaphors are purposeful) can be mounted.  Moreover, we currently inhabit what in the future may be more clearly seen as a transitional period in media and information, where traditional outlets (sometimes referred to as “mainstream media”) still command a measure of legitimacy as curators of content, notwithstanding their myriad failures and declining trust from readers.  Technology’s speed and pervasive reach in transmitting information, as laundered and validated through traditional media, creates an echo chamber for disinformation.

Of course, technological advancements do not occur within a vacuum.  The information revolution in the West coincided with a period of declining standards, postmodernism, and the transmogrification of unexamined religious fervor from established faith traditions to secular causes.  The larger reasons for, and implications of, these developments are beyond the scope of this essay.  In the realm of information, however, the rise of relativism, the increased conviction among various groups that worthy ends justify any means employed, and the loss of a sense of shame for questionable acts have generally lowered the guardrails that had previously inhibited the intentional or careless propagation of falsehoods, pseudo-science and general stupidity.  While ignorance has always been with us, technology has amplified both its volume and reach.

Any advance in weaponry will typically be met with an attempt to defend against it, or at least mitigate its impact.  Throughout human history, particularly following the Age of Enlightenment, ignorance and untruth have done battle with empiricism, rational inquiry, and the scientific method, and cultures having these tools available – and prepared to use them – have dispelled what might today be called “disinformation”, and contributed mightily to human progress.  That the freedoms most of humankind enjoy today were first advanced in those places where these tools were most thoroughly employed is no accident, nor is it coincidental that regions with an early lead in their use – including China and the Islamic Middle East – stagnated as they later turned their backs on them.

Today, the use of “content moderation” on platforms like Twitter squelches free inquiry, which underpins any healthy society’s defenses against ignorance and disinformation.  Under the cloak of “safety”, “equity” and “protecting marginalized voices” – none of which are threatened by a truly free speech platform – data and viewpoints that challenge protected, inductive narratives have been suppressed.  Deceit unchecked by transparency converts a tactical weapon into a strategic cudgel to be wielded without challenge.

Relativism, lower standards, a culture without shame, and proto-religious belief in the “current thing” (whatever that thing may be) may all explain why disinformation flourishes as amplified by technology.  But why is ignorance so readily celebrated?  Are those eager to proliferate or at least tolerate disinformation so bereft of critical thinking skills after the cashiering of the Western canon they know not what they do, or do they cynically compartmentalize what they permit to appear (and thrive) on social and traditional media from what they truly believe, akin to permitting dysfunction to prevail in the D.C. public schools and denying school choice to poor parents while sending one’s own children to Sidwell Friends? 

Perhaps bumper stickers placed on the back of cars can provide a useful clue.  Long before the information revolution, during the age of the ARPANET, bumper stickers were (and even now remain) an easy way to virtue signal in a low-information world – today, they might read “I’m With Her”, “Bernie 2020”, or, if you prefer, “Make America Great Again”.  Bumper stickers are a one-way communication tool requiring limited bandwidth, and allow the sender to stake a position – whether held in good faith or otherwise – without challenge.  In the pre-internet era, no one looked to bumper stickers for information or wisdom; the messages so conveyed were understood to be of limited value and only tribal significance.

Social media, and Twitter in particular with its per-post character limitations, transmit information in a manner not dissimilar from that of a bumper sticker – short, relatively simple statements.  The difference is such statements boomerang with the aid of technology, and can create an echo-chamber when left unchallenged.  In an era in which screen-based technology has been demonstrated to have shortened attention spans, simplicity, repetition, and the suppression of opposing viewpoints all transmute what in an earlier era might have been harmless statements of belief or affiliation into propaganda.

In the information age, tech-enabled ignorance can advance narratives even more effectively than can veracity.  Generations raised to believe legitimate narratives are rooted in deductive reasoning and the good-faith pursuit of objective truth, and with an instinctive impulse to challenge authority, may fare better in seeing through disinformation; those taught that objective standards and truths don’t exist but are rather the product of systemic bias (or risk frustrating realization of the current thing) are less likely to do so. 

In “How the Irish Saved Civilization”, Thomas Cahill argued that Irish monks and scribes played a critical role in preserving Western Civilization during the Dark Ages, when Europe had been overrun by barbarians.  May preservation of Enlightenment values not require a comparable thousand-year twilight struggle.

Richard J. Shinder is the founder and managing partner of Theatine Partners, a financial consultancy.

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