It’s easy to notice that our society is enjoying the great benefits of “an information age”,
..but also suffering from lots of “bad information”.
I remember the first day I heard what the future internet would be like, I think it was in the summer of 1978. My immediate response was that it would quickly drown in misinformation. It has not happened quite the way I expected, as a “massive database pollution” of facts that could not be checked disconnected from their origins.
What has polluted the information network that way is torrential storms of unfounded beliefs, seeming to threaten our whole complex society.
I think we need a “spiritual” solution, the spirit of the hunt for our own errors and for what realities connect disparate views and beliefs. Another name for it as an “information disease” is a “multiplication of languages”. Disparate belief systems come from social networks, only unhealthy when they become increasingly disconnected with each other and the natural world subjects their beliefs are about. All of us can make a list of groups that increasingly define reality in terms of their own social religion, the “fiscal conservatives” and “radicalized Islam” for example.
As you learn to read the signs it seems to be a much more widespread true disease, and not just the most extreme “fiscal conservatives” or “jihadi bombers”. Every person’s consciousness is essentially “a false reality”, looking like the world to us but containing only ideas we made up ourselves. We are all part of social networks too, that construct their shared beliefs by agreement.
That we are immersed in self-reinforcing views makes it hard not to treat what we perceive as “the true reality” that everyone else in the world lives in too, but no one but ourselves and our social network do. That’s the cognitive deep end any socially defined reality tends to fall in, assuming that there core reality is a universal one.
How a social reality is created is by what amounts to gossip that everyone agrees with, and rests on agreement in the place of observation of things being agreed about as their form of proof.
The scientific community, for example, very broadly adopted a presumption that equations are sufficient to describe nature. The power of being able to guarantee results for parts of nature that seemed to follow rules proved was very profitable and grew like crazy. What science didn’t study is the part of nature now giving us trouble.
That’s the world of self-managing systems in our environment, that rapidly change and adapt by themselves, not following rules but continually reorganizing on their own. Those systems, like economies, have parts that explore their environments and change behavior as they find a changing world. Now very notably, we have substantially changed the planet we live on and as a society are having extreme difficulty focusing on what the change is or how to respond.
Humans seem to have creating their realities by social networking for a very long time, perhaps a million years. Throughout that time some assumptions were perfectly OK that suddenly today are not. When you live on an “infinite” (immeasurable) planet, the assumption that productivity creates resources is perfectly OK, even if technically inaccurate.
Productivity creates both the value and greater access to resources, up to the middle of last century that it was accelerating resource depletion all along didn’t mater. It’s so much a tenet of our cultural “religion” that productivity solves all problems, that it’s become perhaps the core false reality the modern economic world is organized around.
What I really mean to bring up here, is the trap it is for all of us, to have our minds told one thing about how the natural world works that is quite different from how it does. If our greater human society were to behave like an organism then any part that observed a fatal error in the language of any other part would have a way to become an antidote, and trigger a response setting in motion the correction.
That our human language isn’t self-correcting like that it a profound threat to us. I have just countless examples of where glaring “expert errors” have arisen due to environmental change altering the validity of assumptions, and the social network response has been to reinforce the false interpretation instead of discover the correction.
One of those is with the sustainability movement not recognizing that innovative productivity solutions accelerated resource depletion, and always had. That’s a grave societal threatening error. Another was for the fiscal conservatives demanding ever more forcefully that investors be given more money to stimulate growth. That movement began in the 1970’s as investors were finding less useful and more useless things to do with their money, causing another super bubble of inequality in wealth as all the economies struggle to remain solvent. That’s a second grave societal threatening error.
These were both quite plainly visible mistakes, that any one could have caught, but the reason they were not is that the social networks vigorously resisted being corrected. Why is partly that it’s just easier and more advantageous for social leaders to make up their own reality.
I think most people are sufficiently good willed, though, that we would over come temptations like that if the new information had any place to fit in the old model. That says that the root problem might be that our social models of reality are like scientific models, they only have a place for their own defined terms, and other wise just can’t connect.
So, to leave this with a question, what is it that we could do to open up our social models to become amenable to correction? If there are profound reasons why they’re not, just discussion why they can’t learn about their own changing world might not help. Like just quoting the Buddhist fable about the six blind men each describing the whole elephant as being like each different part, the puzzle contains no secret to why they wouldn’t be interested in the stories that don’t fit with their own.
It requires an emotional leap of some kind, having access to our own “animal spirits” as Keynes spoke of them underlying our willingness to take risks in a complex world. Then it may also take a struggle with a world of alien facts and some persistence too. Just accepting one errors, instead of year after year going to greater and greater effort to hide them seems like a logical place to start, like the economic profession that never answered the deep contradiction in the financial model of economics that Keynes pointed out in Chapter 16 of his theory on how to stabilize growth, that it can’t be in the end. Admitting mistakes and chasing down the details in unfamiliar territory apparently takes “animal spirits” too.
In the old hunting movies, then the dogs lost the trail, they’d roam around till one and then another picked pieces that fit together than become a pack again. Break up the pack, search around for independently verifiable evidence of where our reality went off to, then reconnect with excitement …