A Post-Truth Information Economy

“In regione caecorum rex est luscus.”
– Erasmus
(“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”)

        Our arrival at a state of affairs that we can characterise as a “post-truth information economy” is sufficiently ambiguous and ill-defined as to appear to encompass a self-reflexive, self-generating truth.  When the value and veracity of public statements may be attributed based upon charisma, influence or fame as much as (or instead of) on intelligence, insight and fact, fundamental uncertainty and ill-informed opinion will seize center-stage in the public eye and shared consciouness.  This is not merely representative of an enormous failure of mass education (reference: read the comments threads of any contemporary political or climate-change related post on social media), nor is this necessarily a failure of intelligence – the average conspiracy theorist devotes considerable intellectual creativity to fabricating their complex paranoiac fantasies.  Based on the fact that access to incomplete or otherwise limited information is the staple diet of even competent policy-makers we can observe that good minds make bad decisions regularly enough, poor minds make bad decisions more often but are generally gifted in the dark art of deceptive and shameless retrospective denial.  The broader audience for all of this semantically ambiguous fact/fiction hybrid media and (predominantly) digital content is a voting public who themselves are expected to make reasonable, rational political decisions based upon what is very often incomplete and ideologically-biased data without themselves possessing the rhetorical or analytical skills to be able to successfully distinguish fact from falsehood.

        At the heart of the cranks and gears which churn behind the pseudo-fact engines of collective post-truth confusion lies the grand democratisation of self-expression (and self-promotion) which has itself been facilitated by the progressive ramping-up of the importance and influence of the internet and social media.  Now that pretty much anyone at all has been enabled to participate in the great dialogues of our era, pretty much everyone does.  The vast equality of access to channels of information dissemination and broadcast has had an interesting (and fundamentally economic) effect: in an information market suffering from catastrophic over-supply, the perceived value of any particular piece of information has decreased to the point of worthlessness.  In a context such as this where just determining which information to retain or discard has become an unremitting burden, it is not at all surprising that many people would choose to swaddle themselves in (what may often be) the false security of a filtered bubble of easily comprehensible (also – simple) or ideologically agreeable information.  Being presented with an opinion you agree with (or which does not challenge you to think more deeply, more analytically) is infinitely more palatable for most people than is having to assimilate (or parse) a difficult or bitter truth.

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute
conversation with the average voter.”
― Winston S. Churchill

        Further to this, when information value as a whole diminishes in response to its rampant ubiquity – the demarcation between fact and opinionated assumption dissolves, at least at the presentation layer or surface; differentiation of fact and fiction vanishes at the superficial, generalised level which defines and encompasses mass communication.  Even verifiable facts tend towards the swampish and mediocre interpreted values of mere opinion when the audience for those facts has become desensitised by information overload.  Where fact and opinion become indistinguishable to a significant proportion of a population and when the semantic confusion instilled by what may be at least an unconscious awareness (or a deep-seated need to believe) that someone, somewhere must be a bearer of truth – the rise to power of the populist demagogue may become something of an inevitability.  If an opinion holds as much value as a fact but the opinion is more attractive and self-affirming, then why would someone not place their bets on the opinion ?

        Commercial media networks have for many years been flirting with the presentation of opinion as fact.  America, as a global source for information and culture generation, manifests a number of faux news sources which are globally notorious in this regard.  The presentation of heavily-biased political opinion as verifiable fact tends to sidestep the requirement for the acolyte to actually check the veracity of this information as they have already suspended their disbelief in the entertaining spectacle and willful controversy being presented to them.  Political messages are themselves largely unnecessary for the most part because the semantic grounds are always already being fertilised with a sufficient quantity of manure that the political seed when planted will grow vigorously and wantonly.

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance,
it is the illusion of knowledge.”
― Daniel J. Boorstin

        In a post-truth information economy where willfully ignorant opinion is often considered equivalent in value to peer-reviewed scientific research, the emergence of the demagogue-orator is (or may become) inevitable.  Fearless, accurate and insightful journalism becomes more important in direct proportion to the rising tide of blind ignorance that attempts to cut it down at every opportunity.  An effective journalism enlightened by integrity and reliance on fact can shed light on ideological biases and conflicts of interest in public policy and can be used to hold to account the perpetrators of, and benefitors from, purely self-interested falsehoods.  A world in which those who speak with influence in (and through) the media to feather their own nests are held to account for the consequences of their statements may not necessarily be a significant improvement but it would certainly allow for correct attribution of responsibility where grievous errors have been (or continue to be) made.

        Sadly, the half-life of the contemporary social media post or online opinion piece is inversely proportionate to its complexity and textual length (or otherwise – its duration).  If the observations above could have been delivered in 140 (or less) characters, its probability of distributed message delivery success may have been significantly augmented.    Paradoxically – if the message complexity diminishes to that degree, its likelihood of actual reception by an active audience tends to cancel out its effectiveness in delivering any message at all as it then becomes part of the background white-noise of information over-supply.  The method by which such nano-messages can be effective is again paradoxical (or at the very least – ironic): by carpet-bombing the communications network with repetitive copies and iterations of the same message, it can become influential; that is – by devaluing the message through multitudinous repetition, it may garner value through the cumulative attention it may gather.  My opinions are somewhat less likely to become widely disseminated, much less to go viral which at least implies that any burgeoning semantic value aggregated by this text shouldn’t diminish too much over time, which is probably a good thing.

cham

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