How will humanity react to the next level of misinformation?
In 2010 Nicholas Carr wrote a far-sighted book called “The Shallows – How the internet is changing the way we think, read, and remember“. 13 years later much of that hypothesis can now be seen coming true in our information consumption and how it is affecting the course of our societies, politics and human relationships.
One only needs look at how Donald Trump has defied all political wisdom to use superficiality to persuade a huge swathe of America that he has the solutions to their problems. You can see it in Brexit as well.
Deep thought is a thing of the past, we have no time for it. This has ushered in an era of successful populism in politics alongside an era of “marketing shrinkflation” where the 280 character tweet and the 60 second TikTok video are the dominant currency; the 2000 word brochure and the 5 minute sales call have been consigned to the dustbin.
The question is: Where does this end? And might it be the case that there is a relativity between the scale of our problems and our desire for the thought to solve them?
The timing of the arrival of the internet
Perhaps we should consider the context of the state of the world in the first 20 years of the internet. Here’s a reminder of where the technology was at in 1996-97.
After the end of the cold war, the world has enjoyed a level of peace, prosperity and health not known in human history. Populations have boomed, thanks to increased life expectancy, and the quality of those lives has also increased. It’s a hell of an achievement if you think about it. Into that comfort zone has been poured an enormous amount of information, and with the coming of social media an enormous amount of discussion. More than we can cognitively cope with at an individual level. Heuristics are the coping mechanisms our brains employ. We start creating mental shortcuts to just access what we believe we need. Perhaps we were so safe during the internet’s first 20 years that the mental shortcuts we created were to do with luxuries, not essentials?
The additional hidden problem is that, even before we throw artificial intelligence into the mix, should we ask ourselves, how are our heuristics being developed? By ourselves? Are we deciding the mental shortcuts we need. No. Out of sight, the algorithms of the internet have been making a great many of those decisions for us, without us even realising.
Since 2008 the journey our lives seems to have become a lot harder. That story is told wonderfully here (but finish mine first!)
The new imperatives of a changing world
Two very broad things have begun to happen in the 2020s.
The good times have been replaced with trouble. None of the societal ideologies of the 20th century seem to be working so well. Pandemic, war in Europe, economic inequality, and a general sense of societal division are all starting to bite in ways not seen in several generations. There’s a lot of recency bias in that, it’s not new, we have had these ebbs and flows throughout human history.
But technological advancement and democratisation have changed how we feel about ourselves. This is quite complex and deeply insidious. But at its core, all of human history has been based on the pleasure we derive from understanding challenges, designing solutions and solving problems. They required learning, mastery of skills and communication of benefits to make the world around us better.
On the one hand it might seem that technology-driven democratisation is positive. Now we can all be thought leaders, creators and broadcasters. Isn’t that great? Perhaps not when it creates the tidal wave of ideas and content, without curation or context, that we currently have to sift every single day. It’s exhausting and we are beginning to feel the weight of that on our collective mental health, leading to the desire for superficiality that Nicholas Carr warned us about, and our current politicians are using against us.
Does Web 3.0 have solutions or just more of the same?
Althought it might feel that technology has come a long way in the last 15 years, as someone who has worked in digital marketing over that time, I often find myself thinking about how little has changed. Part of the problem with the amount of information we’ve been fed is that we’ve been consuming it in much the same formats for a long time now and we’re rather bored!
The next iteration of the internet feels like a looming revolution and there is going to be a hell of a fight to win it and control it. On the one hand we have libertarians who want to use blockchain to tear down the remaining gatekeepers of control (big tech and their bankers) and create a peer-to-peer digital economy which can fight against the problems of wealth inequality. Depending on what you believe that could be utopia… or utter chaos.
On the other hand there is a new player: artificial intelligence, whom we have never encountered. It seems big tech feels this is the method by which they retain ther dominance, by taking more thinking away from us and giving it to something else; machines. A different utopia, or the seeds or human destruction?
I don’t know and as I approach the age of 50 I realise I many soon lose the capacity to care. But not just yet! I hope what I’ve written so far suggests that I have put a lot of thought into all this! So to the question I must ask myself, what can I do?
Persuade, not rage, against the dying of the light
I don’t want Nicholas Carr’s predictions to play out, until we are self-lobotomised shells, being milked by the intelligent machines in some incarnation of The Matrix.
But I also don’t believe there is a utopia out there, with or without the machines. There is only the continuation of things, humans course-correcting as we go, just as we always have. In order to do that we must retain our ability to persuade each other on those courses, as positively and reasonably as we can.
Recently I read a slightly provocative but interesting article about the future of misinformation, which suggested:
Let’s stop trying to prevent people from seeing lies, and instead teach people to see through themGurwinder Bhogal
This resonated strongly with me. We have the tools, but we haven’t used them in 20 years, they weren’t sharp enough to cut through the information avalanche we got buried in. We need to hone some new ones. The blueprints aren’t lost, they are there in everything from Aristotle, via Charles Cooley, and Nicholas Carr. They are the tools of persuasion, of nuance, the armbands we might need to swim out of the shallows into deeper water, where we might have the time and space to see things more clearly.
My mission is to help you use these tools, not just for personal economic advantage, but to play your part in course-correcting our world.